It’s hard to describe but when you leave St Jean Pied de Port and begin the climb with a group of people, very rapidly you bond with them. You might have even taken a common transport to arrive in St Jean. Or stayed in the same Gite before rising in the dark to head out on your first day.
There are those who choose to split up the climb by stopping at one of two Refugios in France. Others walk all the way over to Roncesvalles in Spain in just one day. Hearty souls.
Our group started the bonding at the Pamplona bus station. Many Americans and Canadians were there waiting for the Alsa bus to St. Jean. Chris, just one of the Mainers from the US, approached us.
‘You guys look like you know what you are doing. How does this work?’
By his own admission, he had about 50lbs of camera equipment inside his pack and strapped to the outside. And a big heart. We all rode over the Pyrenees together, disembarking and fanning out in St Jean. But we would see each other the next morning bright and early.
As I’ve already written, that first day climbing up to Orrison was a scorcher. Chris joined us, stopping to take video and stills. Our rag tag sweaty group stopped at Refugio Orrison for food and to check in. Chris stopped with us.
I got rehydrated, lay down for a bit, then did the laundry. When I came back out to the tables again, Chris was gone.
‘He wanted to get to Roncesvalles.’
But it was 35 or 36 c. And it was past 2pm. The heat of the day.
‘You shouldn’t have let him leave.’ I told them. ‘He doesn’t know there isn’t a tree between here and Spain. 4 hours of climbing, if he doesn’t stop. Not a lick of shade or water.’
Other first timers shrugged. ‘He has a reservation. He wanted to go.’
I worried about Chris more than once that day. Hoping he was OK and made it to Roncesvalles. Soon my thoughts were consumed by my own trek to Roncesvalles, but I did think of him in the gusting winds the following day. Still sure it was better than what he walked through.
My arrival in Roncesvalles is already documented. I was finally able to get up and go to dinner. All of a sudden, there was Chris at the next table. He looked unwell but came over with a story to tell.
He had climbed for hours in the heat with that pack, stopping every 10 yards to rest. He quickly ran out of water but there was no place to refill his bottles. Then became violently ill. The lone food truck on the French side was long gone by the time he got there. And the only shade was down steep ravines. He was sure if he climbed down he would not have the strength to get back up. He began to lose his lunch. Over and over. Not a good sign.
‘I would have died there and no one would have found me for a long time.’
He got to the pass somehow. Maybe a kilometer from the Spanish border where the Roland water fountain is located. Along with the wind powered SOS button to call for help. But he didn’t know it was so close. He doubled back and went down to the road and lay down out in the open. Hoping for another Pilgrim to happen past. But he was the last one who had tried to make the full trek for the day. He was alone at the Roncesveaux Pass.
‘I laid there thinking ‘If this is it, it’s not so bad. I’m at peace.’
Hours went by as he laid baking in the late afternoon sun. Finally, an old couple in ‘the smallest car with the biggest dog’ drove up. Chris said the woman hopped out and they helped him into the car. She got into the back with the dog and raced him back down the mountain to get help in St Jean. They spoke no english but offered to nurse him in their home.
‘They seemed more afraid than me.’
You already know he is OK because that is how I know the story, but he easily could have died just 3 days ago. He took a bus back to Roncesvalles the next day and stayed in our pension, resting. I’m happy to say that every day this kind soul is getting stronger. As Peregrinos, we are deeply invested in each other’s success. Especially if we started together in St Jean. But it’s a cautionary tale for all of us who make reservations to ensure we have a bed, but due to ever changing circumstances should not push through pain, fight worsening weather, or ignore the safety warning signs just to make it to our Albergue.
With this in mind, I just cancelled my next stretch of reservations to Logroño and will be spending the next three days in Pamplona. To rest my knee and recover. It’s a time to play it smart. Bed reservations be damned.