Sunday, January 29, 2012

Mont de Bière Devant (No. 37)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Mont de Bière Devant isn't one of the seven highest peaks in the Jura (it's ranked number 37), but it's about the closest one to home, and thus an easy peak to get to from our house on Les Coteaux. Plus I needed to get out for a walk after a couple of weeks working out of the country - firstly in the Netherlands, and then the US. The Netherlands is no place for summit training, especially as I was working in the one-fifth of the country that is reclaimed from the ocean (and mostly below sea level) - which is hardly ideal for gaining walking-at-altitude experience. Washington is also flat, however at least I was able to get out for a walk while I was there - doing a lap of the famous "mall" and squeezing-in a visit to the Natural History Museum and its fantastic display of wildlife. I love the huge elephant they've got in the entrance hall.

Today, I'm a long way from Washington, back in the magnificent Jura Mountains ... where I might have stumbled across that elephant's long lost relation if I'd been here a few millennia ago.

But I was most unlikely to stumble across any mammoths today (I photographed this one rampaging through a park in Barcelona a couple of years ago), nor any of their traces, nor any other famous Jura fossils, 'cos the entire landscape today was covered with a beautiful, deep layer of snow. When I hit the trail at 11am, everything was under a lovely fresh covering of soft, powdery snow after an overnight sprinkling. It was just perfect for snowshoeing.

I set-out at about 11am - from the car-park alongside the Col du Marchairuz road at Sapin à Siméon, which is at about 1540m. It was minus five degrees when I got out of the car, and a total white-out. Not the best for photography, but perfect for getting lost in the mountains ... which I proceeded to do.

Hitting the trail at Sapin à Siméon.

 The "road" ahead.

Although impossible to see, the trail was just beautiful and my snowshoes left fresh marks as they ploughed into the  powder snow as I headed off - first along an initial gentle traverse before working my way higher up the mountainside. The first landmark that I passed was the Refuge du Pre d'Aubonne (at 1570m), which had one of those beautifully stacked wood-heaps: stacked as neatly and tidily as only the Swiss can stack wood.

The people who live in this part of the Jura have a long heritage of forestry. They love their wood, their woods, their forests. It's no wonder we love it here too. The refuge had a cool sign nailed to the front wall ...

... which roughly translated, says:
"Deepest in the woods, the country has its heart.
A country without forest, is a country who dies.
That's why everyone here, when a tree dies,
Swears to replant hundreds on its grave."

I think that's very cool.
Suitably inspired, I headed deeper into the forest, slowly gaining altitude and heading for the top of Mont de Bière Devant, not too far into the distance. It took me about an hour and a half to get there, although (mainly due to the white-out) it proved to be somewhat more difficult than I would have hoped. Despite being armed with a topo map and compass, it was still bloody hard going knowing exactly where I was the entire time, especially once I left the usual route and plunged cross-country in the general direction of the summit. I had a few moments when, although not exactly lost, I was "temporarily uncertain of my position" ... as I prefer to say under such circumstances.

My tracks through the fresh snow near Mont de Bière Devant.

At one stage I came across two other Homo sapiens ssp snowshoensis who were also wandering around looking a bit lost. I pulled out my map and showed them how to get back to the car-park ... and yet I still came across them about half an hour later - at the summit of Mont de Bière Devant (where they had no intention of going!) Fortunately there were two other very experienced Jura trekkers there (both fully-equipped women in their sixties), and who knew exactly where they were and where they were going. They also had a GPS, a good topo map and compass, and gave the two guys solid directions for how to get back to where they'd parked their car. I joined the topo map meeting and discussion for awhile, but then left them so I could take some photos of the summit's landmarks before they disappeared into the gathering mist.

Mont de Bière Devant means the summit or mountain in front of Bière - referring to the town just at its feet. Bière, which looks and sounds like it means "beer", actually comes from the Latin word berria which means "prairie, barren and uncultivated, or little cultivated". Its origins may also relate to the Gallo-Roman people referred to as the "Berria" or "Beria"

The flagpole and information panel at the summit of Mont de Bière Devant.

The view I got from the summit. Normally from here 
there's an excellent view of Lac Leman and the Alps.

Although encrusted in ice, the information panel at the summit at least provided proof that I was in the right place. The panel was erected in 2009 by the "Team of the Flag" ... whom I assume also erected the flagpole. The only flags "flying" today (actually wrapped-around and frozen to the pole) was a string of multi-coloured prayer flags from Nepal. (Like these ones below - which I photographed when Lis and I were trekking in the Himalayas near Mount Everest Base Camp in 2004 - although that's not Everest in the background!).

