Tag Archives: Croagh Patrick

A running lesson from a 70-something hiker

On Croagh Patrick

On Croagh Patrick

“It’s good for the soul.”

Not the words I expected to hear from a 70-something hiker as he ascended the tough scree slopes of Croagh Patrick, a mountain on Ireland’s western seaboard, on a rain and wind-lashed November afternoon.

The light was falling and I was coming off the mountain as quickly as my sodden boots could carry me. As I descended I was surprised to see, emerging from the mist ten minutes below the summit, a couple of men making their way up.

As they got closer I expected a brief conversation, above the howling wind, about conditions on top or how much longer they had to hike to get there. That’s if I even wanted to engage in conversation – my summit high had quickly faded and I was dreaming of taking off every piece of wet clothing once I got back to my car.

The lead climber, now just meters away, was 40 years older than me, moving slower than I was and clearly feeling the impact of a 700 meter ascent up a wet rock path.

Seconds before we passed he looked up and grimaced, before smiling briefly and giving me his words of advice. A second later we parted. I think we managed a mutual ‘best of luck’ – but I doubt either of us heard it above the wind.

This morning I awoke more than 4,400 miles from Croagh Patrick, to the sight of rain pouring down on the September streets of Portland, Oregon. It was before dawn, I was tired, my legs were sore, my rain-gear packed in a box still in transit from Ireland.

I could’ve provided myself with a dozen more excuses not to go for a morning run. But something in the rising light or the hanging clouds on the West Hills kicked me back to November 2008, to the slopes of Croagh Patrick and an old hiker who refused to quit on a hard mountain day.

My three miler was little compared to his daylong climb, though we probably wound up equally drenched afterwards.

Eight years on, the Croagh Patrick climber’s advice has stayed with me. Whether it’s climbing a weather-lashed mountain or pounding city streets through the rain, don’t think it, just do it – and keeping doing it. If nothing else, your soul will be fit.

A climber through the mist, Croagh Patrick, November 2008

A climber through the mist, Croagh Patrick, November 2008

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Tough times at the top

The felled cross on Carrauntoohil, November 2014. Pic: Kerry Climbing

The felled cross on Carrauntoohil, November 2014.
Pic: Kerry Climbing

On top of a famous Irish mountain there’s a well-known structure, a blot on the otherwise brown rocky heights, a carbuncle whose size is way out of proportion to its surroundings.

But I can guarantee you no one will attempt to remove the summit cairn on Lugnaquilla this week.

Not so the iron cross which, until a few days ago, adorned the top of Carrauntoohil and, by virtue of that peak’s elevated standing, the top of Ireland.

The cross, which had stood for 38 years, was cut down at some point in the early hours of last Saturday morning by persons unknown, for reasons unspecified.

It’s speculated that the incident, dubbed ‘vandalism’ by some, was motivated by secularism. The more outraged have even linked the incident to abortion, gay marriage and assisted dying. Or the work of “the Antichrist”.

Who knew that a piece of weather-beaten metal, unusually masked from most people by the often-present Kerry clouds, signified so much?

Not I. Any time I’ve been to the summit I’ve found little to like about this five metre crucifix, whose rivets and angles stood wholly at odds with the sculpted 250m-year-old sandstone of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks all around.

Carrauntoohil summit, May 2009.

Wild times. Carrauntoohil summit, May 2009.

Nonetheless I’d have preferred if Mother Nature had done her Ozymandias trick on it, instead of an amateur steelworker, whose efforts left behind the heaviest piece of litter on an Irish mountain.

Where does he, she or they intend to stop? The equally remote Galtymore has a fetching, more ornate white cross atop it. And the summit of Croagh Patrick has a cross, and a whole church built to house it.

But the fate of the Carrauntoohil cross shouldn’t just be cast as a battle between the secularists and the religious. Standing off to the side are those who don’t believe that there’s any place for man-made structures in the mountains.

Which brings me back to Lugnaquilla, the 13th highest peak in Ireland, whose lumpy hills are some way off the dizzy wildness of Carrauntoohil.

Where a simple pile of rocks would suffice its summit is marked by a circular stone and concrete structure, not unlike a Normandy beach pill box, on which the summit cairn itself is perched.

(Not content with this someone has plonked a second stone structure nearby, with a stone compass atop and arrows pointing to other mountain peaks. All of which is often rendered redundant by frequent mist and cloud.)

