This summer, Rob Greenwood travelled to Owey Island in County Donegal, having been tipped off by a photograph that captured his imagination and compelled him to visit the island in reality...
In July 2014 I saw a picture that made my jaw hit the floor. The news item, entitled "John McCune Climbs Ireland's Ultimate Granite Wall", had several photographs by Craig Hiller that blew my mind. An immaculate and implausible wall, leaning in the most unlikely manner, both smooth and sheer, and all in a place I'd never even heard of - Owey. There was only one slight problem, other than the fact I didn't know where it was, and that was the grade - E7. That's a big number. As such, the dream was put on hold, at least for the time being…
That said, in the current set of circumstances something still had to change. E7 isn't something I'd be capable of or willing to put myself through, hence it was of interest (not to mention an absurd amount of luck) that subsequent ascents settled the grades of John's two routes - Immaculata and The Second Coming - down to E5 and E6 respectively. Whilst I don't wish to get bogged down in numbers, we each have our sweet spot for what we can climb, and for something to truly inspire I'd say it has to be challenging, but not impossible - realistic some may say. It doesn't matter whether this is VDiff, VS, E1 or E9, whatever your personal 'grade' is, it has to correlate in some way, shape, or form with the possibility of you actually being able to do it. Due to the grade change, a trip to Owey rose dramatically up the 'never ending list' of routes to do: an ethereal league of lines stored inside my mind, all of which I'd like to climb, but their exact rank depending on a multitude of factors. Right now the stars had aligned, all I required now was someone to do them with…
For trips such as this you need someone special. Going away climbing is infrequently - if ever - just about the climbing: it's about the friendship, the chat, and ethos that surrounds all of the rest of it. Penny, my girlfriend (and frequent partner in crime), had recently started a PhD in Manchester so had to pass. This was saddening. I messaged a few other friends but none could make it, then out of the blue a light clicked - Ramon… Ramon was something of a wild card, as we'd never actually climbed together; in fact, we barely knew each other, having only met a couple of times before. However, from those few times there was a sense of something - a kindred spirit - and I knew, or at least hoped, he'd be on the same wavelength when it came to this trip. A single message later and it transpired he was; several messages later we'd already agreed on a set of dates; and several months later we were en-route. All because of the same set of images…
Going back to when I started climbing, guidebooks were always my main source of inspiration: Paul Williams' Guide to Rock Climbing in Snowdonia and Pat Littlejohn's South West Climbs being two firm favourites. I had pored over them for hours on end, digesting every image, every description, and analysing where each was, how to get there, what conditions were required, and whether I was capable of actually doing it. Strangely it wasn't just the action shots that inspired, it was the topos too, as it was them above all else that revealed the secrets of the mysterious lands I'd never been to - it was them that sparked that sense of intrigue. That incredible barrel of the Great Zawn on the Little Orme, the post-apocalyptic landscape of the Llanberis Slate Quarries, the grandeur of Dinas Cromlech, and the obscure architecture of Gogarth and the Lleyn. The black and white print only added to the allure, which had a kind of antiquity exuding from each of the shots. So many places to discover, so many routes to do. Even to this day that attitude still remains and I wonder how much these guidebooks are to thank for that, or whether it was something ingrained within my psyche that was further fed by the ever-present desire to devour any guidebook within reach. Either way, this helps further explain - more to myself than anyone else - why the image of Owey struck a chord as resonant as it did.
As the dates drew closer Ramon messaged me with increased frequency. He has an analytical mind, forever checking forecast after forecast, weather chart after weather chart. As with any trip within the UK and Ireland, you're at the mercy of the weather. I'm never sure whether that's what makes them mean so much, that sense of doubt and insecurity that it could either be the best trip of your life, or a complete wash out. Would we feel differently about them if the weather was more stable? I'm not sure, but what I am sure of is that these trips have come to mean more to me than any other. Whilst I have travelled the world in order to climb, home is very much where the heart is, and there is nowhere I would rather be than England, Scotland, Wales, and (more recently) Ireland in May and June (the magic months).
Any climber with a pulse must feel the draw of an image/cover shot such as these
With heavy rain forecast across the Emerald Isle, we postponed the start of our trip, heading to an exceptionally sunny Pembroke instead - the perfect place to warm-up and get to know the person I'm going to be climbing with for the next couple of weeks (sounds romantic, doesn't it). Classic routes fly by, with us both on the same page as to where we're going and what we're doing, and both of us (I think) feel satisfied with what we've done at the end of each day's climbing. The pint outside of the St. Govans Inn tastes good, but not as good as the faint glimmer of hope we're given by the updated forecast: a weak high pressure front heading straight towards the north west coast of Ireland. And with that, we pack our bags and begin our journey through Wales towards the ferry.
