Our trip to Donegal was so much fun that we both regretted having never made the journey before. We had wanted to, but we always made the excuses that it was too far away and the weather too unpredictable for just a few days. In reality, it was our lack of organisation and forward planning that had held us back and, after 5 years of living in Ireland, it was about time that we made the trip. We chose April, as it fit well with our annual leave, and we booked a B&B in Letterkenny to be our base. As it happened, we experienced weather from all four seasons, including rain, snow and sunshine, but that didn’t dampen the fun. Overall, we were very lucky and managed four full days of great climbing, scrambling and hiking routes.
After driving up to Donegal from our home near Dublin, we had to find the start of our first adventure; a scramble up Muckish (667m) in the Derryveagh Mountains. This was easier said than done as Google Maps kept insisting that the main road to the trail head didn’t exist. It instead took us on a very narrow road that degraded into a dirt track and eventually turned into a narrow path that lead out onto the open mountainside. Our battered Peugeot 207 has seen a lot, but it was never designed for off-roading and we had to make a perilous U-turn between a cliff edge and ditch to get back onto tarmac…
After defaulting to a real map, we found our way and parked at an old sand mine beneath the cliffs on the Northern side of the mountain. It was clear and dry and our plan was to follow a grade II scramble (from Alan Tee’s book ‘Scrambles in Ulster and Connacht’) up a gully that topped out on the plateau above. It was less than 20 minutes from the car to the start of the route but in that time we had our first taste of the unpredictability of Dongeal weather and we suddenly found ourselves shrouded in mist. The speed at which the clouds had poured down over the plateau edge was a shock but the route was fairly obvious and we were happy to continue despite the change in conditions.
A rock step at the start is the crux of the route (it can be avoided) and on on this day it had a (quite permanent-looking?) waterfall running down it. It was easy ground, with large footholds, but we decided to pitch it to make it safer. Despite the solid footholds, it was exposed-feeling as there were only sloping ledges for the hands and there was nowhere to place protection. Towards the top, the only holds available were within the waterfall itself and I had to plunge my arm in, allowing water to run up my sleeve, in order to continue upwards. Once we reached the top of the step we were both shivering, starting to feel miserable. To top it all off (and to our great surprise) it then started to snow.
The next few meters were much easier, and we were able to short rope and therefore move quickly together, which allowed us to warm up and enjoy ourselves a bit more. The route passes dramatically between two large pillars of rock and looking down between them was like looking into a nothingness through the clouds. It was at this point that the snow became much heavier (with each clumpy flake an inch or so across) and started to settle, making everything more slippery. It made sense to start using the rope again, even if it meant slowing everything down, and we realised that we would be late to our pre-agreed B&B check in. There were no places to build belays, so in order to move safely we had to rely on using low stances and friction in the system to protect the second.
Due to the snow, it was a more exciting start to our trip than we had expected (this was supposed to be a warm up!) and, as fun as it was, we were both relieved to reach the top. The entertainment wasn’t over yet and the descent route was an unexpected joy. We followed an old mining path which was narrow and interesting, looping between huge cliffs once mined for quartzite sand (used in glass-making). Old machinery dotted the route, including the winches used to move sand and equipment up and down the steep mountainside to the slag heaps below. It was an eerie place to be in low visibility, and I wished we had more time to explore.
It is an expedition just to reach Stirral Ridge, on which we had planned to do a mountaineering route. Although we didn’t, in the end, manage it, the day out itself was so spectacular that my disappointment at our failure was only minimal. Even the drive out is wild, along narrow roads where we met no other cars. All we passed was open mountainside and, at one point, a Golden Eagle flapped lazily overhead. There is breeding program to reintroduce these glorious birds to Ireland and it was great to see one in the wild here. The single-track road leads to a small harbour, An Port, where it ends. Here there is nothing but a single cottage, sheep pens and a ramp into the sea that is used by lobster fishermen.
