Sunday, May 27, 2012

Crêt de la Neige (No 1)

 Flying the Jura souvenir flag (in France) at Crêt de la Neige.

There are only three peaks in the Jura higher than 1700 metres, and today we climbed to the top of two of them: Crêt de la Neige (No. 1 at 1720 metres) and Grand Cret (No. 3 - 1702m). It was a "big day" for Jura summit "twitchers" like us.

With a forecast of about 25 degrees (Celsius) and a mix of sunshine and cloud, the day beckoned for a hike to the top of the very highest peak in the Jura - Crêt de la Neige - across the border in France. Crêt de la Neige (and its two flanking 1700+ peaks - Grand Crêt and Le Reculet), is located in Pays de Gex (Ain départment) in France, about 18 kilometres west-northwest of Geneva.

This southern part of the Jura has been a part of France since 1674, when the previous imperial fiefdom of the "Free County of Burgundy", or Franche-Comte, was annexed by its larger western neighbour. Previously, at least since the middle ages, this southern part of the Jura had been carved-up into a number of smaller districts, including Gex and Franche-Comte, all of which were eventually absorbed into France.

 Our starting point, the Tiocan "buvette".

Our walk started at 10am - at the Tiocan restaurant carpark (835m), just up the mountainside from the village of Thoiry. We had driven through Thoiry, past les Hauts de Thoiry, up the Rue de Reculet and along a rugged forest road (route forestière) to Tiocan. Just as we were about to get onto the walking trail we stopped to check-out a trail-head sign reminding us that we were about to enter the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Jura in the Réserve Naturelle Haute Chaine du Jura. It's a special place.

 Signpost at Tiocan.

Taking the trail just to the left of the restaurant, we headed virtually straight-up the mountainside on one of the steepest tracks that either of us has ever climbed. Initially it was through dense forest on a steep, stony and leaf-litter covered trail, but soon after we had taken the right-hand fork at le Croisée (1190m) - at about 1300m - it was on a hard-surfaced all-weather track. Not long after, we broke-out of the forest and into more open country, with just a few small, stunted conifers dotting the landscape.

Heading-up from Tiocan, the forest is mostly deciduous (including chestnuts) until about 900 metres, after which it becomes predominantly coniferous  - until about 1500m. Above 1500m, it is replaced by subalpine mountain meadows with scattered (and mostly stunted) conifers. Interestingly, the trees along the ridgeline in the vicinity of Crêt de la Neige and Le Reculet include the beautiful little "mountain pine" (Pinus mugo) which, while not so common in the Jura, is a feature species in the Alps and other mountain ranges throughout Europe.

 Lis at Le Croisée.

Immediately after we broke out of the forest we spotted a couple of chamois standing on a craggy ridgeline above us, looking out over the Pays de Gex and the Geneva plain below. Higher up, to the northwest, we could see Le Reculet (the second highest peak in the Jura), with its distinctive iron cross on the summit, and collection of summiteers wandering around below the cross.

 Le Reculet with its landmark iron cross.

However, Le Reculet wasn't our destination today, so we turned off the Le Reculet trail just near the Thoiry Devant farmhouse (at 1490m) and headed north towards Crêt de la Neige.

 Lis passing the Thiory Devant farmhouse.

Not long afterwards we reached, and passed, the Curson refuge (1580m), after which the trail took us through an amazing, ancient exposed limestone reef, so similar to many that we've walked over on coastlines around the world today ... yet this one dated back to the time of the Jurassic Sea - millions of years ago. Now, here it was almost two kilometres above sea level, and tipped-over onto a steep angle. It was an amazing real-world geology/geomorphology lesson.

 Standing on a multi-million year old limestone reef 
once polished by the Jurassic Sea.

This 145-200 million-year-old Jura limestone and its rich collection of fossils (especially ammonites), was first scientifically described by Alexander von Humboldt in 1795, following an extensive expedition into these mountains. He called the ancient sea beds "Jura-Kalkstein" or "Calcaire de Jura". His work was followed-up by others, including Leopold von Buch who established a formal system of rocks for similar fossiliferous periods (at the time in Germany and England), and palaeontologist Albert Oppel who fully realized the significance of the ammonites of the "Jurassic Period". This name became adopted by other geologists of the time, who understood and appreciated the value of the identified ammonite fossils from the Jura Mountains for providing a consistent clue to the age of rocks from the same period in geological history - the Jurassic Period. Amazing stuff, and a treat to be able to stand among it, and be connected to it. The experience reminded me of that saying (usually associated with rockfalls): "Geological time is now."