Today, I was on another continent, and not nearly so high into the clouds ... but still in the clouds nonetheless. I took one last pic - of me squatting on top of the park bench that normally provides a good resting spot for those lucky enough to be here when the countryside isn't quite so blanketed in snow - then started on my return journey.

Before I left the hilltop, I took a few more photographs - mainly of the icicles hanging off the roof of the nearby, mostly-buried, Mont de Bière Devant farmhouse. The snow was so deep up against the side of the building that I could have just snowshoed right over the top, had I wanted to.

Icicles outside the front door of the farmhouse.

Mission accomplished, I retraced my steps through the snow, back-up over the "true summit" ridgeline further to the northwest, then turned southwest back down the mountainside towards the Col road. The walk back was beautiful, and mostly uneventful, and before I knew it (about two-and-a-half-hours after I'd left), I was back at the car-park at Sapin à Siméon. As I said, not one of the "seven highest summits in the Jura", but still a great walk, and a great excuse to get out into the forests of the Jura on a snowy winter's day. Good for the soul.

As the sign said: "Deepest in the woods, the country has its heart".

Jura peaks bagged:

  • Mont de Bière Devant (No. 37) 1529m
  • Keeping things in perspective, Mont de Bière Devant is the 6,281st highest mountain in Switzerland :)
  • Mont de Bière Devant is a "twin peak", with its twin - Mont de Bière Derrière (No. 50) - some 500  metres to the northwest. Together they are often referred to (even on some maps) as a collective "Monts de Bière (although this doesn't make much sense in my humble opinion, given their separation).

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Mont Tendre - number one - a double en-tendre

It's only appropriate that the first of my "seven highest summits" attempts would be on the one closest to home ... and the highest in Switzerland - Mont Tendre (1679m, the sixth highest peak in the Jura).
Getting an early start to this project, Lis and I strapped on our snow-shoes ("raquettes" in this part of the world) alongside the auberge at the Col du Marchairuz (1447m) and plunged into the Jura forest at 10am on Tuesday 3 January.

On the Chemin de Crêtes de Jura at 
Col du Marchairuz - the start of the adventure.

The sign said 2 hours 20 minutes, meaning the return trip should be about five hours, but that was for summer walking, so we were expecting something more like six hours - depending on the snow and the weather. The first part of the trail was easy going, with the path well defined and compacted by the hundreds of day-trippers who go up to the Col for a short stroll into the forest before heading back to the auberge for croissants and coffee (or something stronger). The "good" trail lasted as far as the (mostly) snow-buried farmhouse at Mont de Bière Derrière, which is the extent of most of the auberge-frequenting day-trippers' escapades into the Jura.

Lis out front of the Mont de Bière Derrière farmhouse.

Just by being there we were officially at the "summit" of our first recognized Jura peak - Mont de Bière Derrière (at 1481m, and ranked 50th in the top 60 peaks of the Jura - even if it didn't feel much like a summit, and wasn't one of our top seven). Under a gorgeous blue sky and in glorious sunshine, we stopped only long enough for a photograph and to shed our jackets, before heading further northwest along the Chemin des Crêtes du Jura. About half an hour down the trail, we passed the Cabane du Grand Cunay (owned by the Le Brassus ski club), before arriving at the Grand Cunay farmhouse (1567m). It too was also mostly buried in snow, although we did manage to get under one of the eaves to get a pic of the signposts.

We soon chalked-up our second Jura summit for the day - Grand Cunay (at 1603m, and number 15 in the list of highest peaks). Grand Cunay has actually got twin peaks - one at 1574m (located just behind the farmhouse) and another at 1603m (unnamed on the topographic maps, and about 500 metres to the northeast). We took the obligatory photos at the first, clowning around a bit on the trig marker, then ploughed a new trail through the beautiful fresh snow to the second summit. The word Cunay comes from the Latin cuneis, cuneus - meaning wedge or pyramid, and entirely appropriate for something that warranted a place in the Jura's highest peaks. It also relates to the Roman words cunh, conh, cong which mean "corner, angle, acute" and refer perhaps to a landscape with a pointed apex or a location at the corner, edge of a forest. In accordance with these origins, there is an old French word coignet, which means a "small wedge".

Clowning around on the southwest summit of Grand Cunay (1574m), 
with the unnamed second summit (1603m) in the background.

From the second, tree-free and wind-buffeted summit, we got our first brilliant views of the huge span of the Alps, as they provided a dramatic backdrop above Lac Léman. As usual, Mont Blanc stood dominant above all of the others.

