During our seven weeks of walking the Camino we had some tough days. We dealt with steep climbs, a thunderstorm, drizzling rain, and shale gulleys that caused tendonitis. But the toughest hike we’ve made during our European sojourn has been—Croagh Patrick: Saint Patrick’s Holy Mountain in County Mayo, Ireland.
Croagh Patrick is a 762 meter peak with brilliant views of Clew Bay and the County Mayo countryside—when visibility is good. It is one of the highest peaks in western Ireland. To the west you can see the expanse of the Atlantic. The next land beyond this view is Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada.
An eighth century manuscript claims that in 441 AD the good saint fasted for 40 days and nights and built a church on this peak. According to legend it is from here that he drove the snakes out of Ireland. A plaque and metal railings on the summit mark what was supposedly Saint Patrick’s bed.
A small chapel was built on the summit in 1905 by locals who carted supplies to the top with donkeys in a project that lasted more than a year. But an archeological dig begun in 1994 uncovered a
Celtic hill fort encircling the summit of the mountain. It also uncovered a dry stone oratory—an early Christian church shaped like an upside down boat—dated to 430 to 890 AD. Saint Patrick’s stay on the peak falls within that date range. It could be the church was constructed by him.
The pilgrim’s path that we took starts at 20 meters in elevation and runs about five kilometers up the mountain. The elevation gain is 742 meters (about 2500 feet) which is a challenge, but we’ve had tougher days in hikes around Mount Rainier. And a 10 kilometer round trip is easy compared to the 25 and 30 kilometer hikes we made day after day on the Camino.
What made this our most challenging hike was the loose rock covering major parts of the path. We were grateful that we still had our trekking poles to help us maintain our balance. But even with that assist we each fell several times on the descent. By comparison during our seven weeks on the Camino we each fell zero times. Technically, it was the most difficult hike we’ve made.
The hike itself starts at a visitor center close to the shores of Clew bay and progresses up toward the shoulder of the peak along a creek bed. The path goes through private land where a farmer grazes sheep. In fact, because it is a working sheep ranch warning signs prohibit all dogs other than guide dogs. It claims that other dogs will be immediately shot.
After the initial climb the path traverses an area with a gentle slope. There are bathroom facilities in a stone building on this leg. These were not built by the saint. They look much more modern. Then the trail climbs steeply up the mountain to the summit. Loose rock meant especially unsure footing for this segment.
When we reached the top after an hour and fifty minutes we were rewarded with some amazing views. The weather in Ireland is often so dreary that one of the first things a local will do will apologize for it. But on this day it was clear, but windy. We talked to a woman from the local area that had made the climb about five times and said it was the best visibility she’d had.
We relaxed, visited the chapel which is open most days in the summer, and enjoyed the scenery. We also saw a small dog which had managed to avoid the local rancher. Frankly he would be more of a tripping hazard for the sheep, but I hope he wasn’t seen by the landowner on the way down.
Our descent took us the same amount of time as the ascent. It was on our way down that we each fell, despite the support of our trusty trekking poles. Fortunately our injuries were limited to scrapes and bruises. We did observe one elderly gentlemen who had a nasty gash on his forehead. He was only a few 100 meters from the bottom and was being guided by several companions.
Croagh Patrick has been a major pilgrimage site since the time of Saint Patrick. It attracts about a million visitors each year. The major pilgrimage day is “Reek Sunday,” the last Sunday in July. On that day alone about 25,000 pilgrims make the climb—some in bare feet.
Travel Update: We’re currently on the southern coast of England in the town of Hove, right next door to Brighton, historically a resort town for royalty and the wealthy. Plenty of hikes in this area that don’t risk limbs. We’re only two blocks from the English Channel and have taken one swim there already.