Conquered by St. Patrick's Mountain

Ascending the 2,500-foot Irish peak Croagh Patrick proved more difficult than anticipated.

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    Climbing Croagh: A man made a barefoot ascent of Croagh Patrick to mark St. Patrick's 5th-century fast on the mountain's summit.
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Running with the bulls triggered more terror, but climbing Ireland's Croagh Patrick proved tougher.

While I carefully planned strategies for a year in advance to successfully run in Pamplona, Spain, my climb of Croagh Patrick (St. Patrick's Mountain) in Ireland was totally impromptu.

My wife, Adele; her sister, Geraldine; Geraldine's husband, Gerard; and I rented a car at Galway airport. After an overnight stay on the desolate Aran Islands, we were ready for mainland excitement. We planned on visiting places such as Yates's Sligo, as well as the city of Westport. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the islands.]

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Westport, a postcard-worthy seaport town in County Mayo, is 115 miles from Shannon airport. We decided to book our next bed and breakfast there. After plopping our luggage in our rooms, we asked our proprietress, Kay, for sightseeing recommendations.

"Easy," she said. "Today is Reek Sunday. Why not climb Croagh Patrick?"

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but none of us had ever heard of Reek Mountain, as Croagh Patrick is also known. Another of her guests explained: "It's always the last Sunday in July. On this day, devoted folks try to follow in St. Patrick's footsteps to the summit."

I could feel my feet tapping. We were going to climb Ireland's highest peak. Since Reek Mountain stood just a few miles out of town, the proprietress recommended our walking there. But we'd learned already that "a short walk" in Ireland was not similar in any way to a short walk in the United States.

Before the B&B's cuckoo clock welcomed its next hour, our rental car chugged and idled in the snaky line leading to mountain's parking area.

Our enthusiasm swelling, we jogged across the lot toward the mountain's base. We slipped past several souvenir stands, food vendors, and giveaways of small Bibles and religious brochures.

The inviting food aroma seemed similar to that of New York's San Gennaro festival. The Irish outdoor chefs barbecued tasty morsels of chops and hamburgers that made one salivate. After savoring these foods, we attended to the business of climbing Croagh Patrick.

Confident and relaxed, we chatted about St. Patrick's climb of this 2,500-foot-high mountain, his legendary release of snakes, and his 40-day fast. It seemed like just a few feet into our ascent that we came upon a statue of St. Patrick. I had to stop and greet him with reverence.

People trudged by on all sides. Some were on their way up, some on their way down. Some sat on rocks. About an hour into the climb, I began to dislike those rock sitters. I could have planted myself on the granite they occupied.

Some people climbed in large groups, following banners. Some climbed in twos, some alone.

Someone on the downward climb yodeled my way, "Only an hour to go." While the message seemed encouraging, it also proved to be a downer. We found cozy stones, boulders, and rocks to sit on. I was struck by their appearance. These granite rocks – drab, boring, and ugly – looked to me like moon rocks. They were in stark contrast to the beautiful near-mountaintop view of the harbor stretching below.

As I sat massaging my toes, a snowy-haired, seasoned climber loped past me. To add to my disappointment, two other climbers trekked back down past us after reaching the summit. These two, actually walking barefooted, shouted words of encouragement.

But it would take a lot more than pep-rally words to move any of us skyward now. We climbed another 15 minutes and then stopped. Boy, were we spent. We were ill-prepared for the climb. Whether we were more than halfway up or not, the thought of climbing that last section – which appeared almost perpendicular – convinced us to head back down.

For my bull run, I'd practiced almost daily for an entire year – sans bulls, of course. I'd worn the proper clothing. I'd studied films and read about San Fermin's festival.

Today, we'd failed to make the most basic preparations, such as wearing the correct climbing shoes, carrying water, and, most important, equipping ourselves with walking sticks.

Despite rumors of an Irish cardinal commandeering a helicopter and offering a religious service up top, despite the glory a successful mountain conquest promised, prudence dictated our return to ground level.

We'd survived the modified experience. Someday, we decided, we'd revisit with appropriate attire, to complete this challenge.

The next afternoon, we met with Gerard's relatives. Wanting to boast a little, I mentioned our hour-plus climb. The Irish relatives were so thrilled to hear this. It seems that our hostess, Gerard's septuagenarian Irish aunt, along with her son, who was about our age, had been there, too.

There was a slight difference, however, since this woman and her son had climbed to the summit of Croagh Patrick.

"I'm so proud of you Americans," Auntie O'Shea sincerely said. "Perhaps someday you'll make it to the summit, too. We do that every year."

A bit embarrassed, I crept into a corner chair and sat, hesitant to speak. Right now, I'm trying to figure out the best way to pack a walking stick for international travel.

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