Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Come On, Pilgrim! ...Or, Why I Could Not Ride My Bike for Days

“Old women climb it in their bare feet.”

I believe that was the phrase that drew me in. First, because of the sheer exuberance of the mental picture it painted. I imagined a tight procession of tiny octogenarian ladies – faces weather-beaten, backs bent under the weight of rucksacks, tanned limbs chalky with mountain dust under long skirts, callused feet leaving a trail of blood up a narrow path that winds, winds its way up the mountain to the tiny chapel in the clouds.

The mention of the old women also serves to make the climb seem accessible. If the frail devout dears do this bare-footed, it cannot possibly be that difficult. What is a pilgrimage anyway? If the Cantenbury Tales are anything to go by, basically a long walk.

Croagh Patrick is known as Ireland's Holy Mountain. In year 411, St. Patrick climbed upon it and fasted there for 40 days. And now we, feeble mortals that we are, can climb it in honor of this to atone for our sins. We can climb it to find inner peace, or for good luck. We can climb it for the views, or for the mere satisfaction of having climbed a thing that can be climbed. So say the descriptions of this County Mayo attraction. And having read them, I wanted to climb it too.

We set out on a day that started off hot. 20 degrees may not seem like a lot to those from warmer parts of the world, but there is something about the climate in Ireland, with its special flavor of dense mid-summer humidity, that makes 20 feel closer to 40, and the term “heat wave” does not feel misapplied when used unironically by locals.

The mountain sits right on the coast, and making our way to it from the nearby town of Westport we marveled at the luxurious bike paths spreading in all directions with fantastical island and mountain views. Today Croagh Patrick, but tomorrow certainly bikes.

Marked with a discrete sign, access to the climb was just steps from the main road, behind a clump of woods. There, at the foot of the mountain, stood a white statue of the namesake saint around which crowds gathered for photos. And just beyond that, a steady stream of people could be seen scrambling up a rockface. Funny, because I did not see a trail. They were sort of half-climbing, half-crawling up jagged slabs of stone alongside a stream. As I followed, it slowly sank in: This was the trail.

The start of the climb was immediately tight and steep. So steep, that after climbing for just a few minutes one could turn around to see sweeping views of Clew Bay and its scattered islands.

The climb was also immediately rocky. At first the rocks weren’t loose, but firmly embedded into the soil. Jutting out from the steep pitch at strange angles, they made for extremely awkward footholds, making the climb like an intense, vertical game of Twister. An additional layer of excitement was added by these rocks’ sleekness. Perhaps that had to do with the stream nearby, or maybe whatever kind of rock this was just inherently slippery. But even in my good hiking boots, stepping on some of these rocks was not unlike stepping on ice - the larger and more stable a rock looked, the more likely this being the case.

After nearly a mile of this, the trail widened and began to resemble an actual trail, while the terrain changed into what in cycling terms is known as loose gravel. In some sections the rocks were small, pebble-like. In others they were more like boulders. But as we climbed the pitch kept growing steeper, the loose stones sliding and rolling downward beneath the soles of our boots as we fought gravity to progress upward. It required a great deal of focus, and it never let up.

For someone moderately fit like myself, the difficulty of the climb was a little embarrassing to acknowledge, especially considering how many other people - (pilgrims!) - were attempting it alongside me without complaint. There were no devout old women in bare feet as had been promised. But there were elderly persons of both genders, as well as children and variously aged adults, dressed in a dazzling variety of footwear and clothing from technical climbing gear to sundresses and sandals. Most moved very slowly, taking plenty of breaks, but with an air of determination about reaching the top. The heat and humidity of the day had risen a few degrees by now, and my clothes - a thin wool top and lightweight leggings - were already drenched in sweat. I had drunk a third of the 1L bottle of water I'd brought with me, and eaten a handful of trail mix.

As the climb progressed, it continued to grow steeper, until it reached a plateau. Here the final stretch to the peak loomed in the distance like a mountain in its own right.

