Greg had set an alarm on his iPhone to get us up on time. We both slept very well. We got our main bags packed and lugged them downstairs to the proscribed area. Madame Chiqui surprised us by already having breakfast ready earlier than expected. We had orange juice, toast, butter, eggs, croissants, and strawberry jam. I had a large pot of coffee all to myself — something I did not know would be a rare occurrence in the days to come. There were some oranges and apples that we took with us for our backpacks to include in our provisions for lunch. At this point, Greg and I were primarily concerned about the weather conditions for our trek over the mountain. We had agreed that if the weather was bad, we would not take the Route Napoleon, but would opt for the lower route that was longer but not as dangerous in rain and snow. Madame Chiqui informed us that the weather report was for clear skies today, so we should encounter no difficulties, but that would not be the case for the next few days when heavy rain was forecast. So, thinking that our timing was good, we decided to give it a go. We were able to leave the hotel by 8:30am, stop at the market on the way to obtain the bread and cheese, and it was just a short walk until we were at the outskirts of St. Jean and headed up the road that led to the way over the mountain. There was a continual grade uphill for at least four miles as we wandered through countryside that was in full springtime bloom. Before long, we decided to strip down to t-shirts and shorts, because the temperature was getting to what appeared to be about 80 degrees F.
Greg was moving on ahead of me, his pace being much faster going up the hill. We agreed that he should keep going and I would catch up later. Just beyond Huntto, the trail veered off to the left and up a steep rocky hill. About 1 kilometer up the trail from here, I came across two people who were stopped to take a rest. I stopped also and we began to chat. The man (Charlie) was from Liverpool, England and the woman was American. They were not together, but had just met up on the trail. As we started to walk together, I found out that Charlie had been on the Camino about two years earlier, but did not finish because his feet bothered him so badly. He said that he had gotten as far as Sarria and had to drop out. The woman was called Claire, and she was from Walnut Creek, CA, and I remembered seeing her on the train from Bayonne. Claire explained that she was between jobs at home and was determined to make the trip all by herself. She stated that her husband was dithering about preparing to go, so she just decided to stop waiting for him, not knowing when she would have another opportunity to go.
At one point, I made a statement that if we could all just get through today, the worst part of the trip was over. When Charlie heard this, he threw his head back and laughed uproariously, “That would definitely not be the case, mate!” And then he laughed for a while. When I asked him to clarify, he said that there were many challenges ahead, some of them quite daunting.
By now, Claire was really struggling to get up the mountain. Charlie was trying as best he could to council her on walking and what she needed to do to make it. It was clear to all who saw her that she was not prepared for the trip and the physical rigors the walk demanded. She told me she walked around the Oakland hills all the time, but her physical condition belied this. Claire still felt she could make it even though, at this point, she was only one-third of the way to Roncesvalles. At the pace she was moving, it was unlikely that she could make sufficient headway to avoid darkness in the woods on the other side of the mountains. We tried to convince her to stop at Orisson and get a taxi back to St. Jean. From there she could take a bus to Roncesvalles, and then go on. As we approached Orisson, she appeared to be considering this. Greg and I kept on going at Orisson, and we didn’t see her the rest of the day. It appeared that Charlie stopped at Orisson, too, and we did not see him for the rest of the day, or the rest of the trip, for that matter. It occurred to me that he might have taken transportation to Sarria, and then finished the trip from there.
That day, going up, there were many other fellow pilgrims we kept encountering. We would pass them, then they would pass us, and so on and so on. Of particular interest was a trio of guys who were traveling with very light packs. They were middle-aged and were moving along at a rapid pace up the hill. Even Greg had a hard time keeping up with them, and after a couple of kilometers, they left him in the dust. We saw these guys many days later on and had some interesting discussions with one of them.
Near the top, we were privileged to encounter a large flock of Griffon Vultures (about 2 dozen). These are magnificent creatures with wingspans of 8 feet. We watched them circle around a distant valley, perhaps waiting for some sheep to die. In many respects, they reminded me of the California Condors.
After about 8 hours, we thought we had reached Col Lepoeder, but a passing Brit warned us that we still had some “ups” to go. It was about one mile later that we began the final ascent. By this time, there was snow still remaining on the ground, and the wind increased its ferocity. I kept telling myself to take “one step at a time” and I would somehow make it to the top. Finally, Col Lepoeder was in front of me, and just around a rock sat Greg smiling and waiting for me. Soon we began the long and extremely steep climb down. The first 50 meters or so was deep snow, and I found that the easiest way to navigate my way down was to ski it. I put the poles in the ground and slid down with my boots performing quite well as skis. From there it was dense woods all around, with calf-deep leaves sometimes and then long stretches of rock and root-strewn paths.
After 11 hours we finally reached Roncesvalles, and turned right at the side of the La Posada hostel and up the short incline to Casa Beneficiado, our hotel for the night. This is a remarkable place with stone floors throughout and all recently remodeled. Our room had a separate living area with sofa and arm chairs, a full kitchen, and a very modern bathroom with a glorious shower. We were too late to make the early dinner at 7:30, so we had to opt for the later one at 8:30. The hosts conducted us to a large table that we shared with approximately 12 people. Closest to us was a middle-aged French couple and a young woman from New Zealand. Across the table were some pleasant French folks who were actually eager to show off their English speaking abilities. The older French couple spoke no English, so it was time to test my ability to remember my French. Surprisingly, it came back to me quicker than I thought it would. Altogether it was quite a cordial experience for our first night on The Camino. For the meal, I had a delicious vegetable soup and grilled pork with French Fries. Wine and dessert were included. The WiFi connection only worked in the lobby, so Greg and I spent some time sitting there in comfortable arm chairs connecting with home and sending some pictures via Facebook. It was all we could do to stay awake, and soon we were fast asleep in our comfortable room.