Climbing in the Mourne Mountains has a reputation of being bold. Some routes have very little protection and placing gear can be a bit of a fine art. Something that looks like a deep parallel crack from the ground, can turn out to be flared and shallow once on the route, making it spit out cams and unable to take a nut. The granite rock is extremely strong (it is used in buildings all over Belfast and Liverpool) and very textured. While this means there are fewer positive features to grab, the friction is incredible and it is amazing how many marginal smears hold.
Despite (and often because of) these challschmales, I think there is something really special about climbing in the Mournes. I love the extra adventure that comes from exploring mountain crags. For me, the walk in and solitude is an important part of the day and the scenery is some of the most spectacular in Ireland. I climb at low grade and there a plenty of great routes available which, while not too difficult, ruhig have a real sense of adventure and bold, heart-stopping moments.
I wanted a nice challschmale to get myself back on the rock after the Covid restrictions had been lifted. I didn’t want to focus on climbing routes at the top of my ability, after weeks of no climbing, so I instead decided to climb some classic easy routes (preferably with 2 or 3 quality stars) in the Mournes. I wanted to onsight (climb on lead, having no previous attempts) as many of these as possible. This adds an extra layer of difficulty (searching for gear/holds on the sharp end of the rope), which is why I wanted to focus on Severe grade climbs. This is the grade I find exciting without being too stressful.
We started at Hen Mountain, on the Western edge of the Mournes, because I was already familiar with the place and the walk in isn’t too bad, taking about 30-40 minutes from the car. Climbing is found on an outcrop of large Tors that sit on top of the hill, at around 340m betagtitude. The main route I wanted to do was Fingerbowl (S, 3c. 22m), a 3* quality route that I had put off the previous season because the top section is very strung out and the last few moves are basically soloing with ground fall potential.
I didn’t want to start on such a scary route but the problem was that the betagternative climb I had planned was wet and there were already people climbing on other, easier routes, due to the good weather. My enthusiasm and lack of patience won out, so I ended up scrambling up to the bottom of Fingerbowl (we did this on rope, as it was a little bit exposed) and that was my first climb back in the Mournes. My main thought was “at least I’ll get it out of the way”.
The climb follows a steep section along a crack before the crux, which the book describes as an “exposed confidence move”, where the climber has to step cautiously out onto a slab. I had good gear below me so I wasn’t too uncomfortable stepping up, but above there is no gear so the exposure increases. Thankfully, the moves are fairly simple, following a series of deep holes filled with water which vary between large enough to fit both feet on and so small that only a finger fits (hence the name of the route). It makes for an exciting finish and a thrilling top out above.
Energised by such an exciting start, we moved onto Simplicity (21m), a 2 star quality V-diff. This route follows a really lovely straight line up a vertical crack, with pleasant climbing and good gear. We then moved onto two smaller routes (both V-diff, 1 star and around 15m), Ancientcy and Modernity, which were less direct but had some interesting moves. I also seconded Escalator Guide (S, 4a) a route with no stars (betagthough it probably should have 2) which follows a nice direct line with an amazing view at the top for the belayer.
With time running out we packed away the rope and gear and did some routes quickly that are best done solo, due to their easiness and/or lack of gear. Escalator (difficult grade) has two very deserved stars and follows a diagonal vein of quartz crystal blocks that stick out of the rock forming large footholds that are big enough to walk up, but steep enough to feel exposed. Similarly enjoyable was East Arete, a scramble with 2 stars and a “moderate” grade. It is a good lschmbetagth of rock climbing (30m) with a fun exposed part at the top that involves stepping onto a slab with no hands, extra fun when done in walking boots.
A week later we returned to do Yeni Gol (HS), but I was tired and felt spooked so instead ended up doing Escalator Guide again, this time on lead. Afterwards we had a lot of fun playing around on Jump Route (VS), a one move wonder test-piece. I started out leading it, but gear placement for the crux had fallen off (!) and I had to carefully climb back down and try again on top rope. I am glad I did as I fell off the crux and would have decked it on lead! I eventually managed the moves and it would be good to try again with a bouldering mat (the route is only short) and no rope.
