Chasseral, the highest peak in the northern, Bernese Jura, is on the top of many walkers' lists (it has thousands of visitors per year), but, unfortunately, it's not on mine. It's busy, it's a long way from St George (125 kilometres, or one and a half hours away by freeway), it has a road to the top (complete with hotel-restaurant and car-park), and is capped with one of the biggest and ugliest telecommunications towers you'll ever see. But, as a destination, it gave us one of the best walks we've ever had ... thanks to the cliffs and climbs and chasms in the canyon of Combe Grède. But more on that soon.
Lis and I headed up there - to Canton Bern - on Sunday (23 September) to tackle summit number 13 on the list of Jura peaks. The entire Jura was blanketed in low-lying cloud when we drove out of our drive-way on Côte Malherbe, which left us in some doubt as to whether or not we would be the recipients of any decent views from the Chasseral summit once we got there. The summit is famous for its views of the northern Jura, the peaks of the Vosges, the Bernese and Valais Alps and the massif of Mont-Blanc ... not to mention the lakes of Lac de Bienne and Lac Neuchâtel. We drove-on in hope.
At about 10am, after passing through St Imier, we parked the car in the "Combe Grède" parking area just south of the village of Villeret. This neck of the woods is famous for its local cheese - the "Gruyère d'alpage" and the fact that it was for a very short time (in 1765) where the famous philosopher, botanist, randonneur and author (including of "Les rêveries du Promeneur solitaire"), Jean-Jacques Rousseau passed-by. There were no remnants of Rousseau today, so we perused all of the information and interpretation panels, and then commenced our trek southwards, up the Combe Grède trail. The guide-books said the trail required "a sure footing, and an absence of vertigo" and that walkers should be ready for ladders and cables ... and falling stones. This was going to be an adventure!
This forest track led us into le Parc Jurassien de la Combe Grède, established in 1932 as a nature reserve and named after the Grède family, who were the first to own the forest - sometime way back in the 16th century. They sold the land in 1794, and in the ensuing decades the forest was subjected to somewhat of a hammering, especially in the 19th century - when it was logged for charcoal production. In the early 20th century it was heavily exploited for timber, until, eventually, it was appreciated more for its natural attributes than its commercial returns.
The track that we were on - le sentier de Combe Grède - was established way back in 1904, by local Villeret residents and Club Alpine Suisse (CAS) members from St-Imier. It's been looked after ever since by the Sociétè des amis de sentier de Combe Grède, including when their trail (and lots more besides) was completely obliterated by huge flash-floods in 1963 and 1969. The reserve was given further protection in 1982, when it was declared a strict nature reserve, with no forms of exploitation allowed - no forestry, no hunting ... perfect. It was given the additional descriptive title of "sauvage" in 1999, when the "friends of the Combe Grède trail hooked-up with the l'Association du Parc Jurassien de la Combe Grède/Chasseral to maintain it as a wilderness trail. The result is one of the best tracks we've ever had the pleasure of walking.
The morning mist we'd been surrounded by in St George was still with us at Villeret and the Combe Grède forest, so we were treated to an enchanted forest experience as we made our way through the misty forest and leafy-cushioned track. It was like walking through a scene from Lord of the Rings. We took ages to make any headway, as we stopped so often to take photographs and to marvel at the huge towering trees, gnarly tree roots, fallen trees smothered with moss and fungi, precipitous gorge walls and cliff faces, scree slopes, rocks, chasms, cairns and grottos. It was a truly magical place.
The first part of the walk was relatively gently uphill, through a magical tall forest of thousands of sky-scraper trunks, that no doubt would have been ideal ships' masts in a by-gone era.
As we got higher up into the valley, it became much more of a gorge, with occasional signs warning us of what lay ahead - with possible rock falls, slippery slopes and precipitous pathways.
The forest trail gradually turned into a rough-and-tumble gorge track, at times needing fixed ladders (there were three of those), and steep cables, to provide access up the increasingly steeper "path" to the top of the canyon. It's easy to see why this trail is warned-against in the winter months between November and May. We were having fun.
A series of switch-backs took us higher up the cliff face, and, with my altimeter showing about 500 metres gained (half a kilometre straight-up in about two kilometres!) we began to feel that we were near the top of this first ascent. The clouds began to dissipate, and for the first time we could see more than about 100 metres in front of us.
As with so many of these kinds of walks, after a last, short push, we suddenly found ourselves at the top of the gorge and out into bright sunlight.
Typical of us, rather than making a bee-line straight for Le Chasseral, which was hidden through the trees about two kilometres to our east, we turned almost back on our tracks and headed north - towards Les Limes Derrières, Les Limes du Haut and a mountain farmhouse called Métairie de Meuringue - and began skirting around a ridgeline about a kilometre to its north. (A métairie is a farmhouse in the Jura that turns into an alpine tavern/restaurant, "where cheese is made and wanderers find refreshment" in the months when it's possible.)
