Donegal 2018

Climbing Tormore Island

Climbing Tormore Island


Ireland's Highest Sea Stack

   There are few places on Earth that can compare to the surreal nature of the coastal architecture that is the coastline that guards the mighty Tormore Island against human visitors. At the southern end of Glenlough Bay, this little known landmass sits in one of the most remote, isolated and foreboding places in Ireland. Living approximately 500 meters out to sea from the storm beach at the Entrance to Shambhala, this huge grass-topped sea stack dominates the surrounding leviathans at its portal from the real world. At approximately 148 meters** at its highest point, Tormore Island is Ireland's highest sea stack and it stands guard over a truly outstanding collection of sentinels and towers in this very inaccessible and mildly scary location. This is the land of the giants, the routes to the summits of these giants on either side of Tormore are all in the Donegal Sea Stack Guide. (Donegal sea stack guidebook)

   Tormore Island is a very obvious mountaineering challenge as it can be seen for miles along the coast either side of it, it is Ireland's highest sea stack and it is quite intimidating especially the closer you get to it. It did kind of puzzled as to why there was no recorded ascents or routes to its summit. It is safe to say that the nautical access required to reach the base of the island is the primary reason for this lack of vertical action on its slopes and walls, for an overview for what is involved in an ascent of Tormore, Click Here.

   The landmass that is Tormore Island dominates its surrounding coast and can be easily seen from the Dungloe to Keadue road approximately 40km to the north. The first time I realised the true size, complex approach and logistics of an ascent of Tormore was in July 2008 whilst playing out on Cnoc na Mara for the first time. During this first ascent of Cnoc na Mara, a cunning plan was hatched for a play on Tormore and two weeks later we stood on top of Tormore. This blog post covers both the first and second ascents of the stack, on the first ascent we used a RiB and large outboard engine to access the stack. This I felt was a bit of a cheat and could definitely be improved upon, so on the second ascent, we paddled the little dingy from Glenlough Bay storm beach and removed the point of aid that was the outboard.   

Access to the base of Tormore

   Access to the base of Tormore involves a 3-kilometre cliff top walk from An Port road end followed by a 250-meter scramble down to one of two storm beaches at sea level to either, to the north or to the south of the island. It is possible to access sea level from both The Entrance to Shambhala storm beach to the south or An Chlochán Mór storm beach below Glenlough Bay. Both these descents require a degree of mountaineering guile with both being well sheltered from the south-west breeze and can take a while to dry after rain. Once you have accessed sea level it is then a 300-meter sea passage to the narrow channel separating Tormore Island from Cobbler's Tower. Each of those storm beach exit points presents its own set of potential marine difficulties and both passages are dependent on a very specific set of nautical conditions and tide phases. Each of these two sea passages is of course equally emotional and a miscalculation in this nautical regard will almost certainly result in a visit to the Davy Jones Locker for any unfortunate mariner. The tidal interactions between all the islands, stacks and skerries in the channel separating Tormore from Mainland Donegal is alas a nautical labyrinth comprising 4 major sea stacks and the Cobbler's tower massif. Cobblers Tower is Donegal's highest free-standing tower and is connected to mainland Donegal by a series of suicidally loose ridges and collapsing minor towers. What this essentially means is the any possible approach and escape from Tormore is by sea passage only with no sane overland entry/exit points to the channel surrounding Tormore. In the channel, at the landward base of Tormore these five major landmasses work well in conjunction with the myriad of smaller outlaying tidal skerries to produce a stretch of very difficult to predict tidal conflictions which unfortunately produce a great deal of white water violence.

   The nautical access and escape to and from Tormore Island is by far the crux of your day.

The 2nd Ascent of Tormore Island film

The First Ascent of Tormore Island

 It was in the midst of a monsoon at 7 am on a wet and dark Sunday morning in August 2008 that four troopers gathered on Burtonport Pier. In attendance were noble brothers Pete McConnel, Alan Tees, Peter Cooper and my good self, we all sat in the impending gloom as the dark vertical rods of rain from the blackened sky rained down on our cars. The object of our collective desires was the summit of the 148 metres previously unclimbed Tormore Island, Ireland's highest sea stack. Alan and I had made several attempts at taming this beast in the past, so by default the approach of choice today was to be by R.I.B. Our noble stead was being Captained by Paul Bathgate, a veteran of nautical misadventures along the Donegal coastline. Our noble stead its self was a 76 mph monster of a R.I.B. and we were on our way.

