Scaling the Pyrenees

Ascent to the highest elevation over the Pyrenees. On a clear day you can see for miles and miles.

Ascent to the highest elevation over the Pyrenees. On a clear day you can see for miles and miles.

To many pilgrims who start from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, the first day of the Camino is like a sink-or-swim exercise of jumping into the deep part of the pool and seeing if they can swim. Or rather, it’s the same swimming exercise I just described, but with a pack that ways 20 lbs. or more, and someone hitting the bottoms of your feet with a meat tenderizer as hard as they can.

Unfortunately, the fact that most pilgrims attempt the whole distance between St. Jean and Roncesvalles causes most of them to miss the splendor of the rolling green mountains, the crisp breeze, and the natural beauty that surrounds them for the whole walk. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to pass by flocks of sheep and herds of horses on the greens (or, occasionally, crossing the road) or see them moving on a distant expanse of grass.

On the other side, on the way down to Roncesvalles, the path that was exposed to the sun and wind closes in as it passes through the forest. By this point most will be too tired to notice much, but the trees are truly ancient and beautiful. There is a deep sense of peace on the path that will carry on up to the small town of Roncesvalles, which makes up for the difficulty of some of the downward slopes.

Crossing the Pyrenees need not be an exercise in pain tolerance. It is challenging, yes, but new and returning pilgrims alike should note that there is a place to stop on the way up the mountain from St. Jean: Orisson. The refugio there is adapted from an old shepherds’ house and is a comfortable place to stay and break up the difficult stretch into two days. Many pilgrims push themselves too hard that first day before their bodies are used to the effort causing injuries that surface later on the Way. Why not make your first day short and then make the crossing first thing the next morning?

Whether you push through in one day or two, listen to your body and take rests when you need to relieve your joins and feet. And while you walk or sit, breathe in the fresh air, drink in the sights and sounds of this untamed first stage of the Camino. Savor the moments of each leg of your journey for the day, and contemplate the wild strength of the mountain horses galloping past. Meditate on the movements of the sheep as they obey the guidance of their shepherds. Let the natural music of the wind through grass and rock help you get the latest pop song or news sound bite out of your head so you can truly listen.

And when you finish for the day, rest in the assurance that you have passed the most physically challenging portion of the Camino. There will be other mountains to cross, but only crossing the Pyrenees is your body so unprepared. Only on the first day is your body so unused to such hard daily walking. If you cross the mountains with care, you’ll be ready for the rest of the Way.


Hunter Van Wagenen’s Camino experiences began in 2007, and he enjoys sharing the humorous and the miraculous stories, in addition to practical advice he has lived and collected. His dream is to live in Spain helping pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. He currently lives in Greensboro, NC with his wife Stephie, who will walk her first Camino this summer with Hunter.