Saturday, October 19, 2013

Crêt de Chalam (No 29)

A Sunday "stroll" to the top of Crêt de Chalam turned-out to be anything but ... however it also turned-out to be one of the most adventurous treks we have done in all of the 50 Jura peaks that we've now climbed during our Jura Mountain rambles. As you can see from the photo above, it was a wild, wet and wintery day (not what you'd expect in mid-October, mid-Autumn). It was more like the weather we encountered at the summit of Ben Nevis (Great Britain's highest peak) where we were just a couple of weeks earlier.

Standing in the Scottish mist atop Ben Nevis - 1343m. (28/9/2013)

But the hike to the top of Crêt de Chalam - which, at 1545m is about 200 metres higher than Ben Nevis (but a "lowly" 29th highest peak in the Jura Mountains and 2,015th highest in France) - wasn't meant to be like that. The forecast for the day was "fine". And it certainly started-out that way when we woke-up at our home in St George - about an hour away (by car) to the north. Although we'd experienced an unseasonal (very early) couple of snowfalls during the week, the skies were clear and the gorgeous, warm, early-morning light over the village sure made the prospect of a day's hike in the mountains all the more enticing. Not to mention the prospect of tromping through a first blanket of snow at the top of the Jura - on one of the last of the peaks in the "top 30" that we hadn't climbed.

 Beautiful, warm autumn colours in the early morning sunlight over St George.

 Knowing that these kinds of days often get better as the day warms up, we took our time organizing our packs and gear, and slowly drove south to our kick-off point at Chézery-Forens - a tiny village across the French border in the synclinal Valley of the Valserine. Chézery was founded in about 1140 - when an ancient order of monks settled there and built an abbey. It stayed an "abbey town" until 1793 - when angry locals (who'd been tied as serfs to the Royal Abbey of Chézery for the centuries in the interim - rose up and rebelled against their rulers to win freedom. Over the years it has been known for its sequence of industries which have included farming, forestry, asphalt production, and watch- and cheese-making.

Thanks to the mid-week snowfalls, there was a good blanket of snow all over the Jura, which was pretty to watch, but tricky to manouvre at times - especially on the occasional patch of black ice that we encountered on some of the more shaded and frozen sections of the road that ran along the west side of the main Jura ridge. Fortunately we arrived in Chézery incident-free, at about 10:30am, when we parked our trusty Subaru in the carpark alongside the main road, just below the church. Although shaded on our side, the main Jura ridgeline was cloud-free, and we had great views to the east and northeast. Dominating the scene were the precipitous snow-capped cliffs of Roche Franche (1692m, No 4), which, along with Crêt de la Grotte (La Marie de la Jura" - 1644m, No 9), we'd climbed in mid-2012. Further south we could make-out Les Avalanches (1497, No 44) and Pierre de la Lune (1510, No 43) which were still on our "yet-to-be-climbed" list of the 50 highest.

Looking back up the main street of Chézery-Forens (580m), with its great views of the magnificent, craggy Roche Franche amphitheatre

 Crossing the Valserine River, and feeling encouraged by the patch of sunlight hitting the eastern side of the second Jura ridgeline - our hiking destination.

We left town at about 10:45, and headed southwest down the road to Forens, the first waypoint on our route - about 15 minutes along the route. There, we crossed over the Ruisseau de Forens (river) and immediately turned right to begin our climb up the mountain. Initially the path followed an old road (which soon turned into a two-wheeled track) that ran alongside the bubbling stream. The Ruisseau de Forens was beautiful to walk alongside, as it frequently cut through steep, narrow gorges and tumbled over waterfalls and cascades - filling the air with that unique sound that only crashing, tumbling mountain streams can make. It was a beautiful tumult to have in our ears at the start of a long uphill hike.

Adding to the splendour were the millions of autumn leaves that littered the forest floor around us and created a golden-brown carpet on the trail under our feet. We were feeling happy, and optimistic. This day was just getting better and better. Sure, up ahead we got occasional glimpses of the mountain-top shrouded in cloud, but (being ever optimistic) I figured this would all clear perfectly for us by the time we got to the summit in a couple of hours.

Gorgeous autumn leaves on the track near Forens.

Heading up the trail alongside the Ruisseau de Forens.

Crossing over the bubbling Ruisseau de Forens just near les Cascades des Etrés.

