The county of Donegal on the north west tip of Ireland has more rock climbing locations, routes and immaculate rock than the rest of Ireland combined. From the mudstone roofs at Muckross in the south of the county to the sea-washed slabs of Malin Head and Ireland’s most northerly point in Inishowen. Rock climbing in Donegal provides a wealth of diverse and unique climbing opportunities.
With nearly 2,900 recorded rock climbs at over 170 locations – which include Ireland’s highest sea stack, Ireland’s longest rock climb, Ireland’s most developed location, the highest mountain crag in Ireland and Ireland’s longest recorded ice climb – Donegal is home to many adventurous locations for both expert rock climbers and absolute beginners.
The on-line guidebook to Donegal contains 20 free PDF guidebooks covering the entire county.
There are two main mountain ranges for rock climbing in Donegal, the Derryveagh mountains in the west of the county and the Bluestacks in the south of the county. The rock climbing history of both these mountain ranges stretches back over 50 years, with routes being climbed back in the 1960’s right up to the present day.
The Derryveagh mountains provides the highest mountain cliff in Ireland, situated at the back of the beautiful Poison Glen at Dunlewey, at the base of Errigal, the county’s highest point.
The main crags in the Poison Glen provide routes of a more alpine nature with climbs recorded up to 270 metres in length. These cliffs face north and suffer a little from lack of direct sunlight and require several days of good weather to ensure dry rock higher on the faces. Find the Poison Glen guidebook here.
At the south eastern end of the Derryveagh lives Loch Barra and the Bingorms. The crags that surround the Bingorm area provide a huge variety of roadside mountain crags. Check out the the Bingorms guidebook lives at www.uniqueascent.ie/bingorms_guide. In the south of the county the Bluestack mountain range offers two very different climbing locations each with perfect Donegal mountain granite.
Eglish Valley provides ten excellent single pitch crags in a remote and mountainous setting. The most remote of these crags is The Outpost, found high on Croaghgorm at an altitude of 500 metres, over an hour walk in from the nearest mountain track. The free Eglish Valley guidebook is found at www.uniqueascent.ie/eglish_guide.
The Bluestack Mountains best known climbing location is found at the eastern end of the range at Lough Belshade. This lough sits approximately 90-minutes from the nearest road. The climbs found on the main face are justifiably well-known throughout Ireland with the main face here being a shade under 100 meters high. This face provides routes of a very high quality on immaculate mountain granite and being south east facing is very quick to dry.
To the east of the main face lives a further six single pitch crags in a staircase formation and each providing a very different style of climbing – all, of course, on immaculate mountain granite. The Lough Belshade guidebook is found at www.uniqueascent.ie/belshade_guide.
Unfortunately, due to relatively modest altitude, its close proximity to the eastern edge of the Atlantic Ocean and its weather patterns being heavily influenced by the warn and damp south west trade winds blowing up from the leeward Caribbean Islands, good conditions for winter rock climbing Donegal are a rare commodity. But when conditions do appear the county is transformed into a winter wonderland of frozen cascades and blue iced gullies that can easily be compared to Scotland at its best.
The current winter guide to the county contains only about 10% of the potential of this style of climbing available in Donegal, with many dozen waterfalls and deep mountain gullies and ridges remaining presently unclimbed throughout the county. The winter guidebook is at www.uniqueascent.ie/winter_climbing.
The Islands of Cruit, Arranmore, Gola, Umphin, Owey and Tory provide many lifetimes worth of outstanding sea cliff climbing and between them are home to a further 20 or so, superb granite sea stacks. These islands are a step back in time with an idyllic setting, unchanged in many ways as the rest of civilisation marches with modern pace.
Cruit Island, in the heart of the Rosses in Western Donegal, is one of the most developed rock climbing locations in Ireland and provides over 370 rock climbs on 25 individual immaculate granite sea cliffs. Separating these sea cliffs are some of the most beautiful sandy beaches it is possible to imagine.
The island is perfectly laid out to allow free wild camping on your own private sandy beach. As an added bonus all crags are less than five minutes walk from the only road on the island. Download the free rock-climbing guide to Cruit Island and go and explore this beautiful island.
Gola Island off Western Donegal is the epicentre of the rock climbing Donegal scene with well over 200 single pitch routes from Diff to E5 on the granite sea cliffs and inland outcrops scattered throughout the island. In the main, the rock is immaculate sea washed granite with only some of the sheltered zawns containing sections of loose rock.
What Gola Island provides is outstanding rock climbing in a wild, remote and truly beautiful setting. The island sits far out in County Donegal’s rain-shadow and it is not unusual to be climbing on the island in bright sunshine and blue skies whilst the rest of the county is under a deluge of heavy rain. The free guidebook is at www.uniqueascent.ie/gola_island_guide.
At the northern tip of the county lives the Inishowen Peninsula. If we consider Donegal to be the Irish climbing scene in one county then Inishowen is the Donegal climbing scene on one peninsula.
