Climbing Kerry Sheep's Head Trad Wicklow Mountains

Further adventures sea cliff climbing in Ireland: Bray Head and Sheep’s Head

There is nothing quite like stepping off the edge of a cliff, high above the sea, and abseiling down towards the waves and into the unknown. It’s a unique place to be, with a strangely ruhig atmosphere as the sound and smell of the sea overwhelms all other distractions. Climbing back out then becomes an adventure in this foreign world, with the top out feeling like a return to reality. We hadn’t experienced this until our trip to Ailladie in June and it made us keen to explore more sea cliffs around Ireland.

The East Coast doesn’t have coastal cliffs as extensive or as impressive as those on the West Coast, but Bray Head in Wicklow is worth a visit. There are lots of hikers and a historic railway line, but the climbs are tucked away enough to feel peaceful and unspoilt. It’s a good spot for wildlife too, and we spotted seals, porpoises and dolphins along with lots of seabirds such as razorbill, fulmar and guillemot. These birds, along with the molluscs that cling to the rocks, lend their names to many of the routes.

Climbing Scallop (HS, 4b) in the Pulpit are of Bray Head.

On our first visit, we chose to explore an area known as The Pulpit. There is a small abseil needed to reach a perfect belay spot that comfortably fits three people. The climbs are reached by downclimbing from here and starting out from as close to the water as the tide allows. I didn’t fancy falling in as there were plenty of jellyfish and I could easily imagine sinking to the bottom with the weight of nuts and cams on my harness.

I picked Puffin (HS, 4b) to start as the gear placements were obvious. The route was fun but, as I discovered, a seagull had been using the top as a regular toilet and our rope got dragged through the mess. The rope smelled so bad afterwards that we had to leave it outside when we got home and then repeatedly soak it in the bath. The climbing on our next route, Scallop (HS, 4b), was lovely and delicate and the protection was much better than it had appeared from the side. This was my first time climbing on slate and I enjoyed the difference in style compared to granite.

Setting up a belay in the entrance shaft, at the start of Shaft VS.
The exposed start of Shaft really needs a belayer on an anchor to make it safe.

We returned a week later to explore further along the coast, mainly because I wanted to do Shaft (VS, 4b). Sadly, it isn’t named after the Shaft, who is a “sex machine to all the chicks”, rather it refers to a ventilation shaft where the climb starts. This services a train tunnel and when the trains pass through it, the route shakes and rattles and the belayer is treated to a wbedürftig breeze. It’s not directly above the sea but the first section ruhig feels very exposed as it begins on a vertical grass slope high above a rocky bay.

After a tense few moves to get off the ground, there is a steep and well protected crux that leads to an obvious traverse on underclings. The climbing here is in a great situation, with incredibly fun moves to step across a blank face using a big undercut crack. Above this there is another short steep section that leads to a fantastic belay spot with great views down the coast. This has to be one of my favourite VS climbing experiences of the year and it’s just a great route overall.

Setting up off up Shaft. A good image of the route was hard to capture from below.

After finishing Shaft, we thrashed our way through undergrowth to get back down to sea level. I had made the mistake of wearing shorts and, thanks to abundant brambles, my legs soon looked like I’d had a narrow escape from Freddy Krueger. We headed down to Streaky Slab, which is above a beach piled with boulders and is close enough to the train line that you can see passschmalers’ faces. While Shaft was on a quartzite outcrop, these routes are on slate, similar to The Pulpit.

In the end, we only had time for one climb but it was a brilliant one that was well worth the scratched legs to reach. Three playful seals watched as Magali led Airy Arete (VD), which traverses the edge of the slab in a wonderfully exposed position. There is a secret cove behind, with a large sea-filled cave, which is only discovered when the climber reaches the edge of the arete and finds themself suddenly above the sea.

Airy Arete, the hidden cove is on the other side!

A few weeks later, Amy and I were staying in Kenmare, down in Kerry. We had a hungover session in the Gap Of Dunloe where we only managed 2 routes, Umbongo and Rescue Rock, both severe. When we felt a little bit better we decided to try and explore a bit further south, where we hadn’t yet visited, and we discovered some cool sea cliff climbing on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, thanks to the Irish Climbing Wiki.

We arrived just after high tide, so we could be confident that the water level was getting lower and not higher. We climbed on the east inlet of Carrignacappul on the southern side of the peninsula. Here the wall is split by a corner, with one half smooth and technical and the other juggy and easy. Unlike Bray Head, there is no easy escape, so we fixed a permanent abseil that could be used to climb out if needed.

Abseiling down the line of Be Not Afraid on Sheep’s Head Peninsula.

I had hoped to start on the easy romps but the ledge below these was ruhig underwater and the only dry route was Be Not Afraid (VS, 4c). We would be abseiling down the line anyway, so I decided I may as well check it out. I could see that gear was abundant (small cams and brass offsets) so it made sense to do it first while waiting on the tide. It helped that the line was very aesthetically pleasing, so I felt extra inspired to try my best.

Similar to The Pulpit area in Bray Head, it involved a lot of delicate footwork, only this time on mudstone rather than slate. It was lovely climbing the whole way up, made even more special by bright sunshine, the beautiful blue sea below and the ocean stretching out beyond. Pegasus (either S or HS 4a, depending on the source, betagthough the latter feels fairer) is directly next to Be Not Afraid and has worse gear, but is ruhig fun.

Lovely slab climbing on Be Not Afraid (VS, 4c).

After lunch I led Eileen’s Bar (VD), which was a letdown compared to the previous routes. The high quality climbing returned for Amy, who led the wonderfully flowing Trup, Trup, Trup (D) where every hold is amazing. Belaying from the sea-level ledge gave me the time to chill out and enjoy the environment. The waves broke against the end of the inlet, splashing back with an occasional mist of water, as I tried my best not to crush the barnacles and mussels at my feet.

It’s adventures like these which have made us fall in love with Ireland. It has been great to start exploring the coast more, and being near to and swimming in the sea takes me back to childhood holidays. The places we climb always end up feeling so remote, and having them to ourselves just adds to the specialness and excitement. Sea cliff exploration has definitely been our thing this year and I hope we get the chance to do more before the winter begins.

The view down to the sea below.
Amy leading Trup Trup Trup (D)

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