“There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it.” – Charles Dudley Warner
How true the quote above! 24 Kilometers, with a climb of 165 meters above sea level to 1430 meters, an incredible challenge we took today.
Six a.m., wake up time. Most of our fellow pilgrims have already packed and are headed out, we are slow in moving as Jessica is trying to get a few more minutes of sleep, I tell her we needed to get going as it was going to be a very tough day with lots of climbs on the Pyrenees.
We had no idea what was in store for us, we started the day with a few pastries and a baguette. Within half an hour into our first day's journey we had our first hard climb, so it was off the bicis and walking them or I should say pushing them uphill. We had been told that most cyclist take the road on the first stage with the traffic; meaning cars, trucks, and buses. But after traveling on that same road the day before from Pamplona to reach our starting point I felt it would be too dangerous for us. For the first 2-3 kilometers it was going smoothly on and off the bike depending on the difficulty of the climb, but the weather changed slowly. First a light wind , then a drizzle that soon became a heavy rain and the weather went from about 70 degrees to about 45 within an hour. It looked and felt like a light ice as we rose in elevation, we were now above the cloud level and the discomfort slowly came in.
Now four hours into our ascend we were soaking wet, Jessica had a light rain jacket and I just a warm up top. Jessy was having a difficult time pushing her bike up the mountain, so I would go 50-60 yards ahead and drop off my bike then come back and help her with her bike through the rocky, muddy tracks that by now were very wet and slippery. Each bend on the road was an uphill but our hopes were that soon we would reach the summit or at least a flat 80-100 yards were we would not have to work so hard. At one time it was so cold that we reached into our panniers for something warm to wear but it was just about all wet by now. I become so frustrated that I threw my airline pillow down one mountain because I could not fit it back in the pannier. By now my hands were shaking pretty hard due to the freezing rain and I was without any rain gear. We pushed on, but the cold air and rain was coming in sideways from the valley below. Then at the top of the next bend we saw a sign that showed the yellow arrows directing us off the main trail and on a muddy trail steeper up the mountain and on to Roncesvalles.
Jessy looked tired but she pushed on at every challenge. I knew that my body was about to shut down, my hands were shaking uncontrollably and I decided to set up the tent to get a break from the weather and let our bodies warm up a little. We tried setting up our tent just to the right side of the sign on this photo, but the wind was so hard that the tent was blowing sideways, so I asked Jessy to hold down the tent while I went to look at the other side of the mountain to see if the wind was not as strong,
I found a concrete barrier to block us from the wind, so I went back over to the other side of the peak and Jessy and I picked up the tent and carried it assembled to behind the barrier. I was not able to push the stakes into the ground because every time I held them I would drop them from my uncontrollable shaking as well as my right hand had swollen up. Jessy was able to get the tent held down and put down the stakes to keep it in place while I made the trips back to the other side to get our bikes. I found later that the concrete barriers were built in strategic spots for stranded peregrinos in harsh weather.
We got into the tent and soon found some clothes that were not as wet as the others near the bottom of the panniers. We quickly changed. I ended up putting on my dress pants which I wore on the flight over because it was the only dry item in my bag. Jessica got inside her sleeping bag to warm up but first took a picture of her now purple legs to show how cold it had gotten.
We stayed in the tent for what seemed a couple of hours. Jessy fell asleep and I could not find a comfortable position as I was laying on a rock. Soon after the wind calmed down and I had a decision to make, would we spend the night or move on. It was only about four in the afternoon. It would be too long of a stay in the mountain, what would the weather would be like that night, would it freeze, would it snow, would someone find us in days half frozen?
I made the decision to move on, I opened up the tent and looked around, we were by ourselves, we got a late start and we fell behind because unlike the other peregrinos we were pushing our bikes so we were moving slower. I thought even now in cold weather we would eventually warm up after moving up the mountain and certainly the descent must come sometime soon. There was new hope at every bend in the climb.
As Jessica woke up, she looked outside the tent and saw a horse, she said, maybe the horse could take her down the mountain, then a second horse appeared, she said that horse was for me, then a third, that horse would take our bicis.
As we continued our climb we kept looking for clues as to how far we were away from our first night's rest, but very little came, just a yellow arrow here and there. Being up in the mountains, walking in the clouds had an intimidating feeling, but we kept each other positive. Jessy kept talking about what she was hungry for, what good foods she would eat when we were home again. Phở was what she wanted; Jessy would say "as soon as I get home I’m going to eat phở". I told her all I wanted was a Blizzard from Dairy Queen.
Within a couple of more hours we started our slow descent, now we had to hold our bikes from getting away as it was now muddy from the earlier rain. Soon after we finally arrived in Roncesvalles.
From about 300-400 yards away, we saw the medieval monastery Orreaga. We looked at each other , we could not believe we had arrived. As we went inside, the hostelries kept starring at us but they were very helpful to our needs, we were wearing see-through trash bags as rain gear and I was in dress pants and muddy. We checked in, paid our 5 Euros each and received our second stamp on our Pilgrims passport. Jessica had to fill out our paperwork because my hands were so swollen from breaking on the bike and the freezing rain that I could not hold a pen steady.
We asked if we could do some laundry, but were told that laundry service had closed at 7 pm, but to our luck the lady felt sorry for us and asked us to bring our laundry after getting cleaned up that she would help us out. We ended up paying 2.70 Euro for a load of laundry and the rest we hung up to dry and would pick it up in the morning.
We locked our bikes away and were given two bunk beds for the night and while Jessy showered I cleaned off our shoes outside and set them in the shoes rack to dry a bit overnight , which is separate from the dorm to keep the smell out..
The volunteer host let us borrow towels for the showers and later I asked to borrow a sleeping bag for the night since all we had was either wet or being laundered. Finally at about 9 p.m. we walked over to a restaurant next to the albergue and had dinner, a small Lasagna, a small pizza and eight croquetas of ham and cheese.
Back at the Monastery we had a mess all around us, we did our best to keep it confined to our small area. Jessy took the bunk above and I the one below, I did not have the energy to climb up to my bed. Other peregrinos kept starring at us as they walked to the showers and restroom pass us. ( Keep in mind that most walkers had arrived between two and four in the afternoon) Finally at about 10:30 we laid down to sleep. That night we sleep well.
Today we were on the road for over ten hours, of that, we maybe cycled a total of one hour, the rest was either pushing our bikes uphill or holding down on the brakes downhill so the bikes would not get away. Never have we taken such a difficult physical challenge.