By Michael Reardon, photos by Mark Niles. Michael is an American climber well known for his soloing ability (see more about his exploits on freesoloist.com). He is a regular vistor to Ireland and on his last trip visited Glendalough, the Gap of Dunloe, Burren and the Aran Islands soloing everything in sight. Here are his thoughts after his first trip.
Last year I was so impressed, I had no choice but to come back for a month this time, and what a grand time it was! As always, this is not meant as bragging, so please do not misinterpret it as such.
Landing in Dublin with my wife Marci and daughter Nikki (my climbing partner Mark Niles joined me for the second two weeks after the family went back to California) the weather was not quite as kind as last year for the first week. Then again, if the weather was perfect, the hills would be filled with skyscrapers and the people forever changed. We headed south to Glendalough to allow me to boulder in between these watery moments rather than find myself too high up in a storm. As always, I was extremely impressed with the texture of those granite boulders and their friction. What an experience to shoe up among the ruins and then pull on rocks that have been part of this island';s history for millennia! While Nikki and Marci wandered among the ruins and played at the water's edge, I repeated many of the same problems I had sampled last year while jumping on new ones at every turn.
I touched on Big Jim and Jane again, enjoying the sit start to Andy's Arete while sliding off repeatedly on one of the friction faces that had grown a wee bit of moss. Two weeks later, when Mark came with me to Glendalough, I found myself obsessed with far too many variations on these two boulders until I had blown through one of my shoes and my fingers were too delicate to even touch the steering wheel of our rental car! I weaved among the boulders doing smallish two to five move problems with the occasional top out, but one that really stood out was Rob's Problem. It started deep in this rabbit-like den, where there was a patch of remarkable shamrocks. Though normal to the landscape, for Nikki and myself, it was a great experience to be climbing among such foliage. Up the trail, I redid the sit start to the Path Problem and completed The Fin when I heard some folks up higher on the routes along the hillside. I wandered up and soloed some fun forty-foot cracks just right of a waterfall, then headed over to where the gentlemen were working their way up a route. We chatted for a moment, and they were kind enough to offer for me to join up with them, but with the family ready to play tourist and my fingers starting to fade, I said my goodbyes and headed out. Though I climbed various things along the way, our next major stop was the Gap of Dunloe.
I'm a fan of this magical and mystical place. In fact, I would argue that it is by far some of the best sandstone the world has to offer. Unlike the dried dessert flakes of similar stone in California and Utah, the Gap is really quite solid and comparable to many of the granite areas I've climbed. The purple sandstone, darkened by generations of rain, but given a sheen of white sparkles by a giant in the past who hammered stunning quartz bands into the faces, is an area unlike any other. In the fifty-plus routes I've soloed there, my only fear has been the occasional loose block, not a weight bearing edge. More importantly, the Gap (like most of Ireland's climbing areas) is very representative of what is possible when people perform to the highest ethical standards regarding ground-up ascents with natural gear placements.
I met up with John Healy of the MCI during my first half of the trip (I spent a few days at the Gap with Mark during the second half) on a beautiful sunny morning. John was very gracious as we soloed around a bit warming up at the main wall by the road. We found a common bond regarding our ethics and respect for a local gentleman named Con (from my understanding, the man who put up most of the routes at the Gap), and shortly after wandered up to the taller routes. Our first stop was a short crack with a bit of face climbing on its second half. It took me a couple moments to work out the moves, before I finally committed to pinching a slippery crystal at mid-height and manteling up the wet slopers at the top. We decided to call this first ascent solo, No Dirty Tactics as a shot to those who would sully the area with lesser ethics than those already standard at the Gap. I rested a moment, bouldering along the base while John helped photographer Valerie O'Sullivan rappel in to shoot me soloing The Big Fella, a fun two-pitch outing with a magnificent view at the top. Though I wanted to stay, I only had a few more days to stop at the Burren, pub up in Doolin, and play tourist at New Grange, before I had to drop off the family and pick up Mark in Dublin.
