DAY 1 – Írun to Amargunko Lepoa (17km, 773m/473m, 12:15-19:00)
Turning my back to the coastal city of Írun feels exciting and bit scary, even though I’m posing bravely in the departure photo. For the first time in my life, I would step into the Pyrenees and for a reason, my mind feels restless.
“If not having crampons, the route is impossible,” a tired looking, elderly French hiker states firmly, whom I meet only few hours after leaving Írun. Not the most encouraging news. Have I estimated wrong the upcoming snow situation? Would the way through the mountains stay closed?
Walking feels clumsy, and it’s hard to get into a good rhythm. On the quiet dirt road to the dam of San Anton, suddenly a fox with a big furry tail trots against. Majestic birds of prey are circling in the sky over the green and lush hills.
Nearby hills are full of cattle and fences, and finding a good place to stop before the saddle of Amargunko Lepoa seems impossible. Great cloudbanks are moving in the horizon, and they look like a giant steam locomotive had just passed by. At nine o´clock the sun sinks behind the western ridges and it’s time to set up the camp.
DAY 2 – to Collado de Inaberri (30km, 1333m/877m, 07:00-16:45)
The first night becomes even more difficult than usual. A wildboar stomped in the neighbouring bushes and a big herd of cows wanted to pass by along the same narrow ridge. The surrounding darkness of the night highlighted their tensely staring eyes when catched in the beam of my of headtorch.
Finally, the day dawns pale under a heavy sky. Feeling exhausted, I descend to the village of Bera and visit it’s excellent bakery. The ladies working there want to try how heavy my backpack is.
Advancing through the network of Basque hills, I encounter few other long distance hikers, an ill-tuned jay and an overly enthusiastic dog, which joins me for a while (as I like so much to make new dog friends…).
Darker and darker clouds are gathering over the hills but fortunately, the rain remains hidden.
DAY 3 – to Adipekoa Lepoa (29km, 1435m/1088m, 06:50-18:10)
This time I sleep well through the night; a half moon guarded my sleep high up in the sky and a calm wind sang a pleasant lullaby. The clear morning foreshadows a hot day but first, I descend to the village of Elizondo for a hefty breakfast.
In the middle of the next ascend, I lie down to the bank of the adjacent field and close my eyes. Suddenly, I become fully aware of the sounds of the countryside surrounding me: jingling of the cow bells, steady chirring of the grasshoppers and somewhere further, an old tractor in its morning chores. When opening my eyes and looking up, I can see few fluffy clouds floating in the blue sky and a hawk in its own heights. Just at the edge of my vision, branches of a leafy tree are swaying gently in the wind.
For meditating, the best position is to lie on your back, your arms under the head or crossed over your chest, resting on a soft tussock, gazing the sky, following the clouds passing by and dreaming, what if every moment could be this carefree.
When I reach higher again, the landscape turns into a vast chain of hills, rolling endlessly forward. Walking feels pleasant even though the trail is poorly marked at times.
At the next break I admire how Red Kites fly almost still in the air draughts. I meet a Spanish man, who slowly slogs towards the same destination. With few common words, we try to find about each other.
After a long day I arrive to a quiet ridge. A barbed wire fence guards the edge of a forest, and I decide to place my tent next to it. A dense fog has crept along the valleys and hides the peak of Adi, rising at the end of the ridge towards the hidden sky. The wind has increased and blows now coldly from the northwest. The day turns into a night, and the quiet trail becomes even more deserted. The dark forest behind the fence feels eerie.
DAY 4 – to Burguete (16km, 509m/792m, 06:45-14:00)
At the beginning of the night, I wake up to a loud noice coming from the forest, which scares me so badly that I get the zipper of the tent door completely stuck. After solving the problem with the door, I wildly aim my headtorch to the woods but the misty night reveals nothing. I hear only the gentle rain before tiredness takes me again.
After breaking the camp, I notice how the whole landscape below me is covered in low clouds. The voices of the night have disappeared. The rising sun golds the western slopes and the edge of the forest which just in the evening felt so gloomy. It’s hard to imagine more beautiful morning. Close to the next col, a lonely hiker is still sleeping in his bivy bag.
My way heads downhill and soon I find myself inside the cloak of mist. I reach the slowly strengthening stream of Barranco Odia, but can’t see other walkers in a long while.
Missing the Roncesvalles short-cut, I continue all the way until the village of Burguete. I had thought to visit the famous starting point of Camino Frances, but now the day had become scorching hot on the floor of a wide valley. I sit in the shade of a picnic area, expecting to see some pilgrims but only an Irish fellow arrives, on his way towards the distant Mediterranean. Under his ragged leather shoes he reveals blistered feet and badly burnt shins. But for a change, it’s very nice to have a long and understandable conversation in English.
After a long break I continue the last 2km to a busy campsite, where I enjoy the first shower of the journey.
DAY 5 – to Zazpiturri ridge (28km, 1206m/706m, 06:45-16:15)
I walk back to the village centre and sit down next to the main street for fifteen minutes to observe the pilgrims passing by. Few solitary women, a young couple, elder and louder men in groups of three, Asians, an old blind man helped by a younger assistant, feeling the way with his walking stick – the whole spectrum of pilgrims on their way to distant Santiago de Compostela.
Turning my back to the busy street, I head towards silent woods. Behind the next ascend I find Stephen the Irish with his tarp, enjoying a morning tea. A group of horses are grazing freely around us.
A steep descend through thick bushes leads me to the quiet village of Orbara. The sun has climbed to the mid-day heights and the village won’t offer any relief; just streets radiating in the intense heat. I continue until Hiriberri along an arduous climb, hays tickling and scratching my bare legs. The one hour journey feels like an insuperable and insane effort.
