Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Mont Pelé (No 34) and Mont Sâla (No 42)

Mont Pelé and Mont Sâla may not be on too many Jura hiker's lists of "Must-see-places-to-visit", but oh boy, are they missing-out on a couple of fabulous destinations! And if the journey really is better than the destination, then they're also missing-out on a great hike/trek/walk/ramble/snowshoe expedition as well. We hiked to both peaks on Sunday (the 6th of January, 2013), and had another competitor for "one of the best hikes of all time" in the Jura heartlands. Getting to Mont Pelé in particular, involved real back-country hiking - an authentic off-the-beaten-track, trail-cutting experience, which provided a great hike ... and some of the best views we'd ever experienced.

As for our previous two hikes, we set-out from the Col de la Givrine, where we parked the car in a small roadside car-park about a kilometre west of La Givrine. Driving out to La Givrine from St George early in the morning, we wondered what kind of a day was in store for us, as St George (940m), and everything below it, was blanketed in a thick layer of dense grey cloud. Fortunately, Ra (the sun god) was with us, and we drove-out of the foreboding, smothering cloud layer once we got to about 1100 metres. We were greeted by gorgeous sunshine by the time we reached St Cergue. Up at the Col, we hoisted our backpacks (at about 9.45am), speculated on the day's weather and the number of thousands of people who would fill this valley as the day wore on ... and then headed north up the trail.

The calm before the storm - the Col de la Givrine - before the arrival of the ubiquitous multitude of mid-winter day-trippers that come to enjoy this winter wonderland.

It was now a familiar path for us, having come this way on our last two hikes - to La Noirmont (No 24) and Crêt des Danses (No 32) - and we made record time through the Bois de la Givrine and past the half-buried (and, of course, winter-abandoned) Le Sollier farmhouse (1290m).

Le Sollier farmhouse (1290m).

Our next landmark was a big wooden sign telling us we'd once again entered the Parc Jurassien Vaudois protected area; followed soon by the (also winter-abandoned) Les Coppettes farmhouse/barn (1323m). Looming immediately beyond it were the twin peaks of Le Noirmont (1567m), but enticing as they looked - all covered in lovely white snow in blazing sunshine - they weren't our destination today.

 Les Coppettes (in the Valléé des Coppettes), with Le Noirmont in the background

We pushed-on - northeast up the Vallée des Coppettes - and into the Combe aux Tassons. After our two recent hikes up here, it was very familiar territory. I was keeping one eye on the trail and another on the sky: At times the "wide blue yonder" was filled with 30 or 40 jet-trails cutting all over the skies - as Sunday morning jet-setters skipped over the skies above us - heading for Paris, Rome, London and elsewhere around the world. As I feared, these trails (arguably lovely and picturesque in themselves), slowly flattened-out and merged into a thin blanket of diffuse stratus cloud, which dulled the sky as we watched.

Jet-trails in the southern sky over Les Coppettes and La Cure.

Thin stratus cloud forming-up from the higgledy-piggledy, criss-cross pattern of jet-trails.

Despite the "global dimming" going on 10,000 metres above us, the day was still glorious at ground level - the sun was shining, the snow was pristine, the going was easy and the landscape was adorable. And it appeared we had the entire Jura Mountains to ourselves. There wasn't another soul in sight.

A picturesque old dry-stone wall below Le Noirmont.

We stuck to a long thin depression right under the southwest slopes of Le Noirmont, and then Creux du Croue, and passed-by the empty and silent L'Arxière farmhouse which was hidden from our sight behind a small ridge.

Lis heading northwest into the Combe aux Tassons.

We climbed a small knoll to see if we could see L'Arxière, but couldn't, and then stayed there for a few minutes to look back down the valley - beyond which there were great views of the Jura peaks to the south, particularly La Dôle and, further south, Colomby de Gex.

Looking southwest - with Colomby de Gex, Montrond and Petit Montrond in the far distance.

About seven or eight kilometres to the south: le Pointe de Poele Chaud and La Dôle. 

The trek through the Combe aux Tassons turned-out to be a lot of fun. There were no existing tracks to follow, only the crazy twists and turns of one or two adventurous cross-country skiers who'd also ventured onto the "path less trodden". At times we plunged our way into deep drifts of snow, or semi-cascaded down steep slopes - in-and-out and up-and-down the multitude of hollows, hillocks, mounds and pits that characterized the landscape. Eventually we popped-out of our little snowshoe adventure playground, and back onto the main swale of the Combe aux Tassons.

Coming out of the topsy-turvy passage adjacent to Creux du Croue.

Leaving the ridges of Le Noirmont and Creux du Croue behind us, we soon reached the (winter-abandoned) La Croue farmhouse (1469m). It was now about mid-day. We stopped for awhile to catch our breath, have a drink of water and take a last look back at Creux du Croue before heading back into the forest.

Heading-up the slopes near La Croue.

Looking back from La Croue to the distant western cliffs of Creux du Croue.