Now, Ramon has something of a talent when it comes to driving. Living in London, he's the epitome of a weekend warrior, climbing more than most locals do in many areas throughout the UK; however, there's obviously a distance to travel in order to get there - he lives in London after all - hence his honed skills behind the wheel. Here is a man whose psyche has become a thing of legend. I offer to take the wheel but he politely declines, not because he's afraid of my driving (or at least I don't think that's why), it's because this is a part of it for him, a part of the package of the trip, and I get that. We stock up on supplies in Holyhead. Shopping - much like climbing - is an odd thing to do with someone you don't know that well. You both have your habits. I remember Nick Bullock being physically incapable of buying some hummus in Canada all because it cost more than he was willing to pay. He loves hummus, but there he was, torturing himself - he wanted it, oh how he wanted it, but couldn't justify the expenditure (which amounted to something like $4). I think I bought it for him in the end… However, luckily Ramon and I were near enough on the same page and £100 later and we were out in the carpark with one final thing to do: confirm our passage across to Owey with the local boatman Dan (the man) Gallagher.
Ramon passes this duty to me, because coming from Catalonia his English, whilst outstanding, is after all his third language and Dan (the man)'s accent is most certainly at the thicker end of the Irish spectrum. Dan's accent didn't disappoint, thankfully not too incomprehensible, but warm and friendly, unlike the sentences that followed: "I've sort of given up on the whole ferry thing, I've retired." This could be a problem… "Is there anyone else that could give us a lift over?" I asked. His answer was negative, the other person was away on holiday. This could also be a problem, a potentially large and insurmountable problem… Still, I persevered. There was something about Dan (the man), he seemed to be a good bloke and a hunch told me that I should just keep talking. Other than the fact we were screwed, a nice chat with someone I basically didn't know seemed like a reasonable compromise, if only to unleash an ad-hoc grovelling. Thankfully before that moment was necessary, around 15 seconds into our 'chat' he buckled. "Oh go on then, I don't want to see you in any bother - when do you want to leave?." Dan (the man), you are my hero, I love you, we'll be there first thing tomorrow morning.
The drive across from Dublin to Donegal was long in distance, but never short on chat, with the two of us frothing in the front of the van. The only thing that dampened our spirits was anxiety surrounding the accuracy of the forecast. It was wet outside, with clouds clinging to the tops of the hills and closer still to the coast. As we pulled into the car park opposite the jetty on Cruit Island, our meeting place for the following morning, it was dark outside; moisture was thick in the air. Whilst we ate, grand plans were struck of what we were to do the following day, with both Immaculata and The Second Coming being on the cards, reality holding no bearing on the aspirations of two idiots sat in a van, drinking beer whilst it's raining. Sleep was hard to achieve as a result, as we were about to fulfil a dream in reality, and with dreams technically existing outside of reality it just seemed like the sort of thing that could wait. Still, the rain beat down on the van and that every-present doubt remained: what if we couldn't do it? The thought weighed heavy on my mind as I finally drifted off, dreaming of seals, sharks, the sea, and slugs (the latter was a first, even for me, and was possibly due to their abundance around the van before we went to sleep).
The following morning the rain had stopped, but the cloud still hung menacingly low. The dark skies were like an omen and the updated forecast suggested it was there to stay until the early afternoon. Faith was required, faith that is hard to find for someone as impatient me. Ramon was in a similar state of affairs too and his reputation as perma-psyched wasn't something that had been exaggerated: it was clinically diagnosable. If anything, Ramon's lust for life is further emphasised by his accent, which warps what he's saying into something far more wonderful simply by its pace, volume, and vibrancy. Even the most enthusiastic of English accents could never quite match the Catalonian tempo. A quick call to Dan (the man) confirms we're to meet in 15 minutes (he's just finishing his cup of tea). We move our things down the jetty ready for his arrival and soon hear the sound of an outboard motor chugging away. A boat breaches the mist, Dan (the man) at the controls, Darcy (the dog) at the helm. The two come as something of a unit, much like the daemons within Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials - intrinsically linked. Distracted, I wonder what mine would be. Something that lives near the sea? I'm never sure why, but I always dream of the sea. It'd probably be a spaniel anyway…
It soon becomes apparent that Dan (the man) is something of a legend. Working as a fisherman, he goes out to sea for part of the year until his quotas have been reached, then retires to Owey throughout the summer months - mainland Donegal being that bit too lively for his own tastes. I try and imagine what life must be like out there, and what it used to be like. The island once had a population of 150 people up until the 1970s, when the final islanders moved to the mainland. Whilst we were there there were only a couple of seasonal residents: Seb* (who shared his time between Owey and County Antrim) and Dan (who shared his time between Owey and neighbouring Cruick Island). Owey doesn't exactly have the trappings of modern day life, because there's essentially nothing - and pretty much no one - on the island. Still, it all depends on how you define 'nothing'. If looked at as 'the absence of things', and by 'things' you mean modern trappings, then yes - there's nothing…and yet there's everything you need. That said there is perfect phone reception and 3G, so it's not like you're out there on the frontier…it just feels a little bit like it… I turn my phone off in an effort to re-kindle some of that island magic.
