Camino Primitivo - in 10 Days

It’s been months since my last ‘pilgrimage’, and, thus far, no word of it here.
I guess life’s bigger experiences sometimes have to settle in the mind before you feel fit to talk about them. 2011 proved a fabulous year for adventure, with our treks across France, Spain, and Portugal. But ‘adventure’ is not just another word for ‘activity holiday’. By definition, adventure means to undertake a daring enterprise, incur risk, to imperil oneself. In walking the Camino Primitivo to Santiago de Compostela, little did we know how apt the word ‘adventure’ was set to become.
It was a shorter distance, commencing from Oviedo in Asturias, and not scaling quite the same heights as the Camino Frances. The scenery was as pleasantly rural as we had come to expect of northern Spain, although it lacked the variety of landscape or architecture of the previous walks. Indeed, despite the Primitivo’s claim to being the original ‘way of St James’’, I would be hard pressed to describe much of architectural and historical merit between Oviedo and Lugo. (Doubtless, I will be taken to task on this by some more erudite soul). The apparent absence of these things makes the Primitivo a far less trodden, and consequently, less accommodating path for the pilgrim to choose. Some might relish the peace and quiet; others could feel very alone. In June, we expected the walk to be far more popular than it was. Yet we were to meet only a dozen or so pilgrims on its entire length.
Many will know that mountain walking can be an unpredictable affair. England’s Lake District ably demonstrates how changeable weather can be at altitude, and at any time of year. At 1140 metres up, the climb exceeds anything we have in England. The weather though, was far from ideal. It was a damp, grey day on reaching the seemingly deserted village of La Mortera. And it was decision time. The route forked. One could take the lower tarmac road, or head over the mountain. The high route was only recommended to experienced hikers in fine weather. Even then, we were urged to lodge our details and map route in La Mortera before departing. What map? We wondered. Our experience of caminos had only seen us follow a well-marked system of signs and arrows. Furthermore, where in this god-forsaken place were we to leave our details? As the rain became heavier we sheltered in the church doorway, ate breakfast, and pondered our options.
It was only 26 kilometres to our next destination. It was probably the only chance we would ever have to make this climb. It was shorter than the road (who would ever walk on tarmac when they didn’t have to?) We knew what our decision would be, even though we went through the sensible postures of discussing it.

In the meantime, we wondered where everyone else was – or indeed, where anyone else was. By ‘everyone’ we meant a charmingly eccentric Spanish woman we had shared our refugio with the previous night, and the morose Cantabrian fellow in Lycra and Gortex who had dogged our footsteps for the last two days. The woman hadn’t wanted to do either route alone, and had grave misgivings about continuing. The latter took himself very seriously, had all the kit with all the right labels. Somehow though, we had passed him consistently and with ease, and me looking like a hippy with a guitar, a T-shirt, and a blonde, treating it like a stroll in the park. I couldn’t help that. His dislike of me was very evident. I was not pleased to see him either, when he finally caught up with us at that grim refugio. He had voiced his intention to go over the mountain anyway, no matter what. But as things turned out, only the Spanish lady left promptly that morning – to take a taxi, or the road, we imagined – and the surly Cantabrian kept peeking nervously at the weather, frying up a generous breakfast, and otherwise stalling for time. We left before him, which was very unusual.
There was a knot of apprehension in my belly as I realised how fast we were climbing, and how bleak the route ahead was becoming. The rain now had an evil accomplice: wind. It became quickly apparent how ill equipped I was for the challenge. Those who have known us on our travels will be aware that my guitar has priority over all other camino possessions. To get everything into Easyjet hand luggage dimensions, I’ve designed the guitar to come apart, and fit in my rucksack stuffed with clothes. That rucksack isn’t light, and there’s no room left for wet weather gear – only the bin liners necessary for the guitar’s own protection. The flimsy jacket I wore cost £6.99 from the bargain rail of an outdoor shop. It weighed very little and said waterproof on the label. What it should have said was: might offer some protection from light drizzle. The reality of actual rain turned it into a sodden mass that clung wetly like a second skin. Oh yes, and the zip fastener was of the variety that comes part when the wind blows. In minutes I was drenched to the bone.
I don’t know why we continued. There was an option to turn back, but I couldn’t bring myself to suggest it. Finally, the wind and rain relented for a few minutes and we were in cloud, so thick we could barely see more than a few yards. To the credit of those who maintain the route, there were many yellow posts in the areas most afflicted with snow and mist. Occasionally, an alternative route seemed to be indicated also. At such times I would bring out my compass to make an informed guess. And then we would be on a steep incline again, scaling another improbable height, with no idea what lurked beneath the clouds to either side of us. At such times, it was profoundly silent. This was one of the few places left in Europe where we might have happened across a wild brown bear, although the odds were very much against it. They had more sense than to be out on a day like this. The weather didn’t stop the wild horses though, stepping out of clouds like mythical beasts, sheltering in groins of rock, their muzzles wet with dew, expressions of benign curiosity in their limpid brown eyes.
The roller-coaster continued. Just when you believed you must have reached the top, because it leveled or gave a gentle decline, another peak came thrusting into view. And as you rose towards that, like a couple of ants climbing the vertebral column of a mighty stegosaurus, the elements, rain and howling wind, very nearly swatted you off its back. I felt like an insect; I feared for Carol’s safety. How did she stay connected to the terra firma, I wondered, being nearly half my weight. It didn’t help that my arm was flailing out in the wind with a guitar on the end of it, perpendicular to my body. I had become a most peculiar wind vane, but my new talent was informing no one. Of one thing I was quite sure, in those brief moments of startling visibility: we were entirely alone.