La Croue farmhouse and the cliffs of Creux du Croue.

Soon after leaving La Croue we passed an information panel telling us we were now in the Swiss government's "District Franc Féderal du Noirmont" -  a priority zone within the protected area. We promised to be good and, as one of the two signs (roughly translated) advised: "Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints". We promised again (but see the footnote below).

Sign at the entrance of the District Franc Fédéral du Noirmont.

The trail then disappeared (with us along with it) into a patch of wild country called the Cimetière aux Bourguignons - the cemetery of the Burgundians. It was about the wildest section of back-country that Lis and I have experienced during all of our hikes in the Jura. The tortuous trail took us tumbling, turning and twisting over rocks and fallen logs; around pits and sinkholes; through mini gorges, and past cliffs and steep slopes. The "cemetery" moniker felt very fitting.

The rough-and-tumble terrain in the Cimetière aux Bourguignons.

This Tolkein-like, "Neanderthalic" landscape gets its name from the brutal 1476 massacre of Burgundian troops who, "on the tail" of their leader - Charles the Bold - were fleeing homeward following disastrous defeats by Swiss forces at, initially Grandson, and then (even more disastrously) at Murten (Morat) - in the lands east of Lac Neuchâtel. The invading, yet now defeated, Burgundians were pursued and harassed by Swiss mountain-hardened forces as they fled westward towards their homeland, only to meet their demise in the wild woods of the Jura Mountains. Following multiple, sporadic skirmishes on their route from Morat to the potential safety of Burgundy (if they could make it that far), they were finally, mortally ambushed in the triangular-shaped, wild "no-man's-land" between Creux du Croue, Mont Pelé and Mont Sâla ... and countless hundreds of hapless Burgundians lost their lives.

The conflict proved to be a critical turning point in what were called "the Burgundian Wars" - a long-running, on-and-off conflict between the Dukes of Burgundy and the Kings of France ... which occasionally also spilled-over into the Old Swiss Confederacy. One such "spill-over" occurred when open warfare between the "nations" broke-out in 1474, which resulted in Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, being defeated thrice on the battlefields and finally killed in the Battle of Nancy, in France, in 1477. Charles' dominion was a "narrow, yet incomplete band of land between France and the German Empire ... which he intended to expand into an uninterrupted territory stretching from the North Sea to the Alps". Hence his ambitions on the Jura.

As part of the thrust and parry of the Burgundian Wars, Swiss forces (who formed, with their allies from Alsace-Lorraine and the upper-Rhine/Habsburg, an "anti-Burgundian" league), conquered and claimed the Franche-Comté part of the Jura - following their victory at the Battle of Héricourt in November 1474. The Old Swiss Confederacy extended its dominion even further in the following year, when Bernese forces conquered Vaud, which at the time "belonged" to the Duchy of Savoy, an ally of Charles the Bold.

Charles retaliated against the Swiss Bernese in 1476, and marched his troops first to Grandson where, in the Battle of Grandson (on the 2nd of March 1476), he and his 20,000 troops were soundly defeated and forced to flee, abandoning their artillery, and a huge quantity of their provisions and valuable treasures. Charles regrouped his forces and, to avenge his Grandson defeat, attacked the Swiss forces again - at Murten (Morat) on the 22nd of June 1476. On this occasion, his forces were almost totally devastated in a humiliating lakeside battle, during which approximately half of his troops - some 10,000 men - were killed. Charles fled to the safety of a castle at Gex, while the remnants of his bedraggled and disorganized troops did their best to escape homeward, across the treacherous Jura Mountains. Unfortunately for some of them, they became lost, disoriented and hopeless, in the jumbled limestone landscape in the shadow of the three peaks (where Lis and I now stood) ... and were slaughtered by the pursuing Swiss forces. Today, the only reminder of this sad saga is a simple solitary cross which marks the place where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of souls perished while trying to escape a war they probably didn't even want to be in.

The simple and solitary monument in the Cimetière aux Bourguignons.

Probably unaware of this history, the pioneering English ice-caves explorer Reverend George Forrest Browne (from St Catherine's College, Cambridge) described the place in 1865 as:

"... a curious district on one of the summits of the Jura, where the French frontier takes the line of a crest, and the old stones marked with the fleur-de-lys and the Helvetic cross are still to be found. In these border regions the old historic distinctions are still remembered, and the frontier Vaudois called the neighbouring French Bourguignons, or, in their patois, Borgognons. They keep up the tradition of the old hatreds; and the strange, bleak summit, with its smooth slabs of Jura chalk lying level with the surface, is so much like a vast cemetery, that the wish in old times has been father to the thought, as they still call it the Cemetery of the Burgundians, Cimetiros ai Borgorgnons."

Knowing the full extent of the Cimetière's history, Lis and I paused for awhile at the stainless-steel cross, took a couple of photographs ... and then headed out of there. I kept glancing over my shoulder, among the trees and shadows, into the nooks and crannies, half-expecting to see the ghosts of the Burgundians following us from the shadows with their mournful, haunted eyes.

