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In August of 2002 I went to this place to do some climbing with some friends. We established some new climbs and had a great time. It is the largest of three islands lying off the coast of Galway. The name means 'big island'. There is a lot to be written about this place, home as it is to some of the most impressive prehistoric monuments to be found anywhere, the ring forts of Dun Aengus, The Black Fort and others. There is a thriving culture, this place is Gealteacht region where Irish is spoken as a first language. The stone walls tell a story of sociological development (though I have to plead ignorance on the details).

My main concern in this writeup is to provide a description of the place as a climbing location, here follows what one of the other people on the trip, Dave, wrote about the island:

“The Gaelic speaking Aran islands are famous for their unique way of life, where age old traditions co-exist comfortably with modern living. Inis Mór the largest of the three islands is an ancient land, set in an endless sea where great labyrinths of limestone sweep upwards to the breathtaking cliffs with their panoramic views of Connemara and County Clare. See the striking limestone landscapes of Inis Mór. A myriad of stone walls, small fields and a maze of bóithríns (small roads) will lead you to all corner of this majestic island.”

…….. or so goes the tourist leaflet in its aim to ensnare the culture vultures on their mission to find the “real” Ireland.

Árainn (also known as Inishmore), the largest of the three Aran islands is situated 14kms off the Galway coast and can easily be reached by a variety of ferry operators sailing from both Galway and Clare. Alternatively, there is also a small airport on the island for those of you wanting to travel in style. Once on the island the most efficient form of transport is cycling and with no less than 3 rent-a-bike shops located just off the pier you are spoiled for choice. The average cost is around ten Euros per day but this can vary greatly in your favour depending on how business is going that day and how chatty you are! Accommodation is available to suit all budgets with b&bs and hostels dotted all over the island as well as a tiny campsite located centrally in the low lying east of the island. As the island relies heavily on tourism wild camping should be avoided in favour of the campsite, and for a mere 4 Euros per night you get the added bonus of toilets and running water. Finding your way around the island is made much easier with the aid of Tim Robinson’s excellent map, available at the tourist office on the island. This meticulously drawn labour-of-love, names every cove and inlet on the island and is essential for locating key climbing areas (and potential new ones!)

And now, the climbing………

The island is in essence one huge limestone crag, with almost 20kms of coastline offering a wide variety of climbing styles covering all grades. The Northeast side of the island is quite low lying but does contain a number of extremely high quality crags up to 10m high nestled in between the numerous beaches and coves. The nature of these outcrops ideally suits them to bouldering, with good level landings, a predominantly overhanging style of climbing and solid top-outs.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Southwest length of the isle, which rises to heights of over 80m in sheer cliff faces and runs continuously from north to south. Until recently the majority of the climbing development on the island was undertaken by visitors from England and Wales due to the intimidating nature of the crags, with only very few routes being established by Irish climbers. 35 or so of these early, pioneering routes were included in the Burren Guidebook published in 1997 by the MCI. The grades of these routes centres mainly around the mid “E” grades with an upper limit at present of E6. These grades were not however a true reflection of the range of climbing on the island, rather more a display of the strength and ability of the climbers who took the time to pursue these new and quite bold lines rather than the more obvious and attainable lower-grade climbs. Since those early explorations of the island, development has been slow and sporadic with handfuls of lines being done in different areas, giving dense pockets of routes dispersed along the coastline. The tendency seems to be to find a previously unclimbed area that suits a personal climbing style and blitz it of it’s obvious classic lines and then move on.

The climbing itself ranges from long exposed multi pitch lines to short, sharp single pitch routes all on good limestone. Stepped Overhangs and impressive sheer walls abound, with most of the established routes taking devious lines of weakness through this improbable terrain. Protection is solid where found, although quite often sparse due to the compacted nature of the limestone. All current routes have been climbed in the traditional Adventure climbing style and only very few routes contain pegs (sometimes placed on lead and by this stage untrustworthy). Another feature of the island is a number of huge and seriously overhanging amphitheatres, which at first seem reminiscent of Muckros head, Donegal until you notice the lack of natural protection available. These will absorb a lot of time and effort (and maybe even bolts!) before they start to release lines, all of which look spectacular and at or above the upper limit of the climbing currently established in Ireland to date (but possible none the less…. What can I say, I’m an optimist!).

Since the recent popularity and speedy development of Gola Island in Donegal, more and more people have been looking towards the Western Islands as a potential hotspot for new routes. With over 20 new routes established all over Árainn already this year from severe to E3/4, hopefully this trend will continue to grow and reveal what has the potential to be one of the best and most impressive crags in Ireland.

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Routes that can be found there: The Roof (you can see a picture of me climbing this on my homenode!), more to follow

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