Right of Way – A Pilgrim on the Camino – Episode 3 – Groundhog days

Well I’m done walking – for now. I was on the Camino Frances for a total of 36 days and then extended to the Camino Muxia and Finisterre for a further 4 days – bringing my total to 40 days and 40 nights and around 920km.

I was contemplating my days toward the end of the journey. How each day is the same, and at the same time, completely different, and how the days, or at least the way I think of the days, changed from my first few weeks to the last few weeks.

There are some things that seemingly remain the same, every single day. Even after 40 days of walking.

Like these things:

I’m on the top bunk in a room full of other people all in their own bunks.

5.30am Plastic bag rustling commences.

I know the other pilgrims in the albergue (hostel with bunk beds for pilgrims) are trying to be quiet.

But they are failing at that.

I’m familiar with the sound now but wish they’d all brought dry bags instead of plastic bags. Less noisy.

I push my earplugs in my ear harder and cover my face. I need more sleep.

I get tired of trying to sleep with the noise and get up.

Sleep sack goes in the bag and I stuff my sleeping bag.

Find my toothbrush. Wait in line for one bathroom that services 60 people.

And wait.

Finally.

Get dressed in exactly the same clothes I wore yesterday. And the day before and the day before….

Pack my backpack.

Pyrenees backpackOver the Pyrenees – blessed with stunning weather

Put in on hoping it’s going to miraculously be lighter than yesterday.

It’s not.

Leave the albergue.

Walk.

Mostly it’s dark for a while. Hope I don’t twist an ankle in the dark. Keep walking for about 2 hours.

Think about what it might be like to not have to walk today. Briefly.

Then just walk.

Take a seat at the next cafe.

Cafe con leche grande (big coffee with milk), bocadillo con queso y jamon ( Ham and cheese baguette) and zumo de naranjo (freshly squeezed orange juice).

Then walk.

And walk.

Stop again after another 2-3 hours for another coffee or cold drink. Take my shoes off. Check my feet and blisters.

Talk to friends. Meet new friends.

Then walk.

Arrive at a place where I want to stay. Look for a bed.

Find a bed.

Fingers crossed for a bottom bunk.

Get out my sleeping bag, and my other set of clothes (my ‘going out’ clothes).

Check the line for the shower.

Get in line.

Shower.

Find a sink and hand wash today’s clothes (which of course are tomorrow and every other days clothes). Wring the life out of them and find a line or some other obscure but sunny place to hang them.

Hope I remember to get them in before dark.

Go to the bar.

Drink a large beer. With lemon.

Talk to friends from all over the world.

Eat the pilgrims dinner.

And drink the wine that comes with it.

Go to bed.

Restrain myself from poking the guy snoring with my trekking poles.

Listen curiously to the person sleep talking.

Try hard to ignore the moans and groans.

Feel an itch on my leg.

Spend the night thinking the bed is infested with bed bugs (only once in actuality but the fear remains).

5.30am plastic bags rustling.

So while it seems from the above commentary that each day was the same – it was, and of course, it wasn’t.

Every day provided me with new experiences, new friends, deeper friendships, opportunities to stretch my comfort zone, the chance to push myself physically, daily tests of my mental endurance and emotional strength, many opportunities to laugh, differing views and vistas (mostly beautiful, some industrial), new food, the chance to practice my Spanish and of course, the unexpected. Always the unexpected.

What did change over the 40 days was the way I thought about each day.

I recall early on I would check the elevation profiles of the stage for the next day, and dread the hills I knew were coming. I would think constantly about the kilometers I’d walked that day, how many more were to go, how quickly that time might pass. I was forever focused on my blisters, my pain, my sore feet. The twinges in my leg muscles telling me to back off. Constantly focused on the body.

After a few weeks, I measured my day in hours. If someone said something was 10km away, I immediately translated that to 2 hours away. I stopped vigilantly checking the elevation profiles the night before, knowing that there would be hills, or there wouldn’t (unlikely) but that whatever the day held, I’d get through it. I measured the morning as the part before the sun came up (and reasoned to myself that any distances made pre-daylight were a bonus) and the part until I found a cafe for breakfast. The rest of the day just flowed along. Walking. Talking. Contemplating life. Celebrating life. Knowing that at a point in time that day, I would arrive somewhere to sleep.

So as they say, some things stay the same. But even in the sameness that was my walking for 40 days, there was so much to celebrate, so much that was different.

What kind of different can you find in your everyday sameness?

“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi.

I’ll always remember how it started – even if I don’t know how it will end

It was the first mountain I climbed – Mt Kinabalu in Borneo. 

“What on earth made you want to get into that kind of thing?”

You’d think I’d confessed to being involved in some illicit deal or less than socially acceptable pastime.  But the question was posed to me at an event recently where I was asked what I enjoyed doing in my spare time.  When I answered with mountain climbing, trekking and rock climbing, that was the response.

It’s not an unusual response, the words might differ as might the context, but they have a common thread.

Why would you put yourself through something like that?”

What, you carry your own bag?

Are you crazy?

I don’t understand you.

Where do you shower?

This gave me cause to think back to where it started.  Where I went from a pack a day smoker to wanting to climb a mountain.  To being drawn to do this without any knowing why, without any prior experience hiking or climbing mountains.

I remember it well.  With the family I was spending a week in Borneo before a week in Singapore.  When the trip was planned, I stumbled across some information on a mountain in Borneo that you could trek to the top of and it only took two days.  I was really drawn to do this – and to this day I don’t have a concrete reason why – I just was.

My family weren’t really interested, preferring the 5 Star resort (and one can’t blame them – this was me the mountain was calling, not them).  In the end my son who was 13 at the time, agreed to keep me company.

