Interview: Iain Millar on Sea-stack Climbing in Ireland

There are easily several lifetimes of unclimbed rock on both mainland Donegal and its off-shore islands such as Gola and Owey

Recently, Exweb community member Iain Millar uploaded a report of his passage by sea kayak through a sea cave under Umphin Island on the North coast of Ireland. Ian is an avid climber who enjoys combining his paddling and climbing skills in the unique challenge of summiting sea stacks in remote locations in Donegal. ExWeb caught up with Ian to find out more about his approach to these challenges and the potential of north-west Ireland as a location for exploration.

ExWeb: You recently uploaded “How to Paddle through and Island”, which looked pretty fun. How did you scout out this adventure?

Ian Millar: The through-passage on Umfin Island is one of those little-known locations in western Donegal, which you occasionally here rumours about. I waited until sea conditions were perfect as the island is 3.5 km out to sea from mainland Donegal and is only accessible by kayak or rigid-hulled inflatable boat. I paddled out and around to the seaward side, but alas, there were too many sea caves here and time and tide were pressing. I returned to the landward side of the island and paddled into the mouth of the largest cave. After about 100 m the cave becomes a very narrow tunnel and turns a corner into pitch darkness, I knew then I was in the right place.

ExWeb: Being alone and under an island wouldn’t seem the ideal location to get into trouble. What safety precautions did you take?

IM: I was a deep-sea sailor for over 20 years, and as such, the sea is both my best friend and mortal enemy in equal measure. I planned the Umfin traverse as I did all other cunning plans. Sea conditions had to be as perfect as possible on the day. In the film the swell was 60 cm from the south-west and low tide was 0.67 m at noon. This meant I had to arrive at the island at 1000hr with two hours of ebb tide before flood tide at about 1230hr. So, I had both tidal motions to play on to find the best time to traverse the tunnel, which turned out to be an hour before low tide. The tunnel is very tidal and is impassible in two places when the tide is too high.

I took 1000 lumens in light in the form of two huge waterproof road workers lights and a couple of head torches. The 500 lumen lights were perfect and allowed a pretty safe passage as the dark section of tunnel just swallowed the head torch light.

ExWeb: I had a look at some of the stack climbing videos on your site. They gave me vertigo. How did you work up to these ascents?

IM: For me sea stack climbing is the greatest climbing adventure you can have as it presents both nautical and mountaineering problems. Some of the more exposed and remote stacks require a very specific set of nautical conditions to allow a safe approach, I tend to view the use of an outboard engine as an unnecessary point of aid so all stacks are approached under my own steam by inflatable dingy or sit-on kayak. I have focused on sea stack climbing for over twenty years now at first in my native Orkney and since 2007 in Donegal. It is the combination of skills required to climb remote sea stacks and their isolated and atmospheric locations that make them such an attraction. I make it a personal rule when soloing sea stacks that no-one knows where I am or what I am doing. I also carry no means of calling for help as this is the defining moment of being truly alone. This climb was the highlight of what have been doing of sea stacks over the last twenty years. Located in one of the most remote places in Ireland and with a pin-point summit 100 m above the sea, 500 m from land and 20 km from the nearest main road, it is both an outstanding place to be, and a terrifying place to be alone.

ExWeb: The North coast of Ireland doesn’t come to mind as a top climbing location. Care to sell it to us?

IM: Donegal and the North West of Ireland are an extremely easy sell. For climbers the County of Donegal in the North West of Ireland contains more climbable rock than the rest of Ireland combined boasting two major Irish mountain ranges, over a thousand kilometers of coastline, one hundred sea stacks and as many diverse climbing mediums and locations as you will find in the rest of the country. Currently, over 3,000 rock climbs have been recorded throughout the length and breadth of the county. These climbs include Ireland’s longest rock climb, Ireland’s largest mountain crag, Ireland’s longest ice climb, Ireland’s highest sea stack and the best sea stack climb on earth. This is in addition to many more standard single- and multi-pitch locations above the sea, by the road, on the offshore islands and in the mountains. There are easily several lifetimes of unclimbed rock on both mainland Donegal and its off shore islands such as Gola and Owey.

For kayakers there are over 1000 km (yes, a thousand) of coastline and over 100 uninhabited islands to visit. For example, Roan Inish, with its 5 km out-to-sea paddle and storm-lashed coastline is a surreal place to visit.


What’s next up for you?

IM: I have so many cunning plans that time and weather are the deciding factors, I have a very foolish idea involving the use of a paraglider and am currently getting better at flying it.

Orkney sea-stack guide

Donegal sea-stack guide


How to Paddle through an Island

The Sea-stacks of Donegal, Ireland