Inishowen contains a huge amount of diversity climbing locations and mediums along its winding coast and hill tops. From Crummies Bay on the west coast to Port a Doris on the east, Inishowen’s coastline provides ten excellent coastal sea cliff locations. Inishowen’s inland location at Barnanmore provides a short mountain crag far from any angry sea motion. The Inishowen guidebook is at http://www.uniqueascent.ie/inishowen_guide.
Stretching the length of Western Donegal is An Ghaeltacht, an area of outstanding natural beauty. It’s a place where the rugged granite mountains meet the untamed Eastern Atlantic Ocean. Scattered along this coastline in some of the most beautiful and remote locations in Ireland is a collection of truly awesome sea cliffs and sea stacks. Of particular note is An Port, one of the most beautiful, remote and unspoiled places in Ireland. This lonely rugged coast stretches from Glencolmcille in the south to Maghera in the East of the county. The gentle rolling untamed hillsides of Slievetooey provide the backdrop for this 30 kilometre stretch of 200 metre-high quartz sea cliffs. This stretch of coast is home to 30 of the most inaccessible and outrageous sea stacks it is possible to imagine.
Donegal has over 100 sea stacks dotted along its coastline providing over 150 recorded climbs to their summits. Many of the stacks found along this coast will require you to use considerable nautical, vertical and spiritual guile, to reach the summit of these beasts. An adventurous spirit and a sense of humour are essential components of a day in the company of Neptune, Gaia and the forces of nature.
The rock is mixture of quartzite and granite, and running the entire coast is a band of basalt, which features heavily on many of the sea stacks.
Many of the stacks have access issues in the form of 200 metre loose sea cliffs overlooking and guarding access to them, followed by varying length of sea passage across truly atmospheric seas. Prior planning is essential including a forensic study of the previous week’s wind and swell forecasts.
For truly awesome climbing in a mind blowing location Cnoc Na Mara and the twin summits of An Bhuideal just to the north of An Port are both equal in their quality to a couple of very famous Old Men north of the Scottish border.
For the more adventurous sea stack connoisseur The Lighthouse stack and Stac an Iolar on Arranmore Island, Dare to Be at Skelpoonagh Bay, Tormore Island (Ireland’s highest sea stack), The Unforgiving and the aptly named Satan just to the north of An Port will provide an experience you will never forget. The guide to Donegal Sea Stacks now contains over 70 sea stack and over 160 routes, each stack has a film of its ascent. Check out www.uniqueascent.ie/sea_stack_guide for more information.
Sea stack climbing is a unique and adventurous activity that requires the use of non-conventional climbing equipment and an intimate knowledge of the sea. An inflatable boat (as small as safely possible – as it has to be carried for many miles, abseiled and scrambled with) is a handy bit of kit. A length of 200 metre 8mm polyprop is also required to provide a slack line Tyrolean to ensure the safety of the boat.
Amongst the huge selection of toys required it is worth considering the following when rock climbing in Donegal: Kayaker/surfer booties, sturdy dry bags, 20 metres of 12mm abseil tat, a selection of disposable gear for abseil anchors including pegs, an Alpine hammer for the odd vegetated pitch, sunglasses for photo opportunities and a massive smile.
Found along the southern coastline of the county live four very different sea cliff locations. Each location provides a very different style and type of climbing. Skelpoonagh Bay sit on the sea cliffs to the west of the village of Glencolmcille and comprises six very different steep sided zawns. Each zawn has a slightly different aspect and the climbing ranges from perfect slab climbing in zawn four to outrageously exposed routes of zawn two.
Most of the routes have non-tidal starts and climbing is possible somewhere in these zawns even under the most violent of sea conditions. The Skelpoonagh Guide is www.uniqueascent.ie/skelpoonagh_guide
Along the coast to the south of Skelpoonagh lies the hamlet of Malinbeg. This tiny village sits at the southern tip of this remote and very beautiful coastline. The climbing on the sea cliff to the west of the village is of very high quality on immaculate quartz. The climbing predominately comprises of steep to vertical wall climbing, in-cut with little pockets and perfect protection. The Malinbeg guidebook is found at www.uniqueascent.ie/malinbeg_guide.
Just around the coastal corner to Malinbeg and in the shadow of the mighty Slieve League lives Sail Rock. Sail Rock is a 100 metre high slab of immaculate quartite and running up the centre of the slab is a perfect splitter crack. This splitter crack is considered by many to be the best route of its grade in Ireland. Main Mast E2 5b/c (5.11) Download the Sail Rock Guidebook here.
Further along the coast at the ever popular and slightly unusual climbing venue of Muckross Head you’ll find Donegal’s hardest rock climb at E7 (5.13) The mudstone roofs at Muckross provide powerful and strenuous climbing on immaculate rock with most of the routes in the extreme grades or 5.10+, it is Donegal most popular venue for the harder climbers. Check out the guidebook here.
For further information on rock climbing Donegal, guiding, instruction and holidays visit http://www.uniqueascent.ie/.