Notes on Early Wicklow Climbing

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NOTES ON EARLY WICKLOW CLIMBING by Frank Winder


Rock climbing was late starting in Wicklow, as in the rest of Ireland, in spite of the fact that a number of Irishmen climbed in the Alps and on English and Welsh crags. Geoffrey Winthrop Young1 refers to a lively band of Irish climbers, including Page Dickinson, Edward Evans and Conor O Brien, who regularly climbed in Wales and the Lake District early this century, usually crossing in O Brien's boat. Many people walked in Irish mountains, and caving had a long history, but there was an almost universal view until the foundation of the Irish Mountaineering Club that there was no rock worth climbing in Ireland. This was probably due to the fact that we lack the sort of continuous, conspicuous and relatively easy routes that nurtured the growing sport in Wales and the Lake District. H. C. Hart, in his book on climbing in Ireland2 covered many of the areas in which rock-climbing was to be found, but he did not think much of the Wicklow possibilities. P. L. Dickinson, in the first known account of a rock-climb in Wicklow3, mentions that the participants in that climb had spent a number of weekends exploring craggy areas in Wicklow, including the upper valley of Glendalough, without seeing anything that interested them until they discovered Luggala.


Leaving aside shepherds and egg-gatherers on western cliffs, the most active early explorers of Irish cliffs were botanists (such as Hart, who was notable in that context, in addition to being an extremely able walker and rock climber, and having a reputation as an arrogant personality) who explored Irish Mountain crags extensively in the study of Irish alpine flora. Two botanists who, subsequent to Hart, explored the rocky ground in Wicklow in search of plants were A.W. Stelfox and J.P. Brunker. However, apart from the fact that neither of these was interested in rock climbing (the climbing genes seem to have entered the Stelfox lineage later), in Ireland the rather scanty selection of alpine plants grows mainly in damp, north-facing gullies on elevated schistose cliffs and not on the clean dry crags which climbers prefer. In Wicklow such few alpines as there are mostly grow above Lough Ouler, in the North and South Prisons of Lugnaquillia and on the Eastern side of Baravore corrie. There is hardly a flowering plant of interest on the crags at Glendalough or Luggala.


The one known substantial early climb was the Black Climb done by G.W.  Young, E. Evans, P.L. Dickinson and a fourth climber  named Sparrow on Luggala in 1908. It was described as being as hard as anything they did in Wales, "Mr Abraham would put it in class  4" (about  Severe). In boots and with a 60 foot rope it was  a  very creditable  performance.  The description of  the  first  portion agrees  exactly with Intermediate Gully and it could  be  nothing else.  It then crossed Conifer Terrace and continued to the  top, probably taking the line of Sweet Erica.


Rock climbing in Ireland really started during the years of World War II, when the small, talented group of Old IMC members opened up climbing in Dalkey Quarry. They extended their activities to some of the smaller cliffs in Wicklow, such as Bray Head and the Rocky Valley, but seem not to have gone to Glendalough or Luggala, presumably due to wartime transport difficulties.


Soon after the foundation of the IMC in 1948, Joss Lynam and Bill Perrott discovered Luggala. Bill had a car and that car played a crucial role in the development of Luggala, enabling Bill's chosen co-climbers such as Joss, Fred Maguire, Peter Kenny and John Morrison to join him in having the major role in opening up the cliff in the following couple of years. A couple of IMC meets were also held there, which enabled almost everyone who was climbing at the time to play some role. There were two outstanding early achievements on the same day. One was Joss's lead of Pine Tree Buttress, the crux pitch being done while belayed precariously to the pick of a slater's hammer jammed periodically into vegetation by Pat Crean who was simultaneously ascending Crean's Crawl, this pitch being followed by a lengthy fall when the top pitch was attempted straight up. The second was the crux portion of Crevasse Route which was led by Bryan Hilton-Jones who then fell off when trying to complete the climb by ascending the corner to the right.


Soon after the discovery of the main Glendalough cliff, climbers abandoned Luggala for the more accessible and yielding charms of Twin Buttress, and it was rarely visited for 20 years. Left Side Climb (P. Kenny and F. Winder), the completion of Crevasse Route (F. Winder, E. Healy and B. McCall), Main Face Traverse# (E. Healy and F. Winder) and Spearhead (J. Deacon, V. Stephenson and F. Winder) were the only notable novelties on Luggala in that period, though some other lines were attempted.


The first recorded climb at Glendalough arose when, during a post-Christmas 1948 walking tour around Wicklow, Pat Crean and I noticed Hobnail Buttress and climbed it in our hobnailed boots. However the real start was in May 1950 when Colm McMahon, Joss Lynam, Bill Carroll and Liam O Reagain discovered Quartz Gully and climbed it, slightly deviously, to the crux. Word got around and Fred Maguire, Peter Kenny and I tried it soon afterwards but rain forced us to take the easier line up Holly Tree Shunt which was then mainly a scramble up vegetation. The following August weekend Peter Kenny and I cycled to Glendalough and camped. On the first day we completed Quartz Gully. It was a great relief when I found that the crux finger crack continued upward for as long as I needed it. On the second day we climbed Cuchulainn Groove. Both pitches were very wet so we climbed in nailed boots and the excellent load-bearing properties of Blue Moor-grass played a crucial role in the first pitch. Nuts had not appeared at the time and we had to use pitons (which, happily, we had introduced to Ireland shortly before) for protection at three points.