The cold came biting through. I was losing body heat rapidly through my wet clothes, and knew the danger. I nearly cursed bringing that ridiculous guitar then; I nearly loosened my grip and let the wind carry it away. After all, there had been no suitable places to play, no glorious acoustics within monasteries or fine buildings, and no audiences I would have cared to perform for. It had just been an encumbrance, the absence of which would have allowed me to carry something dry, warming - even life-saving? But then I had more pressing concerns.
I sensed that Carol was falling behind, something she hardly ever did. To me, her endurance was astounding, whether walking, running, or on a bike. She had her weaknesses but keeping up with me on a mountain wasn’t one of them. I realised something was wrong.
I waited, shaking with cold, rocking from one foot to the other, trying to keep mobile. Which caused me to detect another attribute of my ‘waterproof’ walking gear. The ‘waterproof’ boots didn’t so much stop the water getting in, as impede its exit. Now they were full, and it sloshed and squirted out of the tops. But I was past caring.
Carol caught me up. There was something very telling and a little frightened in her expression. “We’ve made a mistake this time, haven’t we?” She suggested quietly. Her hands were balled into little cold fists, and she probably couldn’t open them.
“Yes,.. I think that’s quite likely, I admitted, “…but at least it’s an adventure!”
She smiled.
Carol suffers mildly from Raynaud’s syndrome. It’s a circulatory problem that constricts blood flow to bodily extremities. The effect mimics frostbite and is just as dangerous. We couldn’t ignore the situation. We had to quicken our pace. I’d heard tell of a shelter somewhere near the top. She gave a concerted effort, and to my relief, I wasn’t wrong. It was a long vacated hospital (in the Spanish sense, not a medical hospital but a place of refuge).
The roof was too low for me to stand up in, the mud floor was deeply furrowed, probably by wild boar, but hunkering down out of the wind and rain felt luxurious. The priority was to massage life and warmth back into Carol’s hands, but we were also both low on calories. There was a bar of chocolate in her rucksack. I had to find it, break it into chunks, and feed us both. Without gloves, plastic shopping bags sufficed, which I promptly wrapped around her hands. Although Carol had an effective waterproof jacket, her boots had fared no better then mine, and her rucksack had suffered rather more. The integrated rain cover had no drain holes, so trapped a pool in the bottom. This soaked through the fabric of the bag to where her (once) dry clothes were stored. In summary: we had no proper food; Carol had no dry clothes; and I had nothing remotely waterproof. And unless viewed as a potential source of firewood, my guitar was the most useless item any man could drag up a mountain.
Our options were clear. Wait for rescue or a break in the weather. Alternatively, knowing we were at, or near, the top, attempt a rapid descent.

It wasn’t necessarily the sensible answer, but we left the shelter. That judgement to leave weighed heavily on my mind. Caution informed me that that was the second reckless decision of the day. But Carol had warmed to the game plan, the chocolate calories were kicking in, her hands were warming in the plastic bags, and we got off to a flying start. Without the strenuous incline to generate body heat, maintaining a good pace was essential. Wind-chill and evaporating moisture at this altitude was enough to make anyone hypothermic, let alone Carol. We practically ran at it.
The route had become very difficult to discern, in that it now often resembled a stream. We could only set a course for each yellow post that came into view, and hope that there would be another after it. Much of the time our feet were plunging into rock pools, inches deep. The opportunities to lose our footing, slip, sprain an ankle or worse, were all too numerous. We were dazed, we were elated, we bathed in the purifying elements of air, wind, and water. Had we been up there for days or merely hours? In retrospect, descending that mountain at such speed was the craziest thing we had ever done, but it was also the best. Laughing, shivering, we never felt so alive. Finally, we, who now possessed the spirit and agility of mountain goats, were interrupted by the strangest thing: a road. It was the tarmac invitation to a town, a bar, comfortable, familiar things. We paused, we looked at each other, yes, we were intrigued. But then we crossed it, towards another track. Knowing one danger was finally behind us, many grueling miles still lay ahead. (…to be continued)

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