Leaving our car, we hiked across 3km of pathless open moorland to reach the peninsula, which juts out stunningly into the Atlantic. It was a beautiful walk, passing huge sea cliffs, stacks and arches created by the boiling swell of the Atlantic. It is, though, Stirral Ridge that really takes the breath away; a knife edge arete leading directly out to sea. Although the route is only Diff grade for climbing, the enormous scale of the place was a new experience for us and it was quite terrifying to look at. The drop off down to the sea below is huge and the incredible remoteness of the place was equally intimidating.
Our plan was to traverse the crumbling slopes under the ridge and then come back along the top (following the route in Alan Tee’s book ‘Scrambles in Ulster and Connacht’). Although the approach is mostly walking, the slopes were steep and the potential consequence of a fall was so high that we decided to short rope the walk. We looked down on gulls circling far far below us and up at groups of chough (a rare bird in Ireland) flying overhead. It was beautiful and felt peaceful in the early spring sunshine, despite the perilous drops.
A combination of nerves and overeagerness to get onto the ridge caused us to waste a lot of time looking, too soon, for a route to the top. Unfortunately, the poor quality rock meant it would be dangerous to ascend at these points, and I had no intention of pulling breeze block-sized lumps off on top of us. In the end, we found that the correct route to gain the ridge was right at the end of the peninsular but by then it was too late for us. Ominous-looking clouds were starting to build on the horizon and our confidence was sapped, so we decided to turn back. We had a lot of fun just exploring the place and we hope to get back later in the season, when we should have much more confidence and be more familiar with initial part of the route.
Donegal is famous for its yellow sandy beaches and a stunning coastline which offers some of the best sea cliff climbing in Ireland. Cruit island offers both and, based on the recommendation of the book ‘Rock Climbing in Donegal’ by Iain Miller, we headed there for the third day. The last two days had been big days out with a lot of loose rock, so we were looking forward to climbing something a bit more solid and also a lot less committing. We were also feeling exhausted from the previous days’ adventures and hoping to take more time to relax. We had no one big route in mind and instead planned to take the day as it came.
The tide had only just retreated when we arrived and the base of Tom’s Dinner (V-diff), where I hoped to start, was still damp and needed time to dry out. This gave us the opportunity to walk along the cliff tops and enjoy the early morning breeze; we could have just laid out in the sun and slept all day. It actually felt like a chore to pull all the climbing gear out of the car, but it was worth it as the climb was wonderful. With sunshine on my back, the sound of breakers below and skylarks above, the climb was absolutely gorgeous. The route followed a juggy, but exposed feeling, arete up and out of a small inlet, and the views out to sea were magnificent.
At the top (and still tired) we felt pretty satisfied at doing just one great route and we spent the rest of the day lethargically wandering along the shoreline and exploring rock pools. Looking out to Owey Island and back inland to the majestic peak of Errigal, we realised how much of Donegal we wouldn’t have time to see on this trip. It was too cold (for us) to swim but the water was still inviting and we dipped our feet in. We were in full “holiday mode” and switched off form the world in this beautiful place.
For our final day, we decided to ditch the ropes and explore more of the coast. We chose to hike up Slieve League, a mountain cleaved in half by the sea with some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe. It turned out to be one of the very best hikes that we have done in Ireland; a walk that combines the beauty of coastal walking with the thrill of a sharp mountain ridge. There is even a very small section (that can be avoided) of grade I scrambling, which has some breathtaking vertiginous views and steep drops at either side.
It was actually pretty cloudy when we set off from the Bungless carpark so we didn’t see how high the cliffs were until a good way into the route. The clouds eventually cleared when we reached Keeringear Ridge, where the crest becomes rock and scrambling is required. The route is short and easy, with big holds for feet and hands, but the drop to the Atlantic below gives a thrill and it is hard to convey just how far away the sea looks. This quality of view was sustained for the rest of the walk to the summit of Slieve League (601m) along One Man’s Path, which is more straightforward than it sounds.
From the summit of Slieve Leage we walked back down the popular Pilgrim’s Path and, leaving the cliffs behind, we returned through farmland where newborn lambs skipped across the mountainside. The sun was out and we felt the birth of spring and the new year all around us. Although we were getting ready to leave, it felt like the start of another great year of adventures and we have lots to look forward to in 2019. It may have taken us 5 years to get there, but I expect we will be returning to Donegal again soon.