This is the view from the top of Croagh Patrick, the mountain from which St. Patrick rang his bell, driving the snakes from Ireland. I climbed it in January 1999. The sun was setting and the mountain cast its shadow over Clew Bay in County Mayo. I raised my hands over my head to see if I could see their shadow on the land below. It was such a ridiculous notion, I laughed out loud. Nobody heard me. I was the only one up there.
It’s tradition for pilgrims to climb “the reek” on the last Sunday in July. Some make the journey to its 2,507 foot pinnacle in their bare feet or even on their knees. I didn’t go that far but I did climb it in January, which the locals thought was a little crazy. There was a pub, of course, at the trailhead. We elicited a few knitted brows when my friend Colleen and I finished our pints and announced we’d have another when we got back down. It was already afternoon.
The path up the mountain was well worn by centuries of climbers who came before us. It was easy to follow, rocky and not very steep. There were patches of snow and some ice. It seemed very doable in a post-pint bliss.
Two hours into the hike we realized we were running out of daylight. We were tantalizingly close to the summit. Colleen said she’d had her fill. She didn’t want to go up the final, steepest part of the slope. It was nearly dark and we had no actual climbing gear or even a flashlight. However, I was young and obviously invincible. I asked her to wait for me and scrambled up over the last quarter mile of loose, football-sized stones.
It was a foolish move for sure, as she told me. On this occasion, the universe chose to reward my reckless decision. The view dazzled my brain. The shadow of the mountain on the valley below threw everything out of scale. I could see it reaching further out over the land by the second as the sun set behind me. I lost all sense of my own physical presence. I barely had the wits to operate my camera.
Then I remembered Colleen.
I made a few more pictures and headed back. I was on the summit less than 10 minutes but I knew it would feel like two hours to someone waiting for me in the deepening gloom. She was pretty freaked out when I got back to her. She was gracious enough not to yell at me.
We picked our way down the path very slowly. We both slipped and fell on the ice more than once. After 30 minutes of the 90 minute journey, it was pitch dark and a biting wind had come up.
Then we heard a dog, jingling up the path toward us. Not far behind was a bouncing flashlight. One of the locals from the pub had come looking for us. We thanked him and his dog. The light made the rest of the trip down a lot easier.
When we reached the pub we had the pint we’d promised. We bought one for the flashlight man, too.