Also the climb up from Hiriberri towards the next ridge continues being painful. The white-glowing sun burns relentlessly, and when I dive into the woods for the second hour, I find the rocky forest floor moist and slippery. Between the trees I observe possible thunderclouds and far in the south of the ridge, I notice an enigmatic formation of mist. I would not make it until Ochagavía so I’d better find a place to camp somewhere on the 7km long ridge.
With the increasing wind, I begin to feel more restless. I’m on the ridge without any protection, and the fast moving mist has dropped the visibility only to ten to twenty meters. For not getting lost, I place my tent near the trail, next to a fence which crosses the ridge.
The mist carries water in almost invisible droplets. I sit eating in the grey bleakness, but when a huge flock of sheep arrives with same thoughts, I decide to move to the other side of the fence. The rest of the evening I listen nervously the jingling of cattle bells, which suddenly comes next to my tent. From the dark mist stares a line of big, horned cows, and I realize being just on the trail of their evening walk. The less curious and smaller sheep feel a better choice after all, so once more I change the camp spot across the fence.
DAY 6 – to Ochagavía (13km, 266m/878m, 06:45-12:00)
As often after a restless night, appears the morning somewhat special. The clouds still cover the sky which glows in eerie violet, but a hopeful light already peeks out in the horizon.
After walking one hour, I sit down to have a breakfast. The silence is complete and only the occasional whooshing of the wind reminds the world being alive. Far in the horizon looms a blue kingdom, the land of rock and granite. From the ridge I see well the Pyrenees behind the Basque Hills for the first time.
The only goal of the short day is to descend to Ochagavía and enjoy thoroughly its campsite.
A merry GR11 hiker gathering builds up at the campsite. A long-haired and chatty adventurer Jose is already there, on his fourth hike across the Pyrenees, now to the opposite direction. A german girl, on her first real hike, was walking partly with him towards the west. During the afternoon the slow Spaniard arrives too, and shortly after another, an elderly Spanish man. I’m happily surprised to see Stephen, limping to the campsite just before the dusk.
DAY 7 – to Zuriza (31km, 1239m/816m, 06:45-16:15)
In the early morning I say goodbye to the German girl and Jose. Meeting a living legend of the Pyrenees, who radiated unique positiveness towards life, felt special and inspiring.
After walking three hours along a dirt road to the top, I catch up with the older Spanish man. I praise him for good speed, but the man shakes his head laughing and saying tres …oras something. I’m not at my sharpest and I ask if he meant tres sodas before realizing he said horas, three hours. The hazy mountain range waits us now near.
I head down to the busy village of Isaba. After resting for a while on its main street, I began the scorching hot afternoon stage.
In only half an hour I arrive at the gates of the mountains. Gentle hills have now vanished and the trail dives between jagged and steep walls. I leave Navarra behind and step into the alpine style slopes of Aragónia.
I carry on along the river valley but there at Zuriza a surprise waits: it was not a village I expected but just a holiday resort, hidden among the mountains. From my tent door opens up an impressive view to the limestone cliffs of Sierra d´Alano. The clouds travel fast behind the peaks, and showers of rain are taking turns with sunshine, like reflecting my own mixed feelings. I’m waiting for the first real day in the mountains anxiously but also a smile on my face – finally there!
DAY 8 – to Candanchu (34km, 1723m/1457m, 06:30-19:00)
Thick mist covers the river valley when I leave early in the morning. After half an hour of steady walking I turn towards the hidden heights. Cursing poor visibility and lacking trail marks, I manage to climb along the right trail all the way until the col of Petraficha, near the 2000 meter mark.
From the top of the narrow and steep-walled col opens up an impressive mountain vista to the East.
I descend to La Mina, keeping an eye the cloudbanks drifting all over. The morning difficulties still haunting fresh in my mind, I hope the weather would stay clear.
From La Mina begins a long, 15km ascent to the lake of Ibón d´Estanes where I thought to camp for the night. Walking is fast along a popular dirt road together with all sort of walkers: tourists, day hikers, groups of students…
Expectant atmosphere floats over the lovely meadows of Aguas Tuertas. The end of the watery high valley, where the trail inevitably leads to, is buried in thick clouds. Not liking at all the idea of finding the route in poor visibility, I reluctantly step forward.
Finding the exact right path turns out to be little difficult, but I follow other people towards the lake. I gain on two Spanish guys and together we walk the rest of the day.
Higher on the slopes the air cools down and the visibility drops even more, making it hard to navigate without a gps. Moist mountain fog sweeps the rocky mountain sides, and when we finally reach the hidden lake, the whole idea of camping feels miserable and lonely.
As the Spanish kept goint towards Candanchu, I decided to follow their lead. A train would wait me there the next morning, to spend few rest days off-trail, and it felt as a better option to march now together back to the civilization.
However, the day becomes long and 12 hours on the move begin to feel heavy in my limbs. I’m cold and tired, but hilarious jokes help. We briefly visit the French soil when the trail dives into an arduous and muddy forest, and we joke how everything would be better back in the Spanish side, how the clouds would retreat and how we would be greeted with fanfares and garlands.
But the ski resort of Candanchu is more like a ghost town in the darkening, misty evening. Fortunately, we find a refugio and an Argentinian steak house. Recovering with a beer and laughter, it’s nice to revise the hard day. At the same time ends the first part of my journey, but within few days I would continue ever deeper into the unpredictable slopes of the Pyrenees.
PART II to follow…