Feeling "touched" by the sombreness of the resting place of Charles the Bold's Burgundians.

Fortunately we made no such encounter, neither with ghosts of Burgundians, nor gollums, nor trolls; and after winding our way along a rather circuitous route, we "popped-out" in a small, open hollow called the Gouille-au-Cerf ("stag's puddle"?), just west of Mont Sâla. Off to our left we spotted the cabane at Creux Devant (1474m), so we wandered over there to take a photograph or two, then cut a zig-zag path up the adjacent, northwest slope of Mont Sâla.

The hut at Creux Devant (1474m)

We reached the summit of Mont Sâla (1511 metres) at about 12.45 - three hours of solid snow-shoeing after we'd commenced our walk - and were immediately rewarded for our travails. Off to the west was one of the most amazing sights that one can ever see from the peaks of the Jura - the full arc of the Alps floating above a layer, a sea of clouds - the "Mer de Nuages". The clouds completely obliterated Lac Léman, Geneva, Lausanne and all of the "lowland" Swiss Plateau below us. It was "gob-smacking". We stared, and stared, and took lots of photos; and then settled down on a majestic pedestal of rocks at the top of the cliffs, and ate our lunch while gazing at one of the most amazing sights we'd ever seen.

Appropriately, Mont Sâla gets its name from the word saillant which means a rocky promontory, or protruding height. (We were dangling our feet over the cliffs). It is derived from the Latin salire, salian - which means to "jump-out". There is also a local, regional word sallaz - which means rock, outcrop or talus slope.

Standing on top of the world - above the clouds - at Mont Sâla.

Looking south over la Mer du Nuages. Somewhere hidden under the grey blanket of cloud is the southern end of Lac Léman and the city of Geneva.

Looking east over la Mer du Nuage towards Mont Blanc.

Les Dents du Midi and adjacent Alps on the horizon above la Mer du Nuages.

Feeling blessed at another absolutely magical lunchtime picnic spot.

Once we'd finished lunch, topped-off with a customary, celebratory nip of French brandy, we took a few last, long looks at the scenery, along with another bunch of photographs, and then headed on our way. It was now about 1.30pm. The days are at their shortest at this time of the year, and we still had far to go.

Celebratory summit commemorative pic. From the top of Mont Sâla, it's actually possibly to see Crêt de la Neuve (where we found the Swiss flag during a hike there last year).

Checking-out the views, with Mont Tendre (in the far left distance) and Crêt de la Neuve (at right) on the horizon.

View of La Dôle and Colomby de Gex from Mont Sâla.

Looking southwest from Mont Sâla - with (the forested) Mont Pelé summit on the horizon, and an un-named, snow-covered, relatively bare, intermediate, 1515 metre peak in the middle distance.

We headed down the southwest side of Mont Sâla, cutting our own trail across the beautiful crunchy, untouched snow. Mont Sâla, with its clear summit and landmark cross, is obviously quite a popular destination for back-country hikers (as we had encountered quite a number of tracks on the way to the top). However our next destination - Mont Pelé - by no means enjoyed the same level of interest. In fact, once we left Mont Sâla, we didn't encounter another person's tracks for the next couple of hours.

Cutting a fresh trail down the southwestern slopes of Mont Sâla.

Like we'd encountered within the Cimetière aux Bourguignons, the country once again became a jumble of sinkholes, cliffs, gorges, logs, grottos and dead-ends. Regularly checking both our GPS and topographic map, we navigated our way on a tortuous, meandering route around the western side of the intermediate, un-named 1515 metre peak, and then scaled the northern side of Mont Pelé. Such was the difficulty of the terrain, and having to cut our own trail, that it took us about an hour and a quarter to travel just over a kilometre through the deep-snow, mountain maze.

Somewhat drained from the effort, we reached the top of Mont Pelé (1532 metres) at about 2.45pm and, knowing we still had a lot of country to cover before nightfall, didn't hang around for very long - which was a bit unfortunate really, because it was a beautiful, tranquil place, and once again the views (through the gaps in the trees) were "to die for". Ironically "Pelé" means a "mountain or land peeled, or naked" - which it certainly isn't. Maybe it was once, when it was first sighted, and named, but now it's mostly covered by forest). We took a few quick photographs, sighed deeply, then plunged once more into the deep-forest abyss - now on the southwest side of the mountain.

Planning the next steps at the summit of Mont Pelé.

Looking back from Mont Pelé - at Mont Sâla in the middle distance, and (15-20 kilometres further to the northeast) Mont Tendre on the horizon.

Looking over the Mer du Nuages above the southern end of Lac Léman - with the top of Mont Salève (the hills above Geneva) just breaking through (in front of the more distant Alps).

The view from Mont Pelé over the Mer du Nuages towards les Dents du Midi.