We all have our mountains to climb, real or figuratively.

It would seem mine for that year was to cement my life as a non-smoker, and to climb the highest peak in South East Asia, Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo (13,428ft or 4095.2m).  Or to cement my life as a non-smoker BY climbing the highest peak in South East Asia.  Up until this point, the highest thing I had climbed was the water tower in Longreach, an outback Queensland town that I was living in for a few years.  You probably haven’t seen it, it’s not very high. Not compared to a mountain.

The time for thinking about climbing a mountain was over.  After a few days of resort living, eating well, laying by the pool and generally relaxing, my son and I were off!  We hired a guide and elected to carry our own packs.  It was hard work from the outset.  Monsoonal rain commenced about five minutes in and didn’t let up for six hours.  The steepness was extreme and my legs were screaming after only a short distance.  We had 6km to climb to get us to Raban Lata Resthouse which sits at about 11,000ft, (3350m) where we would sleep for a few hours before heading up to the summit.

 

One foot after the other

We were soaked through despite our Gore-Tex jackets, and we were sweating profusely from the exertion.  Our packs seemed heavy.  The air became thin and we were cold.  There were times where it was all a mental game.  The pain in my legs was constant.  I was oxygen deprived and struggling with my breath.  Everything was slippery and it was still pouring down, and given the cloud cover, we could see nothing more than about 20 metres all around us.  The steepness seemed never ending.

What on earth am I doing here?  Why am I doing this to myself?  What was I thinking?

It was a hard slog and a serious physical and mental challenge for me.  The final 500m to the Resthouse were on all fours it was so steep, and the air was very thin.  We were wet and cold, and tired of course, but with a renewed energy knowing we were almost at the Resthouse, and a hot shower as promised in the brochure!

 

A sight for sore eyes – Laban Rata Resthouse

There was a flat piece of land in front of the Resthouse and for the first time that day, the clouds briefly cleared and we could see something other than thick, white mist.  It was breathtaking.  We were so high the clouds were all below us.

The sun was setting on the horizon and for the briefest of moments, we got to see some lower mountains and the most beautiful colours of the sunset through the clouds.  Then it was gone.  We were at about 11,000 feet or 3350m.

This is what I’m doing?  I’m living.  This is why…this is why I’m here. 

We headed up the final rise to the Resthouse but there was no hot shower – there were signs around saying that the generator had broken and there was only enough power for lights and cooking!  The sign had been there for some months by the look of it.  I was really cold, and I had a hacking dry cough that I couldn’t stop.  Twenty cigarettes a day for twenty years will do that to you.

After an arctic shower we ate despite not having much appetite, and went to bed.  We rose at one in the morning, and started to get ready for the climb to the summit (Low’s Peak).  We knew it was a further 2.7km up and that we were above the treeline so it was granite and not much else except the ropes to keep us on track.  Off we went with our headlamps on, rugged up against the below zero temps.

It was 2.45am and it was cold and dark and the air was so thin I felt like I was going to suffocate.  My first experience of altitude! A combination of the altitude, steepness, dark and cold, and exhaustion from the previous day made this extremely challenging.  I couldn’t see where I was going except for the circle of light put out by my headlamp, and I had no idea, relatively, where I was.  I had thought of not going on, only once, of seeing the sunrise from just where we were, instead I continued putting one foot in front of the other.  It took everything I had.  It was so hard to breathe and my legs and lungs were screaming.

What on earth am I doing here?  Why am I doing this to myself?  What was I thinking?

Finally we made the summit. It was cold with a really strong, bitter wind.  It was dark but the sun was staring to make its mark on the day and giving a little pre-dawn light.

Over three hours after leaving the Resthouse, we sat on the cold rock at the summit, and waited.    

The sky turned a magnificent yellow and orange as the sun rose up above the horizon through the clouds.  The darkness lifted and I felt like we’re on top of the world!  The sun rose a little more and provided an awe inspiring view.

 

Worth the climb

This is what I’m doing?  I’m living.  This is why…this is why I’m here. 

We were cold, sore and exhausted, and elated to have made it.  I felt like I could do anything.  The sun came out in all its glory, darkness was gone and I could see where we had climbed up.  I wondered if we’d actually get back down!  We were at 13,500ft or 4095.2m and it was below zero.

What on earth am I doing here?  Why am I doing this to myself?  What was I thinking?

The trip down was hard on the joints and we arrived back at the Resthouse two hours later.  From here we continued on for the base where we had started the morning before.  All up today we would climb, or down-climb, for over 11 hours.

 

Heading down…down…down

More monsoonal rain.  Soaked, sore, tired and elated, we arrived at base. Elated.

This is what I’m doing?  I’m living.  This is why…this is why I’m here. 

It had started – this climb up a mountain in Borneo had started something.

One mountain called.  One wild experience called to me. 

Now I can hardly hear myself think with all the other mountains and wild experiences calling me every day.  Some days they are loud and relentless, other days it’s just a whisper, a nagging feeling.  But every day I can feel their call.

That calling, well it’s taken me to Nepal to trek to Everest Base Camp, to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa (the highest freestanding mountain in the world), across the Kokoda Track (5 times), to the summit of Mt Meru in Africa and numerous other adventures that are now part of me – they exist inside of me.

I don’t know where it will end – but I remember where it started.  And it was here, where it started, that, for the very first time, I really learnt that when I think I can’t go on anymore, I can.

I’m forever grateful to my son who at 13 took on this challenge like a champion, and honoured (or is that humoured) his Mum by coming on this journey with me.  It’s something we will share forever.

What’s whispering to you?  What’s calling to you? What’s your mountain? 

“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi