When thinking of world class climbing destinations, the Isle of Man might not be the first place that springs to mind. Home to the world famous TT motorbike races, kippers and the tailless Manx cat, climbing isn't high on the list of attractions. Dropped into the middle of the Irish sea with 95 miles of coastline, you might think the Isle of Man has fantastic potential for sea cliff climbing. Unfortunately the geological make up of the Island is less than favourable and despite a varied blend of limestone, sandstone, conglomerate, granite and slates the island isn't blessed with swathes of perfect rock. Loose, friable 'adventure' climbing is the flavour of the day (think Gogarth and the Llyn Peninsula) and a steely determination and desire for the unexpected is a must.
Although I discovered climbing in the UK whilst studying at university, I'd always feel frustrated when heading home to the island and being deprived of the chance to climb. Having heard tales of the poor quality of the climbing on the sea cliffs I instead resigned myself to traversing the harbour walls in Peel to keep my strength up. This all changed when I was given a homemade guidebook from the 1930s of climbing on the Isle of Man and I decided to head out and explore, albeit without the hobnail boots recommended in the guide!
The first thing I very quickly discovered was quite how friable the rock can be in places. One of my earliest experiences was on an unexplored cliff on the West coast between Peel and Niarbyl. Having tentatively climbed up soft, loose rock for around 20 metres, where each move required careful and delicate excavating and testing of holds before committing to them, I quickly realised I'd climbed myself into a dead end with only two or three very suspect pieces of gear below me. Deciding to air on the side of caution I placed four or five nuts and cams into the crumbling rock before shouting for my belayer to take.
This is where things started to go wrong, instead of feeling the reassuring pull of a tight rope the nest of gear in front of my face exploded in a fine dust of sand and mud. Coughing and with grit in my eyes I watched in horror as all my gear (including the pieces I'd placed below) slid off down the rope into the hands of my perplexed belayer. After a minute of panic where my body urged me to lose all points of contact with the rock I regained enough composure to downclimb to the ground, which I managed to do after ten nerve jangling minutes.
Despite these early experiences I came to discover that the island has plenty of hidden gems for the climbing connoisseur if you're willing to seek them out and as long as you don't set expectations too high, many enjoyable climbing days can be had. Although I probably wouldn't recommend a dedicated trip purely for climbing, it makes a great add on to a sightseeing holiday, the TT or if you happen to be on the island for work.
For many years the climbing 'scene' on the island was practically non-existent with local legend Dougie Hall (who established routes elsewhere including the iconic Appointment with Fear E7 6b) being responsible for the vast majority of recent development. Having spent many years quietly putting up new routes all over the island up to E8, there is now a good selection of new routes to choose from that will certainly test both your physical and mental capabilities. Fortunately a few years ago an indoor wall 'Hot Rocks' opened near Douglas and now offers some sanctuary on those too frequent wet days or if you want a mental break from the trad and to meet other local climbers. It also offers a selection of climbing essentials (chalk, finger tape etc) and a small choice of trad gear.
There is no proper guidebook for the Isle of Man and so some research is required in order to find a lot of the areas/routes. UKC is a good source of information as well as this map put together by the climbing wall and Mike Caine's online guide. Using these online sources you should be able to find plenty to go at and some of the locals at the climbing wall should be able to offer further assistance if needed. Figuring out where the lines go is all part of the challenge and it is often worth considering leaving a grade or two in hand for when you inevitably stumble off route.
The south of the island has the biggest concentration of climbing with the Chasms offering the highest number of routes (take care to check bird bans which run from March to June or July). A lot of the better routes here are E4 and above but there is still plenty to go at if you're climbing around HVS. The Torque Test wall offers a good introduction with the classic Torque Test HVS 5a and Torque Test Arete E1 5a as well as some harder routes to the right like Kremmen E3 5c. Heading further down the gully there are plenty of other climbing areas of varying quality.
From here you can also see the Sugarloaf stack, a fun adventure if you don't mind going for a swim and dodging birds and their related by-products. There are also plenty of mid grade and harder routes to go at including the obvious feature of The Roof E5 6a, a hard to miss overhang down and right of the Torque Test area (video), which worryingly looks as though it's about to depart for the sea below. The Fairy Cave is also worth a visit if you want to climb in a wild position above the sea.
If you're on your own and looking for a slightly more relaxed session, the relatively well hidden Training traverse offers up plenty of eliminates and endurance training. You're also fairly likely to find Dougie as a permanent resident here as he recently told me he can visit up to five times a week!