At this stage there was only a third of the way left (the climb being 3 miles in each direction), and this fostered a sense of being "almost there." However, the last stretch to the peak was the most difficult. Here again the trail as such disappeared, with climbers struggling to pick the least treacherous line up the now near-vertical rockface. The surface here consisted not of loose rocks in the standard sense of that word, but of loose thin flat slabs of what must have been quartz. These slabs combined the sleek properties of the large sturdy stones in the first part of the climb, with the unstable, crumply properties of the loose gravel in the second part of the climb. This, in addition to the steeper-than-ever pitch, made the final section stunningly difficult and time consuming. As I climbed, gaining height proportionally to distance, not only did the flat jagged slabs of stone give out under my feet, but my boots also slipped on the rock surface itself. Now and again I would lose my footing and fall forward onto my knees, bracing with my hands so as not to slide backwards and down. It was then it occurred to me how difficult it would be to get down this slope on the return trip, with my sense of balance. But for the time being, I suppressed this thought, aiming for the top.

The top came into view with excruciating slowness, but eventually come into view it did. Though I did not know it at the time, I was exceptionally lucky for the day on which I climbed Croagh Patrick to have been crystal-clear, as more commonly the top of the mountain is obscured by cloud. But on this day, the humidity had disappeared by the time we neared the peak and there was a crispness to the atmosphere that made even the most distant feature of the landscape sharply visible.

To one side stretched the mountains of inland Mayo and the neighbouring County Galway. To the other, acres of peat fields spread across the mossy hillside, dotted by sprinklings of young heather.

But the most prized view was that of Clew Bay, showing the mad messy scattering of tiny islands it is famous for, of which there are said to be 365. Here, several sheep - their coats and improbably clean shade of white - patrolled the viewing point, charging pilgrims admission for approach - the currency being banana peals and sandwich crusts.

Since not long after St. Patrick’s time, there has stood on this mountain a chapel of some sort or another. The current one is a white, tidy little structure that is kept functional by a caretaker who climbs to it 4 times a week (albeit along a less steep alternative route to the Pilgrimage trail). On special occasions, Mass is held here, with thousands of people attending - which also means climbing to reach it.

Considering how many people had been climbing the mountain alongside me, there were not a great many at the top - perhaps a dozen, which makes me think that many turn back at some point. Here I also finally saw a barefooted woman. Looking to be at least in her mid-70s, she was sinewy and tanned, dressed in high-tech hiking gear and a bandanna around her forehead, her bare feet sturdy on the slippery rocks. Just as I reached the top, she began to descend, singing songs radiantly.

Alas, my own descent was neither celebratory nor composed. To put it bluntly, I could not get down the steep top part of the mountain. I tried it this way and that, but I only slid and tumbled, losing my footing with nearly every step down the vertical rockface.

Above me and below, the pilgrims who had made it this far and now needed to get down did so the best way they could. Their methods varied wildly, from running with jaw-dropping confidence, to a weepy slip-sliding down on their behinds. The latter was a method I had seriously considered. The tops of my thighs began to burn with the effort of bracing myself against gravity's pull and the rocky downslide. My legs trembled and gave out form underneath me, weakened by effort and anxiety.

At one point, I found myself unable to pick a line through the dangerous slippery rock and, exhausted, I collapsed on my behind and began to sob involuntarily. A woman on her way up seized the opportunity to remind me triumphantly that Jesus was with me. "Be brave my girl, and Christ will save you!" I stopped myself just in time before replying with the first thing that popped into my head. "Does he have a helicopter?"

Anyway. Whether it was due to Christ saving me or not, I got off the mountain intact, and proceeded promptly to the pub with a few of the other pilgrims, where we had a "feed" of local lamb. I could not walk down stairs or properly pedal a bike for the next 3 days, coasting around Westport feebly for the remainder of my holiday while the coastal bicycle trails mocked me with their crisp white markings.

At the pub hung vintage photos of Mass held at Croagh Patrick Chapel at the turn of the 20th century. Men in suits and brimmed hats. Women in long skirts and high heeled boots with elaborate Edwardian hair. Feeling my own still-drenched top, I imagined doing the climb in a long tweed skirt and heels, then pedaling home on a high-geared fixed wheel roadster. People must have been hardier in the day, as well as more religious, to subject themselves to such an adventure. A pilgrim I am not. But there's nothing like ruining your legs for days that makes you pine for cycling, singing a song of thanksgiving once you're fit to pedal again.

29 comments:

  1. Ha! Discovering the shortcomings of specialized fitness is painful. I think I'm happier and healthier in my older age having backed off the intense cycling and replaced it with a seasonal mix of modest walking, hiking, cycling, surfing and swimming.

