The holiday season is drawing to a close so I thought that I’d take Chester for a walk seeing as the weather was so warm and sunny. The pistes would be packed and the snow not that pleasant in the afternoon, but I needed to be out in the open air.
For ages I had thought of walking out onto the ridge that juts above the village to see how much of a view there was both up and down the valley, so I did just that. After ten days or so of clear weather the snow on the sunny side of the valley had nearly all melted away, making the going easy. Hardly a cloud in the sky and a light breeze warmed by the sun baked ground made for a very pleasant afternoon. I set off, comfortably warm in just a Tee shirt and jeans though mindful of rapidly changing weather in the mountains. I wasn’t going far.
There had been much discussion one evening last week, when several new guests arrived, of an amazing fire on the mountain side. We had looked out at the time and could see nothing of it from the chalet, but hidden from view, a vast tract of hillside had been scorched black from a controlled burn that had obviously gotten out of control. Amazingly, with the warm weather and moist soil, small green shoots were already beginning to appear. I suppose that they burn off the old, dry vegetation to let more light in and also to minimise the risk of summer fires which would cause much more damage. At least the snow brought the inferno to a halt this time.
My path took me across a blackened section of hillside on a vaguely horizontal trajectory, I wasn’t sure whether I needed to be higher or lower than my starting point to hit the top of the ridge, so I followed the sheep tracks, rising slightly, in preparation for enlightenment around the next corner. Or not, as it happened. It took rounding another couple of headlands before the ridge came into view below me, the sunny side partially scorched by the fire or struggling to become green again in the spring sunshine, larger patches of snow on the level higher ground, interspersed with a smattering of bushes, pine forest further out and the green valley in the distance. Clusters of tiny houses with obligatory spire, spread out well below the snowline, the occasional remote farmhouse, joined by a network of roads all in miniature. I suppose in times gone by they were constructed at a spacing that allowed easy working of the land without the luxury of modern machinery. One can only imagine how remote life in such a valley must have been before the invention of the motor car. Even the railway stops several miles away down the valley in Arreau. It would have been a decent horse ride away even to the nearest market town, let alone out of the valley and onto the plains towards Toulouse. I suppose the vast majority of people never even saw a town, never mind a city. Now folk drive here or fly from other countries to ski, walk or enjoy the scenery during their leisure time and think nothing of it. The hills and fields and majority of buildings remaining just as they were in times gone by.
The view of the mountains into the distance was stupendous, I could just about make out a neighbouring ski resort in the distance, mainly from the glint of reflective sunlight bouncing off cars rather than anything distinctively visible on the landscape. That was just one tiny point in a scene that stretched for miles and miles and miles, the rest a range of snowy peaks stretching out further than the eye could see, all the way to the mediterranean sea. Closer to hand, on the opposite side of my little valley, the recent village of Plat d’Adet, built to house the explosion of fashionable ski visitors back in the 50’s and now looks like some concrete monstrosity lowered onto the snow from an alien land, sits on its own headland linked to the village by cable cars and lifts. I wonder how they’d approach building a new village today, it definitely wouldn’t be allowed to look like that.
Chester and I rounded the upper part of the ridge in an attempt to look up the other side. One of our neighbours, a ski instructor, had said that it was possible to ski down to a village there, so I was interested to see what it looked like. We started to cross a massive patch of snow that continued right round onto the shadier side of the hill, our footprints a telltale indication of our route, going was tough as the icy crust frequently gave way into powdery snow underneath, I really should have prepared myself with racquets (if I had known).
We never got to see the ski route, the valley was huge and the view partially obscured by trees. The whole of the shady side was covered in thick snow with the odd bush protruding and impressive rocky peaks in the distance. After persevering for a while I decided that we needn’t go any further so we turned and headed down hill towards our original destination. Out across the grassy open ridge with clear views both up and down the valley, the sun was warm and the slight breeze filled with the summer scents of warmed heather and earth. There were lines of fence posts, their wires dropped to the ground for the winter protection and probably to allow wildlife free reign over the mainly frozen landscape, there were plenty of tracks to indicate their presence.
A tall signpost with several directional panels showed us the official options of routes from the ridge. I knew the names of the villages, but was surprised to see that I had discovered another section of the GR10. I had always imagined that it stayed in the high mountains here, but no, it obviously descended into the valley and so passed much closer to the chalet than I had expected. GR stands for Grande Route or major trail, one of the more famous hiking tracks in france, it stretches the length of the pyrenees from atlantic to mediterranean. There are many GR’s crisscrossing the country, one, the GR36 passes the property in Beauregard that I hope to buy.
Back to the walk, before i get too distracted. We descend far enough down along the ridge to see most of the village from a height, skirting more burnt pasture above the line of the fence. I decide that the sun may be well off the valley by the time we return, so, after a break to take in the view, reflect and rest for a sort while, we head back up the ridge towards the chalet. It’s not a steep climb, but enough to keep me on the warm side of comfortable. I daydream of beaches and sunshine and walking on the sand and realise that the sensation that I desire is to be barefoot. Momentarily I think it’s a stupid idea, just a pleasant thought to save for a summers day then I decide to give it a try. Will the ground be too cold? or the rocks too sharp? or the mud too slippery? will my feet grip or my toes get frostbite? There was only one way to find out. Chester didn’t bat an eyelid, he was too busy following the scent of some small creature or bounding off to eat snow to cool down.
The ground was surprisingly warm underfoot, the rocks were little different to the sand or stones on a beach, fairly comfortable to walk on and not that sharp, the grass, silky smooth and slippery, with the overall sensation being one of freedom, it felt wonderfully liberating and natural. It was amazing that the change in one small detail of clothing could make such a difference to a walk in the hills. I walked all the way back to the chalet barefoot, through streams, across patches of snow, on warm earth, smooth grass and probably the occasional cow pat. It was a wonderful hour or so. even in the shade, where the temperature plummeted, my feet didn’t seem to get that cold, it was great.
I don’t think I shall leave it that long again to walk barefoot. It may be bucking the norm, but thats nothing new from where I stand. It was a great experience, a new found freedom and if I remember rightly from something I read a while back, an excellent cerebral conditioner. Barefoot walking on rough terrain stimulates millions of nerve transmissions to the brain that in turn reignite areas of grey matter that remain dormant when wearing shoes. Anything to keep some activity going on upstairs must be a good thing. I’ll let you know in good time.