Climbing the Reek

By Emma Hergenrother

I have always loved climbing mountains.

When I was small, I first tested my climbing skills on my home’s doorframes, an egg-shaped rock in the backyard or a low-branched plum tree at the front of the house. Since then, I have spent a fair amount of time in Vermont’s Green Mountains, with Camel’s Hump being my favourite hike. There is something magical about spending hours outside, rallying over and over during a hike, and the satisfying moment when you finally sit down after a deliciously exhausting day.

Some argue that climbing mountains is a way of expressing dominance over a landscape. The word “conquer” comes to mind. However, I think of hiking as symbiotic interplay between Nature and you. Mountains are timeless and challenging. You must be patient and persevering. Trails weave in and out and over and around the land; you need to be aware of plants and rocks and roots. Difficult hikes can make you question why you started in the first place (for me, a particular ice-covered trek in Weybridge, Vermont comes to mind), but never fail to remind you why did. Mountains invite you in and let you know when to stay away. When I reach the summit, I don’t feel like I have conquered the mountain, but I instead have partaken in its world.

On my second day in Ireland, I went from Galway to Connemara National Park and climbed Diamond Hill. At the top, I felt like I was nestled inside a bowl of greenery. The white sky above looked unfathomably large. The neighbouring hills looked as if they had pushed up through a thick blanket of green which now stretched between them to accommodate their peaks. Sheep dotted the hillsides. Everything was still.

Within a few days of arriving in Ireland, I had my mind set on climbing Croagh Patrick, so when I got the chance to visit Westport after spending the weekend at Sliabh Liag, I decided to give Croagh Patrick a try. I arrived in Murrisk the night before, and I rose early to start the climb. The morning of, I stuck my head out of the window of my hostel to get a view of Croagh Patrick, but a thick layer of fog had settled around the peak, and the Reek was nowhere in sight. However, other than the fog, the weather had all the trappings of a beautiful day, so I was confident the sun would eventually clear through the low lying clouds.

The trail on the way up was hushed and tranquil. A running brook, my crunching footsteps, and the occasional sheep bleat were the only sounds I could hear. Dew had collected on the blooming heather. The rocks were moist and cool. I felt protected and liberated by my solitude. It was refreshing to be in such a quiet place, but I could not help my feeling of personal imposition, as if I had intruded on Croagh Patrick’s morning stillness.

For the entirety of the hike up, the fog did not clear, so I never had any idea how much farther I had to go. Even after struggling up the scree, I was surprised to find my ascent completed when I saw the small white church at the top. I sat on the steps and ate an apple and a pack of lemon refreshers. I was later joined by a family who were waiting for their three sons to complete the hike; the lads came running up to the summit about an hour later with smiles on their faces and they all shared a big laugh. I met a man who climbs Croagh Patrick at least once weekly, and seemed to know everything there is to know about it. I met another man who told me he had been meaning to climb Croagh Patrick for the past sixty years, and had just gotten around to it for the first time that day.

I spent nearly two hours on Croagh Patrick’s summit, thinking I was waiting for the fog to clear, but in reality I was simply enjoying the company of those around me. I am now reminded of the inherent camaraderie felt by fellow hikers of mountains – the smiles you share as you pass each other on the trail, the niceties you exchange at the summit, the melancholy gratitude you feel by having met them, but maybe for the only time.

I have always loved climbing mountains, and it’s because of the people I meet along the way.