Thursday, August 3, 2017

Croagh Patrick

The weekend forecast for County Mayo was rain, rain and more rain. On my laptop, an icon showed gray clouds with droplets covering each day Friday through Tuesday, but Sunday had an added lightening bolt. Ugh!

This did not bode well for my long awaited adventure. Three weeks ago I was invited by Margaret and her sister, Ursy, to join the family on their annual trek to Croagh Patrick (pronounced Croke), the sacred mountain of St. Patrick, near the west coast of Ireland.  Legend has it that when our patron saint arrived here in the 5th century, he climbed this mountain and fasted at the summit for 40 days. It was from here he banished all snakes (thought to symbolize paganism) from Ireland. 

We know that Croagh Patrick has had religious significance since the stone age, around 3000 B.C. It was a gathering place of pagans celebrating harvest before it was a place of worship for early Christians. Fascinating details have emerged from the studies of archaeology, astronomy and myth. Look it up.

On the last Sunday of July each year (called “Reek Sunday” after the mountain’s nickname), thousands of pilgrims from all over the world descend on Co. Mayo to make the grueling ascent upwards to the 2507 foot summit where a special mass is held each hour, and hearts and minds are focused on God (well, they’re supposed to be). I have wanted to be among this throng since I first heard about this sacred tradition. 

So three weeks ago, right after my invitation, I started training. Can you go from riverside stroller to mountain climber in such a short time? I was going to find out. Having no real access here in Thurles to a life size mountain, I figured the stairs would have to do. So up and down I went every day, between 500-600 steps. Whew! It was tiring. And it made my legs burn and my heart race. It felt like.....EXERCISE! Not my favorite thing.

But I was determined and on Saturday when we piled into the car to head out, I felt pretty sure I could maybe make it halfway up the Reek. That would be respectable. Though the mountain is only half a mile high, the traditional route is a little over four miles. I was told there might be a mass at the halfway point for those who could not (or chose not to) be the best pilgrims. I would be totally satisfied with that accomplishment.

Nicholas suggested we leave the next morning at 5:30 so we could be climbing by 6. Really? Margaret and Ursy expressed their regrets and opted for some quality sister time in downtown Westport. That left Nicholas, me and the two strapping millennials, Emma and Eugene, to seize the day. They had all done this before and were not at all intimidated. I was, as they say, cautiously optimistic.

The morning was partly cloudy and looked promising. That was the first miracle. Hundreds of pilgrims were already on the move when I told my three companions that I would be climbing alone. I did not want to feel pressure to keep up nor make them slow down for me. They reluctantly agreed to this and we made a plan to meet later at the little coffee shop at base camp. I told them if they saw a med evac copter fly over they should text me just in case. And so it began.

I cannot begin to express how truly awesome (and I mean that in the truest sense of the word) this experience was. The first while was straight uphill side stepping boulders, trudging through running water, mud and rubble. As I rose higher and higher, a stunning portrait of Clew Bay was painting itself in my rear view mirror.

I stopped often to catch my breath, only to turn around and have the developing images and colors brazenly snatch it away again. A waterfall to my right could not drown out the whispers of prayers and quiet conversations I overheard as I moved on and up. I was feeling a part of something surreal and beautiful, stepping to the rhythms of ancient ancestors in this, their native land. I began to whisper my own prayers and meditate on the strength and health and many other blessings I’ve received. I wanted to sing.

After a while, the ground leveled a bit but this concession didn’t last long. I was soon climbing again and there were more stones to climb over and more treacherous footing. I was leaning heavily on my walking stick and heaving myself from step to step. But I wasn’t feeling tired or at all bothered by the chilling wind and rain which now pelted us at this higher altitude. That was the second miracle.

The journey actually began on the mountain next door and when I reached the Reek, about two hours in, I was seriously getting vertical. The path was now a solid mass of stones, some better described as boulders. Each step was calculated, with my stick doing the hard work, and I stumbled and fell numerous times. 

I was amazed at the figures I saw climbing alongside me and descending from the top. Many were old and wizened, frail and unsteady. Some were barefoot on a mission of penance. But everyone seemed in good spirits. At one point, I came face to face with a tiny little woman whose age I would guess to be mid-70’s. Our eyes met and she flashed a big smile exclaiming, “Tis hard on me hips”. That’s the closest I came to hearing a complaint. 

I don’t know where I was when I realized I had probably long passed the halfway mark which was my initial goal. I knew I would finish the course. It was euphoric reaching the summit and taking more photos and having a snack from my backpack. There’s a modern chapel there where mass was being held and a stand with….what else…..cups o’ tea. But it was freezing up there and I was too soaked to feel like lingering, even for a warming drink. 

I’d been told coming down was as hard as going up, and that was true. It was harder to stay on my feet. I heard later that 13 people had serious injuries including head injuries, a dislocated shoulder and a broken wrist. I had seen the medics carrying stretcher after stretcher down the mountain. 

I made it to base camp in one piece around noon, and texted the three mountaineers who had been waiting patiently for me (probably for hours). One mocha later and I was telling my story. It’s been four days now and I’ve hardly been stiff or sore at all. That’s the third miracle. Maybe next year I’ll be back.

An evening celebration was in order. A trad session of course

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