Take on Nature: Croagh Patrick, the most dangerous mountain in Ireland

Croagh Patrick, with Clew Bay in the background – scree and loose stones can make climbing 'the Reek' treacherous
Croagh Patrick, with Clew Bay in the background – scree and loose stones can make climbing 'the Reek' treacherous

TWO years ago, on the last Sunday of July, sitting on the far shore of Clew Bay the pointy-tipped mountain on the opposite side was alive with activity.

Thousands of figures could be seen clambering upwards, while thousands more came in the opposite direction. A helicopter flew in across the bay and upwards to the white oratory on the summit and a few minutes later took off again.

It might have been ferrying the taoiseach, the president, archbishop, Bono, the Dalai Lama or some other dignitary, although more likely it was to airlift an injured pilgrim.

Every year on ‘Reek Sunday’ up to 30,000 pilgrims climb to the summit of the Co Mayo mountain where, according to Christian tradition, St Patrick fasted for 40 days. While I have never made the pilgrimage I have climbed Croagh Patrick on several occasions.

At the best of times it is a challenging climb, not in terms of the steepness of the ascent or the height, but because of the loose layers of stone that constantly shift beneath your feet.

In Ireland we are fortunate to have hundreds of mountains in all shapes and sizes that are accessible to walkers of moderate levels of fitness. A good pair of walking shoes, seasonal clothing, with a waterproof coat of some sort on standby, plus nourishment, a bottle of water, and common sense are all we need to safely tackle most of our summits.

But Croagh Patrick is different – despite being one of the most popular summits in Ireland it is also the most hazardous.

And, without judging the integrity or the motives of some of those who undertake the Reek Sunday pilgrimage, the basic standards of safety are often lowered. Even on non-pilgrimage days I have seen people climbing Croagh Patrick bare-foot, or in sandals. Some even make the ascent on their knees.

However, it is not the footwear, or lack of it, that has made Croagh Patrick so perilous, but the pure numbers who climb it and in particular on the last Sunday in July.

Clambering up the badly eroded, iconic mountain two years ago just a few hours after 30,000 people had done so was like one of those challenges that mortals used to be set by petulant Greek gods. Each step upwards set layers of shifting stones sliding underfoot to bring me back to a point below where I had started.

Having climbed more than half way up and being so close to the summit with its superb views over Clew Bay to Achill Island, the Atlantic Ocean and Clare Island, it was an agony not to keep going.

But sometimes you just have to take the hint and after another dramatic slide backwards, my arms waving manically and body gyrating as I tried to stay upright, I gave up and turned back.

Nuns, priests, men and women in their 90s, kids just a few years old, corpulent politicians and people wearing fifth-century monk robes with whimsical looking Irish wolfhounds by their sides had all meandered up and down the previous day. But, I reasoned, there were other people there when they did so, medics on standby and helicopters in the vicinity to come to their aid if anything happened.

At 6am on the Monday after Reek Sunday it was just me and there was no-one to come to my rescue if I took a tumble – at least not for a few hours.

I compensated by climbing the smaller peak on the other side of the ridge where a hare bounded over my outstretched legs and a falcon swooped overhead.

On my way down I greeted a number of people starting the ascent, most of them wearing clothes and footwear that suggested they were just out for a dander rather than about to climb the most dangerous mountain in Ireland.