The last bit of the trail to the top of the Jura ridgeline was through some of the best walking scenery we've ever encountered. A rugged trail winding through gorges and grottos, over ancient limestone reefs, and through gorgeous colourful beds of wild daffodils, gentians, buttercups and daisies. The butterflies were going ballistic. Somewhere in the trees nearby a cuckoo was busily imitating a Swiss clock.

 Lis hiking through a patch of daffodils.

At about noon, two hours after we'd left Tiocan, we reached the ridgeline, and in just a few minutes were standing at one of the summits (the "false" summit) of Crêt de La Neige. It had a sign there saying 1720m, but it is really the 1718m subsidiary "peak" - what was once called the "Cholesky signal peak". Like a lot of the mountain-tops of the Jura ridgeline, Crêt de la Neige has multiple peaks. This one was marked, but the true highest point lies hidden among the rocks and bushes further along the ridgeline to the northeast.

Meaning "Snow Crest", Crêt de la Neige gets its name from the fact that even in the hottest summers, pockets of snow hang around for months after winter has finished - buried deep in sinkholes and grottos, and hidden from the sun by the steep cliffs and gorges. In some holes it remains all year. ("Crêt" comes from an old Latin word - crestum, cresta, meaning crest. It is used to name the tops of mountains and ridgelines, or small hill-top plateaux; and may also designate stony ground.)

The Crêt de la Neige is a very nondescript summit, more of a long, flat-topped ridge, carved-up and gouged by gullies, canyons and gorges. The true summit takes some fossicking-around to locate as it is somewhat hidden by the small trees, shrubs and bushes growing along the ridgetop. We walked further along the ridgeline - which gave us great views into the Valley of la Valserine to the west. The best view by far was off to the southwest - towards Le Reculet which, with its bare, steep-sided peak, looked far more like a "real" mountain top than where we were standing on "Number One".

 Celebrating one of the summits (the lower one - the Cholesky signal peak) of the highest point in the Jura.

The actual height of the summit has been the source of some confusion and conjecture for many years. The confusion related to whether it was higher than Le Reculet or not, and whether the true summit was at 1717.6m or at 1720m.

In order to settle everything, Crêt de la Neige and Le Reculet were resurveyed in 2003 - which confirmed Crêt de la Neige as the highest peak, and disappointed the hundreds of climbers who'd been trekking to the top of Le Reculet for decades believing they had reached the highest peak; along with all of those who'd gone to the Cholesky signal peak (where the false "1720" sign is erected) thinking they'd reached the top of Crêt de la Neige.

View southwest from Crêt de la Neige, 
with Le Reculet in the distance.

Somewhat underwhelmed, we found a lovely grassy spot in the midday sun, and broke-out our standard fare of bread and cheese, apples and fruit-and-nut mix, and chocolate and tea. Then we lay back in the sunshine and closed our eyes. Life doesn't get much better than this. Below us lay gorges and ravines. A good place for a siesta.

 One of the patches of snow near Crêt de la Neige 
that hang around for months after the last winter snowfall.

Adequately rested, we re-hoisted our packs and headed northeast along the Jura ridgeline - along the Chemin des Crêtes du Jura, or the Grande Traversée du Jura - the 380 kilometres Jura trail that runs from one end of the Jura to the other along the ridgeline - the Haute Chaine du Jura. Here we were right at the southern end - the highest section of the route ... and we were in heaven.

With full bellies, we walked slowly along the ridgeline for about a kilometre, in the process passing over the very highest point on le Crêt de la Neige (1720m), then down through a saddle at about 1670 metres, and up to Grand Crêt (at 1702 metres, the third highest peak in the Jura). The ridgeline was typical Jura karst landscape, with lots of sinkholes, karst formations, gorges, grottos and caves. With tall cumulus clouds towering over the Alps and slowly making their way over Switzerland, we enjoyed the intervening sunshine, and took-in the views over Geneva and the plain de Gex to our east, the Vallée de Valserine to our west and views of Montoisey, Colomby de Gex and (in the far distance) La Dôle to our northeast. We once again the Swiss flag - my Jura rambling memento from Crêt de la Neige - and took a couple of celebratory pix, before heading back to Crêt de la Neige.

