As we near the end of our time in Ireland, I find myself thinking back over the highlights of the trip. The coldest that I have ever been (at a Gaelic football game), the best upper body workout that I’ve ever had (surfing in a bodysuit), the first Guinness I ever drank…the list keeps growing. And as of last Tuesday, I can gladly (if slowly) add the newest of the Irish life experiences. The hardest I have ever worked to go just under one, tiny little mile. It took three and a half hours and my knees may never be the same.
Croagh Patrick is known as Ireland’s Holy Mountain. It rises from the countryside like a rugged pyramid, shadowing a bay of the Atlantic Ocean and providing a landmark for any wandering around the Westport/Louisburgh area. The peak rises 762 meters above sea level and can easily be seen from Louisburgh on a clear day. Since first arriving here, I have used the mountain as a beacon—especially when returning from one of our long trips from across Ireland. When I see Croagh Patrick, I know that I am almost home. I have looked upon it with a mixture of respect and intimidation, because I have also known that eventually I was going to climb it. Now that I am comfortably massaging my weary feet in front of our empty fireplace (I simply don’t have the energy to build one right now), I can only think back to when I stood at the very top of the mountain and shake my head. This was the experience of a lifetime.
Hikers begin the climb from a small car park eight kilometers outside of Westport. Beginning the climb is intimidating to say the least. The trail snakes up the side of a shorter rise next to Croagh Patrick, the mountain itself being too steep at this point for hikers to safely climb it. The path is made from sharp, loose rocks that roll and shift underneath the unwary hiker’s boots. By the time we reached the crest of the first rise, I could feel my calf and thigh muscles burning and I was more than happy to take a short break. The view, even from this midway point, was breathtaking. The island riddled bay glistened to one side of the mountain while the other side harbored rolling mountains, dark patches of pine forest and (of course) small, rock lined pastures filled with grazing sheep. It was when I turned to look at Croagh Patrick, however, that I felt my heart sink. The mountain looked steeper and more daunting than ever.
At this point, we walked along the narrow crest of the shorter mountain until we reached the side of Croagh Patrick. Many of the people in front of us were nearly crawling as they scrambled up the steep side, loose rocks rolling beneath the hikers. As we started to climb, I could feel the backs of my hiking boots protesting against my heels and I knew that it would be hell to pay once I made it to the top. One of the most difficult parts of the climb was the fact that for every step I took, I lost half a step when the rocks I stepped on shifted down the mountainside. I honestly don’t know how the mountain hasn’t completely shifted into the sea after all these years of traveling hikers and pilgrims.
After an hour of this, I didn’t have to worry about my feet anymore: I could no longer feel them. I did however feel (and regret) every single croissant and doughnut that I’ve ingested during this three month period (and it’s no modest amount, because quite frankly the pastries here are amazing). The last leg of the climb is the steepest and when my two friends and I heaved ourselves onto the mountain’s peak, we were all out of breath and wobbling about on very shaky legs. However, the view quickly trumped my need to collapse.
It was a mildly hazy day, but even so I could see Louisburgh in the distance, along with Westport, the Atlantic and, of course, the surrounding mountains. The clouds cast startlingly beautiful designs across the sun lit bay, dancing amongst the islands like an ever changing puzzle. The wind was incredible and while I had been getting very warm while hiking, I was quickly chilled as I soaked in the view. Soon we were beginning the slow climb back down and while I was certainly glad to no longer be going up, I still was amazed by the strain this descent made for my already shaky knees (not to mention that I spent much of the downward progress on my rear, since the rolling rocks were still…well, rolling).
It has been two days since we made the climb and I can still feel the aftermath on my very red heels and extraordinarily stiff shoulders. Climbing Croagh Patrick reminded me of three very important things. First, the world is a magnificent, beautiful place. Second, the greatest things in life are often the hardest to achieve. And finally…
I am laying off the doughnuts.