Keeping the pilgrims on a path to redemption


TREACHEROUS Conditions this year on Croagh Patrick for Reek Sunday were not good for pilgrims, with lots of mist and rain at peak times on the mountain. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Marie Lyons

IT was the last weekend of July and Reek Sunday had come around again. I’ve been working as a nurse in the medical tent on Reek Sunday for over ten years with three others: doctors Paul Nolan and Scott Walkin and Trish Ryan, who is the other nurse. I’m also a long time member of the Mayo Mountain Rescue (MMR) team.
As I steered my car towards the back of the mountain, I felt a sense of anticipation. Over the years there has been much comedy and eccentricity to be enjoyed on Reek Sunday. There was the man who used to climb dressed as St Patrick himself, a cumbersome garb when you’re climbing over 700 metres up a mountain; or the guy who panted past wearing a wetsuit.
We’ve seen it all; people in bicycle helmets and hats bedecked in tail feathers. The country men with shirts open to the belly button and the ubiquitous four cornered handkerchief offering dubious protection for the head. Once there was a young swarthy guy who had nothing on it seemed but a towel. A foreigner we decided, from some sultry place where being half naked was a requirement, rather than a health hazard.
Croagh Patrick is a beautiful mountain, standing immutable over the islands of Clew Bay like an ancient Egyptian pyramid. However, with over 50 call outs a year, the MMR team are well aware of how many people fall victim to its capricious charms.

Perilous path
The path is completely eroded and it’s very easy to suddenly pitch head first down the steep scree of the cone or find yourself surfing with alarming suddenness down a river of small pebbles below the shoulder.
Trisha and I arrive at the Mayo base before 8am with Ruth Foley, a teacher working abroad, who makes it her business to get home every year for Reek Sunday. The men on duty at the command centre as we arrive were listening keenly to radio communications from teams informing them of what was happening on the mountain. It was a cold, wet and windy night and the Dublin, Wicklow and Irish Cave Rescue teams had endured a damp vigil. There were no casualties so far.
It doesn’t take long to access the mountain from the back and soon we were on the main path as it flattens out up on the shoulder. We found pilgrims already making their way back and forth, ascending or descending from the cone. The medical tent is perched on a platform built by some useful fellows on the MMR team and on this raised platform, we could see the yellow dome of the North Face tent, the wind whipping at its edges. The tent had been erected the day before by MMR, with the Air Corp kindly giving myself and Dr Paul a lift to the shoulder with the tent and its contents.
In the early morning mist it was quite easy to imagine that the people passing were refugees of some sort: ill clothed, stiff legged and tired looking. Everyone had wet hair after a recent downpour and very few were wearing proper rain jackets or mountain boots.
Within three minutes of arriving at the medical tent we were helping to fight for a man’s life. Brendan had been lying on a cot being attended to by Dr Scott and an EMT called Aidan, and he suddenly stopped breathing. Scott warned the team and we started the resuscitation. Scott was calm but acted quickly to begin compressions, Trish ventilated. Aidan placed the pads and I prepared the drugs needed. Everyone knew their job and we did it quietly but with the absorption and intensity that is always found in the demeanor of those fighting to save someone’s life. All was quiet industry and pure distilled focus as we worked on Brendan. The rest of the world receded. Noise and colour and activity outside this scene became nothing as everyone concentrated on doing their part. And it didn’t matter what that part was, so long as we did it. This is the essence of team work and in this way amazing things are achieved.
After only one shock Brendan came back to us. He even chatted a bit although his eyes were closed. He was comically serene lying there as if he were enjoying a quick snooze, utterly unaware that his heart had just stopped and his life had been in the balance. Despite our huge relief, we were all too experienced to celebrate at this point. We had a very sick man with a heart blockage on the top of a misty mountain and he needed urgent specialised medical care.

Gratifying efficiency
This is where the expertise from the non-medics kicks in and it does so with gratifying efficiency. Jarlath and Ruth from the Mayo team and Ruth Foley had been outside the medical tent arranging transfer for our patient. Initially it seemed that the helicopter pick-up would be at sea level and Scott and the North Western Mountain Rescue team were already on their way downhill with the patient when the Coast Guard managed to land on the shoulder. Nobody objected to this change of plan. All that mattered was getting Brendan onto the chopper and off to Galway. Within a short time our patient was airlifted off to Galway and we knew that he now had a great chance of surviving his event.
There was no time for congratulations however as the next patient was already being carried down the hill by the Dublin Wicklow team, a man with a suspected shoulder dislocation, and two scalp injuries followed that in quick succession.
For the rest of the day we welcomed our patients into the tent. We separated clothes to examine the skin underneath: chests and bellies and limbs. Heart and lung sounds were listened to, blood pressures and blood sugars were taken. Scalp wounds were cleaned and splints were applied. We tried to persuade some pilgrims to turn back or accept help ,which is one of our enduring challenges on Reek Sunday, as everyone wants to complete the climb, even when it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to do so.
Many enjoyed the temporary warmth of being out of the atrocious weather. Some patients were stretchered away by the hard working mountain rescue teams, the colourful beasts of burden that dotted the mountain side. Others were walked off: the very elderly, the very wobbly, or those who have simply ‘lost the walk’, accompanied on two sides by members of Order of Malta or MRR.
Whenever there was a lull, we stood outside the tent or sat on little camping chairs to await our customers. People passing paused to catch their breath and take in the medical tent with curiosity. Many stopped to have a chat. Some tripped while they were rubber necking! Tourists asked us questions about what we were up to. Some took pictures. Maybe in some German equivalent of The Mayo News there will be a picture of us next week, the funny Irish people on their funny damp mountain.  The thought amuses me.
One old man on the way down asked me if he had been wearing his jacket on the way up.  “Em….”. I was pretending to give the matter some thought. “The beige one,” he prompted helpfully, “I’ve lost the damn thing!” forgetting that around four thousand people had passed me so far that morning.
At the end of the day on Reek Sunday 2017, we were back at base, filling ourselves with soup and stew provided by the wonderful volunteers and there was much merriment at the end of yet another successful Reek Sunday. Nobody had suffered serious injury and a life had yet again been saved.

One last rescue
With debrief done and with damp britches and happy hearts, we prepared to go home and shower before enjoying a few celebratory drinks together. However that particular pleasure had to be postponed for the Mayo team as we received a 999 call to rescue an elderly man below the shoulder. We trudged back up the mountain again, a little heavier in the legs this time, the rain now pelting down, and spent the next hour and a half carrying our patient down to the warmth of the ambulance that awaited him in the car park at Murrisk.
When it was all finally over, I got into my car and set off for home. I was wet to my drawers, dog tired and my hair looked as if I had stuck my hand in an electric socket, but as I fiddled with the heating settings and watched my wipers thump back and forth across the windscreen, I knew that we would all be back next year for more. Pilgrims have been drawn here for 1,500 years. With all of our well-meaning and self-important activity, we are just the tiniest of wrinkles in the fabric of history on this beautiful ancient mountain.

Marie Lyons is a wilderness first aid trainer and nurse, based in Louisburgh, as well as an active member of the Mayo Mountain Rescue team. She works every year in the medical tent on Reek Sunday.