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Words By
Iain Miller

Found living on the wildest stretches of coastline along the western freeboard of the Republic of Ireland live a legion of ancient nautical guardians. These guardians have been sculptured by the pounding heart of the Atlantic Ocean over many thousands of years. Standing guard at the outer edge of our distant shores these towering rock sentinels mark the boundary between the moving and the static, these sentinels are the last remains of a time and an age long forgotten.

On the North Mayo coast approximately 80 meters out to sea from the clifftops at Downpatrick Head resides Dún Bristé (translates as Broken Fort). This large, flat-topped sea stack is one of the most photographed and easily-accessible sea stacks on the Irish coast due, in part, to the clifftops at Downpatrick Head now being one of the Wild Atlantic Way signature points. It benefits from ample car parking and a wee coffee shop, all within a 200 metre stroll of the clifftop viewpoint overlooking the stack. Alas, this is the end of the easy logistics for an ascent of Dún Bristé as the seas surrounding the base of the stack are a law unto themselves, making nautical access very difficult to predict.

Dún Bristé History

The stack was detached from the mainland of County Mayo in 1393 with several families stranded on its summit being rescued the following day. Dun Briste was landed on by helicopter in 1980 when three scientists measured the summit and undertook some archaeological digs and testing. The stack had been climbed once before from the sea in 1990 by Mick Fowler, Nikki Duggan and Steve Sustad. Prior to our ascent of the stack, only six people had stood on its summit in the seven hundred years the stack has been in existence which equates to a summit visit of one person per century.

This large flat topped sea stack is one of the most photographed and easily accessible sea stacks on the Irish coast.

My Previous Attempts

And so, the quest to stand on top of Dún Bristé sea stack began with my first visit to Downpatrick Head in June 2015. In attendance for some nautical action were Fionnuala Donnelly, John Mallon and Aidan McGinley. Prior to leaving Donegal I had made all my usual wind, weather and swell predictions based on local Donegal coastal knowledge and global synoptics. Alas upon arrival after a four hour drive from a calm, flat North-West Donegal sea, the mighty Downpatrick Head had a different idea with the North Mayo coast bouncing at 8ft swell. This motion was crashing white in the amphitheater around the base of the stack and all we could do was sit on the clifftops watching on as Neptune raged around the base of the stack, battering the coast to either side of us. After a good recce of the area we headed to Sail Rock instead and had a wee play on ‘Roaring Forties’, a classic VS climb.

The second visit to Downpatrick was in July 2016 and this time in for the fray were Denise O’ Doherty and the stalwart clifftop guru Aidan McGinley. Upon arrival, we met local sea kayaker Chris McDaid in the car park and walked to the cliff edge. On this occasion, my nautical predictions were even more incorrect and the sea was bouncing up to 12ft. We spent the afternoon studying the swell interactions around the base of the stack and the surrounding cliffs with a visit to the cave and channel underneath the head and a paddle around the stack. With these observations the nautical conundrum of Downpatrick Head had became clear. I now had a very good idea why the amphitheater around the stack was so prone to Neptune’s wrath.

My third visit to the head was a very brief outing, having been playing out for a week on Achill Island, I was on my way home and stopped for a sunrise visit. On this occasion I visited the cave under the head again and sat and watched the movement of the sea around the stack for two hours. I was now ready to climb Dún Briste, all I needed was a suitably calm sea, good weather, a huge amount of luck, something to calm my growing sense of dread and, of course, a climbing partner.


The Climb

Having spent the month of August with a close eye on the online sea predictions for the north Mayo coast and with great assistance from locals Chris McDaid, David Horkin and Maria Tighe the planets aligned on Saturday 27th when we set sail once again for Downpatrick Head.

In the house for this occasion were Paulina Kaniszewska and off course, Aidan McGinley. After the four hour drive to County Mayo on a glorious damp and overcast day we arrived at Downpatrick and raced to the by now familiar clifftops where we were greeted with an Über-flat calm sea with a subtle hint of distant blue sky on the horizon.