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    1. I agree. Mostly, it's good to be out using one's body to experience the landscape. Bicycling has been with me for four decades but running and hiking added to a sense of balance and appreciation.

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  2. Wow. I love this story and the photos. Very good! You've taken me back to two similar climbs. My wife and I tackled Mt. Snowdon a couple years ago, and the terrain in places seems similar to some of what you encountered on Croagh Patrick. The stretch along Bwlch Main was terrifying, as it reminded me in the worst way that I'm not a big fan of heights. The trail was littered with rocks and sheep, like yours, and the views along the way and at the summit were as special as what you experienced. And, like you, we had an unusually clear day for our walk. Your decent reminded me of climbing Camelback Mountain in Arizona. On the steep, slippery, gravel decent, I didn't know whether to walk slowly backwards or go for it and run with "jaw-dropping confidence." I tried the latter -- once. I remember when I reached the top that day, the first words out of my mouth were, "When is the helicopter picking us up?" I feel your pain -- and your excitement. And thank you for this post. I think when my wife and I visit Ireland, we'll tackle Croagh Patrick. :)

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    1. I climbed Mt Snowdon in… let's see, must have been 2003, which, scarily, makes it 11 years ago, but never mind! As I recall the climb was longer, but nowhere near as technical as Croagh Patrick. Of course that could be the hindsight talking!

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    2. We climbed Snowdon in 2010. You're right -- nothing technical about it. Just a long, gradual climb. There are like eight main paths up the mountain, and the one we randomly chose had a section near the top called Bwlch Main, which was very narrow and seemed (to someone afraid of heights) like an easy fall to one's death with the slightest misstep. So I was very happy reaching the summit, and we took a much friendlier path on the way down. Camelback is more technical -- pulling oneself up onto a boulder and then another and then another. A much quicker climb, but much steeper. Thank you for the great post.

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  3. Your climbing face doesn't look as happy as your cycling face.

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    1. Indeed it doesn't! I don't think I've ever cried or sobbed on a bike yet either.

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    2. You've whimpered once from memory.

      kjs

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    3. One may smile, and smile and be a whimperer.

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    4. " I don't think I've ever cried or sobbed on a bike yet either."

      Oh, I think you have:

      "After 15 hours on the bike, this made a great deal of sense, and I started to sob."

      http://lovelybike.blogspot.com/2013/06/study-in-lights-and-darks-my-300k-dnf.html

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    5. Ah that's right! You got me.

      That's what I get for keeping a "blog."

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  4. Ha! Loved it - your post. Not Croagh Patrick. Now I have to go lay down and rest my legs.

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  5. What a hike! I find as one gets older, it can take longer to recover from such things. If the body is used to cycling, not so much of an issue, but it something you are not used to, it can be a surprise the next day! I recently swam in the ocean after a year and I was so sore, couldn't figure out what was wrong!
    Croagh Patrick is likely a sacred site to the ancient Celts and further back into proto history. There is likely a very long history of climbing! The vantage point alone would be of strategic importance. It is also good for suffering! Temples and pilgrimages are often up high. But people are generally capable of much more than they think, so with a religious, spiritual incentive, or just curiosity, people are willing to climb something they'd balk at otherwise. All the people you saw climbing either did it every other weekend, occasionally, or it was a once in a lifetime thing.
    Just imagine how uncomfortable and hot those women would have been in their tweeds and high heeled boots as well as the men in their slightly less stifling tweed suits. It was the decorum of the day, no choice but to wear it and grin. Heartier or not, it was expected. (And yes, those high geared roadsters...what was that about? Even my vintage raleighs are absurdly high geared.)
    As for the quaint and shaming 'old women climb it in their bare feet', that would have come from a time when people wore less footwear, or none at all and had strong hoof like soles and could clamour over everything, especially by the time they were "old". The lady you saw was either a spirit in modern clothing, or had taken cues from the past and toughened up her soles over her lifetime.
    Thank you for the lovely tale, it looks like a beautiful place.

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  6. a good reminder that cycling legs are much different then hiking/walking legs.

