Down here in the foothills of the Pyrénées, nobody’s interested in how far you walk as you stride up the mountainside. It’s all about the DNV (dénivelé, or number of metres you’ve climbed – and remember a hillside can go down as well as up: coming up again after a descent starts the DNV counter all over again). On Thursday, we did 791 metres. That’s 2959 feet in real money. Our mileage was less impressive: 19 km. or 11.8 miles – in the circumstances pretty damn’ good.
But we didn’t know the statistics till we’d finished. We were far too busy having a very special walk.
To reach our departure point, you leave Belésta via a switchback forested road, over the Col de la Croix des Morts, and emerge onto a high and slightly bleak plateau. This is the Plateau de Sault, home of the region’s potato growers. We stopped at an insignificant track signposted Langrail and parked the cars. As we got our boots on, we met another walker on a brief holiday from his home in Durban for a good long solitary hike (‘Durban? Where do you suppose he meant? Durban-sur-Arize in the Ariège? The one in the Aude? South Africa even?’). He was the last person we met all day.
It was the 14th March. There were large patches of snow all along our route. Yet we wore tee shirts all day and became lightly bronzed in the hot sun as we crunched through that still hard-crusted snow. Through the forests we could see the peaks of our more local mountains: Maguy, born and bred round here taught us how to recognise each one.
Then, quite unexpectedly, we emerged into a splendid expanse of pasture interspersed with areas of snow. In every direction, there was a distant fringe of mountains: our day-to day familiar slopes, the more distant and higher peaks of the Hautes Pyrénées,and behind us, bereft of snow, those of the Aude and Pyrénées Orientales. It was a really special pleasure to tramp across this apparently unending pasture, enjoying views of our constant neighbour Montségur, as well as the towns and villages where we all live, and much further away, the Montagne Noir, with the sky clear and blue above us.
It kept us happy till lunchtime. We’d arrived at a refuge by then, thoughtfully provided with a table and benches in the sunshine. After the picnic, we left our rucksacks with Gilbert, the honorary man in the group and went off to investigate the Belvédère, the local viewpoint. Craggily folded rocks plunged down deep towards the Gorges de la Frau and still we had our views of Montségur. We were impressed.
Our route for the day was a simple there-and-back. But the views were quite different, looking towards more eastern slopes so we didn’t feel at all short changed that we were repeating our route. And most of the return was downwards too. Which was helpful. When you’ve climbed 2000 feet or more, it can get quite tiring as the day nears its end. Lucky that there was cake and tea to look forward to.