The quieter side

From The Irish Times, 26 May, 2012

LENNY ANTONELLI finds a quieter way up Ireland’s busiest mountain

THERE’S MORE TO Croagh Patrick than the slog for repentance up the old track from Murrisk to redemption at the summit. If it’s solitude you seek, you could traverse the entire range of hills.

The Reek – as she’s known locally – sits dead centre of a ridge with lower hills both sides. Hiking the whole range offers one of the best walks in the west, but the traditional way up is so popular few consider it. On a clear day we followed an off-road section of the Western Way outside Westport until we reached a gap leading on to open mountainside. Ignoring the markers heading northwest, we hiked to the first spot height in the range of 456m, hopping a stone wall on the way.

The view grabs you instantly: south to isolated brown hills and valleys of Partry, Maumstrasna and Sheeffry and north over Clew bay to the mountains beyond. Croagh Patrick forms the southern end of the huge ice-carved valley that is Clew Bay, with the Nephin Beg mountains on the other side, and drumlins left by the ice forming the bay’s clustered islands.

We headed west through the heather on grassy mountainside towards the next spot height of 500m. The terrain was soft and springy – nothing like what lay ahead. In the distance, swarms of walkers scurried up and down Croagh Patrick. We joined a narrow track on the south side of the hills, heading towards them.

When we hit the main, path dozens of pilgrims were heading up and down. “Charity walk,” one told us. “You just missed Enda Kenny and Trapattoni.” Kids ran down the scree as we struggled up, our first time climbing the Reek. Soon the track got steeper, the rock looser and the crowds denser.

There was nowhere to rest. Descending walkers sent rocks hurtling towards us. “It was lovely back there,” my hiking companion said. “But this feels a bit like a building site.”

But from the summit it’s obvious why this mountain has been a site of ritual since pre-Christian times. The view from the austere peak – over Clew Bay, the mountains of Mayo and the islands of Clare and Inishturk – is one of the country’s best. Cold northerly winds blasted the peak. A man wearing just a vest began circling the chapel on the summit, but we didn’t have time to see if he went around the traditional 15 times.

Rather than head down the main track, we carried on west towards our final summit, Ben Goram. The descent on this side of Croagh Patrick is full of loose rock too, so make it a slow one.

A wall of rain descended on the Partry Mountains to the south, but the skies above us were clear blue. Soon we were back on the dry moss and heather, descending to a low pass before going up to 559m Ben Goram. A paraglider sailed through the skies over the bay.

We lingered on the hillside, but as the sun went down behind Clare Island we descended the gradual ridge northwest from the summit of Ben Goram. Watch your footing closely on the steep terrain here. We arrived back to a boreen west of Lecanvey, a good spot to leave a second car. Or you could check beforehand to see if there’s a 450 bus heading to Westport, which could leave you near the start point.

Locals in the pub afterwards were discussing whether Trapattoni had made it all the way up; he didn’t. It turns out the FAI scheduled a press conference at the visitor centre for 15 minutes after the walk started, so Trap reluctantly turned back.

I found myself thinking of the stark contrast between Croagh Patrick and the hills around it – from a gruelling cone of loose rock to green, grassy hillsides.

Just then, a woman at the bar interrupted the talk of how tough the climb is. “Ah sure, I climbed the Reek last year,” she said. “And I’m only 74.”

Croagh Patrick ridge walk, Mayo

Map : Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Discovery Series. These hills are at the intersection of four maps: 30, 31, 37, 38. If you follow the route described, you’ll need all bar 38.

Start : Take the R335 from Westport towards Louisburgh. Turn left just after the petrol station and bridge in Belclare. Then take the second right until you reach a waymarker for the Western Way at a gate on the left. Grid reference L 949 809.

Route : Take the trail until you reach a ladder on the right that brings you on to open mountain. Rather than follow markers for the Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail, aim for the first spot height of 456m. For easy navigation you could follow the stone wall that runs on the south face of these hills, marked on the OS map (31) as “Pilgrim’s Walk”.

Finish : Heading west from Westport on the R335, take the first left after Lecanvey village, then the first left again. You should find parking here. Grid reference L 876 804.

Suitability : Moderate except for the tough ascent of Croagh Patrick. Walking poles are ideal. The mountainside is often misty, so you must know how to navigate.

Time : 4-6 hours.

Distance : 10km.

Services : Westport. Food, hot showers and lockers at Croagh Patrick Visitor Centre in Murrisk. Pubs in Murrisk and Lecanvey.