* after publishing the article I receieved a message from Seb, saying "Nice article Rob, but I think my County Antrim accent must also be on the heavier scale of Irish accents because my name is Sid not Seb". Oops... Still, he assured me that he quite liked the name, so I thought I'd keep it as that within the article - it suits him (and brings a smile to my face everytime I read it)
Landing in the small harbour we move our things off the boat and onto the seaweed encrusted steps, up towards 'camp', which exists within the walls of an old ruined building. There's the hope that these walls will provide shelter from the wind, but equally hope that we might not need it and hope too for a favourable forecast (that is still yet to materialise). We put up our tents and set the alarm for 3pm, the time forecast for the weather to improve and our self appointed cut-off for getting out. Whilst we are both aware that it will take time to dry, our patience is tempered by our absolute lack of it, and at around 2pm the inevitable happens: we buckle, under the guise of 'going for a walk'. We head out past the old school and up through the village. My mind once again goes back to what it must have been like to live here, to grow up in a place such as this. Across the fields there are signs of where farming would have taken place to sustain the population and rows of peat having been dug out to keep the islanders warm. The same peat that was also used to create the island's illicit whiskey, for which it had something of a reputation at one point. Below us, two precarious poles stand proud, presumably old telecommunication towers that fell into disrepair once the exodus had occurred, leaving them to their weathered state. The weather, after all, is a key part of island life here on Owey - both then and now - a thought that brings me back to the present moment.
As we continue up through the fields there's the sound of a Skylark above, bellowing it's endless and melodic tune. Drystone walls drip down the hillsides above, fuelling the marshes and feeding the cotton grass. Corncrakes, infrequently seen but almost always heard, make their peculiar croaking noise, which resonates through the reeds. Upon arriving at the northern tip of the island we're greeted with a beautiful lake and the first signs of the rugged coastline that surrounds the small island's north west coast. From here a short walk up and over a col reveals our first sight of the wall - the wall: Holy Jaysus. It's almost onomatopoeic! There is one fairly major issue though, it's wet, soaking wet. Whilst the two of us are most definitely optimistic types, it's clear that even to the most self-deluding that the route is a write off, at least for today. We console ourselves with a walk over to another of the island's impressive cliffs - the An Sron Buttress - in order to make the most of our time. Better to do something that nothing (proverb of the all too-psyched rock climber).
The hours that followed were something of a rollercoaster. We made a selection of errors that left us with a static rope 30m shorter than the one we brought out (don't ask), then battled for our lives up one of the wettest HVSs I've had the privilege of climbing in a long, long time. 'The Donkey's Pelvis' is named after the island's eponymous night club/bar, which - to the untrained or cynical eye - may or may not be a shed. We reached the top in a state of shell-shock, having waded our way up what would have otherwise been an absolute classic. This was not a part of the plan. In search of respite we stumbled westwards in search of something sunnier, the sun which (by now) had started to get its act into gear. The clouds had parted, and it had not just turned into a nice day, it was incredible. On the way over to the Wild Atlantic Wall, the home of our next objective, I suggested - completely innocently - that we take a detour just to see how the Holy Jaysus Wall was doing. What we gazed upon was our worst nightmare: it was dry…
Now this was bad - bad, bad, bad - because by this time we were very much on the psychological back-foot, having had something of a meltdown on our so-called warm up and essentially having written a route off until the following day. Thus, in the present moment, we could relax. The fact it was dry was nothing short of a catastrophe, as it was something that - put quite simply - couldn't be ignored. This is what we had come for; conditions were prime and as such it was an opportunity not to be missed. We had to get psyched, quick.
