Here I go...

Finding magic under the stars of the Camino Santiago de Compostela

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Pilgrim Has Died on the Camino

Photo by Sylvia Nilsen

While walking the Camino, you will on occasion pass a memorial or marker indicating a place where a pilgrim has lost his or her life. The feeling for me is a combination of sadness, curiosity and respect.

I feel sad for the family because maybe this made their terrible fear come true, fear that the Camino is not safe, that their loved one would come to harm. I feel sad that the pilgrim did not finish the journey. I wonder what their last thoughts were? I am curious about the details. How did they die? Was it a heart attack? A stroke? Were they alone or with friends? How old was this person? And then those feelings turn to a deep respect that this pilgrim died while doing something that was more important to them than the fear of death. . . that their love for this pilgrimage made their death meaningful. Wouldn't we all like to die doing something we love? I know I would.

And so, these were the same feelings I had when I heard about the 42 year old man whose body was found on the Camino this week between St. Jean Pied de Port and Roncesvalles. From what I've heard in the forums, he was within sight of refuge.  Here is the latest report, posted by Navarricano, who lives in Pamplona. This is a quick translation of the article which appeared in the Saturday edition of the Diario de Navarra:
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A Brazilian pilgrim was found dead in a small gorge near Mt. Ortzanzurieta (Roncesvalles). The body was discovered by the forest ranger responsible for the area. The place in which the body of the pilgrim was found indicates that he had lost his way, and that he had suffered a fall. His backpack was found some 70 meters above the spot where his body lay.

He was apparently traveling alone, and until Friday nobody sounded the alarm that he was missing. For this reason, despite the fact that all of his personal identity papers were found in his backpack, an autopsy is required to confirm that the information contained in the documents correspond to those of the body that was recovered. Until the autopsy is complete, the deceased appears to be G.C.J., a resident in Canada. The location of the body suggests that the pilgrim died several days ago and the body only discovered once the snow had begun to melt.

The ranger had gone to inspect the area following the thaw. The body was discovered a little before 11.00 a.m. He alerted SOS Navarra, who in turn alerted the Burguete fire department, a medical team, the Guardia Civil and a helicopter rescue squad.

Three firefighters set out from Burguete. A fourth firefighter set out from Valcarlos, where he was serving as a replacement during the winter. The former left their vehicle parked at the albergue in Roncesvalles, from where the path that leads to the gorge starts. From there they had to continue on foot. Equipped with skis and snowshoes to walk on the snow, they also carried with them the equipment normally required to respond to these types of emergencies: a stretcher, a backpack with a first-aid kit, and another with clothing.

Following the ranger's indications, the firefighters began their trek. The going was initially over flat terrain, but soon became an uphill climb. Access to the area where the body lay was complicated due not only to the snow, but also because as they drew nearer to the gorge, the path was slicked with deep mud and wet leaves that made their path even more slippery. The helicopter crew followed their progress from the air as they made their ascent.

Following an hours' trek, the firefighters reached the forest ranger and the body of the pilgrim, resting face down in the gorge. At this point the Guardia Civil verified the pilgrim's death and ordered the corpse be removed from the area. The body was carried to an area where it could be tied to the stretcher and lifted to the helicopter, which transported it to the Navarran Institute of Forensic Medicine.

The Guardia Civil is in charge of the proceedings. Following the autopsy and the confirmation of the victim's identity, the Canadian consulate will be contacted in order to initiate the victim's repatriation to Canada.

It is clear from the small map that appeared in the article showing where the body was discovered that the pilgrim, upon reaching the Lepoeder hill, became disoriented. Everything was covered in snow, he could not follow the markings easily, and he headed off in the wrong direction as a result, ending up on a very dangerous cliff, where he slipped and fell into the gorge.
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Those of us who have walked this route know this area. It is steep and slippery any time of year, can be treacherous in the rain, and apparently deadly in the snow.

This is a reminder, people.

If you are planning a winter Camino, please pay attention to the advice from the local people, the hospitaleros, and the staff in St. Jean Pied de Port. These people understand the weather of their region, which can quickly change from sunshine to severe.  If they tell you to take the lower route along the road, please listen!

I'm not suggesting this poor man did not heed advice; perhaps nobody told him the dangers of crossing this upper route during winter. But the snow is extremely deep this year. The trail markers are not tall enough to be seen, and it can be very foggy in addition. This leads to a chance of becoming disoriented and stepping off onto what you believe is firm ground, but is in fact a snowbank hiding a cliff, which appears to be what happened here.

This was a young, healthy man.
I'm sad for his family.

Buen Camino, Peregrino.
May you rest in peace.

Photo by Iasramblings

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for the wise advice and to all those that assisted in the recovery of the pilgrims body. May he rest in peace.
    B.C. Dublin Ireland


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