Wiesner arrives at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the end of his Walk to Beat Polio. Photo courtesy of Hans Wiesner
Bad weather and loneliness couldn't keep Hans Wiesner from completing his Walk to Beat Polio.
The Canadian Rotarian encountered headwinds of 15 miles per hour and near-freezing temperatures during the toughest part of his 620-mile journey along the Via de la Plata, part of an ancient network of trails in northwestern Spain used by pilgrims to reach the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
"I thought about quitting, but I really had no choice but to keep going," he recalls. "At the point of the journey I was at, there is really nothing around you anyway. What inspired me most was all the people who were supporting me: Rotarians from all the clubs in District 5360 [parts of Alberta; Saskatchewan, Canada]."
Wiesner, a member of the Rotary Club of Red Deer East, Alberta, completed his 35-day Walk to Beat Polio in November, raising C$54,000 (about US$43,700) for Rotary's US$200 Million Challenge to benefit PolioPlus. Before the walk, he visited roughly half the clubs in his district and e-mailed the others to solicit donations.
The idea for the walk stemmed from a trip Wiesner completed in 2007 on the same network, called the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), shortly after he retired as a chemical engineer. He says he made the journey as a personal challenge and for spiritual reasons.
After joining his club later that year, Wiesner thought about repeating the trip. A close friend, who had served as best man in his wedding, contracted polio as a child. The friend survived, but was weakened by the disease.
"He was born in 1944, I in 1945. We went through the era where a lot of people got polio," Wiesner recalls. "I was fortunate, he was not. It seemed like a nice segue using this walk to raise funds for PolioPlus."
Road less traveled
Wiesner set out from Seville, Spain, on 6 October. This time, he chose the Via de la Plata, the longest of the pilgrimage routes, and one less traveled. Less than 5 percent of those making the journey use the Via de la Plata; the vast majority join the Camino Francés at some point between the Pyrenees and the Spanish border.
The lack of fellow hikers provided a sharp contrast to his previous trip.
"I got to one hostel to stay overnight, and I was the only one there," he recalls. "That was definitely a challenging part of this trip. The social aspect is pretty important."
The weather was also significantly worse. By the time he reached the 60 percent point, snow began to fall in the mountain passes. For four days straight, the temperature hovered near freezing as he battled a strong headwind.
"Nothing prepared me for what is described in my guidebook as 'the steepest climb' on the Camino," Wiesner wrote in a blog he maintained during his trip. "This is a section which starts about seven kilometers [4.3 miles] after leaving Ourense. It is a continuous 20 degree slope for just over a kilometer which then turns into about a 12 degree slope for the next half a kilometer. Usually a climb like that is rewarded by a superb view (after you recover) . . . but there was nothing to see except the fog."
Nevertheless, Wiesner is still positive about the experience. He is happy with the amount he raised, which he calls "a fair chunk of change," and is already planning future hikes in France and Spain.
Find more details and photos of his walk on his blog, www.haloranch.ca.