SOME of the 20,000 people who attempted Croagh Patrick last Sunday probably think – understandably – that hiking is a mob pursuit one step removed from the January sales or All-Ireland final day.
A few may return and try the pilgrim’s path up The Reek over the winter months. If they do they’ll discover a very different mountain than that which they encountered on last Sunday.
For one of Ireland’s best known peaks, and certainly its most popular mountain walk, Croagh Patrick can be a lonely place for much of the year.
I’ve climbed it four or five times, mostly along the battered pilgrimage route from Murrisk, to the col and then on up to the summit itself.
The whims of Atlantic weather systems have ensured that I’ve never had a clear day on the summit and my memories of the upper reaches of St Patrick’s Stack (to give it its anglicised name) are rain-drenched, foggy and scoured by a searing Atlantic breeze.
Perhaps the conditions accounted for the fact that, every time I have climbed it, I have rarely encountered more than a couple of dozen people on the mountain – and even fewer when I took the lesser-traveled route from Lecanvey.
As such I can’t imagine what the scree-choked final stretch, scene of multiple slips, sprains and concussions each year, is like when the pilgrim hordes descend.
I’ll take my chances with an ice-cream in the car-park below then.
When St Patrick first climbed Cruachan Aigle (the ‘eagle’s stack’, as the pagans dubbed it) in the fifth century he did so, presumably, to remove himself from people and find a place of prayer closer to God.
Standing alone on the summit, particularly in the snow or freezing westerly winds of winter, you can understand why he chose the peak – isolation is one of strongest feelings you’ll encounter.
(That is, unless you turn around and bump in the big white church, incongruously erected on the peak 100 years ago, and a subject for another post.)
You may also feel a closeness to your deity.
But you’ll certainly feel an increased proximity to nature, a comrade to the west wind’s “wanderings over heaven”.
It’s also unlikely you’ll want to hang around too long.
Few have the staying power of St Patrick, who was so enamoured of the summit that he reputedly made camp for 40 days and nights there.
Nonetheless the climb (740-odd meters of ascent on the pilgrims’ path), the exposure to the elements, and the astounding views of the glacier-carved Clew Bay below, make for a mind-cleansing solo experience.
Solitude and wilderness marked most of my climbs on Croagh Patrick. Except the last one.
That occurred in November 2010, the first weekend of a stretch of winter weather which yielded the notorious ‘Big Freeze’ of that year.
On this occasion I hiked the pilgrim’s path with my future wife to be.
We had driven over the snow-capped mountains from Connemara the previous day, past freezing lakes and spent the night in a local hotel.
Setting out early the next morning we encountered few people on the mountain, but much snow and ice, along with a freezing wind by the time we’d reached the col where the path turns to the cloud-covered summit.
At this point the weather was turning, the gale was gathering pace and a brief thought of Mallory and Irvine in the mist crossed my mind.
We turned back from our summit quest, snapping a picture as we did so.
It’s one of my favourite mountain shots and it shows that a spiritual pilgrimage doesn’t need 20,000 people – just two will do.