Initially this took us through some magnificent forest country at the top of the Combe Grède cliffs - where we stopped to recharge on water, snack-bars and fruit-and-nuts - before the landscape opened-up onto high mountain meadows - interspersed by Jura ridges and their intervening valleys (the combes).
The trail took us north, then northeast for a couple of kilometres until we reached an alpine farmhouse called Les Limes du Haut, from where we diverted from the well-used farm-track and headed up a narrow goat-track that led into the forest to the southeast.
The steep track soon had us sweating and our hearts racing, but the sweat was rapidly blown away when we reached the top - where we burst out of the sheltered, shady forest into blazing sunshine, and gale-force wind, right near a mountain refuge hut operated by a local mountaineering club.
For awhile we were a bit disoriented, and had to pore over the GPS, topographic map, hiking map and guide-book that I had stashed in my back-pack ... before coming to the realization that we still had far to go ... and our stomachs were grumbling. It was about mid-day, and we'd been up since 4am!
We gingerly made our way down the steep, rocky, pot-holed slope to the Métairie de Morat farmhouse, where we temporarily parted ways - with Lis headed east along an access road, while I charged-up the adjacent ridgeline to tick-off another Jura summit. (It's a boy-thing, I know.)
My destination was Petit Chasseral - 1572 metres and number 22 on the list of highest peaks. When it comes to mountain summits, this was somewhat nondescript: a gentle, grassy, convex ridge-top, ungraciously marked by a ruptured wooden post. The post was probably once a proud Christian cross (as one usually finds at the top of the Jura summits), but this one had been torn asunder by a lightning bolt from Thor (or some other irreverent thunderstorm god or goddess), and looked like little more than a ruptured fence-post. No matter, it marked the 26th peak of my "Big Year" in the Jura, number 22 in terms of altitude, and the first for the day. That was worth celebrating. But the gales were blowing, Lis was waiting somewhere down the ridge, and (like her) I was famished.
I hastily snapped a ceremonial photo, then scampered southeast down the ridge to the nearby farm-house called La Neuve - where Lis and I had arranged to rendezvous.
We passed-by the farm-house, and a small group of al fresco diners who were enjoying their Sunday lunch on a terrace just outside, one of whom was serenading any hilltop hikers within earshot with tunes from his long wooden Swiss alphorn. We listed for awhile to his lilting tune, and the echoes that were bouncing off the ridgeline across the valley ... and then headed south in that direction. This took us to the top of the most southern, and highest Jura ridge - the 20-kilometre-long Chasseral Jura fold. From there we should have been able to see those magnificent views that I described in the first paragraph of this account. Instead we saw la Mer de Nuage - the sea of clouds - that completely blanketed-out just about everything below us.
We had glimpses of the tops of the foothills below us, but none of the lakes. Even the distant Alps were hazy and difficult to distinguish.
We scanned the horizon trying to recognize some of the peaks in the Bernese and Valais Alps, but soon gave-up and succumbed to more immediate priorities - lunch. It was now about 1.30pm ... and a long time since breakfast. But first, we had to scramble to the top of the nearby Les Roches - 1525 metres and number 40 on my list of peaks. Duly scaled, and photographed, Les Roches provided a rugged setting for a scrumptious mountain lunch and well-earned trail break. Les Roches gets its name from the medieval Latin, and Gallic word rocca - which (not surprisingly), means "rock". There were lots of them at Les Roches - which lies above the tree line, on a broad, exposed and barren, wind-scoured limestone ridge.
Unfortunately we still had far to go, so we didn't rest long and were soon back on the trail - heading west-southwest along the ridgeline towards Chasseral. We were now in the heart of the Parc régional Chasseral - home to a variety of rare flora and fauna, including the rarely seen owl "chouette de Tengmalm" (Aegolius funereus), "pic noir" (black woodpecker) (Dryocopus martius) and "coq de Bruyère" - le Grand Tetras (Tetrao urogallus). It also used to be a favourite haunt for mountain wolves. Hermann Hesse set his short story "The Wolf" near Le Chasseral.
Le Chasseral was only about a kilometre away - further west along the ridgeline, so we were there in no time at all, mingling with all of the day-trippers who'd driven-up to the hotel-restaurant just a little further down the ridgeline ahead of us. Le Chasseral is 1607 metres high, the 13th highest peak in the Jura Mountains, and the highest peak in the Bernese Jura. The German-speaking part of Switzerland - which starts just to the north of Chasseral - call the summit "Gestler", although it's marked as Chasseral on all of the maps. Chasseral means "a place of hunting" and is derived from the French word chasser - to chase, pursue, hunt or shoot.