Word of our cunning plan had spread locally and as we inflated the dingy and packed the dry bags in the car park, a steady flow of local people arrived to watch our vertical antics on the stack. It is quite a surreal and a very unusual position to be in, embarking on a major and mildly concerning climb of this nature in such a public way. Thankfully our PR guru / clifftop photographer Aidan took his position on the clifftops overlooking the stack and held a live press conference whilst Paulina and I descended to sea level and launched the dingy. From my previous visits, finding a good exit point on mainland Mayo and the logistics of the sea crossing held no surprises and very soon we arrived on the huge non tidal ledges below the west face of the stack, all the time being watched and cheered by the clifftop audience above.

It is only as you are paddling out to the stack in good conditions and knowing you are about to climb it that you realise just how big the stack is, and it is huge, with colossal roofs and Damoclian boulders in its upper reaches.

From our temporary home on the massive ledge system below the West face, we sorted the climbing gear and had a look at our intended route up the seaward face of the stack. Up to this point in time I had intended to follow Mick Fowler’s 1990 route up the seaward face. Finding where this climb began was easy enough and leaving Paulina anchored into the ledge system below I made a few moves upwards to what Mick had worryingly described as an “interesting overhang”.

The rock at this point is regularly sea washed and is of pretty good quality, BUT it is North facing and covered in a thin green coating of sandy lichen. The overhang felt hard, greasy, scary, exposed and about another 200 excellent reasons why this was all a very bad idea. I down climbed a move or two and had a look around the corner to find a death drop overlooking the abyss. My heart sank but rose again almost as quickly when I saw the juggy hand rail spanning across the roof of the abyss.

With a swift thuggy hand traverse over the ocean I reached the salvation of another huge ledge directly below the North face of the stack. From here I followed a series of greasy, unprotected ledges to a huge undercut recess/crawl space at the western edge of another huge ledge a shade over a third of the way up the stack, built a good belay in the recess and up came Paulina. We were now 20 or so metres up the stack and above us it all looked very steep.

Pitch 2

We found Mick Fowlers second pitch above us in the middle of the face and it looked very hard, steep and greasy so I started up a thin groove at the far Eastern edge of the ledge with a series of 4c/5a moves up to a harder and scarier mantle onto a tiny stance. At this point a few ups and downs were called for and as I was now visible from the clifftops a crowd had begun to gather. After a moment of calm, an horrendous 5a/5b mantle was made onto the stance above followed by a very runout section of climbing to a larger stance and a thankful mini offset gear placement. The next 15 metres of climbing to the summit were on the underside of terrifying with sparse, awful gear between damp greasy bulges of suspect rock to a grovelfest of a chimney and up onto the open expanse of the summit plateau and the rain.I arrived on the summit of the stack to a cheer from the clifftop crowds and the onset of pouring rain. I had a swift lie down on the wet, grassy summit to allow my vertically mangled mind to descend from upper stratosphere to Earth again. Once composed I built a grassy tuft belay and Paulina began to climb the, by now, soaking wet rock below.

On the summit we discovered the remains of several houses and livestock enclosures dating from the middle ages. Three unusual finds in the remains were a still functioning Quern Stone, an ancient livestock separation gate which allows sheep to pass from one field to another but restricts cattle from passing through, (this Jerusalem Gate is said to date from biblical times) and, most interestingly, dozens of golf balls.

I had a swift lie down on the wet grassy summit tufts to allow my vertically mangled mind to descend from upper stratosphere to Earth again.

The Descent

As Paulina was belayed half way up the seaward face I rigged a grass hummock belay on the summit and began to abseil down the face taking out all the terrible gear placements on the way down. I arrived at Paulina’s stance pretty much both physically and mentally mangled but greatly relieved to be off the abseil. After a bit of a sit down we began the return to the boat which involved lowering Paulina into the sea for a swim and myself free soloing (unroped climbing) the first pitch in descent. This took us back to the mighty vessel and the paddle back to the mainland.

As the sea was so calm, we returned to the mainland through the 500 metre-long sea tunnel underneath Downpatrick Head. This involved paddling through the bottom of the blowhole, which was a pretty surreal way to finish an outstanding day.

Find out more about Donegal Sea Stacks here.

Recommended kit for climbing Dún Bristé

Iain Miller is a rock climber, guidebook author and hill walker living, working and playing on the sea cliffs, sea stacks, mountain ranges and uninhabited islands of County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland.