Dave the Australian-American opened his can of ‘Heiny’ with a hiss-crack and began to drink. Scimitar Ridge cast long shadows across the scree. Despite the shade, mirrored designer sunglasses were still perched on Dave’s head. He was keen to get involved and go ‘balls to the wall’ - whatever that meant - on this explosive, harsh crag. I was amazed at this ‘dude,’ who brought cans of beer to the crag like they were everyday essentials and took so well to trad climbing. I awkwardly tried to act cool, throwing in the odd word in agreement; ‘rad,’ ‘yeah, totally man.’
Even when Dave onsighted The Roc-Ness Monster (E4 6a), he only made a few grunts. Although he cut loose at one point, I’m sure it was just for show. He looked like he was cruising despite rarely climbing British trad routes and joking about how few wires he had placed before.
That evening we each opened a Heineken over dinner and I made a mental note to bring beers to the crag. Now that would be cool.
The silent killers, the evil biters, the itchy blighters. A sudden lull in the breeze and they rise into a cloud, a storm of blood-sucking-little-buggers. He starts climbing in a rush, not waiting down here any longer. I sulk whilst belaying. Swatting. Swearing. Slapping.
A golden evening’s cragging, a few quick routes, some time to relax - he said. But no, it’s ruined by these infuriating, infinite creatures. Budge midge, budge: you are not welcome. This is not lekker. This is not kosher. All I want to do is smash some routes, but instead the midges have found me and Smash! Like instant mashed potato: I am their dinner.
Swatting, swearing... pleading. ‘Leave me alone!’ I shout to them, someone, anyone. Belaying becomes a test of nerve, a Chinese torture. I focus my zen, cash in my karma and resist... resist... res... but still they find a way in. Down socks, under hoods, up sleeves. The rope moves in inches now, as if my climbing parter wants me to suffer. ‘Go up there, find him instead!’
Itch, itch. Scratch, scratch. I squash a few hundred of them and feel no guilt. I inhale a cloud and they make me cough out of spite. I’d go so far as to say: I hate midges.
At last! He’s finished his pitch, it’s my turn to climb. I run from this feeding frenzy. Shoes pulled on, chalk bag open. Swat, swear, slap. Take in the slack! ‘Climbing!’
‘You’ve got to go to this pub in Ballycastle!’ Brian and Sean laughed, passing the whiskey around our tent on Owey Island. They told stories of wild nights, live Irish music and amazing Guinness from ‘Tom’s pub’ in Ballycastle. We’d soon be returning to Fair Head and were looking forward to finding this mystery pub - whose official name escaped the memory.
A few nights later, we strolled down the high street and dived into O’Conner’s Pub. Loud music from the four-piece Irish band drew us in, moths to a flame; youths to music. It was packed with locals, a traditional scene with low ceilings and 70-year-olds on the corner table. The room was bouncing, people dancing wildly, absorbed in the music. By now it was standing room only and we had to shout to be heard. The atmosphere was infectious. My head nodded to the beat and we swamped the bar, drinks all round.
Several hours and two pints of Guinness later, I thought this was the greatest pub on earth. I was having the best night of my life. I had lost all inhibitions but gained the local’s appreciation for the atmosphere and music. People were jumping to the ceiling as the band played jig after jig, stamping, clapping, cheering to the tunes of the band. The drink and the melody - a perfect complement.
Maybe it was the band’s slogan: ‘Rock till your Folked’ - whatever that meant. Maybe it was because the frontman had four tin whistles to choose from. Maybe... it was the alcohol.
My time in Fair Head started badly. Bertha, Henry’s Citroen, was riding low, stuffed with four people, four kitbags, four climbing packs, three tents, two surfboards, a weeks food and one ‘lads mag’ on the ferry from Wales. Eventually, finally, we arrived in Northern Ireland.
We tunnelled out of the car at Fair Head, excavating into the sunshine. My spine has never been the same since that journey, but we were psyched so I got straight on a tough E3 6a crack line called GBH. The description appealed: something about 'the aspiring hard man' and I took the bait: hook, line and sinker.
I reached the crux and began to gibber, unable to use the finger locks and jams. Furious, full body shaking commenced and I screamed in alarm, embarrassment and shame as I took flight (multiple times!). Henry laughed his head off and my ego took a severe beating as I finally topped out.
Welcome to Ireland! ‘Ah. This is your captain speaking. Prepare to be humbled. You are a chopstick.’
After the banter subsided I enjoyed a few of the Fair Head classics. Hell's Kitchen Arête, Primal Scream, Above and Beyond, Wall of Prey, Northern Exposure ('mazin!) and Paralysed Power are all brilliant. The quantity of 3-star classics is a bit mind-blowing. I don’t think I did a bad E4 on the whole trip.
It was a shame not to get on Grass is Green, Rocafella and The Complete Screambut now there's an incentive to go back. I also never got round to finishing GBH - I was so carried away with the amazing quality of the other routes.
Thanks to Henry, Jack and Anna for the trip, Chris Parkin for coming out, Sean McBride for his generosity, and everyone for organising the Fair Head meet.