Croagh Patrick, a pilgrim's account by Jim Burns

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Anyone who has climbed Croagh Patrick, located on the west coast of Ireland, has a story to tell. This is mine. For as long as we can go back in history, climbing this mountain has been seen as an act of penance in reparation for sin. Legend and tradition maintains that the practice started with St. Patrick. He climbed Croagh Patrick to make a retreat, asking God's blessing on his work of establishing the Catholic Church in Ireland. He spent forty days and forty nights on the summit, fasting and praying for his new flock. From that time until now, the people of Ireland have climbed the mountain as an act of faith, and to ask forgiveness for their sins. Pilgrims numbering in the thousands make the journey up Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday in July, every year. That special day is called Reek Sunday. Reek is a Gaelic word, meaning high hill. Croagh means mountain. Croagh Patrick is the highest point in Ireland, reaching to 2,560ft. There are many high hills in Ireland but this one has the distinction among the Irish people of being called 'The Reek'.

Many people make the journey everyday the weather permits. Some make the climb simply because it is a mountain, and The Reek is there to be climbed. Young people climb it in a matter of a few hours, practically running up.

On special days like Reek Sunday, there will be elderly Irish women climbing in their dresses with a shawl over their shoulders against the wind and cold, and even some hardy souls making the trek barefooted. But regardless of a person's age, physical condition or intention, the climb is taken seriously. It is a rigorous trek, not to be taken lightly.

Four months ago, my wife, Mary, and I decided that we were going to go to Ireland again. We first traveled to Ireland ten years ago, to visit relatives and we immediately fell in love with the land, the country, and its ways. As we toured the countryside, we would often pull off the road as we reached the highest point of a hill. We were captivated by the way the drifting clouds constantly changed the landscape as we sat and watched the unfolding splendour.

Since that first, wonderful experience in Ireland, we tried to put some money aside to go back every year. This time, as we planned our trip, I got to thinking about the possibility of climbing Croagh Patrick. If we were so taken by the scenery from the tops of the hills that we drove through, I could imagine how splendid it must be from almost 3,000 feet. I had been to the base of The Reek a few years before and I knew at that time, in my physical shape, at my 63 years of age, it would have been impossible for me to make it to the top and down again. But now, I thought, I might be able to do it if I would use the next four months to get in better physical shape. The possibility of climbing Croagh Patrick became my motivation to start walking four or five days a week. I slowly built up to a steady three miles a day. I kept walking and walking for the full four months. I chose routes through our Quincy, Illinois, city parks with the steepest hills. I figured this routine would put me in shape for the long ascent up The Reek.

What is noteworthy about our trips to Ireland is that Mary and I have learned to go without an agenda. We go with a few ideas about what we would like to do, but with no itinerary or "must see" list. Experience has taught us that it's best just to go and enjoy the surprises that await us. The only thing I hoped to do on this trip, besides seeing a few special people, was to climb Croagh Patrick.

It was on September 3rd, when we got to Ireland, and the weather was rainy and windy, not the most ideal time to climb, it being the beginning of the fall weather in Ireland. The lush greens of spring and summer were quickly turning to the grayer greens and a russet browns of fall. However, when the sun did shine, the land still showed all of its glorious splendor. But now, when the rain came, and it came frequently, it would be accompanied by a biting wind. I was warned that it was not the season to try the Reek in the rain, not only because the rocks got so very slippery but because the winds came extremely hard at the top of the mountain. I promised Mary that I would take on Croagh Patrick only if I could find a day that started out sunny and promised to hold all day.

The good weather day came on September 15th. The night before, the Irish Nightly News said the weather would be mostly sunny on the West Coast of Ireland. I prepared my backpack and we went to bed ready to get a good start in the morning. By 8 o'clock the next day, Mary and I drove from our cottage in Claremorris to Murrisk, just east of Westport, along the coast, to the starting point for the ascent up Croagh Patrick. Mary's plan was to read a good book and wait for me at the lodge and restaurant, conveniently located at the starting point. When we arrived at 9:30, the lodge was not yet open, but I was eager to start. I had drinking water in my backpack and my special walking stick.

The woman who rented us the cottage outside of Claremorris, Martina McGing, gave me the stick before I left that morning. The well worn stick was made of sturdy ash, and had been in the family for years. It had made the trip up The Reek many times. As Martina said to me, "This stick is essential for a first timer like you. The stick knows the way. Just follow the stick, and you will do well." Mary hugged me and wished me luck at the car, and I started on my way. The climb was to prove to be much more challenging than I had anticipated.

A few hundred feet up brought me to the statue of St. Patrick. I took time to say a prayer of thanksgiving for my good fortune to have made it this far in my life and for the many blessings I have received. I thanked God for my health, without which I could not even try this climb at 65 years old. With that, I started up in earnest.

