The Finest Crags in UK & Ireland Ailladie, The Burren Mike Hutton in association with
Occupying a wild and desolate location on Ireland's west coast, is an array of limestone Karsts that have been sculptured over many years into a sea-cliff climbers dream destination. Intermingled with a diverse ecosystem of flora and fauna make this area just as interesting to the budding botanist as to the visiting climber.
The go-to-area of Ailladie (Irish for Blind Man's Cliffs) in County Clare is now home to well over 180 climbs of the highest calibre, and if sustained cracks with gear on-demand are you're forte, then it's virtually guaranteed that the place won't disappoint. Combine this with a westerly aspect that soaks up all of the sun going, majestic views of the Aran Islands, a vibrant pub music scene and you have the perfect holiday venue for those climbers looking for something away from the bustle of the UK.
The Burren's Mirror Wall features some world class climbing.
The Burren was pretty late to be developed as far as climbing venues go. In 1972 the first routes were claimed by a bunch of hardy Irish Mountaineering Club Members.
Jim McKenzie discovered the eye catching and superb layback corner of Pis Fliuch HVS 5a, on the extreme left of the renowned mirror wall - definitely not one to miss if you get the chance! What's fascinating about the area is that it's seen climbers from just about everywhere making their own special mark. Tom Ryan, Calvin Torrans, Keefe Murphy, Clare Sheridan, Eddie Cooper, Donie O Sullivan, Crispin Waddy, Gary Gibson, George Smith, Adam Wainwright, Dominic Lee, Ricky Bell, Ben Bransby and Andy Long represent just a few of these talented individuals that have put up some exceptional lines.
Mick Fowler paid a visit to the seriously loose Cliffs of Moher in 1990, and with the help of Steve Sustad put up two enormous lines that were given the strange grade of MXS. Unsurprisingly they haven't seen a second ascent and it's debatable as to whether they would be fun. An unacceptable level of excitement might be a more fitting terminology!
For the first-time visitor, the initial attraction has to be the relaxed atmosphere at the non-tidal Aran wall. Descending the fisherman's steps, the Dancing Ledges are passed on your way, but apart from offering some warm up routes in the VS-E1 range, they aren't a patch on what follows. Line after line of sustained cracks and grooves, that in most cases swallow gear are on offer.
The wave washed boulder beach is an excellent place to relax and assess your next challenge. Over the years the enormous rocks have been shifted by the power of the surging Atlantic during violent winter storms, meaning a few of the starts can vary from year to year. On first acquaintances, the first few feet can feel intimidating due to the soapy rock, but once the sun hits this ceases to be an issue. If you get on well with the sustained nature of the climbing then don't be surprised if you end up climbing a grade harder by the end of your trip.
For some the Aran Wall may offer more than enough challenges for a weeklong trip, but looming just around the corner is the Burren's biggest prize. The iconic Mirror Wall is about as impressive as sea cliff climbing gets and the lines here are simply world class. To be the only pair climbing late into a summer's evening, as the impeccable popcorn rock glows like it's on fire, is an un-forgettable experience. Gary Gibson, Jon Codling and Martin Manson must have thought they had struck gold when they visited in 1985 and claimed some of the best lines on Mirror wall. The crack lines of Refraction E5 6a, The Cutter E4 6a, On Reflection E6 6a and Prism Sentence E5 6b represent some of the finest routes in the country.
It was the accomplished Eddie Cooper who managed to climb the majority of the remaining hard lines over the following years. His flash of the first rate Damn the Torpedos (E6 6b) was an amazing achievement for that era, considering it still repels some of today's best climbers.
I could go on about the quality hard lines till the cows come home but it's the un-mistakable line of The Ramp (E1 5b) that is going to appeal to most, followed by the very amenable Through the Looking Glass (E3 5c).
Keefe Murphy on the first ascent of Through the Looking Glass (E3 5c). Photo: Keefe Murphy Collection.
At Ailladie, it's very easy to over-look some of the less obvious areas that contain more of the amenable climbing, in-favour of the easy access Aran wall. The Boulder Wall is one of those areas and if you're not put off by the bird shit then you won't be disappointed by the fine slabby arête line of Doolin Rouge E1 5a. It may be on the bold side but the holds keep coming and the situation is sensational.
