Fair Head is – in the words of the Irish – the world's best crag. Stretching for 5km it has one thing in common with England's pride and joy, Stanage: length. Beyond that the supposed jewel in the crown of British rock climbing begins to look distinctly under whelming in comparison. In fact, you are infrequently left wanting after doing a route at Fair Head, they keep going, and going, and going: 40-50m pitches are frequent and there are sustained multi-pitches aplenty. Add into the mix endless crack lines, flawless faces, immaculate aretes and Guinness and you realise that maybe, just maybe, they weren't actually exaggerating after all...
The rock at Fair Head is extremely high quality. Being a basaltic rock (dolerite) it has a columnar appearance that produces many a commanding lines (i.e. pretty much all of them). By nature the rock is grippy when clean, but due to much of the crag's north facing aspect it does have a tendency to get dirty in places. On most of the popular routes the moss/lichen isn't too much of a problem and in recent years the Fair Head Meet has meant that certain climbs see something of a renaissance after being cleaned up throughout the weekend (plus there's the added benefit of good craic).
The feel of the crag varies wildly from west facing Rathlin Wall to the north facing crags at the White Lightning Amphitheatre and Grey Man's Path. The latter have more in common with mountain crags such as Cloggy or Scafell East Buttress than a traditional sea cliff, so in cool/breezy conditions they can feel impressively 'out there' (read: cold). As a result packing clothing to compensate on all but the warmest of days. In line with the mountain crag feel there is also the occasional booming block and midge to look out for, fortunately the latter are kept at bay by the pretty much constant breeze coming in off the Atlantic.
The Fair Head Meet is worth a special mention, as it has developed something of a following in recent years. The meet usually takes place around the first weekend in June and (as mentioned above) there are routes being cleaned, lectures being given, banter being had and beer being drunk - what more could you ask for?! If you needed any more proof then have a read through the reports from 2010, 2012, and 2014 or take a look at the 2013 video.
Grade-wise Fair Head begins in quantity at VS and stretches up to E8. Between these grades there is plenty to go at and the new Fair Head Guidebook (published 2014) really showcases the crag, with a list of selected climbs at the back – the perfect tick-list for the first time visitor. The climbing style between VS and E3 (as a sweeping generalization) is quite forthright, frequently following crack lines and corners that absorb gear as/when required. As a result both jamming skills and a large rack are required (double rack of cams and a lot of quickdraws!!). Around E4/5+ things turn towards the faces and arêtes, as a result things begin to feel – in a roundabout way – a bit more conventional, with fewer cracks and more face holds. As a result they can, to the sport fit climber, feel soft in comparison to some of the lower grades - particularly if you don't know how to jam.
In order to make your life easier it's worth taking 100m of static rope to approach many of the routes. Whilst you could probably get away without it, it definitely makes things quick/simple. The other option is to use the descent gullies that intersect the areas, but it would be a lot slower, more hassle and probably quite terrifying too. There anchors at the top of the crag are frequently in the form of a large boulder conveniently located above the classic routes - quite a coincidence - so you don't need too much additional gear for rigging.
Whilst I have no personal experience of it myself, it is worth mentioning that Fair Head also sports some superb bouldering. With over 450 problems documented and rock just as good as the crag above, word on the street is that it's not to be overlooked. The only downside being that many of the problems have a bad landings, so multiple pads are required - not ideal for many visiting climbers. For more info get your hands on a copy of the Fair Head Bouldering Guide.
When to Go
Much like the rest of the British Isle it's difficult to suggest a 'best time' to visit owing to the irregularity of the weather. The weather from the west comes in hard and rain/storms can be ferocious (and frequent). All that negativity aside, the weeks surrounding the Fair Head Meet in the first week of June seem to be popular and no doubt the warmer summer months would provide ideal conditions for some of the shadier crags.
How to Get There
When flying your best choice is to go via Belfast and hire a car (n.b. it would also be possible to get to Ballycastle using public transport). When sailing your choice is between Holyhead to Dublin (circa 3hrs to the crag) or Liverpool to Belfast (1hr 15mins). It's worth noting that this isn't cheap, but does allow you to bring all the kit required without too much of a concern to weight. For more info visit irishferries.com.
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Sean's Campsite is a popular option owing to it's location just a short walk away from the crag itself. It has fairly modest facilities, including a couple of portaloos and a fresh water tap (all the mod-cons…). If you're after somthing a little more civilised then there are plenty of options in Ballycastle.
There are two options: the Fair Head Rock Climbing Guidebook by Mountaineering Ireland or Rock Climbing in Ireland by David Flanagan. The former is definitely the guide of choice for a specific Fair Head trip, whereas the latter is best suited towards a road-trip around Ireland (it is very selective).
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Ballycastle has a number of cafés and bakeries to indulge in and make a perfect retreat in bad weather. There's also a number of restaurants, chippy and pizzeria.
Gear and Supplies
There is a fantastic selection of local amenities in Ballycastle, ranging from a superb bakery to a family butcher. Fruit/veg is available from a great local shop and for those wishing for a bigger shop there's a Co-Op. Unfortunately the local climbing/outdoor shop Stewart's Sports is now closed, so gear-wise you're probably best driving back to Belfast in event of an emergency.
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Whilst there is a lot on offer, for first time visitors there is one stereotype that needs to be sampled: Guinness. Does it really taste different in Ireland? I'll leave you to be the judge. If you're going to sample it, try to coincide it with one of the live music nights at O' Connor's Bar in Ballycastle. For those not satisfied by the geological wonders of Fair Head (or the Guinness) there's always the Giant's Causeway nearby.
About the Author:
Rob Greenwood is the Advertising Manager at UKClimbing.com.
He's a passionate climber, hot yoga addict and eater of vegetarian food. He has done more UK trad routes than he's had roast dinners (and that's got nothing to do with the vegetarianism).
Aside from UK trad, he's dabbled with alpine climbing, Scottish winter, Himalayan climbing and more recently Peak limestone sport climbing.
He keeps an occasional blog about his adventures here: Rob Greenwood Climbing
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