By now the thin layer of jet-catalyzed stratus cloud had all but dissipated, and we were treated to glorious blue skies above us. Also towering above us, were thousands of ancient conifers (the summit of Mont Pelé is almost completely covered in forest, with no ubiquitous cross ... which might explain its (lack of) popularity). Some of the old firs and spruce were dead, and their stark, sun-bleached trunks looked like bare, sun-baked skeletons in contrast to their living, verdant cousins and brethren all around. More stops. More photos.

Leaving only footprints down-slope from the summit of Mont Pelé.

Natural art installation - Jura style.

One disadvantage of leaving the regular trail is that it takes you a lot longer to get anywhere, and you increase your chances of getting lost in the backwoods. However this is far outweighed by the delight and excitement to be gained by forging your own trail; by cutting fresh tracks across untouched snow; by seeing no-one else; and by seeing things you won't see closer to "the madding crowd". Such was the case in the morass of hollows and mounds on the southwest slopes of Mont Pelé. All day we'd been encountering tracks and scats of deer, chamois, fox, hare and a multitude of smaller critters that I couldn't identify. Then suddenly we came across the distinctive tracks of the rare capercallie (Tetrao urogallus - the largest member of the grouse family). Apparently, in the Jura Mountains, the relict population of this isolated and critically endangered species, is estimated to now number only about 500 breeding adults. Fortunately we saw quite a few tracks, so that was a good sign.

Our excitement about seeing the capercaillie tracks more-or-less paled into insignificance, when soon after we came across the tracks of a lynx - it was the first time either of us had come this close to the fabled forest feline. Boy, were we excited. Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), which were eradicated from the Jura Mountains during the 18th and 19th centuries (after being widespread 500 years ago), were reintroduced (with four "official" specimens - two males and two females - from the Carpathian Mountains in Slovakia; and about another six "unofficial" individuals) in 1974-75. It appears another three individuals were unofficially released in Vaud in the late 1980s. It is estimated there are now about 70 or 80 individuals - which is virtually the maximum carrying capacity of the mountain chain. (A single lynx needs a large territory - between 70 and 250 square kilometres.)

 The tracks of the Eurasian lynx are very distinctive, having a relatively huge, rounded paw-print pattern, and a rear impression caused by fur between and behind the pads which give them a "snowshoe" effect when travelling across the snow in winter. Secretive, solitary animals, lynx prey primarily on chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) and roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) (killing 50 or 60 of them a year), but also on brown hares (Lepus europaeus) and red fox (Vulpes vulpes), and occasionally on red deer (Cervus elaphus) and even wild boar (Sus scrofa). It was the over-hunting of these three species (by humans - 100-200 years ago) which primarily led to the disappearance of the lynx in the Jura (along with forest clearing - for timber, firewood and charcoal, the expansion of livestock grazing pastures in the mountains, and direct hunting of the lynx).

The tracks looked like they were a few days old, so we took a couple of photographs, then continued on our compass direction - which more or less coincided with the lynx's footprints for quite some time. Not surprisingly, we didn't see the lynx, but we did see a very healthy-looking red fox (Vulpes vulpes) nonchalantly trotting across the snowscape.

A lynx footprint in the snow near Mont Pelé.

Another footprint, showing the lynx's distinctive rear fur-pad "snowshoe" impression.

Our course took us just to the northwest of a place called Combe Gelée and, cresting a rise, we looked back and had a last glance of Mont Pelé shining in the warm afternoon sunlight. Down on the forest floor it wasn't so warm - probably about two or three degrees - and we kept-up a solid pace, still going cross-country in a south-westerly direction. For a short while we followed a snow-covered old dry-stone wall, which took us up and over the 1400 metre high Crêt au Bovairon, to a col east of L'Arxiere.

 Making our way through the forest near Combe Gelée.

Looking back at the forested peak of Mont Pelé.

Back in familiar territory for the first time for a few hours, we picked-up a trail that had been cut by other snow-shoers since the last snowfall, and headed over a ridge-top in the Bois du Carrox - just west of the Club Alpine Suisse Cabane du Carrox (1508m).

On the trail near the Cabane du Carrox.

A kilometre or so along the trail we broke-out onto the southern side of the ridge-top, right near a mountain house called "Grutli" (1425m), which (according to a sign above its front door), dates back to 1948. Avoiding a precipitous cliff-face just below the house, we picked our way around to the east, then zig-zagged down the slope through the forest. Once clear, we made a bee-line for the Le Sollier farmhouse - which we could see a kilometre or two ahead of us.

The all-quiet Grutli mountain house.

Coming out of the forested slope below Grutli.

We were now back in familiar territory (again), so soon passed Le Sollier and, as the sun dropped below the horizon in front of us, plunged back into the Bois de la Givrine. Although not much more than half a kilometre to pass through, the distance was plenty enough to separate day from dusk, and we found ourselves walking through, at first near darkness in the dense forest, and then twilight once we broke back out into the open at the Col del a Givrine. There was magic glow in the air, as the last soft light of the day lit-up the crest of La Dôle and the far-distant Alps. Adding to the scene, the little red train from La Cure shuffled its way across the valley as we headed down to the railway crossing where we'd parked the car. We got there at about 5.15pm - meaning we'd spent about seven hours on the trail today. What a day. And what a trek. Absolutely fantastic!