Great Balls of Fire HVS 5a and Black Magic HVS 5a are the other must do routes on this wall that have enormous holds and plenty of gear.
Martin Kocsis climbing Black Magic (HVS 5a) on Boulder Wall
Deep Water Soloing
You may think climbers would be out of their minds to deep water solo on these cliffs given their size, but factoring in that on many of the large cliffs the climbing eases considerably in the latter half, then it's certainly a viable option if you're competent at this kind of activity.
Back in the summer of 2015, I had an amazing opportunity to photograph the Hamer Brothers as they demolished half of Ailladie in their two week stay, despite having to deal with whatever the Atlantic threw our way. With a thirst for some deep-water action, they headed over to Ricky Bell's The Power of the Hobo E7 6c S1/2. After gazing down at the swirling black sea horses and jagged rocks, it didn't take long to decide that any attempt to climb it in the present state would be have been reckless. For those deep-water connoisseurs, it's an overhanging arête in an outrageously exposed position and definitely falling into the 'Julian Lines' category.
After completing it on a noticeably calmer day, the boys were keen to sample some more of Ricky and Julian challenges on the 30m high An Falla Uaigneach wall.
Not only does this area contain some hard classics like The Crozzly Show 7b S1, but it's also blessed with a number of worthwhile routes in the 5 – 6c grade range.
Sam Hamer on The Power of the Hobo (E7 6c, S1/2) on Stone Wall
Instinct VS The newest addition to the SCARPA rock range, the Instinct VS, subtlety blends the characteristics of the Slipper and Lace-Up versions to create a superb technical shoe. The Velcro strap keeps the heel of the shoe firmly secured to your foot even on the most demanding heel-hooks with the new toe rand design providing durable performance on toe-hooks.
Instinct Lace Based on the original Instinct model, this new lace up is much lighter and more sensitive with its microfibre upper and 3/4 Outsole design. Wrapped with TPU cage it gives great foot support and prevents torsional movement and roll during extreme edging. This has allowed us to bolt on the Instinct VS heel cup making this shoe an exceptional weapon for both sport climbers and boulderers.
Instinct VS-R For tough Sport climbs and committed bouldering moves you need ultimate confidence in your shoe - this is where the design and technology in the Instinct VS-R comes into its own. Inspired by the request of many of our global athletes, in particular those competing on plastic, the new VSR offers the option of a softer rubber in your quiver of shoes.
Jug City VS 4c
VS is a bit of an odd grade at the Burren, in that you really need to be climbing HVS and above to appreciate the true quality of the climbing. The groove and crack line of Jug City is an exception and a great introduction to the routes that require an abseil. It has the advantage of starting just half way down the atmospheric Stone Wall, so you can basically abseil in and climb out, no matter what the tide is doing.
Pis Fliuch HVS 5a
A totally stunning layback corner that gets thin on the feet at times and just keeps going. The best way is to tackle this head on in true layback style. It sees little sun. so it's best left for a dry spell and minimum grease unlike gnarly first ascensionist Jim McKenzie, who couldn't wait till spring and climbed it on a damp day in November, with the wildest of seas.
The Ramp E1 5b
The eye catching rightward rising ramp line, is one of the finest adventures to be had on the mighty Mirror Wall. It could be likened to Gogarth's Park Lane Doomsville on steroids. The black smooth ramp line always has that slightly necky feel, as your runners look like they are about to strip out sideways, as you struggle to find any kind of footholds. Couple this with the intermediate hanging belay and the fear of an incoming tide and you may be in for more excitement than you bargained for.
Norman Gillman on The Ramp (E1 5b) on The Mirror Wall
Gallows Pole E2 5c
The thugy but well protected twin crack line of Gallows is a perfect introduction to some of the harder routes on Aran Wall. If you can polish this test piece off on your first day, then E3 is on the cards for the rest of the week.
Kleptomaniac E3 6a
If you've made it up Gallows Pole and some of the easier E3's like Midnight Summer's Dream E3 5c, then you could do worse than give this crack a blast.
Heading straight up the middle of Aran wall, it is a magnificent challenge involving a sustained finger crack.