Mont Blanc and the Alps above Lac Léman.

Once again we stopped to take some pics, and to appreciate some of the ice-encrusted, gnarled, twisted shapes of some of the most exposed dead trees, before plunging into fresh, deep snow in the valley ahead. This new trail provided us with a few "hairy" moments (read "tumbling-down head-first into the snow"), but some easy-going as well - being able to walk right over the normally imposing stone walls that criss-cross the Jura's highland pastures. Eventually we zig-zagged our way through the forest and back onto the main trail, and soon after walked past the Cabane du Cunay (1588m, owned by the Vallée de Joux section of the Club Alpine Suisse - CAS. Originally built in 1928, and renovated in 1937 and 1982, it's a very comfortable refuge in this neck of the woods). A little further down the trail we passed the Cabane Pivette (1563m), and soon after that, the Cabane du Servan (1555).

Lis on the trail near Cabane La Pivette.

In the past, we've walked by this last cabane in mid-summer and seen people sitting outside, enjoying the sunshine and a glass of wine (dreaming now!), but today it was just mostly snow-covered and abandoned for the winter. Before long, we passed the last man-made, nature-buried, landmark on our route, the Chalet de Yens (1589m) from where we had our first good view of our destination - the summit of Mont Tendre. The only thing really standing in our way was a steep, icy traverse just above the "chalet" which had Lis' heart in her mouth as she gingerly inched her way across its slippery surface. Annoyingly, while it slowed our progress quite a bit, we were overtaken by a guy wearing an "Extreme" Mammut snow jacket on cross-country skis who made it look like child's play. I took a good hard look at his skis to see if he had some kind of invisible crampons or something on them, but no, he just knew what he was doing. We watched him pull away towards the summit, and then, once we were back onto fresh snow and more level ground, made our own final push up the steep slope to the top. We arrived at 13:15, three hours after leaving the Col.

We had planned to stay there for lunch, but the summit was being lashed by gale-force Arctic winds, so we stayed just long enough to get a commemorative photo under the trig-station pyramid at the summit (46 degrees 35' 40"N; 6 degrees 18' 36"E), before fleeing downhill while we still had some feeling left in our fingers.

Intrepid explorer at the frigid, polar-like summit of Mont Tendre (1679m 
and one of only two peaks in the Jura above the tree-line)
To give you an indication of how bumpy this country is, 
it's ranked as the 6,106th highest mountain in Switzerland.

As always at this time of the year, the summit was incredibly wind-scoured, and crusty with ice. It's hard to believe that, on a field trip up here in June 1966 members of the Cercle Vaudois de Botanique found 198 plant species. Of course many of those would have been in the dense coniferous forest further down the slope and back under the tree-line. For the botanists, the dominant species in this neck of the woods are Sapin blanc (or white fir - Albies alba), Sapin  rouge (red fir - Piecea abies) and Genévrier commun (Common juniper - Juniperus communis). However, our only interest in the trees at the time was to find one to shelter under, out of the wind, where we could break-out our trusty thermos of hot tea, and sandwiches.

On a day blessed with much better weather, in 1856, the famous English writer and philosopher John Stuart Mill crested the Mont Tendre summit following a hike and climb from Le Pont alongside Lac de Joux. He wrote:

"... I say that after climbing the Mont Tendre, a most beautiful mountain, one of the highest in the Jura, which with a rest on the grass at the top and the return took six hours, I only staid (sic) half an hour to eat a crust of bread and drink a whole jug of milk, and set off again to climb another mountain and make a round which took another five hours - and I am not now more tired than is agreeable. The views of the Alps here are splendid, especially that from the Mont Tendre - in spite of a great deal of haze towards Berne and Savoy (Alps). I saw the snowy range for a great distance, Mont Blanc tolerably and the Dent du Midi, the nearer Valais mountains and the whole lake of Geneva from end to end well, also the lake of Neuchâtel, the whole Jura, and France I should think nearly to Dijon."

 Lis in the Mont Tendre dining room.

We were not so lucky. Instead of enjoying the views, we headed downhill as far as the first trees and found a swale a safe distance away from a nearby protective cornice and sat down for lunch. While there we were visited by only the second of the two trekkers we saw that far into the Jura that day - who (also geared-up as if he knew what he was doing -  far from the madding crowd in the mountains at this time of the year) came past with a beautiful Bernese Mountain dog. We "ooooed" and "aaaaahed" about his dog as it wandered over to check-out what Lis was having for lunch. At the guy's request, we took a photo of him and his dog on his mobile phone, and soon watched them both disappear in the direction of Mont Tendre. We then sat back to absorb the absolute delight of being alone again in such a dramatic location in such a wild place.

