My name is Iain Miller, and I run the company Unique Ascent based in County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. Over the last 12 years, I have transformed my near lifelong hobby into a highly successful business doing the same activities I did before going professional.
I have taken a very niche aspect of outdoor rock climbing, Sea Stack climbing, and created a globally unique business. The main key to success has been having a solid foundation and a very high skill set in the activities I provide. I am currently the world’s only full-time professional sea stack climber, and I am quite simply living the dream.
Leading to a Change
I have always lived, worked, and played in, on, and near the sea my entire life. From growing up on the west coast and northern islands of Scotland to sailing as a ship’s engineer for nearly 25 years in the merchant navy. The world’s oceans have been both my classroom and playground since I was 4 years old.
Growing up on the west coast of Scotland, learning to swim and understanding how to play safely in the sea was one of the first things I was taught as a child. When I was 18 years old, I left school and joined the British Merchant Navy as an engineering cadet. Over the next 23 years, I sailed the world’s oceans. I left this lifestyle in 2008 to follow my dream of being a full-time sea stack climber.
Laying the Foundations
Unfortunately, merchant seafaring is an occupation that has a very high percentage of functioning and chronic alcoholics in its ranks. This is due to this type of employment’s very lonely and isolated nature. I did not follow this path because I spent all my months onboard each ship I sailed on, training for my next leave. When I was not sailing onboard a ship, I spent all my free time climbing and mountaineering as playing in the vertical world has always been my passion.
Making the Leap
In 2008 I was 38 years old, and I decided that if I did not leave the merchant navy at that time, I potentially never would. At this time, I was living in western Donegal, looking out over the eastern Atlantic Ocean. During this time, I had discovered nearly one hundred unclimbed sea stacks dotted along the coast near my home. Sea stacks are towers of rock that stick out of the sea, usually at the bases of huge inaccessible sea cliffs. I have been looking for and climbing these towers of rock for as long as I can remember.
I left the sea and began climbing Donegal’s previously unclimbed sea stacks full time. Due to the nature of sea stack climbing and the atmospheric locations that the stacks live, I mainly climb alone. From 2008 to the present day, I seek, find, and climb remote previously unclimbed sea stacks alone.
It may sound simplistic, but I initially worked out how much I needed to earn annually to live. To my surprise, it was a figure much lower than I was expecting, and this figure initially became the basis of my self-employment.
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Making a Living
In 2009 I launched my business, and everything up to the present day has worked well, and I am making a living whilst having as much fun as is humanly possible. I realized that there were two very distinct parts to my business very early on. The first part, being a mountain guide which primarily involves taking international visitors to Ireland to the summits of sea stacks. The second part of my business is mountain training, by which I run courses to help people reach their mountaineering and climbing ambitions.
In the outdoor industry, your success as a commercial provider is based on your reputation, and by continually doing recreationally what it is, you are selling commercially. I play alone in potentially incredibly dangerous nautical places for fun whilst climbing sea stacks.
Through doing this, I have created a huge amount of global publicity as a climber and, some might say, lunatic. I have successfully managed to harness this climbing publicity to attract people to my website and social media channels.
As with any business, there are many, many facets you need to juggle to stay afloat. In the last few years, I have found that it is myself people are booking when they book with Unique Ascent. Which, of course, is the result of good marketing and publicity. Unfortunately, this means if I ever want to expand my business, then I will need to water down my unique selling point of sea stack climbing to provide less adventurous activities. I can’t ever see myself doing this as my UPS is where I make a living and, of course, have the most fun.
In this modern internet age and with most things now being online, starting and running a business has in many ways never been easier. Websites, social media, online bookings, emails, and mobile phones have changed the way people in the western world live and communicate. For me learning how to take good photographs and using these to keep my social media channels active has been a good learning curve in the last few years.
Living the Dream
I feel very fortunate and privileged to make a living doing something I love. I spend approximately 300 days a year playing on the mountains, sea cliffs, and sea stacks of Donegal. Of those 300 days, I don’t consider myself to be working, and if I didn’t need to earn money, I would still be out doing the same thing as I am now. Visitors travel to Ireland from all over the world to climb with me, and this is something I will never take for granted.