Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Croagh Patrick - Ireland

Croagh Patrick – County Mayo, Ireland – 5 miles

In celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary, Jim and I went on a 10-day trip to Ireland in July-August 2011.  Jim has visited before but this was a first-time opportunity for me.  Marathon planning sessions attempted to balance what Jim had experienced (and wanted to repeat) and what would be new to both of us.  Not only were sightseeing and Guiness-drinking on the menu, but also our outdoor interests of hiking and biking.  A plan was formulated and off we went.  I won’t overwhelm you all with the details of logistics, driving on the “wrong” side of the road, farm animals and farm machinery, lodgings and full Irish breakfasts.  Let’s talk about hiking up Croagh Patrick.

Croagh Patrick is a mountain (known locally as the “Reek”) rising 2,500 feet from the shores of County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland.  It is bare of trees and the upper portion of the slope to the summit is loose rock scree.  In the fifth century purportedly Saint Patrick fasted for 40 days at the summit (and then banned all the snakes from Ireland for good measure).  On the last Sunday of each July there is a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, tens of thousands of participants from around the world.  Part of that tradition is climbing the mountain barefoot.  Our journey was on Friday, July 29, two days before the 2011 event. 

First glimpse of Croagh Patrick

After a lengthy, circuitous drive to the base of Croagh Patrick (i.e. our GPS got us lost) we got a late start.  I had my trusty hiking poles and Jim “rented” a walking stick in the parking lot (6 euro, 3 returned if the stick is returned).  The weather was outstanding, light clouds but plenty of sunshine, and we were not the last people going up.  It’s 2.5 miles and 2,500 feet to the summit, a moderately serious climb, I thought to myself.  I underestimated a bit. 

Statue of Saint Patrick

The path is impossible to miss, as wide as a two-lane road at the lower portion, with plenty of boulders to step around and over, ascending beside a small stream.  Erosion is extensive and new, narrower paths are being worn past the outer edges of the main track.  No trees, plenty of grass on the mountainside, and we spotted the requisite sheep and goats in the distance.  People of every description, very young children running ahead, grandmotherly types holding onto crooked elbows of hiking companions, one man carrying a brown paper bag by its handle (what is in that?) and young couples holding hands joined the flow up the mountainside.  This first mile-and-a-half of the route goes over a smaller mountain, somewhat like a low shoulder of Croagh Patrick itself.  It grew surprisingly steep and conversation began to dwindle as hikers began to conserve (suck) wind for the climb.  The sun was warm and my low back began to tingle (could that be from my fall in the Black Mountains two weeks ago?)

Always remember to look back over your shoulder  - Clew Bay

This section of the trail topped out over- looking the next valley and this tarn, around which people apparently could not resist leaving evidence of their passage.  My hiking buddy Jeff would definitely dislike this (he disapproves of rock cairns or anything suggesting human presence). 

Jim on the ridge

For a half-mile the path moved gently enough along the ridge as the final ascent up the back side of Croagh Patrick came into view. 

What I saw was this precar- iously steep, rock- strewn slope unbroken by vegetation of any kind, with a worn track along one edge.  Loose rocks larger than my foot covered the mountainside.  One website I read later described the angle as 55 degrees and I believe it.  How do you keep from sliding off the mountain?  Prayer.  My nerves were rattled enough going up – coming down was going to be insane.  I’ll admit, I briefly considered turning around. 

Jim on the crazy slope 

The only barefoot person I saw today

One foot in front of the other, jockeying for position as people passed going down, I climbed up to the top.  I have done some tough hikes in my life and I’ve learned to go very, very slowly on steep paths.  Fellow hikers were very social, exchanging words of encouragement and/or words of commiseration at the shared experience.  

Nearly two hours after starting, Jim and I stood on the top of Croagh Patrick.

At the summit is a small chapel built in 1905.  I can only imagine what it must be like to attend worship here on Reek Sunday, certainly very moving after so much physical exertion. 

Jim and I hung out for awhile, getting our photo taken and helping others get theirs.  We met one large family gathered to celebrate a wedding the next morning. 

At last it was time to risk life and limb going down the mountain.  This is where hiking sticks were essential, to stop yourself from sliding too far.  A huge surprise:  I found that my footing on the worn path with the tiny loose gravel was extremely slippery and walking on the big rocks was easier (the big rocks only slipped a little bit).  I “rock-surfed” most of the way down the crazy steep section. 

Past the level section, I started down the final descent a little too cocky.  Probably my legs had gotten tired and I was not as cautious as I should have been.  Anyway, on the last section down I fell solidly three times.  The last time I’m afraid the curse words in my head found their way out of my mouth because I got a few chuckles from those around me.  My sore lower back hurt with every step.  It took nearly the same amount of time to come down as it did to ascend this awesome mountain.  I was exhausted and ecstatic.

So if you’re ever in Ireland, be sure to visit Croagh Patrick.  It may not be the highest mountain you ever climb, but it is a unique experience that will only get better with the telling.

A fantastic video of hiking up Croagh Patrick is here.  You simply must see it!

“Here I am, safely returned over those peaks from a journey far more beautiful and strange than anything I had hoped for or imagined - how is it that this safe return brings such regret?”  ~Peter Matthiessen

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