Camino Stage 1: St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

The daunting first day across the Pyrenees from France to Spain, and rated as the toughest day of the entire Camino. And the first 10 kilometres are the supposed to be the toughest so it’s best to start early, and try do it in stages without going out too fast too early. After all this is only the first day. At least this was my thinking before I set out to cross the mountains.

This first day was tough. This first day was brutal. I believed that I had prepared pretty well, walked a lot of kilometres before hand, I visited the Pilgrim Office in St Jean.

I left St Jean at around 8am with plenty of other pilgrims on the road, walking up into early mists. After a couple of kilometres the going becomes steeper. The altitude chart above shows Orisson at 750m – it’s actually at about 950m. You climb 700 metres in 7 kilometres to Orisson, and 800 metres in 8 kilometres to reach the first peak – Pic D’Orisson at just over 1000m. This climb is as much about determination and attitude as fitness. It is a series of continuous switchbacks with little relief. I lost count of how many; 20-30 perhaps. As you reach every corner you think that you may at last be at the summit only to see the next corner – or perhaps the next 4-5 corners and switchbacks ahead and above you. It is mental attitude as well as physical endurance that carries you through. You have to walk at your own pace and not try to keep up with anyone unless it is comfortable. Take as many breaks for breath as needed and just keep going.

And when you do take a breather, the views looking back to St Jean are wonderful.

 After one and a half to two hours of solid climbing you finally reach Orisson. Every pilgrim stops for a well earned break before restarting the ascent.

I arrived at around the same time that 8 others did – 3 New Zealanders, an American, a German included. Six of those opted to stay at Orisson for the night. It was 10am. That’s how tough it was. I had no real choice, I had a reservation in Roncesvalles in Spain.

After another tough 200m climb you eventually get to an easier portion in the high hills. Magnificent scenery with hawks soaring both above and below you, and still snow capped mountains in the distance. The only other animals I saw were the horses roaming free.

There are also local walkers. I had a great conversation in broken French – English while standing on what I could easily image was the top of the world. Imagine a tall Frenchman: black beret, red jacket and pure White beard and moustache. His companion translated for him and we talked for 10 minutes or so, before wishing each other Bon Journee and go different ways. The Camino is that sort of trip.

Eventually, you cross into Spain (only another 765 km to Santiago) and prepare for the final climb to the Col de Lepoeder.

The final climb shows in the guide from the Pilgrim’s Office as a small gap in between two well grassed hills. It is actually an ardous final climb through a rock strewn gully. I think I had to stop 5 times before I reached the pass. Tired by that stage I could only manage about 50m before needing a breather.

BUT…. reaching the pass you begin the 5km descent into Roncessvalles with an enormous sense of pride . It felt wonderful. And sometimes you cannot even see another soul and truly can believe that you are alone at the top of the world!

But I don’t think that I may have completed the crossing in wet weather. Perhaps I should have left later from St Jean and stayed at Orisson. I guess it is somewhat academic now, but I remain really pleased that I have completed this leg.

There will be more hills to cross and now I know that I can climb them.

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