Emerging from the Bois de la Givrine.

The Col de la Givrine at dusk.

The summit of La Dôle catching the last rays of the setting sun.

Jura peaks bagged:
  • Mont Pelé (No. 34) 1532
  • Mont Sâla (No. 42) 1511
  •  Prior to their reintroduction in the 1970s, the last evidence of lynx in the Jura was in 1830 - when one of the final survivors of the population was killed near Lignerolle, in Vaud, and another near Pontarlier, in neighbouring France.
  • The lynx reintroduced to the Jura included four "official" individuals: two at Creux du Van (Canton of Neuchâtel) in 1974 and another two in the same location in 1975; and nine "unofficial": two at Moutier (Canton of Bern) in 1972, four in the Vallée de Joux (Vaud) in 1974, and three near Jorat (Vaud) in 1989.
  • With regards the human assault on Switzerland's forests in the 19th century (that contributed to the demise of the lynx), the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was living in Geneva at the time, wrote in 1868 that there was still enough forest left in the mountains, but because the mountain-dwelling Swiss "live like the savages", there "will be no forest left within 25 years".

Note about the District Franc Féderal du Noirmont
  • Hikers beware: In doing a bit of subsequent reading about the meaning of a place being designated a "District Franc Féderal" I discovered it includes a requirement that, in winter, all park visitors are requested to stay on the marked trails (although this isn't always the easiest thing to do when the landscape is covered in snow). It would have been really useful to have this information prominently displayed on the information panels near La Croue, and other entry points to the area. Obviously, had we known of this requirement at the time, we would have skipped going cross-country to Mont Pelé, and left it for a mid-summer hike. It's good to know. (You can find the full set of nine restrictions - including "no camping" and "dogs must be on a leash" - here.)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Crêt des Danses (No 32) & Creux du Croue (No 28)

Somewhat hooked on the Col de la Givrine as a snow-shoeing paradise, we decided to make the first walk of 2013 to the Crêt Des Danses -  a 1534 metre peak about two kilometres north of Le Noirmont, just a kilometre or so east of the Swiss-French border. Having been there just a week earlier (to climb La Noirmont on the last day of 2012), we knew we'd need a long day to get into the back-country where Crêt des Danses lay hidden, so we made sure we were at La Givrine - our kick-off point - nice and early. Well, early enough - for a holiday day.

The restaurant at La Givrine - our kick-off point.

We parked the car on the side of the Col de la Givrine road (which runs between St Cergue and La Cure), just below the La Givrine restaurant and, at about 9.30am, headed up the "graded" road that leads towards the popular farmhouse restaurants of La Genolière and Le Vermeilley. There was a light mist hanging around in the valleys around us. Darker, more ominous clouds built-up, then dissipated, over and around La Dôle - which we promptly put to our backs and headed north. Ahead of us the landscape was bathed in bright sunshine, however, with near-freezing temperatures, we set-out wearing snow jackets, beanies and gloves. The forecast had predicted about 3 degrees maximum, and lots of cloud, and expecting a long walk, we were prepared for cold weather - especially later, towards the end of the day.

Heading up the "graded" road north of La Givrine.

Not surprisingly, carrying our snowshoes on our backs, we soon built-up a head of steam as we charged up the road under the forested slopes of La Tourbière, and soon stopped to peel-off our toasty jackets down to long-sleeved t-shirts. So far, so good ... it was turning-out to be a lovely day. Already there wasn't a cloud in sight.

 Lis shedding her snow jacket near La Tourbiére.

We passed a lichen-encrusted sign telling us we were entering the Parc Jurassien Vaudois protected area. As it turned out, just like during our previous visit a week earlier, the park once again displayed a plethora of small animal tracks and scats, but virtually nothing sighted. We didn't see a single animal (maybe we're too noisy in our snow shoes), but we did see lots of ravens (my favourite bird), so that was cool.

Entering the Parc Jurassien Vaudois protected area.

We passed by the Glacière de La Genolière (one of those unique Jura underground glaciers that lie trapped in a karst-system cavern as a result of temperature inversions), and soon after, the La Genolière farmhouse restaurant (1348m), which is just south of the road. A gentle zephyr of a wind drifted intermittently across the snow-white landscape, and obliged with just enough strength at the right time to lift the listless Swiss flag just long enough for me to take one of those "typically Swiss" postcard snapshots. Having thus obliged, and done its duty, the wind dropped, the flag sighed, and once again drifted back to its slumbering pose adjacent to its flagpole.

La Genolière alpage restaurant.

We followed the road further eastwards - through a valley called the Grande Combe, which looked absolutely magic in the early morning mist and diffused sunlight. Lis often strolled on ahead while I stopped to add to the 250-odd photographs that I'd end-up taking before the end of today's hike. But how could I resist capturing such beauty? Snap, snap, snap!