The Cutter E4 6a
I remember doing this as my first route on the impressive and intimidating Mirror wall. Only climbing E3 at the time, I was apprehensive and thought my chances of success were low. 40m of pure finger crack with gear on demand and no particular crux, make this a real stamina test piece. Don't be put off by the guidebook description that mentions many 6a moves. It's more like very sustained 5c, making it quite amenable for the grade. A great find by Gary Gibson.
Sam Hamer on Kleptomaniac (E3 5c) on Aran Wall
Refraction E5 6a
An outstanding and sustained finger crack line that whilst strenuous, can be broken down into manageable sections with brief rests, making it reasonable for the grade.
The hanging belay adds to the excitement as you watch the crashing waves only just miss your gripped belayer. I was that belayer
Damm the Torpedos E6 6b
Situated on the far right of Mirror wall is a non-tidal (in calm seas) wall with three amazing crack lines. Unless you're regularly on-sighting E6, you would be advised to acclimatise yourself to the style by trying the adjacent and more amenable Sharkbait E5 6b. In simple words, this has only short sections of 6b climbing. Brutal and safe sum this one up well.
Sam Hamer on Refraction (E5 6a), Mirror Wall
When to go
Due to the south-westerly aspect of nearly all the climbs its possible to climb from early spring right the way through till late Autumn should the weather play ball and you pick your moment. Only during an intense heat wave can the summer become a bit too intense during the afternoon. The prevailing south-westerly winds can aid in the drying process, but remember it rains a lot on this section of coast so cracks can seep for several days after a storm
It is possible to take the car ferry over to Dublin from either Liverpool (P&O Ferries) or Holyhead (Irish Ferries and Stena Line). This can be costly unless you are going for a prolonged period with a group and utilising your vehicle for sleeping. An alternative is to fly to Shannon airport, which is under an hour away and hire a car.
Sam Hamer on Wall of Fossils (E4 6a), Aran Wall
Climbs in the Burren and Aran Islands published by the Mountaineering Council of Ireland 2008 is the only definitive guide to the area.
Updates on recent new routes and the deep-water solo area can be found here
Rock Climbing in Ireland by David Flanagan 2014 covers all the best routes at Ailladie.
A pair of 60m ropes is essential since some of the routes on Mirror Wall are over 45m and require thread belays quite a way back. A 60m static abseil rope will come in handy, especially for some of the routes on mirror wall that don't start from the base and for accessing the deep-water solo areas.
Sam Hamer on Siren (E3 5c), Stone Wall
Where to stay
The nearby campsite at Fanore is expensive and geared up mainly for static caravans, but offers access to a beautiful beach and is with walking distance of the excellent McDonough's pub! Camping on the grass spots by the dry stonewall above mirror wall is tolerated by the locals and is close to some excellent fishing spots.
Doolin just down the road has a campsite by the pier and a couple of hostels.
The small shop in Fanore is the closest and sells only the basics, but Lisdoonvarna a few miles away has a cash machine and supermarket.
Some atmospheric bouldering can be enjoyed down by the sea at the village of Doolin.
The local beach
Mike Hutton is an Adventure Photographer and Writer working for the Outdoor Industry.
During the past decade, Mike has travelled to over 30 countries capturing images of climbers in places rarely visited by people. He has accumulated over 2000 photo credits to his name and his work has been extensively published in the world's leading magazines and books and on national television. His editorial client list includes Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Geographical Magazine, GQ Italia, Red Bulletin, Rock and Ice, Women's Adventure, The Outdoor Journal, Rockfax, Climbing, Derbyshire Life, Klettern, Desnivel, Pareti, Vertical, Climax, Climber, Summitt, Outdoor Photography and Rock and Snow.
Mike has worked with sponsored athletes from many of the top commercial outdoors brands such as Casio, Berghaus, Patagonia, Rab, Wild Country, Mammut, Boreal, Edelweis, Scarpa, Five Ten, Sherpa and Sterling. His sporting background as a Climber, Runner and Cyclist has given him the edge to keep up with some of the best athletes.
Currently, Mike divides his time between editorial commissions, tutoring and working for commercial clients.
For commissioning work and print sales please contact Mike via his website