Donegal 2016

Downpatrick Head Sea Stack Climb

Dún Briste

   Dún Briste sea stack lives approx 80 meters out to sea, north of the clifftops at Downpatrick Head on the north Mayo coast. This stack is one of the most photographed and easily accessible sea stacks on the Irish coast with the clifftops at Downpatrick Head being now one of the Wild Atlantic Way signature points with ample car parking and a wee coffee shop within a 200-metre easy stroll to the clifftop viewpoint overlooking the stack. Alas, this is the end of the easy logistics for an ascent of Dún Briste as the seas surrounding the base of the stack are a law unto themselves thus making sane nautical access very difficult to predict.

Climbing Dún Bristé Sea Stack Film

Previous Attempts

   And Sho, the quest began with a first visit into Downpatrick Head in June 2015 with Fionnuala Donnelly, John Mallon and Aidan McGinley in attendance for some nautical action. Prior to leaving Donegal, I had made all my usual wind, weather and swell predictions based on local Donegal coastal knowledge and global Synoptics. Alas, Downpatrick Head had a different idea and after a four-hour drive from a flat calm north-west Donegal sea, the Mayo coast was bouncing at 8ft from the north-west. This motion was crashing white in the amphitheatre around the stack, all we could do was sit on the clifftops and watch whilst Neptune battered the coast. After a good recce of the area, we headed to Sail Rock to play on Roaring Forties. 
   The second visit in July 2016 was with Denise O' Doherty and the stalwart Aidan McGinley, we met local sea kayaker Chris McDaid in the car park and walked to the cliff edge. This time my predictions were even more incorrect with the sea bouncing up to 12ft again from the north-west. We spent the afternoon studying the swell interactions around the base of the stack and the surrounding cliffs with a visit to the cave and channel underneath the head and a paddle around the stack, it all became clear. I now knew why the amphitheatre around the stack was so prone to Neptune's wrath.
 My third visit to the head was a very brief outing, I had been playing out for a week on Achill Island and was on my way home I stopped off for a sunrise visit. On this occasion, I visited the cave under the head again and sat and watched the movement of the sea around the stack for two hours. I was now ready to climb Dún Briste all I needed was a suitably calm sea, good weather and a climbing partner. 

Downpatrick Head Sea Stack Climb
Getting Ready to Set Sail

The Climb

 Having spent the month of August with a close eye on the online sea predictions for the north Mayo coast and with great assistance from locals Chris McDaid, David Horkins and Maria Tighe, the planets aligned for Saturday 27th and so we once more set sail for Downpatrick Head.
 In the house for a little nautical action were Paulina Kaniszewska and Aidan McGinley and we made the 4-hour drive south to Mayo in a glorious damp overcast day. We arrived at Downpatrick and raced to the, by now familiar clifftops and were greeted with a flat calm sea with a subtle hint of distant blue sky.
 Word of our cunning plan had spread locally and as we inflated the dingy and packed the dry bags in the car park a steady flow of local people arrived to watch our attempt on the stack. It is quite a surreal and a very unusual position to be in embarking on a major climb of this nature in such a public way. Thankfully our PR guru/ clifftop photographer Aidan took his position overlooking the stack whilst Paulina and I descended to sea level and launched the dingy. From my previous visits finding a good exit point on mainland Mayo and the logistics of the sea crossing held no surprises and we soon arrived on the huge non-tidal ledges below the west face of the stack, to a cheer from the clifftop audience.
 It is only as you are paddling out to the stack in good conditions knowing you are about to climb it, do you realise just how big the stack is and it is huge with colossal roofs and Damocles boulders in its upper reaches. 

