This is a brief account of the rock climbing history of County Donegal, up to 2015, in the text below all words highlighted in bold are links to information pages with further information regarding each ascent and routes development in each region in the county. All chapters are individual crag descriptions are found on the overall guidebook page at Donegal Guide.
The Sturrall, home to Donegal's first recorded rock climb
The first recorded rock climb in County Donegal was an ascent of the spectacular landward ridge of the Sturrall Headland by the roaming W.P. Haskett Smith in around 1890. Moving forward sixty years to the fifties and the pioneering ascents of long mountain granite routes at Bingorms, Poison Glen and Lough Belshade. It is here that climbers like Frank Winder, Betty Healy, Harold Drasco and Andrew Maxfield created classic mountain routes such as Byzantium, Tarquin’s Groove, Surplomb Grise, Nightshade and many others.
In the late sixties, the next generation of climbers led by Emmet Goulding, Patrick O’Leary, Paul McDermott and later by Lindsay Griffin, Se Billane and Calvin Torrans brought us routes like Obituary Corner, Gethsemane and Calvary Crossings. Ironically these early pioneers
focused on the larger multi-pitch venues overlooking the vast potential of Donegal as the most geographically diverse climbing area in the country.
Doug Scott’s ascent of Main Mast on Sail Rock in 1967 marked the beginning of the movement away from the granite highlands and so began the development of the immense potential of the Donegal coastline. Initial developments began in the southwest of the county
at Malin Beg. The climbing potential was discovered by Jim Leonard in 1974, with Leonard, McKenzie, Tom Ryan, Calvin Torrans and Eddie Cooper all having a hand in development. With the proliferation of newer crags and with the draw of new routes, Malin Beg doesn’t attract as much attention as it once did, however, it remains an excellent sea cliff venue for the low to a mid-range climber.
In the early eighties and away from the southwest coast there was a trickle of new routes at Lough Belshade where Dawson Stelfox and Ian Rea climbed the classics Classic Revival and Lest We Forget.
Around the same time, Inishowen saw rapid development in Kinnego Bay and Culdaff led by Paul Mc Dermott, Joe Rotherham and Alan Tees. By the mid-eighties, a stronger team of Al Millar, Paul and Raymond Dunlop and Niall Grimes began to put up the harder routes in these 12 areas around the peninsula culminating in the classic E4 Atlantic Ocean Wall at Kinnego Bay. The short and steep Finbarr Wall by Culdaff became Inishowen’s answer to sport climbing.
It was in the early nineties at Sail Rock and Muckross Head in the south of the county that climbing grades took a quantum jump into the mid extreme grades for the first time. Muckross was first developed in the seventies but in the summer of 1990, it became Donegal’s premier hard crag. It soon had over forty steep, hard routes in a hundred metre stretch of uniquely bedded overhanging cliff. Most of the hard climbers on the Irish scene at the time left their mark including Robbie Fenlon, Donnie O’Sullivan, Eddie Cooper, Paul and Raymond Dunlop, Niall Grimes, Al Millar, Howard Hebbelthwaite and Brian Callan. Around the same time, Skelpoonagh Bay near Glencolmcille was discovered and developed by Pat Nolan, Andy Currans, Richie Allsop and Joe Walls. Its walls and zawns offer good quality climbing in the mid grades. An Port Bay was revisited and the virtually roadside Berg Stack was developed by P. and P. Clerkin some 15 years after an initial visit by Stephen Young and Jim Leonard in 1973.
In 1991 David Walsh and Paul Butcher sailed to Owey Island for the first time, this initial visit opened the doors to a flood of routes with Brendan Procter, Michael McCormack, Padraic Breen and Seamus MacGearailt developing many of the earlier cliffs and producing Owey’s first mini guidebook. The potential on Gola Island was discovered in the eighties but it took another decade before the island took centre stage inspired by an Irish Mountain Log article by Alan Tees. In the five years that followed several hundred routes were recorded on its sea-washed granite walls.
Eglish Valley in the Bluestack Mountains was discovered by Brian Johnston in the mid-nineties. The valley has numerous crags with excellent longer routes on the Gatepost and Outpost crags. The development of Eglish continues with Ronnie Smith, Brian Johnston, Alan Tees and Al Millar climbing many new routes at this quality mountain crag.
In 2002 with the publication of the Rock Climbs in Donegal guidebook, new routes returned to a steady trickle, with annual visits to Gola and
Owey islands by Colmcille Climbers and various university climbing clubs being the main source of new route development. Since 2002 the bulk of the developments have been very much in the nautical theme with Cruit Island’s short granite sea cliffs currently playing host to over 300 routes with the main protagonists being Iain Miller, Caoimhe Gleeson, Wolfgang Schuessler, Gerry Moss and Liam Convery.
Malin Head at Ireland’s most northerly point first climbed on in the thirties by An Oige and North West Mountaineering Club (NWMC ) in the fifties, was very rarely visited until the arrival of Peter Cooper in 2004. Development continues to this day with now over 100 routes on twelve sea cliffs along this exposed coastline.
Crock an Affrain by Kerrykeel, which was first played on in the fifties by the North West Mountaineering Club, had only seen very sporadic visits by Alan Tees and Dawson Stelfox amongst others over recent decades. However, in 2005 a new access road to the wind turbines allowed local climbers Kevin McGee and Patrick Tinney to further develop this venue with a collection of excellent routes from VS to E4 on this now roadside crag.
When not high on Crockanaffrin the same pair have been developing Ballaghageeha Buttress high on the left flank of the Poisoned Glen. Both these venues now provide a large collection of multiple starred mid-grade routes in two spectacular locations, nice one gents.
Since 2007 there has been a bit of an explosion of sea stack related activity with 60 previously unclimbed stacks being found and climbed around the entire coast from Slieve League to Kinnego Bay in Inishowen. The main suitors being Iain Miller, Martin Boner, Stephen “Jock” Read and Alan Tees. In October 2012 Sean Villanueva and Ben Ditto paid a flying visit to the county and climbed Sideswipe at Muckross Head thus giving Donegal it's first E7.
Earlier on in 2012 Owey Island was re-discovered and so began an annual pilgrimage to the previously unclimbed harder crags on the seaward walls. The grossly overhanging An Srón, The Wild Atlantic Walls and the already near-legendary Holy Jaysus Wall getting a sizable collection of excellent routes up to E6. John McCune, Paul Swail, Kevin Kilroy, Pat Nolan, Craig Hiller, Kris McKooey and Ronnie Smith are currently leading the charge.
Word of Owey Island’s potential quickly spread via social media to the UK and Welshman Ioan Doyle nipped across for a swift repeat of Immaculata, E7 on Holy Jaysus Wall declaring it to be “The best E7 in the British Isles”. This led to an unprecedented amount of visits to Owey Island during the summer of 2015 by teams of both Eire and UK based climbers with the grades on this wall now settling in at sustained E6 and E5.
In 2014/15 the long-neglected Poison Glen began to receive the route cleaning attention of three separate teams with Calvin Torrans and Clare Sheridan climbing two new extremes high on the Bearnas Buttress and Kevin McGee with Iain Miller adding a new E1 to the West Buttress. The scope for new routes at this seldom visited crag is enormous alas so is the time and energy required to clean this north-facing wall.
It is perhaps only now that climbers are beginning to realise the potential of the Donegal coast, and indeed the west coast of Ireland. There is a vast amount of unclimbed and underdeveloped rock awaiting the attention of the exploratory climbers of all abilities.