In 441 AD, a man named Patricius ascended a peak called Cruachán Aigle or Cruach Aigle. The exact etymology of this name is partially lost to the ages, but it comes out meaning something along the lines of “Stack of Eagles” or “Eagle’s Stack.” On the summit, he fasted for 40 days.
We know this man as Pátraic (Old Irish), Pádraig (Modern Irish), or Patrick. A century and a half later, he is the patron saint of Ireland and, today, millions of people carry on the tradition of pilgrimage to the apex of this mountain, which we now call Croagh Patrick. Instead of Eagle’s Stack, we now have Patrick’s Stack. Locally, they refer to it as The Reek, an Irish-English word for a “rick,” which is a “stack.”
Croagh Patrick rises 2,507 feet above Clew Bay, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean, in County Mayo on Ireland’s western coast. The peak is obviously nowhere near the highest in the world, but when I say it rises above the bay, it really does, its foot essentially on the sea. So the elevation gain is serious; one goes up 2,500 feet in just over two miles. The upper reaches of the mountain form a daunting pyramid, angles that tax lungs for any climber.
435-million-year-old Silurian Period quartzite litters this mountain. Though the image above looks like a serene slope, rocks are omnipresent on The Reek. The mountain is part of a U-shaped valley that was carved by a glacier during the last Ice Age. The stony nature of Croagh Patrick is gorgeous, but also a challenge to climbers, a challenge that becomes even more incredible when you read about the specific nature of the pilgrimage many people make there.
The last Sunday of each July is Reek Sunday. On this date each year, between 15,000 and 30,000 humans converge on Ireland’s Holy Mountain to climb and pay homage to the patron saint. Some of the more serious devotees ascend the mountain without shoes!
The ancestral roots on my mother’s side of the family come from County Mayo in Ireland. Making a voyage to the Emerald Isle had been an aspiration of mine from an early age. In 2015, I was fortunate enough to make the journey there with my mother, my sister, and my wife. The entire island was resplendent, filled with a perfect mix of green, history, mountains, seaside, and culture.
The trip to County Mayo felt like a pilgrimage to us. Seeing the places my distant ancestors spent their lives left me fulfilled. And being in love with mountains meant we needed to scale the slopes of Ireland’s most famous crag.
We got a late start, which meant the shop at sea level would be closed when we returned. It was risky, but I purchased the shirt that said “I climbed Croagh Patrick” before I had actually climbed Croagh Patrick. I had to have it! We picked up customary walking sticks and looked up at the massive pyramid. Where we were, it was sunny, so there was no concern when we reached the following sign.
The climb can be divided into roughly three portions: the approach, the shoulder, and the summit triangle.
On the lower slopes, the trail rises, at times steeply, but mostly in a gradual manner. It’s green, rocky, and filled with sheep. As it turns out, this part of the hike was the only one that offered us views of the bay and the Mayo panorama.
Things became spicy when we reached the mountain’s shoulder.
When we walked into the clouds we recalled the sign at the bottom, but there was no way we were going to abort the mission.
Although I later felt exhilaration at the summit, my two treks through this portion of the climb – on the way up and the way down – were without hyperbole some of the greatest moments of my life. I experienced harmonic convergence.
That joy sprang mainly from one thing: wind. I love wind. And, on the shoulder, we entered a gale zone.
At the summit are a chapel, the appropriate signage, and even the outline of St. Patrick’s bed!
As seems to be the case with many of my favorite mountains, we were in the middle of a cloud on the top, so the views were not great. However, there’s something about the lack of visibility that gives these occasions spirituality, so I don’t mind too much. The wind was a lot tamer on top, so we were able to enjoy the sights.
The descent was just as great for me because it meant another trip through the wind zone!
It was crazy how we could be in a rather violent weather system and within mere yards exit to a calm landscape. We walked from the gusts to the sheep!
Croagh Patrick is, without a doubt, within my Top 5 summits. It wasn’t the hardest climb (though it was not easy, by any stretch), but it packed scenic variety, wildlife, history, and weather conditions that imprinted on my soul.
Humans have made this climb for over 1,500 years. Now I know why! If you ever have the chance to do this hike, please treat yourself right. But maybe don’t go barefoot. Or go ahead and be a beast and do it foot-naked!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!