The resultant grey mass is far more unsightly (as is Croagh Patrick’s church) than Carrauntoohil’s cross. Yet it remains, unchallenged.

The truth, as most Irish hikers will know, is that many Irish summits are decorated with structures:  crosses, man-made cairns, ordinance survey trig points or, in the case of Slieve Donard, a giant wall.

Personally I’d like to get rid of the lot – the absence of civilisation being one of the great lures of the mountains.

But, until they disappear, I’ll content myself with the words of one mountain worshipper, John Muir, who wrote: “None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.”

Anyone who’s spent a winter’s day on Carrauntoohil – cross or no cross – knows that.

Carrauntoohil summit, May 2009.

Cairn and compass on the summit of Lugnaquilla.
Pic: Cormac Looney

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The (dropped) call of the wild

Croagh Patrick from Murrisk (on a smartphone), February 2014.

Croagh Patrick from Murrisk (on a smartphone), February 2014.

CONTACT with nature is good for you?

After two months of Atlantic storms most Irish people would disagree. Nature, by way of gales and floods, has well and truly come to us.

Isn’t it supposed to be the other way round?

Richard Louv thinks so. Sheltering indoors from last week’s tempests I came across an article in which he proposes ten reasons why we need more contact with the natural world.

Most of the ten are less than mind-blowing (‘nature brings our senses alive’), but a couple are interesting (‘we suffer when we withdraw from nature’).

His overall message is straightforward: ignore the gales (and whatever else) and get out there.

Just as well. The following day we planned to drive 280km across the country to Westport, facing a forecast of storm-forced winds, sleet and snow.

Snow, north Roscommon. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Snow, north Roscommon.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

But after a month spent in the city, and much of that indoors, at home or in the office, a windswept trip West was mentally necessary – whatever the weather.

Driving across the Midlands, washed out and browny bleak, Louv’s main point recurred to me: the more hi-tech our lives become the more nature we need.

Conveniently the thought resurfaced as our mobile phone coverage began to dip in and out across the flatlands of north Roscommon.

By the time we reached Co Mayo thoughts of nature took a backseat to the more immediate task of driving through it, as visibility dropped and the journey was reduced to a 60kph crawl.

Far from stressful (though AMII might have disagreed) the drive was oddly relaxing. Confronted with a wall of white and driving over freezing sleet there was nothing to do but focus on the road, or what could be seen of it, and keep going.

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THE snow made an impression on the landscape too.

The following dawn we awoke to an ominous Croagh Patrick, its peak above Westport clouded in grey.

As the morning drew on, and the skies cleared, revealing an ice-covered mountain top.

After coffee in Westport we drove to Murrisk, at the foot of the mountain. We didn’t plan to climb it this time, but couldn’t resist driving a couple of miles out for a closer peak.

A previous visit to Croagh Patrick, November 2010.

A previous visit to Croagh Patrick, November 2010.

Some 760 metres above lay the summit, and we could just make out the shape of the church on it. Having climbed The Reek a number of times I’d never seen it so clear, in such pristine northerly air.

I could, of course, have witnessed the same vista without leaving my sitting room in Dublin, sifting through innumerable online photos of the mountain. But how could that compare?

A month of laptop browsing was worth just a second stood underneath the real thing.

Here was just path, wind, slope and scree, with snow on top. The full, analogue majesty of the outdoors;  our senses ignited, our souls replenished by contact with nature, and not a smart phone in sight.

They sat in our pockets, untouched.

Untouched, that was, until we needed to snap the scene.

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Croagh Patrick: On a wind, not a prayer

Croagh Patrick. Crisp and clear - until you climb it.Croagh Patrick. Crisp and clear - until you climb it.

Croagh Patrick. Crisp and clear – until you climb it.

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.

Misty mountain drop. The final path to the summit, 2008.

Misty mountain drop. The final path to the summit, October 2008.

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.

Less John Bunyan and more Pieter Bruegel, I imagine.

I’ll take my chances with an ice-cream in the car-park below then.

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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”.

Sheltering at structure close to summit, October 2008.

Sheltering at structure close to summit, October 2008.

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.

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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.

Team of two, Croagh Patrick, November 2011. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Team of two, Croagh Patrick, November 2010.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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