Two days ago Robin Robin and I stepped out of the Hotel Etxeberri in Zumarraga to begin day two of this winter’s pilgrimage in Spain. Two days ago I was thinking the very same thoughts that flew through my mind three years ago when we first walked this route, build in some extra time for possible problems on the mountain. So we taxi’d of to the small village of Legazpi and that chopped off 5kms from the day’s walk. It was a cloudy day with occasional rain showers slanting down. The upper mountain views showed some snow on their peaks. So onward we went climbing up out of the valley floor following the trail towards the summit approach. The approach trail was mostly free of snow, but once we turned off to start to the summit the snow was there in abundance. Almost immediately the drifts were calf high. This is the point that a wise person would just call it a day and head back down. But having climbed this mountain before I reasoned it might be a slow day but it would be doable. Upward we went ever so slowly. Me breaking trail and Robin following. We had a gps and were using it to locate the trail as all we could see was a white featureless sheet. A zig here and a zag there finally brought us to some familiar terrain. The snow drifts at this point were thigh to crotch deep. Breaking trail through this while ascending a very steep grade was exhausting. My foot would go down and I would sink to my thigh. I would then lean into the grade to widen the hole so I could pull my foot out. Then I would try and tamp down a place where Robin could put her foot as she ascended right behind me. One can see this was a time consuming and laborious process. When this process was completed we might have advanced six inches. That was the drill that repeated itself all the way to the summit. It took perhaps two hours to reach the summit, 3000 feet up. By now the snow was falling hard and a stiff wind drove it right into our eyes. I spotted the summit trail marker and gazed down towards what would be our descent route. It looked familiar, but….My gps was freezing over with ice and my glasses were fogged with exertion. We started down. Using a gps is only as effective as the frequency with which you reference it. Due to the continued presence of very deep snow our focus was on trying not to break a leg, which distracted us from watching the gps more closely. When next I looked st the gps there was a sizable rock outcropping between us and the Camino Ignaciano (CI) trail. My thinking was we were going down (that is good) and we were paralleling the CI trail (also good), but as we moved on down it became clear there wasn’t a good cross over point in our immediate future. Mind you we were still in the six inch step mode as we tried to avoid all manner of obstacles (discovered by suddenly sinking to the waist) hidden beneath the snow. One particularly aggravating problem was plunging unexpectedly into very deep snow and slipping forward so that your boot now has a high column of snow over it which prevents you from pulling your foot out. The solution is to take your hiking pole and excavate the snow above your boot until you can wiggle free. Keep in mind all this extraction is going on while wind driven snow is blinding you and adding to the already dangerously deep drifts. So when we happened upon a seasonal shepherd’s hut, and remembering all the challenges of this day, we agreed to halt for the night. At this point we were perhaps 3 kms from Arantzazu, our destination, but with the short winter days and the unrelenting snow drifts it would have been almost suicidal to continue. We had excellent 20 degree F. sleeping bags with us and the temperature was forecasted to be at freezing or slightly lower. Our bivouac site consisted of an exposed porch with a full ceiling and partial walls, It also had a cord of split firewood that Robin used to lay a floor to keep our sleeping bags off the cold wet floor. We next spread some cut up plastic bags to help keep our sleeping bags dry from the bottom side. The final touch was to pop open our umbrellas and place them advantageously around our bags to help fend of loft killing moisture.
When we arrived at the hut the temperature was right at freezing and we were soaked through with sweat from the exertions of the day. So we stripped off all our soaked clothes and socks, and put on every piece of dry clothing we had. Then back on went the waterproofs, the woolie hats, and buffs. It is especially important to always put on dry socks to prevent frostbite.
So the scene was set and the players were on stage, but the dialogue was minimal. We squirmed and moved and tucked and untucked legs throughout that interminable night. But dawn did arrive and with it a plan to find our trail to Arantzazu and get there. We broke camp at first light (about 9 am) and set out once again into the deep snow. We shuffled along and after a few false starts there it was, the way home. With our spirits lifted, and a marginal decrease in the depth of snow we made best speed for Arantzazu where we arrived as the Sanctuary bells tolled 12 noon.
The weather made it impossible to complete our scheduled walk from Arantzazu to San Roman. So muy pronto we booked a taxi to take us to San Roman de Milan, where we knew a truck stop hotel with wonderfully heated rooms and a laundromat awaited us.
So the past two days were revealing in several ways. Here are some lessons learned. First, even seasoned pilgrims can make bad decisions (that is the human part), having a trusted hiking/climbing partner is essential (I trust Robin implicitly), don’t panic when things go wrong, focus on how to make them right, carry the gear you need to survive a night on the mountain, and finally God watches out for pilgrims.
The journey continues.