On my journey, I can look back at seven mistakes.
1. I made the mistake of planning for the future based on the present reality
It was early April and I had packed for cold, wet and windy. What I got was scorching sunshine. Sunburn and dehydration were my biggest concerns, them and a seriously overweight backpack. Somewhere in a little French town, I dumped about 6 kilos of excess gear. Goodbye, thermals, hat, gloves, emergency fleece sleeping bag and shelter plus two dozen useless “extras”, like head torch etc.
2. I grew careless
The early part of my walk was extremely quiet and very rural, signposting was haphazard, and every day I would get lost. Later the route joined town to town and the path became more obvious and signposting clearer. I stopped paying attention.
3. I became over confident
With a lighter pack and not getting lost so often, I was walking faster and longer. At first 20km’s felt like a good day, later it would be 30 and 40 wasn't beyond me. I felt stronger.
4. I became self-reliant
I don’t speak French and as the days past I grew less interested in company and conversation.
On the 17th of April, I stayed in a small hostel in Bedous. I shopped, cooked, went to a bar and had an early night. I spoke to no one.
5. I got lost
At 06.15, before anyone else was moving, I left the hostel for the final 30 km’s in France before crossing the Pyrenees into Spain. Somewhere near the Fort du Portalet I took a wrong turn. The 700m climb and descent cost me 2 hours and a whole bundle of energy.
I should have been in Urdos by 10am, it was now midday and it was another 4 hours to the Col plus 40 minutes to the hostel. It was another blistering hot sunny day. I had run out of sun cream and my face was feeling the sting.
Still ahead of me was a 10 km hike including a 1,632m [5,350ft] climb to the Col du Somport. There are two routes. One was along a road, noisy, smelly and unpleasant from constant traffic heading for the tunnel. The other is called the “ancient route”, a quiet solitary path through beautiful woodland.
6. I was slow
The path on the climb was indistinct and randomly marked. I had already lost two hours I couldn’t afford to do the same again, so I took my time. Better slow than sorry, except I didn’t reconfigure my plan. I failed to take into account the time delays and the energy expended to get his far.
I topped the Col and reached the road. My guidebook and the signpost said “another 40 minutes through woodland glades with early spring flowers”. The sky was bright blue with a few clouds, I felt good.
The weather in the Pyrenees is known for being unpredictable but I was surprised how quickly things changed. Within 10 minutes of leaving the road, a chilly breeze picked up. Another 10 minutes saw the sky turning grey.
The snow was only ankle deep but it didn’t bother me unduly.
Within 30 minutes the snow reached my knees and my legs, which only a short time before seemed strong, were beginning to cramp with the extra effort and the cold. The footpath and markings were covered by snow.
The dark grey sky started to drop big beautiful gentle silent flakes of snow.
7. I should have turned back
This was the big decision. I calculated if I backtracked to the road I could be heading for safety in about an hour. I was really hungry, had no proper food and if I turned back I might not find anywhere to eat or sleep for hours. I reckoned maybe an hour left of good light and maybe 20 - 30 minutes before I reached the border. I decided to push on.
I was wearing a T-shirt and shorts, a left over from the hot climb but now I was getting colder. I didn’t want to stop so I was fumbling with my hands behind my pack trying to pull my fleece out from the straps. I wasn't paying attention, at the moment I yanked the fleece out the snow gave way and I fell into a stream.
My boots landed in the ice-cold knee deep water and I fell forward onto the snow covered bank. I could easily have broken an ankle or smashed a knee. I could feel the chill racing up my legs, I took a moment to gather myself and then climbed very carefully onto the level snow.
And that is when it hit me, ... I was alone.
I had told no one my plan, no one knew I was here on this “solitary route". There were no footprints, no one was in front of me and this late in the day, no one was coming up behind. Some old ski tracks told me no one had been here for days. I had not one single piece of extra warm gear, no shelter, no head torch, no emergency gear, nothing. My legs were trembling from the cold.
I stumbled along the side of the stream but I couldn't think straight, I was confused, was I going back or onwards? I started to sob. I remember holding my hand over my mouth and making this sobbing noise as I repeated: “no, no, no”. It was so all unfair and this immense wave of self-pity roll over me, I began to rage, angry at my own arrogant stupidity. I was shivering and felt sick, my mouth had this odd metallic taste to it.
And then I stopped, just like that, I stopped. The full realisation of what was happening landed on me, it was like being crushed, from the inside. I dropped to my knees in and cried. I cried and begged the God I had stopped believing in to save me.
Snow brings with it a beautiful eerie silence and in the most unexplainable way I felt peaceful as if everything was going to be okay. I used a small tree to help me stand up. I wiped my tears, gazed around me at the trees and the snow, took a big lungful of air and then I heard a car.
It was way up high, to my left, I couldn’t see it because of the trees but it was travelling fast, so that meant a road, a road without too much snow.
I chewed on my last few squares of chocolate and began the steep climb through the pine trees, pausing only to catch my breath. Ten steps, pause, ten steps pause. My lungs were heaving for the thin cold air. My throat burned from the thin cold air. I stopped shivering, in fact, almost magically, I felt warm again.
I reckoned this might be a good place to stop? It was sheltered from the snow and wind at least, I lay down on my backpack, maybe I could get through until morning or I could rest, just for a few minutes … a little rest, I was so tired, I closed my eyes, I could have a short sleep, just a couple of minutes to gather my energy. I was so warm and comfortable, I could sleep for a little while …
I clambered over a small wall and fell onto the road. I rested for only a moment, the sleepy feeling from just a few minutes earlier had scared me. Carefully I used the wall to help haul me and my pack upright. I started a slow half trot, my feet quietly scuffed the few cm's of snow.
I was crying as I crossed into Spain, the hostel was only 100m away.
Later that night, after my long hot shower and dinner, as I got comfortable on the bunk bed with clean sheets and blankets I thought I would sleep for a week.
The nightmares woke me up after only a few hours.
I got up to look at the blizzard raging outside the hostel and I decided life was too fragile and way too precious to waste it being scared of … scared of what exactly? Scared of upsetting people or people not liking me? Scared of not trying, scared of failure?
The old me died under those pine trees on the Col du Somport, 18th April 2013, [R.I.P.].
The new me is thankful, every day, to the God, he still believes in.
I had a long hot shower and two cups of coffee and 30 minutes later I was sitting enjoying the first of many beers.
I was staring out through the balcony window at this unseasonal blizzard landing on the Pyrenees.
I would never have made it through the night.
This is the next day [19th], the footpath is to the right of the trees, I didn't take it. I stayed on the road and made my long way down the hill to continue another 900 km's to Santiago.
Symptoms of hypothermia include:
Initial hunger and nausea will give way to apathy as the core body temperature drops.
This is followed by confusion, lethargy, slurred speech, loss of consciousness, and coma.
Often the affected person will lie down, fall asleep, and die.
A Col is …
the lowest point of a ridge or saddle between two peaks, typically providing a pass from one side of a mountain range to another.
On examining airplane disasters …
“The typical accident involves seven consecutive human errors. One of the pilots does something wrong that by itself is not a problem. Then one of them makes another error on top of that, which combined with the first error still does not amount to catastrophe. But then they make a third error on top of that, and then another and another and another and another, and it is the combination of all those errors that leads to disaster.”
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. [p184]