The Sea Stacks of Donegal, Ireland.

Finding and climbing the unclimbed sea stacks off the North West tip of Ireland

The county of Donegal on the North West tip of Ireland contains more rock climbing venues, routes and rock than the rest of Ireland combined. The scope and diversity of the available rock climbing in the county is truly astounding from the single pitch sea cliffs of the mudstone roofs at Muckross Head in the south West to the black slabs of Malin Head at Ireland’s most Northerly point in Inishowen.
Donegal boast a huge wealth and diversity of available rock climbing in the county with over 3000 recorded rock climbs on over 150 cliffs throughout the length and breadth of the county.
What the county has in terms of its cliff architecture includes Ireland’s highest sea stack, Ireland’s longest rock climb, the highest mountain cliffs in the country and the longest recorded ice climb in Ireland, Donegal plays host to many adventurous locations for the exploratory expert rock climber and beginner alike.
BUT it is to the coast we turn our attentions as living off the western free board of Donegal lives a collection of gothic leviathans which stand guard at the entrance to the abyss.
With over 100 sea stacks dotted along its coastline and islands providing over 170 recorded climbs to their summits. Many of the stacks found along this coast will require you to use considerable nautical, vertical and spiritual guile, to reach the summit of these beasts. An adventurous spirit and a sense of humour are essential components of a day in the company of Neptune, Gaia and the forces of nature.
The rock is mixture of quartzite and Granite, and running the entire coastline is a band of basalt, which features heavily on many of the sea stacks.
Many of the stacks have access issues in the form of 200m loose sea cliffs overlooking and guarding access to them, followed by varying length of sea passage across truly atmospheric seas. Prior planning is essential including a forensic study of the previous week’s wind and swell forecasts.
For truly awesome climbing in a mind blowing location Cnoc Na Mara and the twin summits of An Bhuideal just to the North of An Port are both equal in their quality to a couple of very famous Old Men north of the Scottish border.

Cnoc na Mara

Living in the shadow of Ireland’s highest sea stack, Tormore Island is Cnoc na Mara. When I first saw this 100m high unclimbed sea stack from the overlooking cliff tops it was the inspiration to climb every one of 100 unclimbed sea stacks in Donegal. It is safe to say this stack represents all that is great about adventure climbing. It’s impressive soaring 150m long landward arete provides one of the most rewarding and adventurous rock climbs in Ireland. It is easily an equal to the mighty Old Man of Hoy off the Orkney Islands in the north of Scotland.
An ascent of Cnoc na Mara involves a very long day with a monsterous steep grassy descent followed by a 50m abseil on to a storm beach at sea level. As you descend this steep slope, sitting out to sea, Cnoc na Mara grows with height as you descend reaching epic proportions as you get closer to the beach. Gaining the beach alone is an adventurous undertaking in it’s own right and is an excellent taster off what is to come. From the storm beach it is a 120m sea passage to the base of the stack.
The Landward arete is climbed in four pitches, each pitch being much more atmospheric than the last. The fourth pitch is the money shot, a 58m ridge traverse with 100m of air either side of you as you negotiate the short steep sections along this outstanding ridge traverse.
Gaining the summit is like being reborn into a world where anything is possible it truly is a surreal and magical place to be. The whole world falls away below and around you, as you are perched on a summit far from anything else.
The descent back to sea level is an involved affair and involves two abseils and great deal of care and guile.

The landward Arete VS 4b 152m ***
Grid Reference G555906 This route climbs the superb landward arete of the 100 mtr “sharks fin” stack just to the South of Tormore Island.
Pitch 1. 35m. Climb the wide groove right of centre on the landward face to a grassy ledge and block belay.
Pitch 2, 22m. Scramble up the slab to the base of the huge knife edge arete.
Pitch 3, 35m. Climb the arete to a peg and block belay on the ledge at it’s top.
Pitch 4, 60m. An airy pinnacle traverse along the knife edge ridge to the summit.
I. Miller, A.Tees, M. McGuigan. 26/07/08 Cnoc na Mara film

An Bhuideal

This twin headed sea stack called An Bhuideal (The Bottle) sits approx 300m out to sea at the base of a 250m high sea cliff ridge. It is a bit of a sea stack icon and all three of its routes to it’s twin summits are excellent rock climbs in a very exposed and scary location.
Access to sea level is by a steep exposed scramble down the huge ridge on the headland to the North of the stack followed by a 30m abseil to a superb storm beach facing the beast from the north. A 300m paddle from here along the land ward edge of a series of outlaying skerries will take you to the base of the land ward face of the stack.
The main tower is the taller Southern one and contains two excellent Severe rock climbs up it’s landward face to it’s summit.
The slender North tower, which looks like an old fashioned milk Bottle from the sea, provides one of the most exposed and scary rock climbs in Ireland. At the amenable grade of VS this route winds it’s way up the land ward and North faces to a tiny sloping summit. The summit feels like it sways slightly as you sit on it. The abseil off this summit is not for the faint hearted as it is incredibly exposed and relies on a summit cairn as the primary anchor.