 Unfurling the "souvenir flag" at the summit of Grand Crêt.

Grand Crêt: Number three bagged.

Along the way we skirted the Canyon de Crêt de la Neige - a steep sided gorge still filled with deep snow, and passed-by a magnificent wind-blown tree that reminded us of just how fierce the winds can get in this neck of the woods. It's a rugged landscape - the Crêt de la Neige ridgeline - and typical of this exposed and ancient karst landscape.

 A gnarly conifer alongside the Chemin des Crêtes Transjurassien hiking trail. 
Le Reculet in the background.

We returned to Crêt de la Neige, took a few more photos at the (more picturesque) "1720m" sign, to properly record the moment of having climbed to the top of the highest peak in the Jura ... then we headed down. It was now about 2pm.

Atop Crêt de la Neige - Number One in the Jura Mountains.

 Lis heading back down the mountain. Le Reculet in the background.

Once again we made our way across the old limestone reef, the magnificent herb-fields of flowers, and then down into the forest below. Our knees took a pounding as we plodded down the steep trail, and we were glad to reach Tiocan again - at about 3.30pm - five and a half hours after we'd set-out. We figured we'd climbed more than 1,000 metres - one vertical kilometre - in getting to the top of the Jura. No wonder we were feeling a bit worn-out. My knees certainly were.

But once again, it had been a fantastic hike, in a magnificent landscape, in beautiful weather. Life doesn't get much better than that.

Lis in a patch of wildflowers just below Crêt de la Neige.

Jura peaks bagged:
  • Crêt de la Neige (No. 1) 1720m
  • Grand Crêt (No. 3) 1702m

  • Based on Peakery data, Crêt de la Neige is the 196th highest mountain in the Rhône-Alps, and the 1,523rd highest mountain in France.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Point de Poele Chaud (No 10)

 On the crest of the Jura near Pointe de Poele Chaud.

I once read somewhere that Pointe de Poele Chaud (No 10) and Point de Fin Château (No 25) must only be of interest "to collectors", because they are so close to the beaten track - right alongside La Dole - yet are seldom on anyone's walking trail. If that's true, then it's a real shame, because they're both lovely peaks, easily accessible, and with fantastic views ... although we didn't see too many of the latter on our trek today. Much of our time along the crest-line was blanketed by clouds.

 White-out atop La Dole. Views? What views?

"Expect the unexpected" is our motto for the Jura, and today's hike lived-up to this reputation. What started with a mixed weather forecast ... and bright sunshine, ended-up with ... bright sunshine. But in between we had lots of rain, clouds, wind and white-out conditions. Luckily we do now always expect the unexpected and have every kind of weather condition covered by what we stuff into our packs before leaving home.

 La Givrine.

We parked the car at La Givrine (1236m), which is really only a restaurant and ski facility on the side of the road that runs over the Jura between St Cergue and La Cure, on the Col de la Givrine. It's also a rail stop for the "little red train" that chugs its way up the mountainside from Nyon, way down on the shores of Lac Leman, to La Cure (the French-Swiss border town). The railway dates back to 1916, when the first trains began to run between Nyon and St Cergue. The line was extended to La Givrine, and then to La Cure, in the following year (1917), and four years later (1921) was further extended, into France, to the towns of Les Rousses and Morez. (Unfortunately, the French extension was closed again in 1958). Today the rail line, with its characteristic "little red train" provides an essential daily service along the Col, bringing day-trippers (summer walkers, winter skiers and year-round pic-nickers and restaurant diners) to the heartland of the southern Swiss Jura.

 The "little red train" on its route through the Col de la Givrine.

The Col de la Givrine is historically one of the main east-west passes through the Jura - connecting the old Roman town of Nyon (in the east) with Les Rousses (in the west) - the first town you come to across the border in the French Jura, just north of La Cure (which is half-Swiss and half-French). The Col is sometimes (incorrectly) called the Col de Saint-Cergue. This beautiful mountain pass is part of an ancient route that connected Burgundy and Franche-Comté in eastern France with Nyon, Lac Leman, Geneva and its hinterlands, and, eventually, Italy.

The importance of the Col de la Givrine pass diminished in the 18th century - when a new road was built over the Col de la Faucille - which is further to the south and much closer to Geneva. As a consequence, the Col de la Givrine reverted to being of more of a regional road, mainly servicing local forestry activities and transporting timber. The road was upgraded and re-routed through flatter ground between 1763 and 1769 (paving stones from that era are apparently still visible in some places along the route), and was reconstructed as a much more modern thoroughfare in 1828-52, following which it regained its status as a significant international trading route.

