We spent Tuesday night at the Old Mill Hostel in Westport. After talking with a few British cyclists who were part way through a two-week trip, we set out for a rocky peak, known as Croagh Patrick or the Reek, rising 2500 feet above Clew Bay on Ireland’s west coast. Like a lot of the country’s natural wonders, the lead up to the mountain is a staging area for trinkets and pricey vittles, as well as a cursory visitor’s center. But once we left the pavement of the first half-mile of the hike, we found the challenge we were looking for.
Just before the pavement ends is a statue of Saint Patrick. According to legend, he climbed to the summit and fasted there for 40 days. The sacrifice of its patron saint rid Ireland of its snakes. I looked, and I can say that I didn’t find any while circling the island.
Twenty-five hundred vertical feet over a one-way distance of about 3 miles isn’t much to speak of when you think of the Sierras or the Rockies or even the Appalachians, and indeed, the round-trip journey only took us about 3 hours. But what the Reek lacks in height, the local believers who have carved a trail to the top for their annual pilgrimage have made up for by taking the straightest, steepest route to the top.
Starting on one of the mountain’s smaller foothills, the sandy scree path took us straight up to a saddle that connected to the main peak. Parts were fairly steep and loose enough to force a bit of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ progress. But the rolling saddle, perhaps two-thirds of the way up the mountain, provided a nice rest before we took on the last pitch – a guileless climb up a swath of boulder that led to the very top. Going up was tough, but I honestly worried more about the descent. A misstep on the way down probably wouldn’t kill you, I thought, but gravity would probably relish thrashing you against the rock garden runway all the way back down to the saddle.
We made it to the summit and took in the vast peat bogs on the far side of the mountain. On the side we came up, Clew Bay arced to the northwest like a hand that had just let fly the dozens of tiny islands poking out from the sea. One of our hosts early on had told me that the west coast of Ireland was unique because it’s been ‘beat all to hell by the Atlantic.” Further south, I’d noticed the spiky peninsulas and multitude of bays and inlets around Kerry and Dingle, but it appears as though the ocean has pummeled this part of the rocky coastline with an especially intense vigor.
Perched just off the summit is a surprisingly stout church, built in the early twentieth century by leveraging only the brawn and sweat of donkeys, horses and local Irishmen. I tried to picture anyone hauling even one of the stones required to build the church, and couldn’t believe it was possible. But then, Ireland seems to be filled with a sturdier class of beasts (including men) than what I’m used to. On our descent, not five minutes from the top, a mother ewe and her lamb picked their way through the field of boulders beside the trail with their match-stick legs as easily as if they were mowing the lawn on a soccer pitch.
It wasn’t until about halfway down the steep approach to the summit that we started to see other hikers. Some were bona fide pilgrims, stopping at each sign-posted station to say a few Hail Marys or walk the short path around a pile of rocks a number of times. A few young guys who looked to be in their teens or early twenties were doing it barefoot, as the most devout are apt to do. When we saw them, they were just beyond the paved section, but they were already seeking out the grassy shoulder of the wide rocky path – not a good sign so early on.
As we approached the parking lot, a huffing Englishman asked us if we’d been to the top. I tried not to be too offended when, after we said we had, he replied, “Well, you must be in better shape than you look, mate.” Maybe I have had too much stew, stout and fish and chips here.
I’ll post a short video of us at the top (and clear evidence for why my career in videography hasn’t taken off) soon.