Mark and I traveled to the Grit for a quick eight-day monsoon of weather, then stopped at a few places in Ireland, but the Burren and Ailladie were calling. Where do I even begin in my descriptions? I'm not one to preach outside of my beliefs, but if heaven exists on earth, it is the Burren. My eyes are in constant wonderment when I look upon the area. This place is an ocean of limestone of such varied proportions that it would literally take generations just to explore, much less tame. I can honestly attest that I have topped out on more than one hundred individual lines in the hinterlands of this area, and have felt stunned at the variety of holds available. Mailbox slots, jugs, mono-pockets, overhangs, slopers both sticky and bowling ball smooth, all on routes that range from sit-start two-move boulder problems to endorphin-laced rope stretchers. It is staggering to the imagination! Now my ancestry have provided me the ability to enhance a good story, but I kept silent in my descriptions to Mark, preferring to let him experience it for himself. Sure enough, his comments mirrored my own.
Our first stop was about a mile north of Ailladie where we bouldered in a steep cave I visited previously. Mark and I played on the twenty-meter fingertip traverse, and delved into the depths where new meaning is given to the word horizontal! Heading over to Ailladie proper, we met up with a handful of locals who were kind enough to provide a tour of the area as well as some fun history and anecdotes about the people and ascents.
It was here that I also got the chance to meet up with a very kind gentleman named Diramuid. With a warm smile and a handshake, Diarmuid showed me the classic lines as well as some new ones still waiting for a go. It was supposed to be a rest day considering I had been going strong for about six days at that point, but I couldn't resist getting on a toprope to try out Diarmuid's new route. It happened to fit my style of climbing and shortly after I was ready to solo it, but discovered that it had not had a ground up first ascent. Being that it was Diarmuid's project, I gladly stepped away from it and satiated myself with some other routes. The next day, I warmed up, then toproped a project to send next year, when I heard Diarmuid yell out that he had sent his new route! His climbing partner Gregor tied in and did the second ascent, which inspired me to tie in, rehearse the crux moves a few times, then solo it. It was a great moment, and by far one of the better times I've had. I hear that Diarmuid is currently having a grand time of it this year and it would not surprise me if he put up an E8 or better in the near future. With one more day to play, Mark and I contemplated staying and finishing up some open projects, but with barely any rest days and so many routes already done, we decided to check out the Aran Islands.
Mark and I ferried our butts out across a bumpy ocean ride to the big island, and were making quick time away from the standard tourist spots when we hit a path that even the rent-a-bikes couldn't handle. Intuition told us this was the place, for only climbers would push forward in stubborn resistance, when suddenly the ground disappeared from under us and we found ourselves perched at the end of the world! Below us lay a limestone cave, frozen in a perilous arc as if medusa herself turned a massive cresting wave into limestone. At the base of the cave lay a variety of boulders that ranged in size from cobbles to houses. I barely heard Mark's comments of caution as I descended down to the water's edge and immediately started climbing. Unfortunately, three hours was about all I handle. My body was wrecked from all I had done previously. Fortunately, the sun heated up the waters residing in the natural bathtubs scooped out of the floor, providing a needed respite. I slid into a warm bath and closed my eyes, as a silly grin worked its way across my face.
Here I was, under an endless crescent of untouched limestone, worked by the pebbles of the gods, after a month that included three wrecked rent-a-cars, a hundred new friends, countless routes, a battle with two angry bulls, ancient castles, abbeys, and enough whiskey to make Ozzie Osbourne cringe. And now my body was melting into the land of my past, warmed by a heated pools from the Atlantic, hardly changed since the dawn of time. It was a moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Mark hollered from the top of the cliffs that we needed to go, to which I opened my eyes and looked across the water towards America. I may live in California, but my thoughts are always with the place I feel most at home, Ireland.