Landing on Dun Briste Standing on Downpatrick Head Sea Stack
The Sea passage out to Dún Bristé

 From the huge ledge system below the west face, we racked up and had a look at our intended route up the seaward face of the stack. I had up to this point intended to follow Mick Fowlers 1990 original route and finding where this climb started was easy enough, leaving Paulina anchored into the ledge below I made a few moves up to Mick's "interesting overhang" above. The rock at this point is regularly sea-washed and is pretty good quality BUT it is north facing and covered in a thin green coating of sandy lichen, the overhang felt hard, greasy, scary, exposed and about another 200 reasons why this was all a very bad idea. I down climbed a move or two and had a look around the corner to find a death drop overlooking the abyss, my heart sank until I saw the juggy handrail across the abyss. And with a swift thuggy hand traverse over the ocean, I reached the salvation of another huge ledge directly below the north face. From here I followed a series of greasy unprotected ledges to a huge undercut recess/crawl space at the western edge of another huge ledge. Built a good belay in the recess and up came Paulina, we were now 20 or so metres up the stack and above us, it all looked very steep, overhanging and difficult climbing.

Pitch 2

 We found Mick Fowler's second pitch above us in the middle of the face and it looked very hard, steep and greasy so I started up a thin groove at the far eastern edge of the ledge with a series of 4c/5a moves up to a harder and scary mantle onto a tiny stance. At this point, a few ups and downs were called for and as I was now visible from the clifftops a crowd began to gather. After a moment of calm, a horrendous 5a/5b mantle was made onto the stance followed by a very runout section of climbing to a larger stance and a thankful mini offset gear placement. The next 15 metres of climbing to the summit were on the underside of terrifying with sparse awful gear between damp greasy bulges of suspect rock to a grovelfest of a chimney onto the summit of the stack and the rain.
 I arrived on the summit to a cheer from the clifftop crowds and the pouring rain, a lie down on the wet grassy summit tufts and allow my vertically mangled mind to descend to earth again was called for. Once composed I built a grassy tuft belay and Paulina began to climb the, by now soaking wet rock below. Alas a mini river was seeping down the groove to Paulina below, after her slipping and sliding about the groove for a while I lowered her back to the top of pitch one and she rebuilt her belay. It was most definitely time to go home.

Climbing Downpatrick Head Sea Stack
Paulina at the top of Pitch 1

Standing of the summit of Downpatrick head Sea Stack
Standing on the summit of Dún Bristé

The Descent

 As Paulina was belayed halfway up the seaward face I rigged a grass hummock belay on the summit and began to abseil down the face taking out all the terrible gear placements on the way down to arrive at Paulina's stance pretty much both physically and mentally mangled but greatly relieved to be off the abseil. After a bit of a sit down we began the return to the boat and from here it involved lowering Paulina into the sea for a swim and myself freesoloing the first pitch in descent. Which took us back to the mighty vessel and the paddle back to the car park. As the sea was so calm we returned to the car park through the 500-metre long sea tunnel underneath Downpatrick Head, paddling through the bottom of the blowhole which was a pretty surreal way to finish an outstanding day out and return to the car park and normality.

The summit of Dun Bristi Sea Stack
Standing on the summit of Dún Bristé Sea Stack   

Sea Stack Gear

 We used a small inflatable dingy to access and exit the stack sailing from the end of the tidal platforms facing out onto the landward side of the stack and returning through the channel underneath the head to the car park. We took a standard multi-pitch rack heavy on offset nuts and huge no5 and no6 cams for the wide breaks between bulges. I opted not to take pegs as the first ascent party did not use them on their ascent, alas with hindsight this was not a great decision. We took a 20-metre static and a mailon to rig the abseil with, there are plenty of potential abseil points mid stack for an exit down the west face.
 To access the stack the sea must be peaking at less than 0.5m swell from the south-west to west, any north-west to north motion and the game is a bogey. The amphitheatre of cliffs at Downpatrick Head immediately around the stack are vertical to overhanging with huge shallow platforms running into the sea at their bases. The close proximity of the cliffs and their platforms at their bases cause a massive amount of white water with north-west to west seas running.

Many Thanks

 Many many thanks to all the people who assisted in many different ways, Marion Galt and Aidan McGinley for taking the pictures, Maria Tighe, her mum and nine-year-old Naoise O'Sullivan for all their help and for the homemade cakes, all the troops on the previous attempts and reccees and off course to the countless people of north Mayo who assisted in too many ways to list.

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