The first time I visited Ailladie, 4 years ago, I found the place incredibly intimidating and the thought of climbing there terrifying. It feels eerie and otherworldly somehow, standing in the ruhigness between the rolling waves and the dark limestone cliffs that rise vertically like a tombstone. After a brief go on Lisdoonfarout (HS, 4a) (top roping), we scuttled back to Ballyryan where the atmosphere is softened by flowers and limestone pavement. I had a similar experience last year with the anxiety of the incoming pandemic affecting me, so we bouldered in Performolin instead.
This year, though, I was excited about the idea of finally leading in Ailladie. It is, after all, one of the most spectacular and famous climbing destinations in the Republic of Ireland. Ailladie consists of 800m of vertical limestone sea-cliffs, which face out spectacularly towards the Aran islands and are up to 35m in height. The climbing is hard; most of the grades are E4-E7, but there is a smattering of popular classic routes graded HS-VS that I was excited to try.
W started out, as most people do, on the Dancing Ledges, which provide easy access to shorter climbs (around 15m) that are not directly above the sea and therefore don’t require an abseil. I went straight back to Lisdoonfarout as it is the easiest of the classic routes. This time, I didn’t struggle on any moves or find it scary at all, which gave me the confidence to want to try something harder.
I was contemplating leading the classic Genesis (HS, 4b) when Magali turned up and somehow her previous experience on the route (describing it as “awkward, desperate, a bit of a battle”) appealed to my competitive side and made me want to climb it even more. It definitely looks intimidating: following a dark, vertical, right-angled corner up on to a steep slab above. It faces out towards the Mirror Wall, which makes the climbing position feel even more exposed and dramatic. I knew that it was reputed to be sandbagged, with the grade feeling closer to VS than HS, but I felt ready for the fight.
The first moves are awkward and I found the best way to do them was to push my back against the corner wall and worm my way up into a standing position. “Shit”, I thought, “Now I really have committed”. I continued, bridging up on initially big holds towards a more blank-looking crux section beneath an obvious jug. Here, I stopped to place gear, not really wanting to commit to the next few moves.
I looked down, hoping for gentle encouragement from Amy on the belay, but instead spotted climbing legend Andy Kirkpatrick looking up at me. My surprise gave way to mild embarrassment. I said to myself “I can’t fluff this now”, stepped up, grabbed the hold and hauled myself out. When I looked back down he was gone, as if he had only been a religious apparition sent during my moment of need.
The route was far from over and I was running out of big enough gear to continue protecting myself. I fiddled in a sideways hex that seemed to rattle and a cam that was far too open. I didn’t fully trust either but moved on and eventually placed a bomber nut a few meters higher. From this point I just dug my heels in and pushed my way to the top, eventually emerging into the sunshine above. “Amazing route” I shouted back down, “absolutely loved it”.
Andy and his wife Vanessa turned out to be really sound. They were out climbing for the second time with their new baby and were kind enough to let us jump on a top rope to complete Phoenix (HVS, 5a). You don’t expect to spot a “famous climber” in Ireland or for them to be so chatty and it was a new experience for us. We bumped into them again later in the afternoon at Ballyryan, where Magali led Right Crack (Vdiff) and Frost in May (S, 4a).
The next day we were wrecked but the climbing gods had agreed to forestall the incoming rain, so we had to make the most of the weather and climb some more. We needed a gentle start and our friend had mentioned a route called Black Popcorn (V-diff), which is easy but in an incredible location above the sea. We abseiled in and built a belay at the high tide line. It was a peaceful spot but jellyfish below made the sea unappealing and added an incentive not to fall in. The climb out was fun and the views were spectacular.
Afterwards, Magali fancied leading Whose Corner (VS, 4c), so we headed back to Ballyryan where I somehow found the energy to do Left Crack (HS, 4b) before calling it a day. A cold wind caught me halfway up and my involuntary shivers combined with fatigue had me shaking as I tried to place gear, never a pleasant experience. It seemed like a good time to retire back to the cottage and pour a whiskey.
Somehow the weather held out again, despite a bad forecast from the outset, so we hiked the Carren Loop on our last day. The calm serenity of the Buren inland is in sharp contrast to the dramatic cliffs at the edges. We spotted a stoat, with a fancy white chest, bobbing between the gaps in the limestone pavement and scampering across the sun-baked rock. Cuckoos called out, skylarks joined together in a chorus from every direction and brightly coloured yellowhammers sang their distinctive song, “a little bit of bread and no cheese”.
Our visit was within orchid season and the flowers between the pavements wouldn’t have looked out of place in a decorative border. We ambled around, pleasantly stiff and tired from two days climbing. It proved to be the perfect end to our perfect stay. We chatted about how it felt like we had crammed a whole week into three days and discussed routes we wanted to come back to, with Ground Regulate (VS, 4c) high on my list. We all felt pretty satisfied with what we had done and agreed to return again soon.
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