By now, above us, it was glorious sunny day (albeit with the usual fabulous views from the summit either blanketed-out below us, or hazy on the horizon). And with just a few weeks before the onset of more frigid weather, everyone and their dog appeared to be making the most of the sunshine. We didn't stay long amongst the throng .. just long enough to look around, and take the mandatory summit-ceremonial pix, before heading southwest further down the ridgeline.
The telecommunications tower was first installed on the mountaintop in 1945 (inaugurated on the 26th of June 1945). A new station was built in 1983 - for Swisscom radio and television - to which the 120 metre tower, with its distinctive red-and-white striped tower, was added in 2010. It is quite a landmark in the northern Jura. At ground-level, it's a popular place for day-trippers, pic-nickers, hikers, Jura Crest Trail trekkers, para-gliders and (in winter) skiers, "snow-shoers" and kite-skiers. In the skies above, it's a landmark for light aircraft and gliders, and we watched both a glider and an old bi-plane (it looked like a Tiger Moth) drift and labour respectively across the skies above us while we were at the summit.
Next stop was the Hôtel Chasseral, just a kilometre down the road.
Not surprisingly (with it virtually being all downhill from here), it didn't take us long to reach the hotel. The distance between the two Chasseral landmarks wasn't far, but it provided some great panoramic views in every direction.
We also passed another interesting landmark - a plaque set into the rocks that commemorates the death of three Swiss air force pilots (First-Lieutenant Emilio Gurtler, Lieutenant Rodolfo Meuli and Lieutenant Rudolf Rickenbacher) - who died here during an aerial combat with German fighter planes during the Second World War - in June 1940.
We soon passed the hotel, resisting the urge to head indoors, put our feet up and order a cold beer or slab of cheese-cake, or whatever was on the devilish menu. We still had far to go today, and looking north over the immediate combe and the Métairie de St Jean farmhouse, we could see that we still had many Ks to go to get back down the Combe Grède to Villeret.
The Hôtel Chasseral was first built in 1880, then rebuilt in 1925 - after a fire destroyed the original building.
By now we were on a mission: to tick-off our last Jura summit for the day and get down the mountain. So we stopped at our last peak-bagging destination - Chasseral Ouest (1552 metres, No. 26), took the mandatory photo, and skedaddled.
Chasseral Ouest is mainly noteworthy because it is the highest point in the Canton of Neuchâtel. Other than that, there's not a lot to write about it. Few Jura hikers know about it (it's not marked on any of the topographic maps or guide-books), and few hikers make the effort to add it to their walking itinerary.
With one last glance back up the ridgeline, we tumbled down the last half kilometre or so to the Col du Chasseral (1502m), from where we commenced our journey back down the mountainside.
Initially we scrambled northeast, cross-country, down a slope through alpine pastures (and around numerous sinkholes) towards the Mètairie de St-Jean. Before long, we intersected the walking trail that would take us all the way back to Villeret. We skirted to the east of L'Egasse, to Pré aux Auges (where we'd been hours earlier at the top of Combe Grède), from where we followed a forest trail that followed the contours along the Combe Grède cliff-tops. We stopped awhile at the vantage point at La Corne (1333m; and number 118 on the list of Jura peaks), from where we had fantastic views of the gorge below and the rolling landscape to the north. By now, most of the clouds on this side of the Jura had lifted, so we had great views.
Mission largely accomplished, we headed-on down the trail towards the Mètairie des Planes (1289m), near where we passed a real Tolkien-like "ent". It was really an oak tree, but was very old, very gnarly and kind-of spooky.
Before long, we were back in the Combe Grède forest, and on a lovely, leafy trail that wound its way gently down the mountainside and back into the heart of the ravine. All downhill, we revelled in its beauty (and ease), and skipped-over the last kilometres with ease.
We wearily walked into the Combe Grède car park at about 5.30pm - after more than seven hours of solid walking and climbing. It was no wonder we were both feeling a bit tired. We'd probably covered about 16 or 17 kilometres, climbed (and then descended) more than a thousand metres, and stepped-over countless rocks, logs, potholes and other obstacles along the way. We still had about an hour-and-a-half's drive ahead of us, but the thought of a hot bath, a glass (or two) of red wine, and a comfortable bed in our mountain house maintained the smile that I'd kept on my face since the moment I woke-up. What a magnificent day!
Jura peaks bagged:
- Chasseral (No. 13) 1607m
- Petit Chasseral (No. 22) 1572
- Chasseral Ouest (No. 26) 1552m
- Les Roches (No. 40) 1525m
- La Corne (No. 118) 1333m
- A total of 6,501 "border violations" were recorded by the Swiss during the Second World War, with 244 foreign planes either forced to land or shot down after venturing into the skies above neutral Switzerland.