Not much was done in Glendalough for two years after that. The leading climbers of the time - Fred Maguire, Andre Kopczynski, Peter Kenny and John Morrison - could not get there frequently and mainly concerned themselves with Dalkey Quarry. I had emigrated. However, some little classics such as Garden of Eden, Acorn Crack and Expectancy were done and Kenny and Morrison had ventured up the edge of the central main face area of the West Wing of Twin Buttress in the first two pitches of Speirbhean and had traversed across to, and christened, Nightmare Ledge. Even this activity trailed off in 1952 with Fred's death and the emigration of Andre, Peter and John.


However, I returned and later in 1952, having acquired a motor-bike, started to try new lines at Glendalough with Sean Rothery. We opened up the East Wing of Twin Buttress with Forest Rhapsody, while Ruth Ohrtmann led her Chimney in wet and semi-darkness. More vigorous development started in 1953, accelerated by the return of Peter Kenny with another motor-bike. At that time we could ride the bikes up to the mine-workings, thus making the cliff more accessible than Luggala. Peter greatly enhanced the East Wing with Aisling Arete and, with Ruth, properly opened the main face of the West Wing with Prelude. I ventured further right on that face by leading Fanfare with Peter (though avoiding the hard middle portion, which we added later when we were doing Spillikin Ridge), found a way up the top portion of that face by leading Nightmare and, with Sean, led Scimitar Crack - a line that I had coveted when I first saw the cliff. I also managed to do Deirdre and Ifreann, though I found the top of the former technically hard and the chimney on the latter rather scary.


The impetus of our group carried on into 1954. We managed Lethe and decided to have a try at Spillikin Ridge. John Morrison and Peter noted the Ridge from a distance in 1951 and John commented on the possibilities of the shallow crack in the first overhang - a comment that drew gleeful scorn from Peter.


The four of us returned on the 13th June, a fine day. We started after lunch and climbed as a single rope. I led pitch 1 following the previous line. Peter led up the first overhang, up the crack and then across into Scimitar, with the pitons which had been placed previously for protection. He then continued up the groove leading back to the ridge below the third overhang. He had a tiny stance and two imperfect pitons for protection. I joined him and made several attempts - to the left, to the right and climbing up over him. After quite a time at this (during which the angle of Nightmare to my left seemed to have become remarkably easy) I managed to get in a higher and better piton which gave me the confidence for a determined try up leftwards which went. The climb took 4.5 hours to get all four up. I descended afterwards on a top rope and removed all of the pitons.


After #Spillikin Ridge# developments at Glendalough slowed markedly until the beginning of the Sixties. The cliff was running low  in really  challenging lines that were not too hard or  exposed  for us,  before  the  arrival of PAs and chocks.  Peter  and  I  were drifting  away from climbing under other pressures. Sean  Rothery led  the fine top pitch of Speirbhean with Brian  McCall,  before taking  his turn to emigrate for a few years. Betty Healy,  Peter and  I formally buried this period of development at  Glendalough with the 1957 guide (written anonymously on Peter's  insistence). However, Betty continued to be involved in major new routes.  She led the formidable Sebastian (in boots), thus effecting a  breach in  the  steep wall right of Ifreann. Later, also in  boots,  she seconded Padraic O Halpin on the equally impressive  Setanta. Visiting  climbers  made contributions during  this  transitional period:  Bob Downes and Ronnie Wathen added a fine pitch  to  Lag Mara,  the  Drasdo  brothers contributed Alien's  Way,  while  J. Deacon and V. Stephenson provided a difficult and ingenious route in Cornish Rhapsody.


I  had  become too far removed from climbing by the  end  of  the Fifties to be in a position to comment on the subsequent  history of  climbing in Wicklow, beyond giving my general  impression  of what I saw as two distinct transitions. The start of the  Sixties saw  the appearance of a new set of leaders who raised  standards at  Glendalough  to a new level. Notable among these  were  Emmet Goulding,  Eddie Gaffney, Pat Higgins and Tony Ingram.  They  did this  by sheer climbing ability, not by the new technology  which caught on only later; they usually climbed in boots and were  far from  lavish  in their use of protection. They did not  climb  at Luggala  in  the Sixties to any significant extent,  their  other notable activities being further afield.


Perhaps  an even bigger change occurred at the beginning  of  the Seventies.  There  was probably not as big a  change  in  natural climbing ability as occurred at the beginning of the Sixties  but the  numbers climbing increased sharply, a new intensity  entered climbing  (even  in my most active period I climbed  on  one  day about every second weekend) and the new technologies were adopted effectively,  leading to major development at Luggala as well  as continuing development at Glendalough.


1. Young, G.W., "From Genesis to Numbers" in "Snowdon Biography" (ed. by W. Noyce) pp 17-56. London: Dent 1957

2. Hart, H.C., "Climbing in Ireland", Vol. 3 of "Climbing in the British Isles" (ed by W.P. Smith) London: Longman Green & Co., 1895. Facsimile published by FMCI, 1970

3. Dickenson, P.L. "A Rock Climb in Co. Wicklow", Climbers Club Journal, 11, 8-13, 1908.