   Now I'm not sure if my fellow cohorts knew what to expect when I mentioned using this type of vessel for an attempt, but upon setting sail and Captain Bathgate opening the throttle a tad, the white knuckles and blank expressions from the troopers spoke volumes. It was indeed excellent to see that after 30 seconds of this adventure that we were already mildly terrified. Ten minutes later we rounded Torneady Point at the Northern tip of Arranmore Island and into very atmospheric seas, for the next 40 minutes we got a bit of a nautical kicking as we pounded up, over and through 20-foot walls of white nautical rage. Words can't describe our journey from Arranmore to Tormore Island suffice to say it was very emotional indeed.

   As we arrived at Tormore Island it was under siege by the legions of the damned and they were riding monster white horses, Neptune was in attendance and he was furious. Our fearless and mildly insane Captain navigated the channel separating the stack from Cobbler's Tower, sensory overload had already been well and truly reached and breached as we entered the cauldron of angry white water in the pits of hate. After 10 minutes of pretty amazing boat handling skills, four wide-eyed fools were left on a non-tidal ledge at the bottom of the landward face of Tormore Island.
   With a "See you at Four" our boat and Captain screamed out of the channel and into the maelstrom. And Sho, as ordered the rain stopped and the Sun came out to play.
    "Let's cane the beast" we all cried in unison.

The climb and descent of Tormore

   The first 45-meter pitch was an excellent affair of V. Diff climbing up superb quartz and growing atmosphere to an excellent block belay at the very edge of the abyss. We were climbing caterpillar stylee, which means as three troops met on a stance, the next pitch is led while the fourth trooper is ascending the previous pitch.
   Anyways, as Peter Cooper came up pitch one, Alan Tees led off up pitch two of slabby mixed ground to a lofty perch below the monstrous roofs which loomed above us in the middle distance. Pitch three bypassed the roofs on the left and had a modicum of exposure and atmosphere as further mixed ground took us to a huge ledge and superb tri-peg belay stance. Thankfully the discovery of this belay meant we could now definitely abseil off this stack, a minor point of concern I had been giving due consideration all morning. Pete McConnel hoovered up pitch 4, it is a vertical celebration of mud, grass and grot with 2 useless runners in the first 30 meters, it was a rude awakening to stack world for Noble Brother McConnel. The summit ridge was reached and a solitary block belay in a huge ocean of green was found. One by One we scrambled the last 20-meter grass ridge a spectacular summit at about 148 meters above sea level.
   Photos were taken and evidence of previous visitors sought, we searched the summit plateau and found no evidence of any previous visitors.
   We made an abseil descent of our route, with four 45 meter abseils using the now insitu peg belays, which took us to our non-tidal ledge to await our lift home. Being last to abseil, I arrived at the ledge to a very ominous silence. The seas were now crashing either side of the channel and every fourth wave threw thousands of tons of green onto the seaward face of Hidden Stack about 80 meters away opposite us. This was absolutely outstanding to watch but alas it was not so good for our travel arrangements as we had no sleeping bags.
   "What do you think?" Asked Brother Tees
   "Aw, it'll be fine." came my confident reply. Internally I considered us to be in a spot of mild peril.

A Nautical Escape

   And so, for the next half hour we sat in quiet contemplation, and with a bang, into the channel of rage came our noble stead listing at 50 degrees to Port and riding a monster Greeny, full astern and Captain Bathgate and Crewman Mike Crowe got thrashed about in an astounding display of seamanship, our mighty vessel was getting an almighty nautical kicking. Several passes of our ledge and with the luggage was safely stowed on board, our noble stead spent the next 10 minutes in the centre of the cauldron riding the chaotic seas.

  "RIGHT, I'M COMING IN AGAIN, I CAN'T SAY IN HERE ANY LONGER, GET IN!" came our orders from our now slightly manic Captain Bathgate and in he came and a single nanosecond later we were all in the boat.
   "THANK F*CK FOR THAT!" our nautical maestro roared as we crashed through the green to exit the channel and out onto the high seas.
   Now that, Ladies and Gentlemen was a high-end emotional exit from a sea stack.
   The journey back to Burtonport was bumpy, but in full daylight and sunshine, it was excellent sport. Half an hour of wave bouncing later saw us into sheltered water between Arranmore Island and Burtonport harbour, it was at this point Captain Bathgate gave the beast full throttle and 60 mph + we arrived in Burtonport Harbour, a bit like flying on a very, very low flying Plane.

