Climbing “the reek”
by Ian Middleton
“Are you ready to climb the reek?” asked Edel as she came in from work.
It was late Sunday morning and I was staying with my friends Paul and Edel, and had managed to convince them to join me on a hike up Croagh Patrick; or as they call it, the reek.
A hasty picnic was thrown together and we piled into my campervan and sped off west. Croagh Patrick’s distinctive conical shape soon appeared on the distant horizon.
Lying at the edge of Clew Bay, Westport Quay affords outstanding views across glistening mudflats. Small islands sporadically dot the bay, and Saint Patrick’s holy mountain is a dominating presence on the horizon.
During pagan times Croagh Patrick was known as Crochan Aigh (the mountain of the eagle). But like all pagan sites in Ireland the busy missionary, Saint Patrick, came here and made a pilgrimage to the summit. After his arduous climb he fasted for 40 days, and also ceremoniously banished all the snakes from Ireland; this banishment being symbolic of banishing paganism from the island.
Since then the mountain has been known as Croagh Patrick. A Christian pilgrimage replaces the ancient Lughnasa festival and every year on the last Sunday of July, pilgrims come from all over the world to climb the reek. This is known as ‘Reek Sunday’ and over 25,000 attend.
At 2500 feet, the summit can often be enshrouded in thick cloud. Luckily for us however, today was crystal clear. It was mid-afternoon. The sky was clear blue, and the sun shone brightly, so we parked in the car park at Murrisk and set off.
Depending on your fitness level, it can take 1-2 hours to reach the summit. Being one of Ireland’s most popular tourist destinations, the trail can obviously get quite busy. Thankfully though, today was quiet.
A statue of Saint Patrick is there to greet you as you set foot at the start of the trail. Looming high above you, it feels like a spiritual presence is there to guide you safely to the top. We began our climb along soft, muddy terrain that runs beside a small stream. Soon the trail veers away from the stream and begins to climb steeply.
“Jesus, however did you talk me into this?” puffed Paul.
Paul and I didn’t have a history of hiking mountains together; our history consisted of drinking copious amounts of alcohol together. And we had done so the night before.
We wiped the sweat from our brows, and soldiered on.
About a quarter of the way up I dared to take my first look down. My mouth dropped open as the breathtaking view of Clew Bay spread out before me like an architect’s model. Fluffy white clouds were scattered across the sky and hazy mountains lined the horizon. Standing up here you feel like you are on top of the world. The air is so pure and totally invigorating. Looking down I felt like a giant in a land of miniature people. It seemed as though I could bend over and pick up the distant mountain between my fingers.
Halfway up the trail levels off and for the next half an hour it’s a nice easy stroll along a gentle undulating ridge. A thin layer of cloud was now hovering over us, but after all the physical exertion the cool air was a welcome respite from the heat of the sun.
We were above the tree-line now. The final leg of the trail is barely discernable among the massive pile of loose scoria. Many have been injured or killed on this mountain. On Reek Sunday the tradition is to climb the mountain barefoot, but all year round the most devout Christians make the ascent without footwear; usually believing it will cure a sick friend or relative. For the life of me I cannot see how anyone can hike this or any mountain barefoot.
Quite often when hiking up mountains, you question why it is you like to punish yourself in this way. The answer always lies at the top, and it always hits you right when you least expect it.
Paul and I stepped onto the summit almost simultaneously. Suddenly, as though the lord above was praising us, the clouds parted and a ray of sunshine burst through, illuminating the ground around us like a floodlight.
“Hallelujah!” I cried.
“God be praised!” yelled Paul.
To some this may have been seen as a moment of divine intervention; a message from God that we had arrived at the holy land. I had to admit it did seem rather poignant. But for us non-believers it felt more like a moment from a Monty Python movie.
A large white chapel sits on the summit signifying that for the God-fearing hikers this was not the end. They had to perform many acts of penitence around the three main stations.
For us it was simply about enjoying the marvellous view of the sweeping countryside far below, and taking a well-needed rest.
It had taken two hours to get here and it took another two to get back down again. The picnic awaited us in the camper, so we put the kettle on and tucked hungrily into a large pile of sandwiches, giving other returning hikers a sight they would have paid good money for at the zoo.
Copyright © Ian Middleton 2007
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