Unfortunately, most of this history was lost on us today, as we just wanted to go walking in the mountains. So we soon left the Col, and headed southwest across the pastures towards the La Trélasse farmhouse. This farmhouse doubles-up as a restaurant in peak summer and winter seasons, and also has a ski-lift that operates throughout winter. It was closed for the inter-season today, with just a Bernese mountain dog lining-up for a feed outside the front door.

The only diner likely to get a meal between seasons at La Trélasse.

It's only a short walk from La Givrine to the France-Switzerland border - at La Cure to the west and Les Dappes - where we were headed - to the southwest. The Franco-Suisse border zig-zags quite a bit throughout its course through the Jura, and no more so than in this neck of the woods. The border is quite settled now, but it has been the subject of quite a few disputes over the years, especially following the Reformation when there were open border turf wars between the rulers of Berne and Burgundy. At the time, the Franco-Swiss boundary marked the historical limits of Burgundy and Savoy on the French side and (on the Swiss side) the (medieval) Bishopric of Basle and the principalities of Neuchatel, Vaud, Geneva and Valais.

The border was first "properly" delineated between the two neighbouring countries under the Treaty of Paris, which was signed on the 30th of May, 1814 and declared in the following year (1815). The Paris Treaty established definitively the alignment of the boundary (which is mostly still current) between France and the newly neutralized and constituted Swiss Confederation. In the vicinity of the Col de la Givrine, the border ran right through the Vallée des Dappes, however it was realigned in 1862, when it was repositioned under the Treaty of Dappes. Apparently some of the residents of the Vallée des Dappes preferred to  be in France than Switzerland and petitioned for the realignment.

 The realignment of the France-Swiss border in 1862.

The new alignment was mapped by French cartographer Alexandre Vuillemin  in 1843, however it took some years for the treaty to be organized to effect the border change. One of the interesting stories resulting from this delay, was the extension of the hotel in La Cure - now the Franco-Swiss Arbez hotel - by the local La Cure publican, to ensure it would be cut in half by, and straddle the new border. This meant guests and patrons could dine in France and sleep in Switzerland, or vice versa ... all at the same multinational pub.

The Treaty of Dappes was signed on behalf of Switzerland and France by General Guilliame-Henri Dufour (a Swiss army hero, and co-founder, in 1863 with Henri Durant, of the International Red Cross) and Louis-Napoloeon Bonaparte, the future Napoleon III (France) - on the 8th of December 1862, It resulted in the Vallée des Dappes (now in France) being exchanged by Switzerland for an area of land in the Col de la Givrine of equivalent size: 747 acres.

Somewhere along the dry stone wall we were following (along the former border in the map above) there is a stone post with "1807" carved into its side, commemorating the date when the border coincided with the construction of the wall. Today, this boundary-marker is well inside Switzerland. Just before we reached Les Dappes, we turned southeast, past the Couvaloup de Crans restaurant and ski cable station, and headed straight up the mountain. We decided not to take the usual "Pedestrian Tourism" path, opting instead for the more direct, but steeper and more rugged access route under the cable car pylons.

We hadn't gained much altitude before the Jura decided to turn-on "the unexpected", and we soon found ourselves scrambling for our rain jackets, and then for shelter in the nearby forest under a fir tree. We sat-out the passing rain shower, drinking hot tea and wondering if this was going to be the pattern for the day.

Sheltering in the forest on the way to Col de la Porte.

After awhile, the rain let up and we were able to progress further uphill, to as far as the Poele Chaud farmhouse ... when it started to rain again in earnest. We sheltered for awhile in the doorway to the winter-abandoned farmhouse, until I leaned against the old wooden door and it creaked open, after which we sheltered out of the rain in the dark, but dry interior. For awhile it fairly belted down ... then suddenly stopped. We made a break for the top, and were soon standing on the Col de Porte (1558m), along with a bunch of other mountain walkers in their variety of multi-coloured rain-capes and jackets.

 The walkers' trail-post at Col de Porte.

