Derry pilgrims scale dizzy heights of Croagh Patrick

Father Christopher McDermott says Mass on Croagh Patrick.
Father Christopher McDermott says Mass on Croagh Patrick.

Ascending to more than 2,000 feet I know I’ve a mountain to climb, a big one.

112 pilgrims from Derry have come to Westport on a sunny Friday morning to scale the famous mountain which has been conquered by millions over the years.

The tradition of pilgrimage to this holy mountain stretches back over 5,000 years from the Stone Age. It was on the summit of the mountain that Saint Patrick fasted for forty days in 441 AD.

This mountain is on a list of things I have pledged to do before I turn the dreaded 40, and when Derry’s Emmet Thompson arranged the trip, I knew I had to give it a go.

There’s much interest when I tell friends and family that I’ve decided to climb Croagh Patrick. But attention turns to whether I’ve decided to make the trek barefoot.

“No, I tell them, I’m not mad.”

Journal reporter Erin Hutcheon with Emmet Thompson.

Journal reporter Erin Hutcheon with Emmet Thompson.

“But you’ve done Lough Derg, you’re into all that barefoot pilgrimage stuff.”

And it’s true, I have “done” Lough Derg, but climbing a mountain barefoot, well that’s a horse of a different colour.

The sun obscures the view at the base of the mountain and my feet feel safe and secure in my borrowed hiking boots. But the expedition is almost over before it begins when I can’t get my newly purchased trekking sticks extended. I certainly look the part, but when it comes to scaling a mountain I’m definitely more Bridget Jones than Hannah Shields.

Luckily a teacher from St Mary’s College spots my ‘damsel in distress’ look and manages to fix them for me.

St Cecilia's College pupils Jade and Bethany.

St Cecilia's College pupils Jade and Bethany.

Two twists of the sticks and Sean McBride has them adjusted to my height. But he warns me I’m not to touch them again until I get back to the bus.

Finally I’m on my way, and I’m joined on the first part of my climb by young Hannah Best from Dublin, who’s come to live in Derry with the Derry Youth Community.

Hannah and I met for the first time this morning and sat together for the whole four hour journey on the bus, but we walk together on this first section mostly in silence, past the iconic statue of St Patrick.

The average person takes two hours to summit the mountain but I’m determined I can do better than that.

Pupils from Holy Cross College, Strabane.

Pupils from Holy Cross College, Strabane.

And the first 30 minutes of the journey pass without incident.

But when I finally turn around to take in the view I take a gasp at what’s in front of me. It simply takes your breath away.

I look to the right and see the famous conical shape of Croagh Patrick and for a moment I panic and think I’m on the wrong mountain, because the top seems very far away.

I meet Jade and Bethany, sixth year pupils from St Cecilia’s College who offer to take my picture with the view behind me.

The girls ask me if I’m on my own, and I tell them I am.

“Aren’t you lonely going up alone?” they ask me.

Derry pilgrims on the mountain.

Derry pilgrims on the mountain.

And I say no, the challenge for me today is to conquer this mountain alone. It’s a challenge to do this by myself, because I never do anything by myself.

I walk with the girls for a while, but they have youth on their side, and after a while I’m lagging behind them.

On the way I’m vlogging too. My daughter has turned my camera into selfie mode and given me a selfie stick so I feel duty bound to record the experience.

My Garmin watch that I usually wear for running bleeps indicating I’ve covered my first mile in 47 minutes (that’s the slowest mile I’ve ever done.)

I pass a Galway man and his young son as they descend the mountain. He asks me if I’m from Derry. I can’t think how he knows this, must be my posh Northern Ireland brogue. He tells me his wife is from outside Limavady.

I ask him what it’s like at the top. It’s a bit misty today, he says, and I feel a bit disappointed. He encourages me to keep going.

The last part of my trek up the mountain takes more strength than I thought I’d need. It’s a battle of wills. As we climb up the final section, some of the young people start to wither, while the older of us seem to find that inner strength willing us to the top.

It’s clear this is as much as mental challenge as a physical one. I pass a stone on the ground where someone has written ‘Stay Determined, Stay Hydrated - with a smiley face’ it makes me smile.

The final stretch is never ending. Every corner we turn betrays us, making us think we are at the top, but teasing us with another 100 yards.

I pass newly ordained priest Father Christopher McDermott and ask him if he’ll hear my confession if I make it to the top, he laughs and says he’ll also administer last rites.

A man tells me I’m ‘almost’ at the top and I roll my eyes, I’ve heard it all above from other climbers, but when I look up I can just see the white stone of the church, and I know I’ve made it.

I take a moment to take in the view, and I don’t have the words to describe it.

There’s no mist at all and the view from the top is breathtaking. Someone points out Clew Bay and it is beautiful.

Outside the church I meet a man who has made the climb barefoot and I watch and wince as he ices his bleeding toes, glad that I was sensible and kept my boots on.

Due to unforeseen circumstances we have to abandon our plans to have Mass in the chapel and it’s time to prepare for the descent.

The climb back down proves even trickier than the climb up.

This time I’ve put my mobile phone away and I’m not filming. I want to take everything in.

I take my steps slowly as I climb down, treading carefully as the stones slip underfoot.

At the half way section I meet Father Christopher again who is preparing to say Mass outside. This Mass is the most unexpected and beautiful part of the day.

During prayers Father Christopher remembers my sister’s father in law Diarmuid Healy, who was laid to rest in Derry that morning.

At the end Father Christopher tells us he hopes we enjoyed this authentic Mass rock experience. And we all did. There’s a camaraderie among us all as we gather together in prayer.

There’s drama on the way down as one of the teenagers slips and hurts her leg. They’ve no choice but to send the helicopter in to assist her and get her medical attention.

On the last section Hannah and I cross paths again.

This time we’re chatting and she stops at a running stream to collect some St Patrick’s water for her mum. We’re not sure if the water is holy or not, but a man we meet tells us we should collect a bottle of the water and drink it.

We all make it off the mountain in one piece as we gather at the bus and share stories of our climb. A few of us congratulate ourselves in making it up the mountain in less than two hours. I made it in one hour 52 minutes.

We share our war wounds and Emmet asks me if I’ll come again next year. I tell him I’ll think about it.

In the meantime my trekking poles will stay extended (Now I can’t get them down, help Mr McBride).

Pilgrims outside the church.

Pilgrims outside the church.

Journal reporter Erin Hutcheon with Hannah Best from DYC.

Journal reporter Erin Hutcheon with Hannah Best from DYC.

Journal reporter Erin Hutcheon makes her way up Croagh Patrick.

Journal reporter Erin Hutcheon makes her way up Croagh Patrick.