By now the sunshine had well and truly disappeared, and we were in the shaded depths of the deciduous forest - somewhere between the Montagne des Moines ridgeline to our east, and the summit of Haute Crête (1431m, No 69) to the west. We passed by the (already abandoned for winter) Petit Mannet farmhouse and plunged deeper into the forest along a thin and sinuous forest trail that snaked its way up the mountainside.

We soon reached the ruins of Grand Mannet (970m), where we stopped just long enough for a drink of water, and to take a few photos. I'm not sure how many years ago Grand Mannet was abandoned, but the forest sure has been winning the battle of the wills ever since. There were a multitude of trees growing inside the once extensive building, their roots upsetting the foundations, while others had fallen across the walls, knocking-down many sections. Nature reclaiming its turf.

The Grand Mannet ruins.

The trail soon became confined to a thin ribbon of ground on the ridgeline of a long spur that would eventually lead all the way up to the top of the mountain. Down below us, off to our right, was the valley of the Combe du Nant Sec, while on the other side the terrain just-as-steeply dropped away to the Combe de Ramas. Somewhere along this section we passed by the Nant Sec Rnes, then the Crête Rnes (as they were marked on our topographic map), but we didn't stop to investigate, being more intent on pushing-on, enjoying the magnificent trail and getting to the summit. The forest was simply beautiful - filled with fallen leaves, intense green mosses and delightful fungi of all shapes and sizes. At around 1100 metres we started to encounter our first patches of snow ... and things began to get more and more interesting and exciting.

The trail near la Crête Rnes, with the first patches of snow indicating we were certainly in for a healthy layer of snow on the mountain-top ahead.

We soon found ourselves up among the clouds, with visibility diminishing with every metre in altitude. The trail became increasingly harder: Harder to see, harder (steeper) to climb, and more and more slippery. Wet slippery rocks, wet slippery mud, wet slippery leaf-litter and slippery snow. Sometimes you'd put your foot down on a patch of snow, that covered a sodden layer of leaves, that covered a wet and muddy rock. Needless to say, it wasn't easy going and we slipped and slid over the rocks in some of the trickier phases. I took a couple of spectacular tumbles into the snow or sludge, but fortunately came to no real harm. With the trail increasingly confined to the ridgetop - a long arête that just went up and up for about two kilometres - our mood became more and more serious. Our conversations dried-up - and we focussed our attention on staying upright and intact.

Heading into the white-out approaching the top of Crêt de Chalam.

I think I'll let the following sequence of photos speak for themselves. They were all taken in the final push to the top of the mountain. The visibility dropped with every metre of altitude, along with the temperature, while the wind-speed rapidly increased.

After successfully negotiating the final steep, slippery staircase of mud-and-snow covered wooden logs, we reached the summit of Crêt de Chalam (1545 metres) at about 2pm. We quickly dropped our packs and pulled-out every item of clothing we had in there: fleece, windbreaker, another windbreaker, scarf, beanie and fresh (dry) pair of gloves ... and pulled all of it on. We were instantly warmed, but it still felt like we'd arrived at the North Pole! The famous views (beautifully interpreted on the panorama panels there) were nowhere to be seen, and a howling blizzard threatened to blow us off the mountain-top. Needless to say, we didn't stay at the summit for very long, the wind tumult and its arsenal of snow pellets led to a rapidly diminishing comfort level, so we stayed just long enough to have a wander around, to take a few photos to capture the occasion ... and then we skedaddled.

Looking east where we should have got fantastic views of the highest Jura ridgeline (with the Crêt de la Neige and le Reculet peaks somewhere out there), and beyond that Mont Blanc and the Alps

Standing on the edge of the world. It must be out there somewhere.

The second observation table looking west out over the French Jura. Rien!

 Flying the flag at the cairn on top of Crêt de Chalam.

"Racing" downhill, it didn't take us long to clear the summit, and drop-out of the alpine blizzard zone, and we were soon back to the Sous le Crêt (1490m) trail marker, which we had passed on the way up, not far from the summit. Here we turned north (instead of south which would have retraced our outward route), and headed towards the Borne au Lion.

The trail marker at Sous le Crêt.

The trail was steeply downhill for the first bit, at times in snow 30 centimetres deep, then it began to flatten-out and follow a gouged and grubby two-wheeled forest track. This provided us with some tricky sections, not to mention (alternating) wet and muddy boots. These were soon cleaned again whenever we had to cut through a "good" section of fresh snow.

Negotiating one of the slippery slopes just southwest of Crêt de Chalam.

 There was lots of mud and snow and slush and ice on the forest trail between Crêt de Chalam and the Borne au Lion.