The first stage was rocky, cluttered with craggy, outcroppings of granite, but it was an easy enough grade and I had on a good pair of hiking boots, so I moved right along. Soon I decided to stop, get some water from my backpack, and get my camera out to take a few pictures. When I turned to look back, I was amazed by how far away I already was from the lodge and how the statue of St. Patrick had shrunk to a tiny, sparkling, white spot in a sea of green and gray, illumined by the bright and changing sun. I chose an oversized boulder along my path and sat down.

As I sat on my rock, taking pictures of the breathtaking scenery, along came a man, who looked to be about my age. I asked him if I could take his picture, and he readily obliged, saying that he in turn would take one of me. His name was Peter Murphy; he was 64 years old and an Irishman from Wexford. He had climbed The Reek three times before, and now that he was retired from his job, he was happy and thankful to be able to do The Reek again. The next section was quite rocky but not yet too steep, so we were able to talk as we walked along. We became fast friends as we shared the details of our lives.

At around 2000 feet we hit the third stage, where the grade starts to reach up toward the sky, at something like a 60 degree angle. We decided to sit for a rest, and take a water break, before starting the steep ascent. Setting off I found the going to be rigorous, though not impossible. But as I climbed, I realized my legs and my back were tiring quickly. The hills I had hiked all those days in Quincy were proving to have been very inadequate training for this part of the ascent. The noonday sun was now shining brightly, glaring off the white, jagged quartz rocks. The rocks were loose and required me to test their stability before I put my weight on them and then pulled myself up. Peter stayed about twenty feet in front of me and kept offering soft encouragement. "Just a bit more," he would say, "Just around this curve now, a wee bit more beyond that . . ."

My heart rate and lungs were holding up quite well under the exertion and although the altitude of two thousand feet was incredibly high for me, it wasn't high enough to cause breathing difficulty. But my legs were giving out. Every step was becoming a heave up by a hard push off my back foot, and then with the other I made a little hop up to a rock that was, I hoped, well anchored. I found that I had to rest more and more and that my steps were increasingly clumsy. Peter continued to stay about 15 to 20 feet in front of me, encouraging me to keep going, just a little bit more. As people climb this section of the mountain, looking up they can only see rocks and more rocks and then the sky, about 30 feet above the rocks. So, they aren't able to see the top until they get there. After an interminable amount of encouragement from Peter, and some final pushes to continue just one more time, Peter called down, "We are there! I see it. Just 20 more steps and you're on the top!" We had made it to the summit.

From the top, it was spectacular to look out into Clew Bay and see Clare Island and all the other smaller islands that number into the hundreds, as they stretch out into the Atlantic. On the summit, there stands a small chapel, only large enough to shelter a priest and an altar. Mass is said on Reek Sunday, the last Sunday of July, and the pilgrims kneel upon the rocks and attend the special mass with particular fervor, come rain or shine. It this moment, just a few hardy souls were on the summit, and all seemed to be hushed and subdued, lost in their own thoughts, sitting on rocks and looking out at the vast expanse of the Irish coast.

As I stood there, every ache and pain in my body seemed to disappear, as I tried to take in the enormity of the moment. My mind was racing. I thought that this would be a perfect time to sit and compose a poem. I pulled out my notebook and pen. But the words danced in my head in no particular order, and would not settle to form a phrase or a coherent line of thought. I let it go and just looked out at the vast expanse in front of me. I felt the stiff wind roll up the mountain and spill over me. I filled myself with awareness of the moment. This moment . . . now, on top of Croagh Patrick . . . this place of holiness and ancient magic. At one time, not so long ago, this spot was considered to be the end of the known world for all of Europe. Beyond this point were monsters and mystery, heaven and hell--- the unknown. Peter and I just sat there, for some immeasurable length of time, not speaking. Then, simultaneously, we reached for our packs and opened our light snack lunches. Peter gave me a fresh, green Granny Smith apple to go with my health bar. I can still see the juicy spray sparkle in the sun out in front of my face as I took my first bite. I will never forget the tart, taste of that crisp, juicy apple.

I loved the moment. It made my heart soar. Being there, basking in the knowledge that this for me was a great accomplishment, was incredibly rewarding. But as much as I loved the moment, I was in a predicament. I was out of gas. Peter, who was so instrumental in helping me to reach down and find the energy to make it to the top, was again assuring me that if I took it easy, a step at a time, I could make it down. I don't know if it was my embarrassment at getting myself into this predicament or just my pride, but as we sat there finishing up our lunch of health bars and apples, I tried to convince Peter to go ahead down without me; I would be fine, but I would be going slow and would just delay him. To my secret relief, he would have none of it. He assured me he was not on any schedule. So after about a half hour on the summit, we started down together.

