It is the end of the third day of the journey and already there have been so many experiences… all positive, although a few have been a bit gnarly at the time.
The first morning, Friday 6th September, leaving St Jean Pied de Port there was excitement tinged with anticipatory fear of what was to come and a little gnawing of doubt around my physical capacity. Fortunately, we had decided to forward our big packs onto Roncevalles, and set out with our day packs filled with food, water & anything else we thought we might need along the way. As we walked over the bridge out if town we turn to see a statue of Mother Mary watching over us, as she does any Pilgrim that walks that path.
Immediately leaving the walls of the town the climb into the Pyrenees started – as far as we could see was uphill on a 65 degree gradient. Coming from a very flat part of Western Australia, this was my first new experience. I chose not to look too far ahead, focussing on just putting one step after the other, stopping to rest frequently, and looking back at how far I had come.
At one point there was a huge tree, its leaves quivering, calling us to come and stand under its canopy to draw energy from it – something that was to happen many times during the climb. Onward and upward we went, stopping to rest at a farm house (Hunto) to enjoy a restorative cup of tea. Many people passed us, striding out in their conquest of this mountain. We were happy enough to go slowly, enjoying the ever changing vista of mountains, hills and valleys with villages and farmhouses dotted all over – it was breathtakingly beautiful. The higher altitude was also breathtaking on a very literal sense, and I was really struggling to the point where I sat on a rock on the side of the road and cried. My dear travelling companion gave me a stern talking to and I remembered I had a tissue salts spray for physical and mental exhaustion – a couple of squirts under my tongue and away we went again to arrive at Orisson – a spot where some call it a day. It had taken us six hours to walk that far, and we were only a third of the way. We had met a grandmother & grandaughter and enjoyed another cup of tea, a chat and a good few laughs.
We set of for what we thought was another five hours of walking at about 3.30pm. The gradient continued to be at 65 degrees and we were walking one step after the other on sheer will. As we got higher, about 1100 metres above sea level we were literally walking in the clouds, and a misty rain started – the damp seeping into everything. The mountain eerily echoed the bells of the sheep and horses that were grazing all around, and at one point a huge horse followed us along the track. Although it was foggy and misty, it was still daylight and we were travelling ok.
Things were about to get hairy though – the yellow arrows that mark the way guided us of the road onto a mountain pathway – for a time it was as though there was a light guiding our way – we both remarked on this later. Inevitably the darkness descended and with it came steady rain. We had our little head lamps to show us the path for our next step, and most importantly the way markers – at this point, visibility was about half metre. I had to stay fully present in each moment – my life depended on it.
As we neared the peak of the mountain, Col de Lepoeder at 1450m it started to storm with lightening and thunder. This was getting to be real scary shit now, and it became a real possibilty that we could die on this mountain. I heard my big boy’s voice telling me to count between the lightening and the thunder – 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000 – it wasn’t too close at the moment, but which way was moving? The next one was 5000, then 7000, then 9000 – the storm was moving quickly and away from us – phew – that was a relief.
There was still much to contend with as we started to descent on a stony path that was wet, with a sheer drop on one side. Again, our survival was dependent on being fully present and alert, a monumental challenge given how mentally and physically exhausted we were feeling. We both agreed out best chance was to push on – if we stopped we would probably freeze to death.
At one point we couldn’t make out the path, although the markers were pointing that way. I turned on my phone and thankfully got signal, using the Maps App to establish that we were very close to the road into Roncevalle, although we still have over 5kms to walk. We made it into Roncevalle at about 11.30pm – cold, tired wet and hungry to everthing closed. Our packs had been forwarded to a hotel, so we made our way there. We could see a light in the window and pushed the door which opened… the foyer, but no sign on our packs or another living soul. We found a toilet, a blessed relief – and upstairs a TV room with two small couches. Such a relief to lay our weary bodies down to rest. We dozed on and off – too wet and cold to go into a deep sleep – until the hotel opened at 8.00am. We retrieved our packs, had breakfast, got our passport stamped and set off for the village of Espanil 8 or so kms down the track.
Fortunately the path was gentler and took us through a magical forest. This part of Spain, Navarra, is witch territory and it is easy to see why. The tree energy is strong and restorative, huge beech trees happily sharing theirs with us. About a km out of Espinal it started to rain, lovely and refreshing at first. In another shit your pants moment there was a clap of thunder right above us, and the heavens opened with torrential rain. Just as we got to the portico of our accommodation it started to hail – a blessed relief that we were not caught in that after all we had endured.
A hot shower and cup of tea did wonders in restoring our spirit, as did the hearty dinner and warm bed.
This morning the effects of our first day on the mountain screamed out of every muscle in our legs. We made the choice not to travel too far as our packs were laden with wet washing that hadn’t gone anywhere near drying overnight. Todays 6 or so kms were tough given our physical state – steep inclines or steep descents… the inclines putting heaps of strain on our muscles and the descents hammering our joints. Again much of the path was through beech forests, and we took the time to enjoy the wild flowers and other visual gifts that Mother Nature offered us.
We arrived at our accommodation in Viskarret at siesta time. It is a beautiful little village and after a bit of a stroll around, we joined the locals in having a well deserved afternoon nap. We have met some lovely people along the journey thus far and enjoyed their company this evening, along with a hearty pilgrims’ dinner and a hot bath.
Tomorrow is another day – and who knows what it will hold… however it can be pretty much guaranteed, based on the past three days, that there will be a multitude of new experiences and challenges to enjoy and conquer. The journey continues……..
Faith, Trust, and a little Stardust…..