Mont Tendre is another twin peak, hence I called it "Double en-tendre" ... and very appropriately too, having chosen to use "rambling" in the name of my blog. I'm not sure who named the mont, but in French "tendre" means a feeling of fondness or love; soft or tender (which the summit was anything but today ... being more of a "Mont Hard" or "Mont A-Little-Bit-Difficult"). There are various theories behind the origins of the name - including that the rocks here may be a little more friable than in other parts of the Jura; or that it comes from the Latin word tener, which means soft, or relatively soft ground. Another hypothesis is that it comes from another Latin word tendere, which means a broad peak composed of several ridges. Given its multi-peaked appearance, I tend to favour the latter.

But whatever the origins of the its nomenclature, it's a favourite destination of Jura walkers, many of whom helped "save" the summit from ruination in mid-2010 by joining a popular uprising against the Department of Defence which wanted to build a huge 25m communications aerial on the summit. A community group (Association pour la sauvegarde du Mont Tendre) was hastily formed and proceeded to make a lot of noise about the issue. Amongst other campaign strategies, they organized a number of protest rallies - including two at the summit. This was followed-up by a court injunction lodged by Pro Natura, WWF and a couple of other organizations, which ultimately led to the army abandoning its plans. (Apparently they decided to build the aerial on the top of Grand Cunay - which already has a number of aerials.)

But that was history, and now is now. We were freezing our butts off sitting in the snow and it was time to "get out of Dodge". So we shouldered our packs and headed-off. Lis headed downhill in one direction - to try to skirt around the slippery slope icy traverse - while I headed uphill, avoiding a precipitous-looking cornice, to the top of the second Mont Tendre peak. A quick glance to the east for a last glimpse of Mont Blanc and the Alps, then I made a bee-line for the Chalet de Yens where Lis and I had planned to rendezvous. Although the trail was non-existent this far from the auberge, we soon met-up, and started the trek back to the Col. By now the sun had disappeared, and a wall of black cloud was charging towards us from the direction of La Dole. We put our heads down and sloshed our way back down the trail as fast as we could go. Before long we were enveloped in a white mist and heavy condensation, and were forced to pull-on our snow goggles to be able to keep our eyes on the "road".

Fortunately, the conditions didn't get any worse, and we were able to make good time back to the Col, where we arrived in semi-darkness at about 16:15 (six hours after our departure). It had been a fabulous first walk and, although we'd done this walk twice before, this one had a feeling of being something special and a great way to kick-off a new year. One down, and six to go.

Jura Peaks bagged:
  • Mont Tendre (No. 6) 1679m
  • Grand Cunay (No. 15) 1603m
  • Mont de Bière Derrière (No. 50) 1481m
  • According to the folks at the website, Mont Tendre is ranked the 36,457th highest mountain in the world (of the 106,826 mountains on their register :) It's the 6,106th highest mountain in Switzerland. 
  • Just below the summit of Mt Tendre there is a little tin shack perched among the rocks and set back into the rocky cliff-face. Not surprisingly, it's called the "Cabane du Rocher".

Living in the magnificent Jura Mountains

From 2009 to 2015, Lis and I were blessed to live at Les Coteaux, a hillside on the lower slopes of Mont Chaubert, a 1,000 plus metre peak in the southwest of the 360 kilometre-long Jura Mountains. With our home literally built into the limestone cliffs of the Jurassic arc, and needing to do no more than to merely step out of our back door to enter the beautifully forested world of the Parc Jurassien Vaudois nature reserve, we couldn't think of any reason why it shouldn't be our preferred playground in the land of endless opportunities. (Especially if you're into the great outdoors - like walking, hiking, trekking, rambling, climbing, snow-shoeing, mountain-biking, skiing (especially cross-country skiing) and lots more).

I wrote this blog to document our rambles in the Jura .... which were really catalyzed by a tongue-in-cheek 2012 New Year's Eve resolution "to climb the seven highest peaks ....... of the Jura Mountains". And, although it's all about us and our experiences, I've tried to make the trip reports sufficiently useful for anyone else who'd like to hike in the Jura ... and are looking for information and guidance for all of the Jura's highest peaks.

By the time we left Switzerland (in February 2015), we'd hiked to the top of the highest 58 named Jura peaks, and to the top of 70 in total. It had been a blast ... a lot of fun, a lot of adventure, absolutely memorable. Were we the first to hike to the top of the Jura's highest 50 named peaks? Who knows? We had fun doing it! So what's so special about the Jura?