Mist in the valleys between La Genolière and Haut Mont.

Snow and ice ... near Combe Froide.

About three kilometres from La Givrine, we passed Haut Mont (1343m) and headed north through the forest between Entre Deux Vys (on our left), and Rochefort (on our right). Appropriately, further on, below Rochefort, the valley is called Combe Froide. Still early in the day, in mid-winter, the temperature must only have been nudging two or three degrees as we passed through the forest. Fortunately we broke back out into the sunshine as we approached Le Vermeilley farmhouse restaurant (1320m), where we were also passed by just the third or fourth person we encountered on the trail thus far - a woman on a ski-doo towing a supply sled out to the restaurant. Le Vermeilley marked the end of the graded road.

 La Vermeilley alpage restaurant.

We skirted around the western (left) side of the farmhouse and stopped to strap-on our snowshoes. A line of forlorn-looking, half-buried fence posts ran-off towards the north, so (after I'd photographed them) we more or less followed their course northwards through the valley to the east of Combe aux Cerfs.

Fence-line north of Le Vermeilley.

A couple of hard-core cross-country skiers passed us heading in the opposite direction. They were on the Transjurassien ski de fond trail between La Givrine and the Col du Marchairuz ... and were towing a sled with all of their camping gear. We stopped to watch them go past.

Cross-country skiers on the ski de fond trail near Le Vermeilley.

A little further down the trail we came to a "fork in the road" - with the easterly route heading through the valleys towards Marais Rouge and Les Pralets, and the western trail into the highlands - towards L'Arxière, Mont Sâla, Le Croue ... and Crêt des Danses. As planned, we turned west, taking the "high road", the path "less travelled by". "And that ... made all the difference." The fork in the road, and our decision to go west, brought back memories of one of my all-time favourite poems - "The Road Not Taken" - written by the American poet Robert Frost and published in a 1920 collection (appropriately) called "Mountain Interval":

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - 
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

 The cross-roads just west of Marais Rouge. We took the trail less trodden by.

The trail (although covered in snow, rather than leaves and untrodden grass) wound its way up towards one of those characteristic Jura ridgelines - on the southern side of crest called Combe Gelée (1355). Although in the open sunshine at first, we soon found ourselves in shade, in thick forest north of the Combe aux Cerfs.

Trail marker near Combe aux Cerfs.

We trekked our way up and over a small col just south of the Crêt au Bovairon, then headed down into the next valley - the familiar valley des Coppettes - where we'd been hiking just a few days earlier en route to La Noirmont. Directly ahead of us was the mountain alpage farmhouse of L'Arxière (1445m), which was half-buried with snow, and abandoned for the winter.

Crossing over the col south of Crêt au Bovairon.

Heading down the slope towards L'Arxière.

L'Arxière farmhouse with the lesser Le Noirmont summit above.

As soon as we were able, we turned north and into the Combe aux Tassons - which ran in a north-westerly direction just east of Le Noirmont and Creux du Croue. The fresh snow was beautiful underfoot, and we both wore broad smiles as we truly entered the "back country" of this particular mountain playground. For the next four or five hours we hardly saw another person, maybe just one or two cross-country skiers drifting across the landscape in the far distance.

Cutting a fresh trail towards the Combe aux Tassons.

The trail through the Combe aux Tassons was made easy by a long thin clearing through the dense forest - along the long, thin valley surrounded by steep hillsides on either side. Le Noirmont dropped out of sight behind us, and was soon replaced by the eastern wall of the Creux du Croue - a huge, gouged-out hollow at the northern end of Le Noirmont left there by glacial forces during the last ice age. Occasionally we caught glimpses of its higher western wall - called the Crêtes du Creux du Croue - which we planned to scale on our way back later in the day.

Heading down the trail towards the northern end of Combe aux Tassons.

At the end of the Combe aux Tassons, we crossed over another set of trail "cross-roads", and headed straight-up the facing hillside towards the (winter abandoned, half-buried) Le Croue farmhouse. It truly was half buried, with the bank of snow on its eastern side going right up to and over the roof.

Looking back on the half-buried Le Croue farmhouse - with les Crêtes du Creux du Croue in the far distance.

We continued in a northerly direction another few hundred metres, until we were right at the top of the unnamed col, where we swung west, through the alpine forest, towards the summit of Crêt des Danses. We reached the summit (1533.6m) at about 13.30 - three hours after we'd left La Givrine ... and were rewarded with one of the most magnificent lunchtime picnic spots we'd ever come across. The sun was shining, there was hardly a breath of wind, and superb views were to be had in every direction. We dropped our packs, and snowshoes, and plonked-down on the stone surrounds right at the foot of the cross. We certainly felt blessed!

At the summit of Crêt des Danses.

Nice woodwork on the Crêt des Danses cross (erected in 2009).

