Ibaneta Pass – or not

The climb before the clamber

In the cafe in Valcarlos I ordered my first cafe con leche, coffee with milk, and bocadillo con queso, bread roll with cheese. My plan had been to stop in Valcarlos but it was only 11 o’clock. The albergue didn’t open until 1pm. I vacillated. Dave and a couple of other pilgrims on the next table urged me to keep going. I decided to push on to Roncevalles. The road so far was easy – except for the steep climb into Valcarlos – and my stomach was behaving. We were already over half way there. Why waste a day hanging around Valcarlos? I reasoned.
The climb was gradual at first. We veered off the sealed road and onto a shaded path through the forest. Leaves many centimetres thick cushioned our steps. Streams ran clear over stony beds. This was the Europe I’d always imagined. Perched on a rock I ate the omelette baguette my host had made me at breakfast.
After my picnic I fell in with Irish Jenny and a young woman with an enormous pack. As the going got tougher Jenny and I leapfrogged, stopping to chat and catch our breath. The other woman lagged further and further behind. We stopped to let her catch up. After a couple of hours of this leapfrogging and waiting, the young woman threw herself on her back and declared she could go no further. She looked like a turtle stranded on its back, legs and arms waving, tears of frustration streaming down her face. Horrified we heaved her up, sat with her a while, then helped her up to the little road that ran nearby. She personified our fears – her backpack too heavy, the path too steep, her body too weak to cope.
In silence we continued our journey. The sun disappeared behind fog. Sleet cut us off from the trees around us and the gradient of the path grew steeper and steeper. Despite the cold I stripped off my coat. By the time we reached the top of the Ibaneta Pass I was gasping for air, overheated and freezing cold all at once. We only stayed a few minutes at the chapel before we tumbled down the steep path to the ancient stone abbey at Roncevalles.
Out of the fog at the bottom of the Ibaneta Pass emerged the abbey. It has housed pilgrims for over a millennium. Although it accommodates 186 people, the double bunks are in alcoves, so I didn’t feel as if I was bedded down with a hundred others.
I was so exhausted the climb to the third floor dorm seemed higher than the climb over the Pass. The signs on the four bed alcoves barely made sense to my bleary eyes. Finally I found the bed that corresponded to the key in my hand. Every muscle in my body groaned when I saw that it was a top bunk. I slung my pack into the locker, clambered up onto the bed and immediately fell asleep.

Ibaneta Pass

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