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Iain Miller, Sea Stack Ascensionist Extraordinaire Interview

© Iain Miller/Unique Ascent
Iain Miller recently reported to us that he had made the first ascent of the second last of Donegal's unclimbed sea stacks - Bothanvarra. Having made over 60 first ascents of sea stacks in his home area of Donegal and over 600 first ascents in the Orkney Islands and Donegal on inland routes, we thought a mini interview with Iain would be useful in finding out more about his passion and motivation for the rather esoteric niche of sea stack first ascents.
 
Iain Miller  © Iain Miller/Unique Ascent
Iain Miller
© Iain Miller/Unique Ascent
Bothanvarra is a 70m high chubby Matterhorn shaped sea stack which sits in the most remote, inescapable and atmospheric locations on the Inishowen coastline. It was until Iain's ascent in August one of only two remaining unclimbed monster sea stacks on the Donegal coast. Living on the north west tip of the Inishowen Peninsula is the 230 meter high Dunaff Hill, hemmed in by Dunaff Bay to the south and by Rocktown Bay to the north, which in turn creates the Dunaff Headland. This headland has a 4 kilometer stretch of very exposed coast line running its circumference to a high point of 220 meters which overlooks the sea stack Bothanvarra.
 
Iain on the summit of Bothanvarra   © Iain Miller/Unique Ascent
Iain on the summit of Bothanvarra
© Iain Miller/Unique Ascent
 
"It was in 2010 when I first saw this stack but alas from this visit it did not look a viable proposition from the summit of Dunaff Hill in the rain and so it was buried in the to do list of epic proportions."
 
Four attempts later, Iain managed to complete the stack on 24th August this year:

"With hindsight the uncertainty on the outward journey was the most intense I have ever experienced. Will I make the long inescapable sea passage? Will I be able to climb the stack? Can I then get back down off the stack's summit? These were three reference points of top end mental anguish which faded upon reaching this summit.  This stack is the second last of the unclimbed monster stacks in Donegal, with only one left and summer fading fast, it looks like next year for a return match with fear!"

Iain on the approach to Bothanvarra  © Iain Miller/Unique Ascent
Iain on the approach to Bothanvarra
© Iain Miller/Unique Ascent

Watch a video of the ascent below:


You moved to Donegal in 2005 from the Orkney Islands. What is it about the climbing there that attracted you?

Within an hour's drive of my house there are nearly 2000 recorded climbs, 40 monster sea stacks, 2 mountain ranges, 6 islands surrounded in pristine granite sea cliffs and enough unclimbed rock for many, many lifetimes of play. 

Iain ascending Bothanvarra  © Iain Miller/Unique Ascent
Iain ascending Bothanvarra
© Iain Miller/Unique Ascent

Why sea stacks in particular?  

Sea Stack climbing involves a wide spectrum of different skills especially regarding nautical access. The stacks that live in very difficult to access locations require a lot of planing and logistics to gain their bases. This is the primary reason they see very little attention from climbers. Finding an unclimbed stack in a terrifying and very difficult to access location is the very beginning of the process. The following blog extract sums up what I seek:

 "It was 6am and I was nearly 30km from the nearest main road, 5km from the car, at the base of a 250m sea cliff and I was totally and utterly alone, no-one knew where I was or what I was doing, I had no means of contacting the world in the event of the proceedings going pear-shaped, and 300m out to sea was the object of my desires. The south-westerly winds were causing the distant sea to smoke, Neptune and his legions of the damned were “in the Building”. I was standing on a small outcrop 6 metres above UBER white water violence, a Lidl dingy mattressed in front of me, a dry bag full of toys clove-hitched to my left wrist and the beast on my right, a 60m half and a 60m single alpine sacked on my back and all that was left to do was commit to a super-scary big leap into the rage and thus enter The Realms of Chaos."  
 

I have a few wee rules or guidelines to follow when I solo, no-one knows where I am or what I am doing, I carry no means of communication and using an outboard engine is not acceptable as it is a major point of aid. These simple rules ensure that when you "solo" you are totally and utterly alone and no outboard engine ensures that you are on for a very committing journey into the further.  The two short films below are memorable days out and for me summarize sea stack climbing.

 

What inspires you to make first ascents?  

I tend to use making first ascents on conventional cliffs as training for being alone on unclimbed sea stacks and as everything is climbed onsight then it is all excellent mental preparation for being alone and very scared. What tickles me about making first ascents is that it is all in your judgment and nothing is certain until after the fact, a wee journey into the unknown, the more committing the journey, the deeper you will travel.      

Inishowen Sea Stack  © Iain Miller/Unique Ascent
Inishowen Sea Stack
© Iain Miller/Unique Ascent
     

What's next for you?  

I have one more unclimbed monster stack off the Donegal Coast to attend to, which due to its location I'll leave until next spring. Up til now I have simply found in most cases the easiest way to the summits of Donegal's sea stacks, it's now a case of returning to each stack to climb the not so easy routes to their summits.

 

Watch some videos of Iain's sea stack ascents below:

More information can be found about Iain and his climbing on his blog. 

Donegal Sea Stack Guide available to download here


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17 Oct, 2014
"no-one knows where I am or what I am doing". Who took those pictures then?
17 Oct, 2014
I'm sure-ish that he's referring to an ascent not captured by any of the featured photos.
17 Oct, 2014
A Lidl inflatable boat!!
17 Oct, 2014
Me and some friends have done Sheffield to Goole in £14 kids inflatable boats, and I can't imagine going out to sea in one. Good effort.
17 Oct, 2014
Great to see true adventure climbing .. Sure beats the plastic news.
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