Mick Fowler and Chris Harle have made the first ascent of the Devil's Castle sea stack in County Kerry off the west coast of Ireland, via a two-pitch line. The stack is located just off the Bromore Cliffs in the Atlantic Ocean.
Along with Steve Sustad and Nicki Dugan, Mick had climbed the Irish stacks of Doonbristy, Branaunmore and Damian & Gruinard's Rock in 1990 and had been aware of the Devil's Castle since then.
"I can't believe it has taken me so long to go back for such a great objective," he said.
Jonathan Edwards and Andrew Barnwell also joined the trip. The team used a 3.6 metre inflatable boat to access the stack from Ballybunion beach. Mick commented:
"For an England-based team, getting a 3.6 metre inflatable boat in the car and over to Ireland is an expensive hassle and the risk of failure due to rough seas and poor weather is enough to dissuade most. But for four time-flexible sexagenerians, there really is no excuse.'
Sailing the boat — named Deflowerer 3 — resulted in "only one bag and one person" ending up in the sea, said Mick. "Such incidents do not detract, they serve to make adventures more memorable," he added.
When the team arrived at the stack, it resembled a "Jenga tower", being vertical on all sides with no easy way to the top. Embracing the uncertainty, Mick and Chris partnered for a new route on the Ballybunion face. Mick described their adventure:
"We landed on a ledge on the seaward side and traversed across and up to gain a groove line leading to overhangs which were avoided by swinging left into a groove and then a wide crack leading to the top of a pinnacle. We belayed in a shallow, protected cave behind the top of the pinnacle.
"The second pitch, which Chris led, climbs up a few feet, steps left and climbs a short steep crack to a grass terrace. Chris then gained the summit by following the grass round to the right and climbing up the far side, whereas I seconded up an unstable line directly above the first pitch. After dropping our abseil sling we cut 10m off of one of our ropes and abseiled directly down to the ledge we had started from.
"The climbing involved carefully judging which of the little blocks was the most secure and always pulling or pushing straight down, never outwards or sideways. It's a careful, judgemental style which I find most rewarding."
Summing up the experience, Mick added:
"Quality unclimbed summits are rare and very special. And it's 33 years since Steve Sustad, Nicki Dugan and I tackled such objectives in Ireland. Over that time my children have been born and grown into adults and the Devil's Castle at Ballybunion has weighed heavily on my mind. Standing well out from vertical cliffs it is a slender and alluring sea stack which has somehow kept a low profile in climbing circles. Even so I found it remarkable that it had stayed unclimbed."
This was only the second outing for Deflowerer 3, an inflatable rib with a 4Hp engine, after an eventful maiden voyage. He explained:
"The first voyage was to Queen Rock at Flamborough Head and ended with summit success but a badly gashed front compartment which led to a series of close 'abandon ship' calls on the way back. It was a relief that the repairs held up well in Ireland (I wasn't at all sure they would) and no more damage was done."
Mick's next goal is a week in the Alps in June and an expedition to the Greater Ranges. He said:
"I'm carrying on with my efforts to tick those desperate classic Alpine ridge traverses which were first climbed so many years ago, and then spending July in Tajikistan with the north side of a 6,000m peak in mind."
Following a diagnosis with bowel cancer in 2017, Mick underwent surgery to redirect the bowel through an opening in the abdomen wall. About his recovery and the impact this has had on his climbing, he told UKC:
"I am as recovered as I will ever be. Having a stoma is a faff on big mountain routes - more stuff to carry and the risk of accidents - but the main everyday problem is that I had extensive plastic surgery on my buttocks which has left me with hardly any padding and makes sitting down very uncomfortable. It doesn't really affect my climbing, but I dread having to spend the night on a proper sitting bivouac! It's not great but it's a lot better than being dead, which was the other option."
Mick, 67, is a three-time Piolet D'Or winner and known for completing first ascents on technically challenging peaks between 6000m and 7000m. Mick and Paul Ramsden first won a Piolet d'Or in 2003 for an ascent of the North Face of Siguniang (6250m) in China. Ten years later, they were recognised for their ascent of the Prow of Shiva (6142m) in India and in 2016 received a third award for their first ascent of Gave Ding (6571m) in the Nepalese Himalaya.