As breathtakingly rewarding as it is hair-raising, sea stack climbing on the Wild Atlantic Way is one of the planet's most unique and thrilling pursuits. Join star climber Iain Miller as he shares five of his favourite spots for climbers to put their surefooted skills to the test.
AN ELECTRIFYING EXPERIENCE
"Imagine travelling 20 kilometres over a single-track laneway from the nearest main road, followed by a four-kilometre walk over Ireland’s last great wilderness to visit one of the most remote points on the mainland. From here, standing on the summit of a 250-metre-high sea cliff overlooking the distant edge, we descend to sea level, arriving on a beautiful storm beach in one of the most remote, isolated and atmospheric locations in the country.
We launch from the shore to cross open ocean and land at the base of a wave-sculpted rock tower. We climb this lonely tower, hauling ourselves onto a pristine pinpoint of stone, far from anywhere in the real world."
The first man to make the ascent at Tormore Island, Ireland’s highest sea stack, climber Iain Miller is helping to put stack climbing in Ireland on the map.
A renowned mountain instructor and marine engineer, Iain wrote the book - literally - on climbing in Donegal, the northernmost region of the Wild Atlantic Way; a place brimming with tantalising rock faces and opportunities for high adventure.
With over 30 years’ mountaineering experience, one might be tempted to think that Iain has seen and done it all. But the enthusiastic pursuit of an expertly executed summit and his love for the outdoors means there’s still plenty in store for the pioneering Miller. And he does have one climbing passion in particular that stands out from the rest: unique natural structures known as sea stacks.
“All along Ireland’s western seaboard,” says Miller, “the remains of this rarely explored and little-known world await. Sculpted by the pounding heart of the wild Atlantic Ocean over many thousands of human lifetimes, sea stacks mark the boundary between the moving and the static - the last remains of a time long forgotten.”
Standing like sentinels off rocky coastlines worldwide, stacks are formed when relentless wave action against a headland causes deep cracks to form in the rock. Eventually, erosion - or a powerful storm - will cause portions of the land to fall away, leaving behind free-standing columns now separated by stretches of open water.
Asked what makes climbing them so seductive, Iain points to their sometimes remote locations, with treacherous crossings that can make access difficult. “Over 130 metres above the ocean, 500 metres from the nearest point on mainland Ireland, and over 20 kilometres from the nearest main road, [making it there] can easily be described as a truly spiritual experience.”
“Each [stack],” he continues, “is a place unto itself that has been visited fewer times than the surface of the moon.”
“What you will discover on these wild and lonely structures is a wealth of natural beauty, unspoilt and unchanged by the march of modernity. From basking sharks cruising the waters below, to the ground nesting guillemots and the razorbills living in the heights, these are places where you are free to reconnect with nature in ways that are simply not possible anywhere else.”
If all this sounds like the type of adventure you’ve been waiting for, you’re in luck; there are dozens of unmissable sea stack climbing opportunities just waiting to be discovered along the Wild Atlantic Way. From facile formations to fearsome faces, nothing on earth is quite so exhilarating as this truly unique challenge.
Read on to explore a selection of Iain’s favourite stacks and learn just what it takes to get up close and personal with these mighty monuments.
Bothanvarra, North West Donegal
Fixed near the northwest tip of the Inishowen Peninsula is the 230-metre-high Dunaff Hill. Hemmed in by Dunaff Bay to the south and Rocktown Bay to the north, the resulting headland has a four-kilometre stretch of very exposed coastline which rises to a high point of 220 metres overlooking Bothanvarra sea stack.
Bothanvarra itself is a 70-metre-high chubby Matterhorn-shaped sea stack which sits in a profoundly remote and atmospheric location off the Inishowen coastline.
Access to the base of the stack involves either a very committed two-kilometre sea passage along the base of the impenetrable Dunaff Sea Cliffs or an atmospheric and slightly technical descent of a huge full cliff height gully facing out to the southern end of the stack.
Once there, the path to Bothanvarra’s summit starts in a non-tidal recess at the southeast tip of the stack and follows a series of corners and slabs that join the huge summit ridge at the southern end. From there it’s a sky walk in the clouds along a knife edge to the stack’s highest point.
This stack has been climbed once and its summit stood on by Iain Miller on 24th August, 2014.
Tormore Island, South West Donegal
There are few places on Earth that can compare to the surreal coastal architecture surrounding Tormore Island. This sea stack sits at the southern end of Glenlough Bay at the far western tip of the Slievetooey coastline in South West Donegal, and is the ultimate in sea stack climbing in Ireland.
Standing approximately 300 metres out to sea from the storm beach at the entrance to Shambhala, Tormore towers at nearly 148 metres in height. It is Ireland’s highest sea stack, enjoying a breathtaking position among a truly outstanding collection of neighbouring stacks and towers in a difficult to access and mildly frightening location. Surrounding the sea approaches to Tormore are the 100-metre-high stacks of Cnoc na Mara and Cobbler’s Tower, as well as Lurking Fear and Hidden Stack.