We broke out our usual trekking-lunch fare of bread, cheese, chutney and chocolate ... which we soon devoured and washed-down with a flask of hot tea and a nip of French brandy. Surely, life doesn't get much better than this.

Lis at new favourite picnic spot.

After a leisurely lunch, we wandered around the summit for awhile, taking in the magnificent views, and taking lots of photos in every direction. To the south, we could see the long thin forest clearing that we walked through to get here (the Combe aux Tassons), and in the distance the peaks of La Barillette, La Dôle and Pointe de Poele Chaud. Just to the right of that scene were the cliffs and Crêtes du Creux du Croue, and further around to the west - the Orbe valley with the town of Les Rousses and its nearby lake - the Lac des Rousses. (I wrote a bit about Les Rousses in the trip report from Le Noirmont).

Looking south towards La Dole and (the gap in the forest) Combe aux Tassons.

View southwest - towards the cliffs and Crêtes du Creux du Croue.

Off to the west, mostly through gaps in the forest, we could see the Alps - with Mont Blanc easily the most prominent feature. It's impossible not to take a photo of the famous mountain every time it comes into view, so I shot-off another half-a-dozen pics.

View west - of Mont Blanc - of course.

After spending about an hour at the top, we reluctantly packed-up and, at about 1.30pm, started making our way back down the mountain. Initially we headed-off in a north-westerly direction - skirting our way around the tall, precipitous cliffs on the south side of the mountain. Neither of us fancied the idea of falling over those. The more gentle trail, although longer, provided great views over Les Rousses and the Lac des Rousses.

Heading down the mountain, with Les Rousses in the background.

Valley de Joux, with Les Rousses (at left) and Lac des Rousses.

Ahead of us lay our next destination waypoint - our second Jura peak of the day - the highest point of the Crêtes du Creux du Croue. But first we had to drop right down into the col (at 1334m), before making our way up the distant ridgeline to the highest point on the western side of the creux (at 1547m). Along the way we trekked through some of the most pristine snow we'd ever been in - lovely soft, fluffy, powdery stuff, which scrunched under our feet as we trekked along. Once again, it had us grinning like Cheshire cats.

Heading towards our next destination - the "summit" of the Crêtes du Creux du Croue.

Lovely fresh, untrodden snow.

Self-portrait between Crêt des Danses and Creux du Croue.

In the col between Crêt des Danses and the Crêtes du Creux du Croue.

Heading up the Crêtes du Creux du Croue, with the Vallée de Joux and the Forêt du Risoux (France) in the background.

Lis approaching the peak of the Crêtes du Creux du Croue.

Yay! Atop the Crêtes du Creux du Croue (1547m).

About 45 or 50 minutes after we'd left Crêt des Danses, we arrived at the summit of the Crêtes du Creux du Croue (number 28 on the list of highest named Jura summits). We had fantastic views back towards Crêt des Danses, and down into the Creux du Croue - including of the mountain farmhouse of the same name which now lay mostly-buried under snow in the valley floor. This beautifully scoured-out glacial valley is renowned for its peat bog - which has been listed under the register for "Raised and Transitional Bogs (and Fenlands) of National Importance". Apparently it has its existence (in a landscape that is typically drained and dry - due to the karst, "drains-like-a-sieve" substrate) because it has been scoured down to a layer of ancient marl - which is a relatively impervious layer, and therefore more conducive to the formation of wetlands. The area is very fragile, with a number of endemic plant species, so fairer-weather (spring-summer-autumn) walkers are encouraged/advised to avoid the bog area and stick to the marked trails.

Looking back towards Crêt des Danses.

Needless to say, there were no bogs in sight today, with the entire valley smothered by a couple of metres of beautiful glossy-white snow - which we stared at, and the surrounding views, in awe for about 15 minutes before heading on our way - further southwest towards Le Noirmont.

Somewhere along the ridgeline there is an ancient, famous marker stone marking a former border line between Switzerland and France - when it followed this ridgeline way back in the 17th century. The stone, which looks almost exactly the same as the one we saw near Le Noirmont a week earlier (see below) has the year 1648 etched onto one of its sides - along with the French fleur de Lys. On the other side is the emblem of Vaud.

The ancient stone border marker near the top of Le Noirmont - similar to the one on the Crêtes du Creux du Croue (which we missed seeing). The emblem/shield of Vaud is visible in this picture.

Another similar border marker stone from around the same era - this one from near the summit of Mont d'Or.

The stone dates back to the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia - in 1648 - at which time the neighbouring (now French) Franche-Comté region was under Spanish control, and the Swiss Jura a part of the Swiss Oberland. With the historic 1648 signing, this section of the Swiss Jura (to the east of the Le Noirmont and Crêtes du Creux du Croue ridgeline) was officially pared-off from the "Holy Roman Empire" to become a part of the Helvetic confederacy.

