Is the Camino Safe?

A few years ago, the answer would always have been a resounding Yes. Then, unfortunately, the news of Denise Thiem shook the world. Now, we qualify our answer with warnings about walking alone.

The Camino in itself is safe. It is safer to walk on than some of our city centres but still, there is a proviso. The trail is generally safe to walk and the people are welcoming but people can be dangerous no matter where we are. However, nature can be dangerous and we are in a close relationship with nature as we walk. How often do we hear of pilgrims being rescued during the early part of the year when they think they can beat the forces of nature.

I arrived in Saint Jean Pied de Port on Thursday, April 5th. Up to then, the weather had been still wintry. The weekend before, Good Friday, a lady from New Zealand found the weather change from reasonably pleasant to a winter blizzard overnight. As she made her way from Valcarlos to Roncesvalles, she had to stay on the road where she saw snowploughs trying to keep the cross-border road open. She sent me a picture of the monastery with snow about 6 inches deep. Now, just six days later, as I sat in the taxi taking us from Biarritz to Saint Jean, the sun was blazing in the spring sky and there was no sign of snow on the Pyrenees.

Just around 2pm, four happy Irish pilgrims and one American walked into the pilgrim office to register. As I waited for my turn, the first lady got very excited; Route Napolean was open for business. The volunteer was quite enthusiastically encouraging us to take the high road and even though I had made my plans for the Valcarlos route, I gave in to the excitement of the others and made a reservation for the next night in Orisson.

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Friday started in fine weather. Not as sunny as when we arrived, but great for walking. The view from the Orisson porch was beautiful and the clouds had all burnt off. Around 6pm, the skies darkened and a wind picked up followed shortly by rain. Is this what awaits us in the morning. All night, the wind howled and the rain came down in torrents. The power of nature had me worried.

When I awoke from a restless sleep, I was delighted to find the wind had dropped, the rain had stopped and the sky was covered in a thin white cloud. Great, let’s get walking. Just before the statue of the Virgin, the Irish lady caught up with me and we walked on together. Then it started. Just before we left the road, the wind and rain returned with a vengeance. By the time we reached the barbed wire fence that marks the Spanish border, the rain turned to hail. Every drop was being driven into my face like a thousand little needles constantly biting at me. My walking companion decided she could no longer walk at my pace and had to shoot on to try to get to Roncesvalles as soon as possible.

As I crossed the border, the hail had turned to snow and although it was now fairly level, the going was tough and slow. Last week’s snow was still on the ground in places, at times some 6 inches deep. I was getting very worried that I was the last man on the mountain and was on the verge of ringing 112 until I saw the sign telling me the emergency refugio was just another 500 metres. I was not the only one seeking shelter. About six others were resting there. After a good rest and something to eat, I set out on the last climb.

Over the top of Col de Lepoeder, more snow was waiting for me. I have met an English and German pilgrim and we struggle to find our way through the snow. Where is the trail, where is the road? At last, we drop below the snow line but the wind has picked up to gale force and I am blown off my feet and then the rain comes back. When I reach Roncesvalles, I am completely shattered. My waterproof jacket has let in the rain and I am soaked to the waist. How could the weather have changed so dramatically from when I set out.

After a night of constant rain, I set out early this morning, still in the pouring rain. The trail out of Roncesvalles is like a little river but not deep enough to get into my boots. Maybe I should take to the road like many others. At last, I arrive in Burgette. A café con leche is in order since it is a gentle walk to Espinal, I can take the time out to have second breakfast.

I pass out of Burgette and cross the first ford then on to the second. These little streams that I remember from my 2015 Camino, are raging rivers in full flood but I think nothing of it. A young peregrina, Molly from Ohio, slows down to chat with me. Eventually, I tell her to walk on if she wants to and not to feel she must hang back to walk with this old tortoise. Eventually, she decides to walk on. For some unknown reason, she changes her mind and I catch up with her again.

ON THE WAY TO ZUBIRI

Around the bend and we come to the third ford but it is not there anymore. The gentle stream as described in the Brierley guide has become a raging torrent. It has flowed over and around the ford. There is now about 6 feet of fast flowing water between me and the ford that is a couple of inches under water. Pilgrims have thrown branches and logs into the water to make an improvised bridge but it looks anything but safe. Molly gently makes her way across to where two Spanish pilgrims are stopped. The man is changing socks as he slipped into the water up to his knees. Now it’s my turn. The branches flex and bend but hold my weight. Just about two feet to go. I step onto the log and as I stretch out with my left foot to step onto the submerged ford, my right foot slips from under me and I begin to fall backward. I throw my walking pole to the right to save myself but there is only deep water. My weight has now irretrievably shifted and I fall back into the water. The last thing I remember is Molly shouting my name then the ice-cold water stabs at my back like a cold sharp knife and I lose consciousness.

From here, Molly takes up the story….

She grabbed me by the wrist and elbow and kept me above water as she shouted for help. The Spanish couple immediately came to my aide but try as they would, could not get me out. Molly slipped into the water to get behind me, got her hands under my arms and called my name over and over until I came around a little. I saw their hands grabbing at my shoulder straps, I heard a voice telling me to push then shouting, ‘1, 2, 3, pull. Again, try again’. I am now fully conscious again and standing on the river bank. I have no idea how I got there but I am, and I am alive. For a little while, I thought I would never see my wife again and I would become one of those little crosses we see along the Camino trail.

I do not exaggerate when I say, Molly O’Driscoll from Columbus, Ohio saved my life. There is more to this story about how I pushed the trauma to the back of my mind and walked on to Nájera before it became too much and I returned home, but that is for another day. The Camino as I said is not dangerous but we minimise the danger of nature at our peril. Nature is the most powerful force on this planet. It has destroyed cities and sunk unsinkable ships. I survived only because a young girl held on to me with all the strength she had and then at risk to herself, slipped into that water to save a total stranger that she had only met for the first time ten minutes before. Later I found out that the rivers of Navarra were in extreme flood and the Rio Ebro had burst its banks along many miles of its length causing the local government to declare a state of emergency.

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Be careful when you mix with nature. Treat her with the utmost respect and when locals tell you to take a road instead of the trail, listen and heed their advice. This pilgrim may return someday but it will be only by the grace of God and the heroic actions of a young girl from Ohio.

Written by Terence McHugh