Sunday, January 30, 2011

First Day of Camino Sorely Tests Seattle Pilgrim Flock

Dawn, Alison, Jackie and a new friend outside the albergue
at Orisson, about 10 kms up the pass with the only
services between St. Jean and Roncesvalles.
It was about 5:30 in the morning when the first of our beloved fellow pilgrims began to rattle around the albergue. First it was their bathroom trips. Then it was their flashlights. Then it was their crinkly plastic bags. Then it was their hushed voices. Then it was their heavy boots on the wooden floors, then it was their voices outside the windows. By 6:00, after the first wave of pilgrims was out the door, our proud Seattle group showed no signs of stirring.

But by 7:00 it was clear we could lay in bed no longer. Someone turned on the bunk room lights and our sleepy-eyed Seattle group was up and out of bed. To the bathroom for the brushing of teeth, to the packs for the stuffing of clothes and toiletries, to the dining table for the eating of toast and jam, to the entryway for the tying of bootlaces, and out to the cobblestones of the long, medieval, main street of St. Jean Pied-de-Port for the walking of a pilgrimage.

There we were, the Twelve. Alphabetically: Alison, Bart, Catherine, Dana, Dawn, Elissa, Greta, Jackie, John, Lisa, and Susan -- and I. The Twelve Apostles? The Twelve Disciples? The Twelve Horsemen of the Apocalypse? The Dirty Dozen? By whatever name we shall be called we twelve set our faces to the high peaks ahead.

Pilgrims often leave flowers at the statue of Virgin Mary
at Col Lepoeder, near the summit of today's hike across
the Pyrenees from St. Jean to Roncesvalles.
The first day out of St. Jean is well-known as being the hardest of any day on the Camino de Santiago. It's said that if you can survive the first day's ordeal you can survive anything the Camino will throw at you. The way up is 1200 meters -- 3,937 feet -- and the way down is another 500 meters -- 1,640 feet. That's a combined elevation change of nearly 5,500 feet.

Some people will say, "Ah, please, the way down is much easier than the way up." Our group will testify that some people are wrong. Climbing 3900 feet is a cardio exercise. Descending 1640 feet is a musculo-skeletal exercise, an exercise of feet and knees and hips, of quads and calves and hamstrings. The downhill slope is steep enough that caution is important. No running or even quick walking or a skinned knee or bruised tailbone or muscle pull or most anything could happen.

How was the walk? Long. In truth, the way up is not Seattle steep, not like a Dravus Street, just a relentless climb, much of it paved, with some walking on dirt track. To get a sense of the journey, imagine a Mt. Si hike (a 3100 ft elevation gain in 4 miles) with another 20% elevation tacked on, blessedly stretched out over two and a half times the distance. In local terms it's steep, but not scary steep like climbing one of our mountains. I think flat landers don't really understand that in Seattle we know mountains when we see them, and these are very big hills. In fact, I'd have to say that hiking up Mt. Si would be a good training test for anyone who'd want to do the Camino's first day over the Pyrenees. If you can do Mt. Si you've got this one licked.

Try as we might, today did bring its mishaps. Not a bad list, but a list of owies and ailments nevertheless:
  • Alison -- Broken bootlace. A surprisingly unlucky event, with the nearest new lace over 50 kms away;
  • Bart -- Was first up the hill. What's with that? Now he shall suffer our envy;
  • Catherine -- The constant attention of Italian male pilgrims. 'Nuf said;
  • Dana -- Blisters on the balls of the feet;
  • Dawn -- Caught in the quick rain squall without her pack cover, now drying everything on her bunk. Until today I'd never seen pink hiking socks.
  • Elissa -- Second up the hill. All that running really pays off;
  • Greta -- Blisters between each of her toes;
  • Jackie -- Broke a fingernail. Seriously; 
  • John -- Blisters on the ankle;
  • Lisa -- Blisters on the heel;
  • Susan -- Blisters on the hands -- from hiking poles!

After a long, hilly walk it's nice to have a medieval
monastery to sleep in. Here: the Monastery at
Roncesvalles, Spain, our first overnight on the Camino.
In spite of our aches and pains here we are on the other side of the mountain, all Terrific Twelve of us, happy to see the gray stone walls of the monastery at Roncesvalles, Spain and happy to sleep a night in the monastery bedroom with 100 bunks full of people from all over the world. After the 7:00 Mass, in which pilgrims' native countries were read in thickly-Basque-accented Spanish, none of us could even contemplate a nightcap at one of the tiny hamlet's two restaurants. We were early to bed with our 99 bunk mates, wondering how we'd do another 28 kilometers in the morning, with at least 30 more mornings and 750 kilometers to go.

(Today's progress is based on a combined total of 21 exercise miles posted by cyber pilgrims as of Jan 30, 2011)


  1. Gail reads Sandy's post, sitting in a small plaza around the corner from the Escuela Univresitaria de Trebajo Social, in a little bar where Edwardo has just delivered a delightful martini limon y jengibre. Edwardo has suggested he buy Gail cena at a little seafood restaurant near the Cathedral. Alas, Edwardo, my heart belongs to Sandy... Gail thinks that "The 12 days of Christmas" make a nice title for the pilgrims, and would like to point out that the worst injury she has experienced on this camino is a sunburn sustained at an outdoor market in the afternoon.....

  2. While we were in Roncesvalles, I hoped we would be able to see some commemoration of the battle celebrated in La Chanson de Roland, but frankly I was too tired to do much looking around. Perhaps another time!