Tormore Island and Cnoc na Mara from the south
Tormore Island and Cnoc na Mara from the south

 The Second Ascent of Tormore

    This first ascent of Tormore was a most excellent day out but alas with hindsight the use of an internal combustion engine to reach the stack began to niggle and as time passed a very cunning plan to remove the use of motorized nautical transport was devised.

   And sho, after having spent the last 8 years playing out on the coastline around Tormore, the supremely cunning plan to access the landward channel of the stack using, of course, the trusty inflatable dingy and no outboard engine became a very real reality. On 23 September 2014, a very prolonged period of uber calm allowed a 4k ring of confidence to project from the west coast of Ireland for a 16 hour period. The contents of the ring was a less than 1-meter swell and a huge wave period and so a free ascent of Tormore Island was pushed to the very top of the to-do list.
   Joining me on this rather foolish quest was noble brother Leman Lemanski and with an unsociably early start, we were walking into Glenlough Bay across the dark sky bog. As always with all cunning plans of this nature you never know if your nautical calculations are correct until you first sight your intended the sea passage, and lo upon our arrival at Glenlough Bay, the sea was very well behaved indeed.
The weather and sea were in absolutely perfect condition with a very long and low wave period and not a hint of white water anywhere. We sorted the dry bags and set sail from the landward side of Southern Stack and paddled directly across the mouth of Glenlough Bay on passage we bumped into sea kayakers, Valli and Helen just before entering The Realm of the Giants.
We paddled through the flat calm cauldron and landed on the landward side of Tormore which under normal sea conditions this wee cauldron is a white watered pits of hate and a suicidal place to be paddling but today it was the entrance to the further.
We landed on the landward ledge of Tormore and after a swift racking up and we were off upwards. The cunning plan was to follow the original route of 2008 and as I had made a return in 2013 with noble brother Aidan McGinley the belays at the tops of pitches 1 and 2 were in tip-top condition.
The higher we climbed the views from the stances were increasingly outstanding with the most remote and beautiful coastline in Ireland beginning to stretch from horizon to horizon.
And sho, once more standing on the summit of Tormore Island at 148 meters above the ocean, 500 meters from your nearest point of mainland Donegal, 20 odd kilometres from the nearest main road and overlooking the distant edge of the further. It is impossible to express in words a location that few even know exists and only five have ever stood. A summit in which the ground nesters reign supreme and the transient world we exist in is a far and distant memory.  

Tormore Island from Glenlough Bay storm beach
Tormore Island from Glenlough Bay Storm Beach

Satnding on Tormore Island
Landed on Tormore Island

Climbing Route on Tormore Island
The Route to the summit of Tormore Island

Pitch 1 of Tormore Island
Pitch 1

Pitch 3 of Tormore Island
Top of Pitch 3

Standing on the summit of Tormore Island
Standing on the summit of Tormore Island

View from the summit of Tormore island
Summit view from Tormore Island

 The route description for our route up Tormore Island, the aid on the first ascent was off course the use of an outboard engine to gain the base of the stack.

 Tormore Island   VS   220m
 Grid Reference G556908. At 148 metre high is Irelands highest sea stack and is the daddy of Donegal's sea stacks, it can be seen from Dungloe, approx 40 KM to the North East.
 This route climbs the very obvious landward arête at the eastern end of the island. This feature can be clearly seen from any position along this coast overlooking the stack. Access to the stack is an involved affair and a boat approach is recommended.
 The descent is by 4 50m abseils down the route using the block and peg belays described.
Pitch 1. 45m Starting on the non-tidal ledge in the centre of the landward face, directly opposite Hidden Stack. Climb the blunt arete to the right of the basalt vein, follow the corners and ledges on superb quartz to a large block belay.
Pitch 2, 40m Continue up the blunt arete on the slabby mixed ground to a large ledge below the huge capping roof. (Peg Belay)
Pitch 3. 45m Climb direct to the left end of the huge roofs on excellent rock, with an increased awareness of your surroundings. Pass the roof on their left and continue up the huge shallow gully on the mixed ground to a large ledge. (Peg Belay)
Pitch 4. 45m Climb direct up the vertical grass to the exposed summit ridge, scramble along the ridge for 15m to a large block belay.
Pitch 5. 20m scramble the grassy ridge to the summit.
FA I. Miller, P. McConnel, A. Tees, P. Cooper 10/08/08
FFA I. Miller, L. Lemanski 23/09/14

** I used a GPS unit whilst standing on the highest point of Tormore on 23th September 2014

Tormore Island, An Bhuideal and Cnoc na Mara from The South
Tormore, Cnoc na Mara and An Bhuideal from Toralaydan Island

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