Braving the Pyrenees on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela

One of the first warnings that a winter peregrino hears upon entering the Pilgrims’ Office in Saint Jean Pied-de-Port is that the Route Napoleon is closed.  This is stated regardless of weather, which is unpredictable and takes great delight in killing people who try to defy it by crossing the Pyrenees between October and May.  Hearing this advice on March 2, having just recovered my lost backpack from the airport in Pamplona, I was disappointed because of the spectacular views I would miss.  All things considered, however, I would rather pass through Valcarlos than die in the snow.

The Pilgrims’ Office had provided a map out of Saint Jean, showing the divergence of routes, one along the road and one into the mountains.  I felt I had a pretty good idea of where the split occurred, and to be sure, I used my remedial French to ask other walkers, “N’est pas la Route Napoleon, oui?”  Encouraged by their responsorial “Non,” I continued cheerfully along, despite the ominous clouds gathering overheard and the fires burning on the hillsides.  That is, of course, until I found myself in Huntto, which I had researched previously to gauge weather conditions in the Pyrenees.

As the wind picked up and the rain started to sprinkle, this presented a nasty dilemma: either I could walk back 10K to the beginning and start over, or I could attempt the route with a notorious tendency for murder.  Neither felt particularly appealing, so I sat down on a rock to weigh my options.  Then, from out of the distance, a group of six French women, whom I had interrogated before, appeared, day packs and walking sticks at the ready.  They were locals, and they fully intended to cross the snowy mountains in the gathering storm.

Though they did not speak a word of English, and I a few poor French phrases, I fell in with their group as the rain built to a downpour.  Two of our party dropped out to return home, an ominous sign from the start, but as the remaining four pressed on, I followed.  Somehow, despite the language barrier, we laughed at each other’s jokes and commiserations, largely delivered through onomatopoeia.  Up, up, up we went in the driving rain, past scattered shepherds’ huts to the Virgen de Orisson, a lone statue of Mary keeping watch over the chasm below.

This statue’s beauty raised my spirits immensely, lessening the anxiety that might have come from the vague trail, the memorial cross for the fallen, and the vultures circling below us.  Having crested the Col de Lepoeder, we rested in a shack out of the wind and rain, and my companions shared their lunch and my new favorite French word: “Mangez!”  Finally, after postholing through the deep snow over another ridge, Roncesvalles, our destination, appeared below us.  Descending joyfully, we parted there as the four miracle women caught a cab home and I counted my blessings.