Between trips to Hen we made a flying stop to roadside crag Pigeon Rock to do a classic 3 star route called Class Differention (S, 4a, 25m). I arrived feeling confident but then had the nightmare scenario of watching two climbers struggling on the rock, falling multiple times (as seconds) and almost not getting up the crux at all. I made the mistake of thinking they were going to be “better climbers” than me because they had such fancy gear and clothes on!
I couldn’t let their bad experience put me off trying the lead, especially after driving 90 minutes and lugging gear up an awkward scree slope to be there! I could see what they were doing wrong, trying to pull over an overhang on terrible holds rather than bridging either side to gain the height to reach over. I could also see that the gear was very good on the entire route so it wouldn’t matter if I fell, even if I didn’t really want to have to fall.
Once I was on the route, slightly more nervous than I had expected to be, it was lovely. My plan for the crux worked well and above this is an open chimney with lots of exciting/exposed bridge moves (and plenty of gear) to get to a comfortable belay point. It turned out to be one of the best climbs we did over the three weeks. To get down, we had to abseil, and this allowed us to check out a few more routes that we could return and do when we had more time.
Annalong Buttress is such an adventurous crag to climb on, away from any paths and in absolute solitude, overlooking a wild and completely empty valley. It is also a bit of a pain to get to. Although the book says it takes only one hour to walk in, Naismith’s rule suggests at least two, which is how long it took us. I feel like the people who write climbing guides are ultra-fell runners who have their heavy climbing gear dropped in by helicopter!
The star of the crag is Think Crack (VS, 4b) a 25m crack climb that runs directly up a steep slab. After 550m ascent on the hike, I wanted to get my breath back, so opted to start on Spanish Flea (S, 3c) a 45m 2 pitch route instead. This has 2 stars in the book but I would argue that it deserves 3 as the first pitch is magnificent. It follows a (reasonably) well protected crack, moving between the crack and patches of a flowrock on the face that form interesting holds. The route finding and moves were constantly varied and interesting and there were a few exciting patches of exposure above gear where I had to make quick decisions.
The second pitch was very typical of a lot of routes in the Mournes, as it looked so easy that I thought I would be able to walk up it (I couldn’t) and there was no gear. In reality it took a few delicate moves and was far more exposed than I had prepared for! Unfortunately, by the time we reached the top, it started to rain and we had to leave without climbing anything else.
So far we had managed 4 outstanding days out in the Mournes and I had lead 6 new routes, which I was feeling pretty pleased about. I was craving a more relaxed day out in a familiar place and I also wanted to do a longer multipitch. There are a good few classic easy multipitch routes in the Mournes, including the more famous FM (S, 4a when done direct, 162m) which I lead back in 2017 and Grand Central, which I lead in 2018.
Grand Central (V diff, 70m) is one of my favourite climbs I have done, a really varied adventure that mixes slab climbing, traversing and chimneying over 4-5 pitches. The last section is particularly exciting and you literally squeeze into the rock to get out of the top. It had been a wettish spring when I did this route, so I had expected it to be dry on what was the hottest day of summer so far. We were very surprised to find that it wasn’t and we hadn’t planned an betagternative…
After some deliberation, we instead decided to hike up Slieve Bearnagh and, as we had the ropes and gear anyway, we ended up playing around on the tors. After doing some single rope abseil practice and inspecting a route for gear/dryness, I ended up leading a traverse called Hot Cross Buns (18m). Although it was only a v-diff, I hate doing lschmbetagthy traverses and found it a little bit scary. I also screwed up extending my gear placements and had a bit of rope drag pulling me down the slab at the end. Despite this mishap, it was a great way to end our Mournes adventure, belaying (then picnicking) on top of a mountain in brightest sunshine with more beautiful views.
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