An Bhuideal (main summit) SVR 4a 50m ***
The following route climbs the huge arete at the Southern end of the landward face. Easily seen from the surrounding cliff tops. Abseil descent of the landward face.
Pitch 1, 25m, 4a. Start on the excellent non tidal ledge below the centre on the landward face of the main stack. Climb up and trend left to an exposed wee ledge on the arete.
Pitch 2, 25m, 4a. Climb the arete to the summit, every hold is a jug and the final 5mtrs will make you smile.
I. Miller, M. Bonner 12/04/09

Seal Song Arete S 45m **
On the landward face of the main stack of An Bhuideal climb the huge black groove which separates the two towers to an outstanding ledge overlooking the abyss. (possible belay @ 25M) Continue up the arete to the main stack’s summit.
An excellent route on excellent rock. 🙂
I. Miller, U. Macpherson, W. Schuessler 09/08/11

An Bhuideal (North Tower) VS 4c 50m ***

This route climbs skinny, exposed and spectacular North Tower of this excellent stack. Access as for the main stack and an abseil descent of the route.

Pitch 1: 15m. From the groove between the two stacks gain and climb the landward arete to a ledge.

Pitch 2: 25m 4a. Make a rising traverse of the landward face to an exposed platform on the North Face.

Pitch 3: 10m 4c. Climb to summit.
I. Miller, J. Read, M. Bonner 13/06/09 An Bhuideal film

For the more adventurous sea stack connoisseur and where the Realm’s of Chaos truly reside, The Lighthouse stack and Stac an Iolar on Arranmore Island, Dare to Be at Skelpoonagh Bay, Tormore Island (Ireland’s highest sea stack), The Unforgiving and the aptly named Satan just to the north of An Port will provide an experience you will never forget.

The Lighthouse Stack

The Lighthouse StackThe Lighthouse sea stack sits immediately below the lighthouse at Rinrawros Point at the north west tip of Arranmore Island.
The land ward ridge on this sea stack is climbed at the very amenable grade of Diff/V.Diff and provides one of the best routes of its grade in Ireland. The rock is immaculate Quartzite for the 100 m of climbing up this ridge.
Access is by a super scary 50m abseil down the black slabs facing the centre of the south face of the stack to a wee recess just above the high water mark. From here it is a short sea passage to the huge sea level platforms at the base of the stack’s south face.
The easiest route to the summit follows the stunning 85m land ward ridge. The higher you climb the thinner and steeper the ridge becomes increasing the exposure to an outstanding level. Every hold on this ridge is an immaculate jug and there is gear on demand all the way to the pin point summit.
A truly great route on an outstanding sea stack in a very atmospheric and potentially dangerous location.

The Lighthouse Stack DIFF 85m ***
Grid Reference B 643188. This route climbs the superb landward ridge of the Lighthouse sea stack found below the lighthouse at Rinrawros Point on Aran Island.
Pitch 1, 30m. Starting on the huge very tidal platform at the bottom of the ridge, climb on jugs and immaculate rock to a recess on the ridge. Block Belay.
Pitch 2, 25m. Ascend the ridge to a brief wee flattening. Cam slot Belay (1 & 1.5)
Pitch 3, 30m. Continue up the ridge on endless jugs and perfect rock to a definite and outstanding summit.
I. Miller 25/07/09 Lighthouse Stack film

Stac an Iolar

Sitting at the South West tip of Arranmore Island lives the iconic Stac an Iolar. (Stack of the Eagle)
This 35m sea stack sits in the centre of a truly outstanding location in a monster amphitheatre of nautical sculptured madness. It is a short coastal walk from the main (only) road around the island to the clifftops overlooking this immaculate sea stack. The amphitheatre that surrounds the stack is a very atmospheric place to be indeed with all it’s walls being vertical or overhanging for their full 50 to 70m height. This bay catches all the prevailing south west sea motion and safe nautical access to the base of the stack is a very rare beast indeed.
The only route on this stack, so far follows the groove up the narrow sea ward face and pulls onto the west face at half height. Graded XS and falling is not really a realistic option.

Blood Line XS 40m ***
Grid Ref B636147. The Iconic Sea Stack known locally as “Stac an Iolar,” sits in a truly outstanding location in a monster amphitheatre nautical sculptured madness at the South West tip of Aranmore Island.
Access to sea level is by “Gully of the Gods” and is the only sane access to the foot of this cauldron.
The stack is climbed by a well defined seaward facing corner on the sea ward ridge to a large airy stance. Continue up the wall above on broken egg shells to gain a huge left trending offwidth. Ascend the overhanging offwidth by guile to a mind blowing summit. An ascent of this stack will live forever in your “what the f**k was I doing” memory.
S. “Jock” Read, P. Brennan, I. Miller 23/07/11 The Icon film

On the island of Tory lives a collection 6 outstanding sea stacks the best of which is Centre Stack an ascent of which will live forever in you good times memory.

Centre Stack, Tory Island

Tory island is Ireland’s most remote inhabited island, it sits out in the Atlantic Ocean 14 km to the west of Donegal. The island is a very unusual wedge shape with the entire south face being at sea level and the land rising to form a wall of very exposed sea cliffs running for 4 km along its north face.
Living at the base of the north face the is an enchainment of four 45 m sea stacks and a 50 m tower known locally as the Toes of Balor.

All five of Balor’s toes provide excellent climbing on immaculate sea washed granite.
There are currently two route ascending Centre Stack with the landward facing arête providing the best route with excellent exposed climbing that at first glance appears much harder than is actually is.

Proper Mission S 4a 40m **
Grid Ref. B868463. Climb the outstanding landward arete of the centre stack.
Pitch 1. 10m 4a. Climb the steep face directly below the arete to a large slabby stance.
Pitch 2. 30m 4a. Climb the arete on excellent rock, holds and gear.
I. Miller, W. Schuessler 27/07/11 Centre Stack film

This is off course just a sample of the vertical delights of the nautical summits found around the coast of the county, the free guidebook is easy to download at