The Jura Mountains form an arc of ancient folded mountain ridges, running in a northeast-to-southwest direction along the France-Switzerland border, from the Rhine River valley in the northeast to the Rhone River valley in the southwest. These folds - an inter-locking mesh of some 150 ridges in about 15 parallel-ish lines - are mostly within Switzerland, and are at their highest (rising above 1,700 metres) in the south, along the eastern-most ridgeline overlooking Geneva and Lac Léman. The highest peak is Crêt de la Neige (1,720m), followed by (the remainder of the "seven highest"): Le Reculet, Grand Crêt, Roche Franche, Colomby de Gex, Mont Tendre - the highest peak in the Swiss Jura - and La Dôle (the second highest en Suisse).

 Near the top of La Dôle in September 2010.

"Jura" is derived from the Celtic/Gaulish word "jor", which was Latinized into "juria", meaning forest, or land of the forest, and hence, literally "forest mountains". It is also thought to have been derived from an old Slavic word "gora" - which means "mountain", so could be some kind of combination - the forested mountains. It is apparently the largest patch of "middle-mountain" natural forest in the whole of western Europe. Its characteristically forested landscape is a haven for walkers and climbers, with its multitude of cloud-topping peaks and ridges, and its frequently-hidden valleys (called "combes"), gorges, grottos, waterfalls and caves. Not surprisingly, it was also a haven for French resistance fighters during the Second World War, who took advantage of the thousands of places where one could disappear if so desired. "Getting lost" in the Jura is still a popular past-time, especially for those of us lucky enough to live among the folds and foothills, especially in the south in the vicinity of the 1,600 square kilometre regional natural park: Parc Jurassien Vaudois (which, fortunately for Lis and I, is right at our back door).

Composed of stratified deposits of sponge and coral reefs which thrived in the warm Jura Sea 190 to 130 million years ago, the Jura Mountains were formed at the same time as the nearby Alps, about 200-145 million years ago. They were crushed-up during the Jurassic period - which got its name from the mountains, due to the first discovery of fossils from this particular geological era in the Jura Mountains. A former seabed, the mountains are composed of fossil-rich calcareous limestone (termed "the Jura Limestone" by pioneer geologist/paleontologist Alexander von Humboldt), creating a "karst" landscape full of sink-holes and some 4,500 caves (including the largest in Switzerland) - some of which contain underground glaciers.

 At home in the Jura overlooking St George.

Here's ten other things you always wanted to know about the Jura:
1. It's the spiritual home of the Swiss watch-making industry, with many of the most famous brands established in small towns throughout the region.
2. Wormwood is cultivated in the region, from which absinthe is made (it was banned from 1905 to 2005 after a Swiss labourer murdered his wife and children after drinking two glasses of the stuff). On a brighter note, the Jura is also a distinctive wine-growing region, with vin jaune, vin de paille and macvin the local specialities.
3. In addition to forestry, the other principal primary industry is dairy cattle, mostly using a local breed called Montbeliard - which are piebald red/brown and white.
4. It is inhabited by lynx and wolves (not that you'll ever see these two unless you're really, really lucky), along with foxes, deer, chamois, capercaillie, hazel grouse and a host of other critters that you will see while rambling.
5. There really is a Jurassic Park (Parc Jurrasien) and, like in the Hollywood blockbuster of the same name, the region was once the home of dinosaurs ... about 200 million years ago - during the Jurassic period.
6. It has a marvellous (and popular) 310 kilometre walk trail running along its ridgeline called the "Chemin des Crêtes du Jura" or "Chemin des Crêtes Transjurrasien" (Jura Crest Trail). The trail is also called the "GTJ" (Grande Traversée du Jura).
7. Like all of Switzerland, it's famous for its cheeses - particularly Vacherin Mont d'Or, Comté, La Vache qui Rit, Morbier and Bleu de Gex.
8. The Jura offers the best views of the Alps in all of Switzerland. From the Jura summits and ridges one can see Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and a thousand other peaks along the jagged alpine horizon across the waters of Lac Léman.
9. It's where you'll find the imposing "Toblerone Line" ... not the delicious chocolate unfortunately, but a line of some 3,000 16-tonne concrete anti-tank blocks (built in the late 1930s to repel potential invaders and originally called the Promenthouse Line) which snakes its way for about 15 kilometres through the Jura and down to Lac Léman.
10. Louis Pasteur was born there - in the French town of Dole, on 27 December 1822. He owned a vineyard near Arbois that is still producing wine today. Another famous "local" was Louis Vuitton, who was born in the French Jura town of Anchay, on 4 August 1821.