The border through this part of the Jura had long been the source of "disputes and territorial disorders", possibly for centuries, but certainly since the (re)conquest of Vaud by Bern in 1536. Between the period 1550 and 1640 for example, the Bernese made frequent incursions into the neighbouring territory in attempt to further enhance their claims on the border lands west of Vaud. Unfortunately, the "disorder" was not cleared-up by these conflicts, nor by a first attempt at a treaty - the Les Rousses Convention - which was signed in 1606. Nor was it by a subsequent intervention - in 1612 - this time by Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia of Austria, who (as the eldest daughter of Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth of Valois, and on behalf of Spanish King Philip III) at the time reigned over Franche-Comté (also then called the Free Country of Burgundy). Apparently she was hoping to negotiate a clear access to Bern.

Even the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, with its border along the Le Noirmont ridgeline, failed to put an end to the disputes, possibly due to the subsequent conquest of Franche-Comté by France - who instead initiated new negotiations that resulted in the signing of the 1862 Treaty of Dappes, which set the (final, current) border line between France and Vaud / Switzerland. The Treaty of Dappes involved an exchange of territory between the two countries, with France obtaining the western slopes of the Valley of Dappes, south of La Cure; and Switzerland receiving the Côte du Noirmont and other forested hill-slopes on the northwest side of La Noirmont.

 Map showing border alignment from the Treaty of Dappes.

In an interesting twist in the multiple negotiation and realignment of the Swiss-French border, there is a small "dog-leg" in the Swiss-France border just north of Creux du Croue - near the tiny village of Bois-d'Amont. The border juts into Switzerland for about 500 metres (for about one kilometre in length) - apparently which Napoleon demanded to be included in France t(o accommodate the wishes of a handful of Bois-d'Amont villagers who wanted to remain in France).

We walked-on past the summit of the Crêtes du Creux du Croue and down along the last of the Creux du Croue hollow, all the way in total admiration of the lovely wilderness that surrounded us. It was very special to be out here by ourselves.

The pristine valley between Creux du Croue and Le Noirmont.

At about 3pm, we reached the top of Le Noirmont (No 23) - which we'd "ticked-off" just a few days earlier - on the New Year's Eve of 2012 (December 31). Once again the views from the top were stunning - especially of the Alps and Mont Blanc. However this time the weather gods were much kinder to us ... and we were spared the freezing wind of our last visit. Even so, we stayed just long enough to take a few photographs, and take our fill of the views, and then headed on down the mountain.

Checking out the view from the summit of Le Noirmont.

Mont Blanc from Le Noirmont.

As we did during our previous visit, we zig-zagged our way down the steep south-eastern slopes of the mountain, making a bee-line for Les Coppettes farmhouse (1323m). It didn't take us long to drop down to the valley floor, where we headed straight past Les Coppettes as quickly as we could. The sun as getting low in the southwestern sky, and clouds were building-up on the horizon, meaning it would get darker earlier this evening than one might expect.

Passing by Les Coppettes.

The view of La Dôle from Les Coppettes.

Setting a cracking pace across the snow, we soon passed the Le Sollier farmhouse (1290m and, like Les Coppettes, half-buried and winter-abandoned), and plunged back into the Bois de la Givrine forest block. It got quite dark in there, not surprising really, given the scene that greeted us once we broke back out of the forest above the Col de la Givrine. A thick, low cloud obliterated La Dôle and the surrounding peaks, and we made our way back to the car in a gathering gloom. We reached La Givrine at about 4.30 - seven hours after we'd set-out earlier in the day. We both agreed it had been one of our "best hikes ever".

View of La Dôle from La Givrine.

Amazingly, by the time we approached our home on the drive back to St George - some 30 minutes later - the clouds and fog over La Dôle had completely lifted and we were treated to an amazing golden sunset over the southern Jura.

View of La Barillette, La Dôle and Pointe de Poele Chaud.

West of us, the Alps also looked amazing, bathed in pink and purple colours, so I snapped-off a couple of shots in their direction. Of course, the last photograph of the day had to be reserved for Mont Blanc. "You can't have too many photographs of Mont Blanc!"

Stopped on the road near St George to take-in the last lights of the day.

One last look at Mont Blanc.

Jura peaks bagged:
  • Crêt des Danses (No. 32) 1533m
  • Creux du Croue (No 28) 1547m 
  • Le Noirmont (No 23) 1567m (Previously climbed in December 2012).
  • The 1648 signing of the Treaty of Westphalia - which placed the border between Franche Comté and Switzerland at the top of the Crêtes du Creux du Croue - officially marked the end of both the Thirty Year's War and the Eighty Year's War. Involving France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and Sweden, the Swiss confederacy was represented by Johann Rudolf Wettstein, the mayor of Basel.
  • The Spanish "empire" was involved in the 1612 border negotiations because at one time, the Spanish crown controlled the vast areas of Europe called the "Low Countries" - which extended into France, Franche-Comté, Italy, Austria and even the Netherlands. In the Jura, the Valserine Valley, which was controlled by the Spanish ally Savoy, provided a crucial overland link between Spain and Italy, and was frequently used for Spanish troop movements. For many years was called "the Spanish Road".