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  7. Jennifer in ScotlandJuly 23, 2014 at 5:00 PM

    It sounds arduous but your photos suggest the views were beautiful. This post is pertinent for me as I am reading Cheryl Strayed's amazing book, "Wild". I am in awe at her ability to walk through the pain and extreme and uncertainty. I thought my legs were a bit sore to cycle to work today and then thought of her and got that Po Campo bag loaded and was off.

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    1. The view along the west coast of County Mayo is one of the most beautiful I have seen anywhere. And there is a fairly flat 45km rail trail you can cycle on to see them, Po Campo bag in tow.

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  8. It's amazing how unfit the fit cyclist can find themselves when thrust into an unfamiliar activity :-)

    Last year while recovering from an injury that kept me off the bike for a few months, I was advised to try some hill walking to maintain my strength and fitness, I was shocked at how incapacitated I was for days after a seemingly not too strenuous hike, even though I had great aerobic fitness my limbs were completely unprepared for the particular challenges of trail hiking - Within a few weeks of persistence though, I found the pain easing and recovery quickening to the point where it became quite an enjoyable activity.

    Just as I was reveling in this new found physical prowess - I returned to the bike, after a long layoff I faced an equally frustrating re-adaption process (although with less stiffness and muscle aches)

    Horses for Courses, I guess - Having re-lost all my mountain goat adaptions 8-). I intend to embrace the pain again this Winter during a planned break from the saddle... maybe not Croagh Patrick tho.

    If you are planning anymore summer adventures bipedal or by-pedal, West Cork and Kerry have scenery worth a pilgrimage or two.

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  9. That sounds like a really challenging walk!

    My climber friends used to refer to the results of mis-steps in those conditions as Scree-food.

    Did you find yourself getting sewing machine leg(s)
    during the descent? That always wrecks my legs for almost any activity later, including sleeping. Biking would be right out!

    The pictures taken at the summit with the gravel plateau in the forefront and the sweeping bay & mountain views behind and below are mind-boggling.
    However you did those, bravo!
    are nuts-

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    1. Never heard the term "sewing machine leg" before, but it is very apt!

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  10. There interesting high route crossing in the lakes which you do on bike which follows the old Roman Road from Trout Beck to Pooly Bridge, you may intersting to do and the first few miles are quite hard on the climb up to High Street but the views are brilliant on clean day you can see for miles. It takes about 5 to 6 hours to do whole route to Pooly Bridge from Trout Beck and then few hours riding on the road back over Kirkstone Pass to where left the car.

    It one those rides you know about it for few days afterwards but well worth doing!

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  11. Christopher FotosJuly 23, 2014 at 9:46 PM

    Thank you for this.

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  12. I have to agree that being in reasonably good shape from cycling is much more helpful when hiking up than down.

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  13. I finally got where the name "Velouria" came from. Duh! :)

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  14. Nice one Dave, and I was just about to post about the title of this entry

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  15. Downhill is taxing, period. Bikers, hikers, truckers, runners, all share stories of the battle their equipment vs. physics. Cross training is SO helpful to minimize the tears.

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  16. "Here I also finally saw a barefooted woman. Looking to be at least in her mid-70s, she was sinewy and tanned, dressed in high-tech hiking gear and a bandanna around her forehead, her bare feet sturdy on the slippery rocks. Just as I reached the top, she began to descend, singing songs radiantly."

    It must have been her: http://tinyurl.com/krdmh7w

    Interesting post, and interesting too that such ancient pilgrimages are still to be found in Ireland. Here in New Mexico, USA, we have something similar in the annual Holy Week walk -- sometimes barefoot -- to Chimayo'.

    As with the traditional sacred maze, geographical pilgrimages represent the inward pilgrimage, of which Dante's Divina Comedia is a description: this takes place, from the Dark Wood to the Earthly Paradise, within Dante's own soul.


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  17. Yes, yes. What you write about is just daily occurrences for so many who move about, which is to say all of us. My kids are very athletic and strong yet are constantly amazed, when they switch to a new activity, how much a toll it takes on their body. I used to run at a high level, both roads and trails, and the downhills were killers. Cross training (duh-balance) was the key.

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  18. I am impressed by the view. Maybe someday alone will be there :)

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  19. This is a lovely article like all of yours but how is this possible given ....
    http://www.mayonews.ie/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19637:sinkhole-swallows-croagh-patricks-church&catid=23:news&Itemid=46

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