23/01/23 – 29/01/23 158 km
I followed the road out of San Sebastián to the small village of Lezo. I had to go this way as those walking the Camino usually crossed the river downstream by boat which of course wasn’t an option for me. I was feeling fresh after two day’s rest and managed to rattle off the first ten kilometres in under two hours. Once in the village I began a long arduous climb up to 300m where I would remain for the rest of the day.
Temperatures were below zero and I was struggling to operate my phone with my hands. I followed the frozen mud path for a further ten kilometres before dropping down into Irun. It was just as cold at sea level. Once there, I was grateful for the small heater in my hotel room even if the place smelt horrendously. I spent the evening preparing my bag for the next few days as I knew I would have to camp in freezing conditions at least once.
The next morning I left around 9am and followed the River Bidasoa, which marks the border with France, out of town. It kept me company for fifteen kilometres until reaching the small town of Bera in the foothills of the Pyrenees. After the previous week I was grateful for the gravel path and steady ascent. The only issue I faced that morning was fording a small stream using a metal ladder which had been placed horizontally. Although it was precarious I was grateful that I wasn’t carrying a bicycle like the French couple behind me!
Once in Bera I had a quick coffee, as I knew it would be the last sign of civilization until I arrived in Elizondo the next evening. In order to get there I had to complete the first stage of the GR11 and a section of the lesser used Camino, the Baztan. The GR11 was a different animal to the Caminos. The climb out of town was practically vertical. Despite the freezing temperatures I was sweating within minutes.
Fortunately, once I had climbed to around 600m, the path levelled out and any changes in altitude, whether up or down, were smoother. After about twenty five kilometres I arrived at a restaurant that marked the border with France. I was well above the snow line now and clearly the only one mad enough to be there. Instead of following the usual path away from the restaurant I cut south in order to avoid crossing the border. You can imagine how annoyed I was, when I found out that despite having walked an extra kilometre, I had already inadvertently crossed the border when trying to read a sign a few moments before!
Safely back on the GR11 I made a quick detour to check out a refuge. I wanted to make sure it was open in case I was caught out by bad weather later that night. Although it was open it was filthy so I would only use it as an absolute last resort. I still had another four kilometres to my intended camp spot where I planned to pitch the tent next to a couple of picnic tables and a water fountain.
About five hundred metres short of my pitch I stopped to chat with the farmer who owned the land. He was happy for me to camp although he was unsure why I wanted to. In fact, he said I was the first person to camp there in winter! When I finally arrived at the campsite, it was about an hour and a half before sunset. Of course the water fountain had frozen solid, so I had to work fast to melt enough snow in order to fill my hot water bottle.
By the time I had set up the tent and melted enough water, I had lost all feeling in my hands and feet. It was a struggle to complete the most basic of tasks, for example, unzipping the door! It took me an hour inside the sleeping bag to get my body back to a temperature where I felt normal. This said, despite the initial shock to the system, once I managed to get warm I had one of the best night’s sleep I’d had for a long time.
The next morning I had to complete all of the tasks in reverse. By the time I had the last item in my bag, I had lost the feeling in my hands. It wasn’t until I had walked for 47 minutes that I could feel them again. When the feeling returned it was pain! I also faced another issue, I had no water. Despite the vast amounts of snow, I was very cautious about drinking it, due to the large numbers of livestock. A bout of diarrhoea was the last thing I needed in the middle of nowhere.
Once I had overcome potential hypothermia and I relaxed into a steady rhythm, I was in my element, the landscape was beautiful and I felt like I was the only one around for miles. I was lucky, as despite my inadequate footwear, the ground was so hard I was able to glide along the top, thus making walking conditions relatively easy. Something that would change dramatically the next day…
Day 148 was the hardest day of the walk so far. It started relatively easily as I left Elizondo via the main road and climbed slowly through the villages of Berroeta and Ziga. It was when I left the latter that things really started to change. Firstly, after briefly descending to pass under the motorway, I was forced to climb a narrow path that meandered up to the village of Almandoz. Or as I like to call it the gateway to hell.
Once out of the village I was immediately walking on snow. However, unlike yesterday, due to the slightly warmer temperatures, it was beginning to thaw. This meant that at times I was knee deep. Progress was slow and each step was sapping any energy I had left after nearly five months on the road. Despite the conditions I managed to force myself up higher to the harder snow. At first I was grateful to be able to walk, however once above 800m I lost all visibility. It was a complete whiteout. I could see no further than a metre. The path had completely disappeared.
Fortunately I had been in this position before. Despite my initial panic I managed to calm myself down and took stock of the situation. I knew I was a couple of kilometres short of a mountain pass (a crossroad in the hills) and after that I would begin to descend once more. I was certain that once I was below 600m visibility would return. So all I had to do was walk two kilometres blind. At least I had the map on my phone, good old Windy (or mapy.cz as it’s now known) as we like to say!
After what seemed like an eternity I made it to the crossroads. Once there, the adrenaline eased off and the cold set in. I had walked the whole ridge in a long sleeve t-shirt. I was freezing. After adding two layers and forcing myself to eat a banana I headed over a frozen gate and began to descend. I was right, as I dropped, visibility began to improve and soon, I could see a church in the distance. The only issue now was that I was back on the thawing snow and this time it was melting fast, creating a glacial stream that soon filled my shoes.
I had gone from one perilous situation to the next. With each step I was losing feeling in my toes and I had no choice but to continue. The further I descended, the deeper the snow got. Each step was a mammoth effort, made worse by the fact that I couldn’t feel my feet as I planted them. This went on for over ten kilometres. What else could I do? After three hours like this, I finally arrived in the village of Lantz where I could take refuge in a bar. Closed. Of course it bloody was, I don’t know why I let myself think otherwise.
So I plodded on, walking the last five kilometres to Olague over a mixture of flooded paths and back roads. When I arrived at the Albergue I was grateful to be alive. This was the first day where I had started to question whether any of this was worth it. If I had been an inexperienced hiker I could have died up there. But I am not, I have been in those positions before and for that reason I knew exactly what to do. These are the fine lines, although it always feels more intense when you are on your own.
I woke up the next morning to a light dusting of snow. I had a quick coffee in the local bar (paid for by a lovely guy called Jose Mari) and set off to complete the final twenty five kilometres to Pamplona. I was well below the snowline now so knew that I wouldn’t have the same issues as yesterday and was grateful that I did not have to be on high alert.
The walk was unspectacular. Despite the fact that the ground was boggy from the recent snow melt I was grateful for the monotony of an easy day. Prior to entering Pamplona the path joined the Camino Frances which I had walked several years earlier with Nick. It is always nice to be on familiar territory so far away from home. Once in Pamplona I checked into a hostel next to the Cathedral where I would stay for two nights.
I spent the whole of Saturday relaxing, leaving only once to wash my clothes. It was long overdue!
After an appalling night’s sleep I was happy to leave on Sunday morning. I had been woken just after 4am by a returning stag party. The walk out of town filled me with nostalgia as I retraced the route I had taken with Nick a few years earlier. However this time, instead of descending down the path that induced one of the world’s greatest bouts of swearing (Nick not me) I continued to the summit of Alto del Perdón, 1034m. Once above 800m I was back in the snow but it didn’t last long as I quickly descended to the village of Tiebas and one of the nicest Albergues so far.
From here I will begin the Camino Aragónes in reverse until Jaca. Then I will head south slong the Camino San Juame / Catalán until I arrive in Barcelona. With 474 km left to go I have a little over two weeks walking and after last week I am very much looking forward to finishing!