The hidden beach over the headland in Peel was my local crag for a number of years and has a selection of bouldering to be had on sandstone, which is wave polished where it meets the sea. To get there, park on the A4 leaving Peel to the North and walk across the football pitches in the direction of the sea. A set of steps winds down to the beach above the remnants of the old outdoor swimming pool and the bouldering can be found along the edge of the beach heading away from Peel. Unfortunately the ease of climbing there is often dictated by the height of the beach and after periods with rough seas (which can be disappointingly frequent!) the sand is washed away revealing a jumbled mass of ankle breaking boulders and rocks. It's still possible to climb in these conditions but greater caution and more pads are advised. Also - as a good reminder of the care that needs to be taken with the rock - the arch halfway along the beach (see photo below) partially collapsed a couple of years ago and the remaining section should be treated with suspicion.
Laxey beach offers a small selection of boulders on rock that is generally more solid than elsewhere on the island. Although there isn't enough to go at for a full day, it offers a fun few hours (why not combine it with a trip to the world famous Laxey water wheel?). As with Peel, the level of the beach can vary considerably with the tides so this is worth considering. The boulders are also separated from the rest of the beach at high tide (although access can still be gained from the steps that lead up to the road above) so this is worth remembering if you've parked on the promenade and walked along the beach.
Information on some of the problems can be found here.
Less well travelled than the Chasms, this area - also in the south of the island - still offers up a few routes to go at and is worth a visit, especially when the bird ban is in place at the Chasms. Some new routes have been established recently including some harder ones by Dougie and Nik Jennings, the best route being Friends In High Places E4 6a. Unfortunately some of the rock here has a similar consistency to Weetabix, so some of the harder routes certainly aren't for the faint hearted and abseil inspection for cleaning and checking holds is probably advised. Having said that, there are a few easier routes including the Left Crack (Gully) HS, which makes a nice solo and some other routes below E1 a little further along the coast that are definitely worth climbing.
If sport climbing is your thing, the Isle of Man probably isn't going to be high on the list of places to visit. There is however a small selection of routes on Bradda Head if you're looking for an adventure. Be advised, though: this certainly isn't on a par with your average sunny climbing destination in Spain. With the walk in consisting of a sketchy grass slope leading down to the sea followed by traversing to a very narrow ledge this isn't the place to go for a chillednout day of sport. Some of the routes are of great quality, though, in an impressive setting by the sea (the 7c+ is especially good). A lot of the routes also require a set of prussiks if you fall off as most leave you dangling over the sea, so this is worth bearing in mind if you go there.
When to Go
The climate on the Isle of Man can be pretty fickle, but also fairly mild in the winter due to the maritime climate. The summer months are definitely the best option for climbing, although it's worth considering the bird ban at the Chasms which runs until June or July. Having said that, if you do find yourself there during the winter months, it's worth keeping an eye on the weather as I've climbed many times in the depths of winter on bright sunny days.
How to Get There
Flights are offered from a number of UK airports, including Liverpool, Manchester, London, Dublin and Glasgow. The ferry, operated by the Steam Packet company, is a cheaper option and runs a couple of times a day from Heysham and Liverpool (but only during the summer from Liverpool).
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The island makes a lot of revenue from tourism and therefore there are plenty of options on places to stay. There are many hotels in Douglas as well as smaller guesthouses and B&Bs elsewhere on the island. There are also plenty of campsites for those looking for a cheaper option. It's worth considering if you are coming during the TT that accommodation is booked up months in advance and affordable places to stay will be harder to come by.
Gear and Supplies
The only real option for climbing gear is the Hot Rocks climbing wall, which offers a small selection of kit and you're likely better off ensuring you have everything you need before you arrive. There are plenty of supermarkets on the island (although only one larger Tesco in Douglas).
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The island has some great food on offer, particularly locally caught seafood, including the famous Manx kippers. For something cheaper the national dish for many is chips, cheese and gravy, a must for anyone wanting to experience the real Isle of Man…
There is no guidebook to the Isle of Man. The web is your best bet for finding information on routes (links in the article above).
The Isle of Man has plenty of options for sightseeing and no trip would be complete without a visit to meet the fairies at the Fairy Bridge, although for many the TT races are the biggest attraction for visitors. The island is also a great place for other outdoor sports with well established mountain bike routes, road biking, horse riding and kayaking. For those looking for some culture the Manx National Heritage website has a list of museums and other sites and these are spread throughout the island. There is also great fishing to be had both in the island's reservoirs and sea fishing off the coast with boat hire available from many of the harbours. For something a little more 'out there' on a rainy day a trip to the Curraghs to spot the wallabies (which escaped from the nearby wildlife park) is always fun!
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