As I suspected, they all went one way, probably towards La Dole, while Lis and I went the other - uphill towards the summit of Pointe de Poele Chaud. Point de Poele Chaud means the "tip, or top (more or less pointed), of the hot stove (or hot frying pan)", and it is thought that the name figuratively refers to the fact that it can get relatively hot up here in mid-summer and that throughout summer it can be a warm and sunny place. While the true origin of the name is not widely known, calling it a "pointe" is considered a little too grand by some who venture to the tip/top, given that it is more of a rounded hill than a sharp peak.

 Looking back towards the Col de Porte and La Dole.

Whatever its origin and pointiness, we were soon standing on that rounded hilltop (1628m), where I unfurled my trusty Swiss flag, and Lis took the commemorative pix to mark the occasion.

 La Suisse exist.

The most distinctive feature about the summit is an old radio shack that is located there, called "La Glutte". Often mistaken for a weather station, due to its aerials, wind vane and webcam, the shack serves as the principal Franco-Swiss relay station for amateur radio hacks (members of the amateur radio club HB9G) in this part of the world. We wandered around the hilltop for awhile, taking photos, and watching the clouds scudding-in from the valley below us and obliterating everything around.

 La Barillette sandwiched between clouds.

During an occasional break, we saw the summits of La Dole, La Barillette and Point de Fin Château around us, and down below a mob of about 20 chamois. This was the biggest (and closest) mob of chamois we'd ever seen. (One even ran right past us, passing within about 20 metres.)

Part of a mob of about 20 chamois we saw near Point de Poele Chaud.

The chamois, surrounding peaks, and just about everything else soon disappeared into a total white-out that enveloped the mountain top, so we hunkered-down under the eaves of the radio shack and dragged-out our standard mountain-trekking fare of bread, cheese, nuts and raisins, and hot tea. To cap it off, it began to rain again, but once again we were in the best possible situation, and happily munched away until the shower passed over us on its way into France.

Our last glimpses of Point de Poele Chaud - smothered by a white-out.

As luck would have it, the clouds soon lifted for long enough for us to see our next peak, so we quickly re-hoisted our packs and headed northeast further along the Jura crest-line. We navigated our way through some of the last vestiges of snow still on the ground along the crêts in this part of the Jura and, after one false assumption, were soon standing on the second Jura peak on today's target list - Point de Fin Château (1556m). This is the last peak at the northern end of the La Dole massif, and thus has appropriately been called the "End of Castle Point" - which aptly describes the last high point in the La Dole line of peaks.

 Celebrating the summit of Pointe de Fin Château.

Once again, my Swiss flag fluttered in the breeze for another Jura summit commemorative photo. We wandered around to take-in the occasional glimpses of St Cergue directly below us; and Lac Leman, Geneva and bits of the Alps far away through the clouds, then "headed outta Dodge". My plan was to follow a dry stone wall that ran northwest down the hillside from just north of the summit, but we soon found that it intersected a marked, but little-used trail, which we decided to follow the rest of the way down the mountainside.

 Lis making her way through one of the last patches of snow of winter 2012.

This took us along a magnificent, little-used forest trail - over patches of snow, fallen trees, slippery slopes, rocky knolls and dense forest. It was a lovely track, and a fab way to finish our walk.

 Moss-covered Tolkein country in the heart of the Jura.

 Negotiating a fallen tree across the trail down from Point de Fin Château.

 Through the forest not far from La Trélasse.

The trail eventually popped-out of the forest - called the Bois de Couvaloup - just south of La Trélasse, which we soon strolled past on our way back to the car. The road we found ourselves on was called "Couvaloup de Crans", the same name as the restaurant and ski station to the southeast, whilst further around the road was the "Couvaloup de St Cergue". All of these names apparently relate back to a dreadful and catastrophic storm in 1960 - after which a bunch of wolves were found frozen to death in caves and crevasses along the north side of the La Dole massif.

Fortunately, our "storm" had proven to be nowhere near as dramatic or drastic and, not surprisingly, the day was beginning to clear-up again. With impossibly blue-violet gentians and yellow daisies sparkling in the sunshine all around us, we were already wondering if we'd really spent the past five hours in rain and mist and white-outs at the top of the ridgeline.

Impossibly radiant gentians in the pastures near La Givrine.

You've gotta love the Jura. (but don't forget to pack your rain-jackets, gloves and beanies :)

Jura peaks bagged:
  • Point de Poele Chaud (No. 10) 1628m
  • Pointe de Fin Château (No. 25) 1556m

Pointe de Poele Chaud is the 6,162nd highest peak in Switzerland (Peakery)