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Mountain rescuers urge people to 'be sensible' ahead of Reek Sunday climb up Croagh Patrick

The Covid pandemic led to the annual event being cancelled in 2020, with lower numbers than usual turning out for the climb last year.

People taking part in the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday in 2012.
People taking part in the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday in 2012.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE are expected to climb Croagh Patrick this Reek Sunday, with organisers expecting a return to normal two years on from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Up to 25,000 pilgrims typically climb the Mayo mountain on the last Sunday of July every year, but the pandemic led to the event being cancelled in 2020, with lower numbers than usual turning out for the climb last year. 

Mayo Mountain Rescue (MMR) is one of a number of rescue teams that organise the biggest coordinated mountain rescue operation in Ireland each year to keep people safe during the climb.

Marie Lyons has worked in the medical tent at the event as part of MMR for the last 15 years. She told The Journal that the event will be “back to normal” this year.

“Last year, because it was only ourselves and the Galway [Mountain Rescue] team, we asked people to come over the period of a couple of weeks, so it wouldn’t be too onerous on the two teams. This year, we’re back to full capacity of teams from all over Ireland,” she said.

“We’re really back to normal this year, so it’ll be interesting to see how many people do turn up.”

The annual climb of Croagh Patrick is part of the Irish Catholic calendar, with the Irish Bishops’ Conference saying that the pilgrimage has taken place for over 1,500 years.

The 764 metre mountain is a difficult climb, with some people choosing to climb in their bare feet in line with tradition. Lyons said that people can underestimate the difficulty of the climb. 

“It’s a very rugged mountain and people don’t seem to understand that because it’s kind of a tourist attraction. A lot of the people that go up Croagh Patrick wouldn’t dream of going up any other mountains in Ireland, and yet people would be sitting having a cup of coffee in Westport and say, ‘I know, we’ll go up Croagh Patrick’,” she said.

“They often don’t have the fitness they don’t have the rain gear or the shoes. It’s a very challenging climb and you definitely have to have moderate fitness. Now people who aren’t that fit can take a long time and they do manage and there is a track and there’s lots of people there to take care of them.

But I would say to people not to underestimate how difficult and how challenging the climb is. Often, you meet people at the bottom and they say never again because they just hadn’t quite anticipated how hard it’s going to be.

The Order of Malta Ambulance Corps is also involved in the event every year. Spokesperson Keenan Horan told The Journal that there have been little to no injuries over the last couple of years, but that it’s “very much a moving target”.

Prepare ‘for all eventualities’

“If people follow the advice, it minimises the risk, but as always, we’ll have all the support on the mountain for anyone that does get into any trouble and then we will also have air support,” Horan said.

He said that ahead of the climb, people should be prepared “for all eventualities”. 

“It might be a nice day at the bottom, but the top can be very different, so plenty layers, bring a bag that you can add or take layers off if you need them. A lot of people find the stick useful, they’re available there at the mountain. A good pair of boots, very important, and bring plenty of suncream and water.”

Lyons also stressed that people come as prepared for the day as possible, with the right clothing and plenty of food and water. 

“Obviously footwear is a big thing. The reek is very eroded, and people tend to wear runners which are really not that appropriate for the kind of terrain. There’s very, very nasty scree at the very top and then even under the shoulder, we have what’s like a moving river of pebbles, and so we get a lot of lower limb injuries just from people falling on that,” she said.

“Anybody can fall regardless of what they’re wearing on their feet, but having a decent pair of boots – they don’t even have to be expensive – with a little bit of ankle sport is definitely a help.”

She added that MMR has not seen many injuries over the last couple of years due to how quiet it was during the pandemic.

“We had a couple of heat exhausted people and that was all, there was only around two last year, because there was a huge huge reduction in the volume of people going up. We expect that to change a little bit this year, we expect to see the volume going up now that Covid numbers are down and people are moving more freely.”

However, she said the organisation have had to assist people who have gone into cardiac arrest during the climb over the years. 

‘Be sensible’

While there are defibrillators on the mountain, she urged those who do begin to feel fatigued on the day to turn back.  

“What happens on Croagh Patrick is a pilgrim is going up and they tend not to respond to their body saying they’ve had enough because they want to complete it,” she said.

Our advice would be if you’re exhausted and you’re really suffering fatigue and the going is way too slow, taking too long, just turn back. The mountain is not going anywhere and people tend not to turn back and then often have to be literally carried off.
Everybody is all about getting to the top and they forget completely about having to turn around and come back down again.

Lyons added that the cone of the mountain is “really, really steep”, with an almost vertical slope at the very top, which some people find difficult to navigate when they are already tired.

“We often carry people just simply because they’re exhausted, they’ve gotten up and they can’t come down. They’re not injured as such. So we would urge people just to be sensible and just turn back if they’re really struggling.”

The Irish Bishops Conference said that the official beginning of the pilgrimage will be this evening, when Archbishop Francis Duffy celebrates mass at 6.30pm in Saint Mary’s Church in Westport.

Tomorrow, mass will be held on the summit of the mountain every hour from 8am to 2pm, while four other masses will be held in local churches.

The Irish Bishops Conference is advising pilgrims that confession will also be taken at the summit of Croagh Patrick from 7.30am to 2pm tomorrow.

However, this year, the word “Confession” has been changed to “Testimony”, which more accurately reflects what Saint Patrick meant in writing it.

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Jane Moore

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