Adventure Tourism on the Western Edge of Europe Unique Ascent

Adventure Tourism on the Western Edge of Europe

Written By: Iain Miller

Disclaimer: This post may contain sponsored links.

    I have lived and grown up in three quite different locations in Scotland, Dunoon on the west coast, Dundee on the east coast and Orkney in the northern Islands. Although each of these locations are quite different demographically, they all share a close affinity to the sea. Therefore, I can say I’ve always lived, worked, or played either in, on or by the sea all my life. 

After I left school, I joined the Merchant Navy as an engineering cadet. Over the next 20 years I sailed around the world several times whilst working on many different types of ships. My love for mountains and the great outdoors kept me sane during this time of being away from home. I first moved to Donegal in northwest Ireland in the mid-nineties but returned to live in Orkney and then returned to Ireland full time in 2004. 

Iain Miller, Founder

It is in County Donegal that I have found my true calling in the form of many lifetimes worth of unclimbed rock on its sea cliffs, sea stacks and mountains. It is in these remote places of outrageous natural beauty that I now earn a living.   

   Unfortunately, the shipping industry has an incredibly high rate of drug and alcohol dependency within the people who spend their lives at sea. What prevented me from following suit was I continually trained for my next ship’s leave as I always had another mountain or sea stack to climb. It was only a matter of time before I transitioned from the shipping industry to being a full-time rock climber and climbing instructor. 

Glenlough Bay

 The inspiration to start my own business was many fold and it has led me to where I am today. As global travel became easier, shipping companies could employ cheaper labour especially from far east and eastern Europe. As this was becoming more prevalent especially in the early 2000’s, I noticed I was being asked more and more by people to take them out climbing. It was in 2008 when I was involved in the first ascent of Cnoc na Mara sea stack that I made the decision to form a business. At the time this was my best climbing day out ever and I thought it would be possible to make a living doing this. It also occurred to me that it would allow me to be able to climb and explore full time and it is this fact that inspired me to start a business.   

First Steps 

   I am primarily based in County Donegal in the north west of the Republic of Ireland where I play mainly on the coast and the uninhabited Islands. This is where the bulk of my employment and playtime takes place. I also run different mountain and rock climbing training courses and assessments throughout Ireland as demand dictates. Very occasionally I will return to Scotland to guide international visitors up the classic Scottish sea stacks and rock climbs. 

   When I made the decision to start my own business, I first worked out what was the minimum I needed to earn annually, monthly and weekly. This gave me my start point to which everything else was based. This may seem very basic, but it works on any economy of scale as every business has a breakeven point and this is where ideally, you don’t want your earnings to drop below. 

Owey Island

   I built a website as soon as I established my earnings. But this isn’t simply a brochure site advertising my services but an in-depth rock climbing in Donegal information site — it’s an ever-expanding website with the details of all the climbing areas in Donegal listed and available as a free PDF download for each area listed. This is an ongoing process and I am constantly updating the individual area PDF’s with new climbs as they are done. This is a huge amount of work over the last decade, but it has helped the website gain a reasonable domain authority and is therefore easy to find in an organic search. I did not use social media for the first 5 years as it was not as well used globally, and it is only lately that it has gained value in free advertising.  

   For my business strategy, gaining a high authority website which is found by people who are not looking directly for me is how I currently get 80% of my business.         

Big Challenges  

   Perhaps my biggest challenge year after year is operating in the weather and sea conditions that regularly occur in a very changeable location that is the west coast of Ireland. The only way I can make my business viable is to have an almost infinite number of possible days out on a huge stretch of exposed east Atlantic coastline. The ability to change the day’s plans the night before or on the morning of a planned day based on current conditions is essential. This has taken years of local knowledge to achieve and I am still learning new places along my coast year after year. 

Bristi Sea Stack

Focus 

   To remain focused is incredibly simple, I view my next day out as possibly the best day out I am ever going to have. It is with this mindset that I am constantly seeking an experience that can never be replicated which is perhaps very similar to a surfer seeking the ultimate wave. It also means I am constantly seeking new places to visit at different times to capture sunsets or a rare blood moon from an unusual angle. A great example of this is The Cave of Light underneath a summer only inhabited island of Owey in Ireland. It was one of those moments in life where the planets align and the footage did very well on a global scale with different versions appearing on over 50 media sites worldwide.   

A Unique Selling Point  

   My unique selling point is climbing sea stacks and over the years I have raised the bar to become the world’s only full-time professional sea stack climber. It is this level of expertise in a very niche facet of rock climbing that would be near impossible to replicate in anything less than a decade of full-time pursuit. This combined with the extremely specific and fickle nautical conditions required to play safe on the west coast of Ireland means I have no competition in my business.  

Bristi Sea Stack

   This of course, means I am not resting on my laurels, but I am continuing to find ways to continually raise the bar. This serves two main purposes; it amuses me greatly and it continues to raise the ladder as a barrier to entry for anyone considering sea stack climbing for a living. As soon as you consider yourself to have competition then you are admitting their services are potentially equal or better to yours. I find it better to work at bettering my own skills and products rather than compare myself to others.  

My most effective marketing strategy?  

   By far the most effective way of raising awareness of my business and services is by simply going out and climbing in new places and climbing lots of things that were previously unclimbed. This in turn gives me new unique content for the free PDF’s guides on my site. I then of course use social media to advertise the fact that new climbs have been recorded and link to the relevant page on the website. For example the free Donegal sea stacks guide book is by far my biggest download. It has resulted in a huge amount of publicity and has been the reason for visits to the summits of Donegal’s sea stacks by Red Bull, Forbes Magazine, The Guardian, The Times, National Geographic, Outside Magazine, the Canadian Globe and Mail and many more.   