Eventually we dropped-down below the cloud layer again, and reached a T-intersection with a forest road that ran east-west. The sign indicated that we were just five minutes or so away from the Borne au Lion. Needless to say, we turned right, and soon found ourselves at the historic landmark (1289m).

 The GR9 trail marker near Borne au Lion.

There is a fabulous shelter there (although not very sheltered on this occasion with the wind and rain blasting through horizontally). But it had great picnic tables ... so we pulled-up a (very wet) seat and broke-out our standard Jura lunch of bread, cheese, fruit-and-nuts, hot tea ... and a shot of Marc from my hip-flask. It was by now about 3pm. Bliss. 

 The shelter and interpretation centre at Borne au Lion. Day-trippers can drive all the way up to here from La Presse.

After a short lunch stop, we had a wander around the site - checking out the various interpretation panels, monuments and, of course the famous limestone plinth called the Borne au Lion (although there were a couple of these around). Strategically located on a historic communications axis, the Borne au Lion (which was once called the "Terminal of Three Empires") means the "Terminal of the Lion". It marked an ancient border between the three former kingdoms of France, Savoy and Franche-Comté (the latter being a dependency of the Spanish crown at the time).

The Borne au Lion dates back to 1613 when it was erected to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Auxonne (in 1612) which established the County of Burgundy. Although now mostly eroded away, the four faces of the stone were engraved with the symbols of the three empires: the cross of the Duchy of Savoy, the lion of Franche-Comté and the three lillies of France. Apparently, other terminals had been set-up here by Henry IV in 1601 to commemorate the defeat of the Savoy and the proclamation of the Treaty of Savoy; and the return of the Spanish lands to France under the Treaty of Lyon. One interesting condition of this treaty was to allow the Spanish to retain an access route through the region (along the Valserine Valley) to allow them free passage from Genoa (in Italy) to the Netherlands. This ancient route was known as "The Way of the Spaniards"

Checking-out the Borne au lion. You can just make-out one of the faded symbols.

There were also ta number of sombre plaques and installations commemorating the significance of this site to the French resistance during the Second World War. This heavily forested, rugged and dangerous part of the Jura was a hotbed for the Maquis during the period of German occupation in WW2. Apparently about 3,000 resistance fighters, under the command of their legendary leader Romans-Petit, used this area as a base around 1943-44.

 An installation and plaque at Borne au Lion honouring the Maquis de l'Ain et du Haut Jura freedom fighters of the mid-1940s.

 We had one last look around, looked-up towards where the summit of Crêt de Chalam should have been towering above us, and then started our return journey back down the mountain.

This is what the view should have looked like - the imposing cretaceous Crêt de Chalam.

 This is what we could see.

At first the "Tour de la Crêt de Chalam" route followed a road to the nearby les Magras farmhouse, where we passed the ancient, disused Moulin de Magas flourmill and entered the deep forest again. From there, we followed a narrow, leafy trail all the way downhill, alongside a creek that started somewhere uphill beyond the mill and tumbled down the valley before eventually emptying into the Valserine River about two kilometres to the east. Gradually the snow disappeared from the trail, the leaves got thicker and the terrain less-steep. It was all down-hill from here.

The lovely trail back down the mountain, near the old Moulin de Magras.

Gotta love those autumn leaves.

With the craggy top of Creux Manant (1035m) on our left and the (hidden) summit of Mont Plat (1335m) on our right, we revelled in the long, easy traverse that headed first southeast, then south along the Valserine valley. We exited the forest and, one-by-one, passed the Chateau des Bois, Combet and Noire Combe landmarks. Once again the main Jura ridgeline came into view, although much of it was also now obscured by clouds. Occasionally the sun would break through and light-up a magnificent section of the mountain-top. We'd stop every time and take photos.

Looking back at the snow-covered cliffs and peaks of Roche Franche.

 Roche Franche in all its glory - a deeply-incised mountainside gouged-out by Quaternary glaciers and thousands of years of subsequent erosion.

Despite missing a turn just after Noire Combe (which meant we inadvertently followed a parallel track), we eventually arrived back at Chézery-Forens. It was about 5pm - just over six hours since we'd left earlier in the day. 

It had been another great walk (about 14 kilometres), made all the more memorable by the wild conditions we experienced at the summit. Shame about missing the magnificent views. It just means that we'll just have to go back there again - on a fine, sunny day sometime in the future.

Jura peaks bagged:
  • Crêt de Chalam (No 29) 1545m