A visit to the summit of Tormore Island involves an initial six kilometres of hillwalking, followed by a steep 250-metre mountainside descent to sea level, two kilometres of open ocean paddling, 220 metres of technical rock climbing and, of course, 200 metres of scary abseils high above the Atlantic Ocean. This really is a surreal place of giants.
This stack has been climbed twice and has been stood on by five people: Iain Miller, Pete McConnell, Alan Tees, and Peter Cooper on the 10th August, 2008 and Iain Miller’s second ascent, with Leman Lemanski, on the 23rd September, 2014.
The routes to this and nearby sea stack summits can all be found in the Donegal Sea Stack Guide; this article merely scrapes the surface of the climbing potential off the Donegal coastline.
Dún Briste, County Mayo
Dún Briste sea stack lives approximately 80 metres out to sea just north of the clifftops at Downpatrick Head on the north coast of County Mayo. This is one of the most photographed and easily accessible stacks on the Irish coast. The viewpoint at Downpatrick Head, one of the Wild Atlantic Way Signature Points, is located within an easy 200-metre stroll from ample car parking and a wee coffee shop. But of course, the viewpoint is where the easy enjoyment of Dún Briste ends; making an ascent involves taking to the seas surrounding its base - an endeavour with laws unto itself - and predicting the stability of the seas is very difficult indeed.
For the undeterred, access to the flat-topped summit begins with a 500-metre paddle from the public visitor car park at the road’s end. Climbing on the overhanging walls of this stack is hard and technical with potential for huge falls and a general feeling of concern all round.
On the summit are the 700-year-old medieval remains of houses that once sat on this headland before a fierce storm ravaged the coast in 1393, creating the sea stack you see before you. In amongst the remains one can find a quern stone and a very rare Jerusalem Gate (an entry point with the dimensions to allow sheep to walk through but which is too small for cattle), which dates to biblical times.
This stack was landed on by helicopter in 1980, first climbed in May 1990 by Mick Fowler, Nikki Duggan, and Steve Sustad, and climbed for a second time in August 2016 by Iain Miller and Paulina Kaniszewska. Seven people in total have stood here since it became a stack 700 years ago - that’s one person for every century.
Branaunmore, Cliffs of Moher, County Clare
At the base of the mighty Cliffs of Moher is the 60-metre-high Branaunmore (An Bhreanan Mor). Approximately 100 metres out to sea, its landward face is home to a large colony of guillemots and razorbills nesting on its stratified ledges. The stack is composed of a mixture of sandstone, three siltstone and shale which makes for a very friable climbing medium and an extremely adventurous day out.
The journey to the summit of this stack involves a steep descent to the outrageous storm beach at the base of the main face of the Cliffs of Moher. From here, it’s a 500-metre paddle to the huge sea level ledges at the base of the stack. The stack is climbed on its seaward face via a series of grooves and chimneys to a pinpoint summit with undoubtedly the best possible view of the Cliffs of Moher.
The stack has been climbed once, in May 1990 by Mick Fowler, Nikki Duggan and Steve Sustad.
Dermot and Gráinne Rock, Loop Head, County Clare
Diarmuid and Gráinne Rock
The southwest tip of Loop Head is County Clare’s most westerly point. From here, visitors can enjoy outstanding views of the Connemara mountains in the north and, to the distant south, Brandon Mountain and beyond toward the Blasket Islands off the Kerry coast. Rising from the sea just to the north, the majestic sea stack known as Diarmuid and Gráinne’s Rock or Oileán na Léime: Lovers’ Leap challenges would-be climbers with its nearly inviolable face. In fact, the only time its summit has ever been reached was in May 1990, and the tiny rock cairn, built by climbers Mick Fowler and Steve Sustad, still sits at the highest point of its grassy roof, inviting those in search of true adventure.
The stack was accessed by a terrifying abseil from the overlooking clifftops directly into the sea; a car bumper was used as the anchor. From there, a short refreshing swim took climbers to the wave-washed sea level platforms at the base of the stack. The climb up followed corners and chimneys with several very difficult sections, moving through overhanging rock to the huge grassy crest. Fowler and Sustad then had the option of rigging a terrifying Tyrolean Traverse back to mainland Clare.
do you have the guts?
Wild, ancient and spectacular, sea stacks are true rock guardians, standing tall at the outer edges of Ireland's distant shores. From barren and wind-whipped shards to grassy-topped columns teeming with bird and sea life, climbing one is surely one of life's most impressive challenges.
Could a stack climb be next on your list of adventure to-dos? Why not dip your toe in first by experiencing sea stack climbing in Ireland in this breathtaking 360° video? Then plan your adventure on the Wild Atlantic Way with our handy trip planner.