Ten steps down off the summit, my calves started to cramp up. Peter was ahead of me about 15 feet when I called to him, "Peter, I'm already in trouble! I'm cramping up in both legs!" Peter calmly told me to keep my legs as straight as possible so they didn't lock up, and just keep moving. I did the best I could and soon they did stop cramping--- they went numb. By now, I was leaning very heavily on my walking stick for almost every step, but I kept going. Peter stayed with me, always a few feet in front, always ready to help. People say it is harder to go down than to go up. I didn't believe that when I was going up, especially as I crawled up that last grueling stage. But now I realized that going down requires constantly keeping your knees bent and my legs were already in a condition of advanced fatigue. It also has to do with the way you have to hold your body for balance--- toes bent down lower than your heels, knees constantly bent, with feet furtively searching for solid rock. It got rough. I learned a side step that gave some temporary relief to my front thigh muscles. But even then, I slipped down on the rocks three times. These slips were mainly on my butt, caused no real damage, only a skinned and bloodied palm. By the time I was two-thirds of the way down I was saying, "Five more steps, just five more steps." It became my mantra. By this time I was now into my sixth hour on The Reek, a trip that was supposed to be about a four hour trek. Meanwhile, Mary was still waiting down at the lodge at the bottom. I did not have a cell phone and had no way to contact her. It seemed like I still had so very far to go, and I was hardly able to put one foot in front of the other. Finally, I just sat on a rock and didn't want to continue. I didn't say this to Peter, but he knew it. Peter sat down close to me and said that a rest would be good, but he pointed to the west. We could see the rain clouds gathering. "It won't be any easier if we are up here and that rain hits us," he said in his calm way, "But go ahead, rest a while." I knew he was right; I had to keep moving. I didn't want to have to add slippery rocks to my challenge. A man and woman, making their way down, reached us just as I moved from the rock and shouldered my backpack. They asked how I was doing. I told them that I started this trek with an intention of thanking God for my blessings, but St. Patrick must have noticed a couple of 'un-paid-for' sins because I was taking a beating. It was almost like payback time. We laughed and I assured them I could keep going.

We started to move down again. With my first step out, I encountered a loose rock and it tilted me off balance. Any other time, I would have simply adjusted my foot quickly and righted myself. But this time I was not able to move my foot over fast enough and I toppled over on my side. On the ground, I fortunately found myself unhurt by the rocks, but I was dizzy from the fall and unable to right myself to a sitting position, much less able to get back up on my feet. I was carrying a heavy backpack that had more stuff in it than I could have ever used. The couple rushed over and helped me to my feet. The man (whose name I never learned) offered me his walking stick. He said that two sticks were better than one. I thanked him, took his stick, and then asked him if he would mind taking my backpack to the lodge. "No problem," he said, and Peter took that heavy pack off my back. What a relief! Two sticks to hold me up and no pack! Without the pack I felt like a great weight was taken off of my shoulders (and, of course, that was literally true), and I could keep going. But there was little left in my legs by this time. The front of my thighs from knee to hip didn't seem to work at all. With the two sticks to hold me up, I was somehow able to navigate over the jagged rocks. I plodded on.

Meanwhile, Mary was down in the lodge trying to hold on to her confidence in me, staving off the panic as the hours slowly went by. She eventually went up to the manager and explained that I had been on the mountain since 9:30 am. The manager explained that some people take as much as 8 hours to do the mountain, and there had been no requests for any medical assistance. Then she was told "There was a person who fell--- in fact we have his backpack." With that, the manager pulled up my backpack from behind the counter. Recognizing it, Mary almost fainted. The manager, and a couple of people who had seen me, assured her that I was fine. They told her that she was not to worry, that I was with my friend and was making it ok, though very slowly. Mary thought, "What friend? He didn't go up with a friend." But, she held it together and sat down to wait it out.

The rain came in from the west, blasting us on the left side. I cautiously plodded on, as the footing got slippery. Raindrops covered the lenses of my glasses making it hard to see my feet. I was getting a real taste of that biting wind that comes with the mountain rain. What had been a little rivulet of a stream along the path on my way up, had now become a cascade of rushing water roaring off the mountain. Peter helped me pick my way through the slippery maze of the path. My 'just five more steps' mantra was now down to, "One step at a time." I pushed on.

After seven and a half hours, I hobbled into the lodge, like the returning Celtic warrior, home from the battle for the highlands. Peter stayed with me the whole the way. What a moment! I hugged Mary and thanked her for her belief that I would do it and for her patience. We had agreed before I went up that if I thought I couldn't go on, I would turn around. We hadn't considered my limit would come at the top. I introduced her to my new friend Peter, who could have been down The Reek two hours sooner if he had not stuck with me. Then I slumped into a chair, only to find out that I had about five minutes until the lodge closed for the day. I painfully got back up on unsteady legs and had just enough time for a restroom stop.

The three of us went out to the car, Mary struggling with my heavy backpack, and I said a warm goodbye to my Good Samaritan friend. We didn't promise, but we considered the possibility of meeting again next year. With that, Peter was gone.

I slowly got myself into the car and thought, "Good Lord, I am not sure my foot will lift on and off the gas petal. And I have to drive all the way back to Claremorris." But I did it, and after a hot bath, a great sleep, and a good rest the next day I was good to go again. The second day after the climb seemed even more painful. I was still sore and slow moving, but I was already plotting out an exercise routine that would do a better job of preparing me for my trek up The Reek next year.

Jim Burns, Quincy, IL, USA © 2004

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