Arriving at the top of the cliff, Ramon realises that he has left his best rock shoes back at camp, so runs back to get them. Whilst he's gone I bask in the sun's rays for a moment, recharging my batteries through some spiritual form of photosynthesis; I'm going to need all the energy I can get. Minutes pass, maybe even forty or so, and I try to rouse myself from the slumberous state I've entered so rapidly. This is it. I begin to set up the abseil and go down a short way to check it's all hanging in the right place, ready for Ramon's return. Arriving at the edge I look down. Fuck, it's steep. I try to reassure myself that things always look different when you're on them, and by 'different' I mean better, and I'm sure (I'm not sure) it'll be alright by the time we get to the bottom. A few minutes later Ramon arrives and I do my best to show a composure that bears no resemblance to how I'm actually feeling. It's roasting (what a time for a heatwave!) so we abseil down in shorts and t-shirt. Due to the angle I place a few pieces of gear to keep close to the rock and eventually arrive at a small, sloping ledge; marvelling at its perfect placement, amazed by its very existence, and yet simultaneously trying to sort my shit out, stay focussed, and get a good belay built. The plan was to kick things off with Immaculata, the easier of the two routes, in an attempt to get into the swing of things. I was to lead the first pitch, about which I'd gathered that despite not being the main event, was actually quite hard, then Ramon takes the second pitch - the pitch. I was actually quite happy to do this, as it seemed like a good gesture, a gift to a friend that I was only just getting to know. I figured that, on this occasion at least, it was more about the journey of getting here and doing the route - not who led what. This just seemed like a detail in comparison, a footnote.
The start of Immaculata follows a juggy ramp line up and out from the sloping ledge. Easy to begin with, but soon reaching a point where the ramp runs out, and all that is left is a wall of disconcertingly small and un-obvious holds leading you to the next (thankfully juggy) ramp and, shortly after, the belay. The rock is hot to touch, and has a certain graininess about it. It's difficult to know what to trust, with some holds giving a little whilst others stay firm. Unnerving to say the least, precision is required. I fiddle in a wire alongside a couple of small cams, convince myself they're amazing, and prepare myself to launch up onto the leaning wall above. The lethargy I felt whilst lying down at the top of the cliff seems like a lifetime ago, as does the apprehension I felt looking down from the top of the cliff. Climbing has that habit of bringing you into the moment so very quickly. Those moments before you set off on a route are the worst, where even the keenest of beans could un-convince themselves of something they'd previously held strong convictions about. Years ago we used to get around this by saying "we were just going for a look" and this trick (and it was indeed a trick) worked, as it took the pressure off, and once we'd set off our mindset immediately changed. The thing we'd once feared in abstract was now something to be solved, loved, or absorbed by. The relationship isn't always rosy, but it's real as opposed to imagined - thus something you can work with. In that moment of realisation I make the moves and a few edges later I arrive at the belay.
Once the belay had been constructed I could finally relax: my work here was done (shy of seconding the next pitch of course). However, looking out across the sea something suddenly dawns upon me: the sun was a bit (well, a lot…) lower than I was expecting. What time is it? As soon as this thought came, it went, and Ramon begun to second the pitch. By the time he has arrived at the belay the sun had really begun to dip and it occurred to me that shorts and t-shirts could have been something of a short term plan, as it was going to be - in fact it already was - quite cold. We exchange gear, but few words, keeping it to the basics - good luck mate, enjoy. Nothing more needs to be said, because it's all gone unsaid. Ramon sets off up the next pitch, but right away I could tell something wasn't quite right, he's having a tough time, unable to relax fully, and finding it hard to get the gear in. I squeeze the ropes to rinse my out my own nerves. Ramon makes it to the base of a crack around six metres up and places what I think (hope) are his first good wires, then shakes out. He's looking tense, so I attempt offer some token reassurance: "Come on mate, you're looking good." (does this ever, actually help?). He stabs his way up a few more moves, placing gear along the way, but arrives at a jug looking…well… I don't think he'd mind me saying that he wasn't the 'picture of composure'. Still, he's way above his gear, so gear placement is a priority: he succeeds in placing a wire, then a quickdraw, and promptly grabs it. Your go Greenwood…
Looking up, the route appeared to go on and on and on. The sense of grandeur overwhelming, even more so due to the knowledge that we're yet to scale it; but scale it we did, and this is where, at least for me, the story ends and the chain reaction of events caused by Craig's photograph comes to a close. Strangely, it's not the route I remember - it's all the rest of it. There we were, in reality, recreating that image within our mind's eye, but all of a sudden it's not that image that mattered: it's the drive across to Donegal, it's Dan (the man) and Darcy (the dog), it's the Corncrakes, the enchanting island, it's the view that's in front of us now, and Ramon - a man I'd barely known just a week previously. Back at the belay I'd been a bit worried about him, as despite his unwavering positivity for virtually everything and everyone there is one thing he can be unduly negative about, and that's himself. Still, standing on our summit of sorts my mind is put at rest, as I think he too is lost in this particular moment with me. Routes - moves - are for the moment, it's everything else that is for eternity. Topping out I recall that sense of satisfaction, like I'd achieved - no we'd achieved - something truly special, a journey's end. Would we have done it without Craig's image? Would I have done it without Ramon? Maybe, maybe not. What does it matter anyway, we're here now, so let's enjoy it.
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