   I utilise video to full effect in my marketing strategy, here is a cunning plan that has worked many times for me. 

   First get your footage and edit it into a suitable length film. I find YouTube excellent as it is readily google searchable and is easily (organically) found in the future. With this fact in mind, title and video description must be thought out as to appear in any organic search. 

An Port

   This is stage 1 and is the foundation of your strategy. Stage 2 is promotion and I find press releases to whichever domains you are interested in works best. The key points of a press release are email subject title and a link to the footage in the first sentence. You need to get whoever is reading the press release to watch the footage and they may be opening 1000’s of similar sounding emails a day. 

   Stage 3 is sharing and what normally comes back is press agencies and journalists looking for permission to embed their own version of your footage in their domain. For me I always give permission as long as I get a live link to my blog post or domain. Around the same time video agencies will contact you to offer to help sell/promote your footage. From experience these agencies work very well but getting a live link back to your domain is much less likely. 

   This example footage and blog post did very well indeed in gaining backlinks from news sites all over the world. After 2 years I still have over 30 DA 60+ backlinks from this example.  

   Such is the nature of my business the more extreme and therefore WoW the footage the better it works and spreads.  

Advice I can offer  

   I have two very separate pieces of advice both are equally important, and both have worked incredibly well for me. 

   The first is perhaps the most important when starting any new business. Keep your overheads as low as possible. If possible, borrow no, or as little, money as possible, don’t rent big premises, don’t buy equipment you don’t yet need are a few examples. If it is at all possible, grow organically reinvesting the money you are making back into your future growth. Of course once you become established you can afford to expand and grow as your market and customer base allows. 

   This advice is perhaps the most important advice you will need to follow in a lifestyle or sole trader business as you only have a finite number of days and hours in which you can earn as you are the reason why people are booking. It is learning how to use these days wisely that will come with time and experience of being self employed. 

   The second is specifically tailored to what it is I do for a living but with a little bit of thought it can be tailored to any endeavour you are planning on. 

   I think as we go through life, we pick up skills that cannot be taught in any formal education format. These skills are numerous, and they are what transforms a person into becoming competent at whatever they have chosen to do. These skills can be summarized as experience and experience cannot be taught; it can only be gained through doing. Until you gain this experience you need an education, as it is your education that is the foundation of your career. For example, an engineer straight out of engineering school will in general, not be a particularly good hands on Engineer. As the years go by and they gain the correct workplace and practical experience they become a better and better engineer as their experience increases. The foundation of their career is their academic qualifications, but as their experience grows their academics usually become less relevant. 

   To become a full-time professional climber, you need first and foremost to be a very experienced climber and this takes time, a lot of time. My advice to anyone wanting to be a full-time rock climber is to perhaps have a parallel career in something they both enjoy and are also interested in doing. A more formal education and career allows you the income and time to follow your dream of being a full-time athlete. To leave school to be a full-time climber is of course very possible, but it is also a very hard road to follow and can very easily lead to lack of motivation as income and free time can be in short supply. Another fact to consider is that being a good climber is the absolute minimum requirement. Other essential skills required include photography, social media, interviews, article writing, press releases, filming and this list is only limited to your imagination. 

The Future  

   I do not really have a business role model but more of a business mantra, which has served me well over the last decade. 

 “If I’m not having fun then I’m not doing it.” 

   What this ensures is that anyone hiring my services will have the best experience possible as I am likely to have just as much fun on the day as they are. This also ensures that I am not becoming complacent through repetition as I am constantly visiting different locations and doing climbs that have never been done before. I passionately believe that I very rarely work as I am doing as far from work as it is possible to be. If I feel that I am straying toward working for a living I will radically alter what I am doing to ensure that the fun to work ratio is kept at a good balance.  

   I am currently updating all my on-line PDFs with google maps location pins and integrating much better pictures to assist locating each climbing area. I feel my photography has improved to the point where I do not like many of my older pictures. 

   I am also currently building a new much improved website and transferring all the information from the current site is predictably taking much longer than I thought as I am also updating the pictures on each page at the same time. 

   Slightly longer term I have six batches of filming planned for 2022 with various production companies. 

   It is no coincidence that my work life and my play life are nearly identical, I quite simply have an enormous amount of fun on a daily basis. The summary would be that I am living the dream.  

    I very rarely get compressed as being in the present means I don’t worry or concern myself with things that are out of my control. I do have an enormous list of things I’d like to do and these all involve playing on and sometimes under the coast of Donegal.  

   An example of a day out in which I will visit myself would be something like free soloing Cnoc na Mara. This 100 meter high, sea stack had never been free soloed and is unlikely to ever be soloed again.  

   It is days out like these that allow me to return to zero and begin again as a perceived near-death experience allows you to focus on the moment. The moment being where you are present and being present means you cannot have any fears, concerns or worries.  

Bio: 

   Iain Miller is a rock climber, Mountain Instructor and guidebook author living, working, and playing on the sea cliffs, sea stacks, mountain ranges and uninhabited islands of County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland.  He has spent the last 20 years seeking and finding unclimbed rock and nautical summits in both the Orkney Islands in Scotland and in County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. He has climbed over 50 previously unclimbed sea stacks including Tormore Island, Ireland’s highest sea stack and Cnoc na Mara, the best sea stack rock climb on earth. His company https://uniqueascent.ie/ provides both a rockclimbing training and guiding service on this Western Edge of Europe. 

Julia Davis

Mental health expert MS, University of Latvia I am deeply convinced that each patient needs a unique, individual approach. Therefore, I use different psychotherapy methods in my work. During my studies, I discovered an in-depth interest in people as a whole and the belief in the inseparability of mind and body, and the importance of emotional health in physical health. In my spare time, I enjoy reading (a big fan of thrillers) and going on hikes.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER