Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pierre de la Lune (No. 43) and les Avalanches (No. 44)

Flying the flag atop Pierre de la Lune.

"The mountains are calling and I must go" - John Muir.

We'd been saving the two southern (French) Jura peaks of Pierre de la Lune and les Avalanches for some time, as I'd figured they'd needed a nice, long, fine, mid-summer, sunny day ... and Sunday 27 July 2014 seemed like just the day. (Well at least it looked like that when we set-out from our home in St George.)

The sun was certainly shining brightly as we drove down towards the small French village of Feigères, which is nestled into the forest at the foot of the Jura escarpment just west of Geneva. With the sun shining, and the blue skies promising a perfect day, it seemed like ideal conditions for a hike, for views of the Alps, and maybe even a classic "Mer de Nuage" over Lac Leman. As it turned-out, we didn't get any of the above once we'd reached our destination at the top of the Jura's highest ridgeline.

We shouldered our day-packs, and left Feigères (667m) at about 9.30am, heading northwest out of town along the Chemin des Bocagnes. There are a couple of marked hiking routes leading out of the village, and we opted for the most northerly. It started-out as a two-wheel dirt track, which soon gave way to a leafy trail marked "Sentier des Chezerans" on the topographic map. The "Sentier" was once a major trans-Jura route between Feigères and Chezery-Forens, crossing over the ridgetop at the "Passage de Gralet".

Heading out of Feigères along Chemin des Bocagnes.

The trail was marked with the usual red, and red-and-white striped trail markers - painted occasionally on trees or rocks alongside the trail. Even so, we managed to lose the trail a couple of times, but stayed pretty much on course thanks to our trusty GPS. After a bit of "bush-bashing" we got onto the trail proper, and began the steady ascent up the escarpment - heading first northwest, and then west towards the ridgeline.

Alpine trail marker emblazoned on a beech tree.

The trail through the forest just above Feigères.

The trail, which snaked through the predominantly beech forest, made for fabulous walking, being covered with leaf litter, and shaded from the hot mid-summer sun that shone in the blue skies above. However, it was by no means a "walk in the park" - as it more or less headed straight-up the steep slope - gaining 800 metres (vertical) in altitude in about 2.5 kilometres of horizontal distance - a gradient of about one-in-three. Needless to say, it had us puffing and perspiring, but still enjoying every step of the way. Along the way, we crossed over two forest roads - the most pronounced of which was just northeast of la Grand Combe (1055m).

The forest road at 1055m.

At this point, we entered the Reserve Naturelle de la Haute Chaine du Jura - marked, as usual, by its familiar information panel outlining how best to protect this beautiful natural jewel. We stopped for awhile at the sign to catch our breath, and take a couple of photos, and then pressed-on for the second half of the ascent.

Trail sign at the entrance to the Haute Chaine du Jura natrure reserve.

At around 1300 metres, the trail steepened (the contours on our topographic map almost fused into a solid brown line), and the one-step-along, one-step-up, mountain track had us appreciating our hiking poles like never before. Fortunately it was a gorgeous trail, so we hardly gave a thought to the steepness as we forged our way up the last kilometre or so of the mountainside. For some reason, both on our topo map and in the real world, the trail more or less petered-out - about two-or-three hundreds metres from the ridgeline, so we had to follow our noses - staying on the westerly compass-bearing - and keeping uphill towards the horizon.

Just short of the "Passage du Gralet", the terrain flattened-out and we emerged from the forest into a bushy patch of alpine pasture. It was thick with shrubs, grasses and all manner of herbaceous growth, that shed its collected rain and dew onto our boots and ankles.

Heading-up the Passage du Gralet.

We soon reached the top of the ridge - the Balcon de Lac Leman - and found the familiar walking trail that runs along the top of this main Jura ridgeline - the Chemin de la Crêtes du Jura. At that point, we turned right, to the north-northeast and headed towards our first destination - the summit of Pierre de la Lune. Behind us was le Gralet mountain refuge (1430m), and the two un-named peaks (1461m and 1474m) just above. Le Gralet has been a landmark in this part of the Jura since the Middle Ages, renown as a mountain alpage with a reputation for quality on-site cheese-making.

The le Gralet refuge just above the Passage du Gralet, 
and its adjacent un-named peaks.

The weather at the top was a world away from the sunny conditions we'd enjoyed as we left Feigères. Now, the skies were clouded over, with just the occasional gap allowing the mountaintop to be lit-up by a burst of sunlight. As it so often does, the Jura was making its own weather, with a bank of cloud streaming-up from the escarpment and enveloping the mountain-top, even though we could see the surrounding valleys and the Geneva plain below us bathed in sunlight.

We headed north along the crest trail and - at about 11:30am - reached the first of the two twin-summits of Pierre de la Lune, at 1505 metres. We had great views to the south - towards the Grand Crêt d'Eau;  to the west - into the Vallée de Valserine and across to the second Jura ridgeline; and to the north - towards the Jura's highest peaks, with Le Grotte de la Marie du Jura (aka la Marie du Jura and Crêt de la Grotte), Roche Franche and le Reculet standing-out on the horizon before us. With ominous clouds screaming-up the mountainside and "whiting-out" the landscape near le Reculet, we hastily took a few photos of the gorgeous views all around us.

Looking south towards Grand Crêt d'Eau from Pierre de la Lune.

The view down the Vallée de Valserine over Mentières and far beyond.

We dropped our packs, changed into dry shirts, and pulled-on windbreakers against the chilling wind that cut through the wintery air on top of the ridge. With a wall of cloud continuously surging up the slope, dissipating, and re-forming on the eastern side of the ridgeline, we sat down and faced to the west - soaking-up the beautiful views over the Valserine around the village of Chézery-Forens, and the mountain-tops around Crêt de Chalam - which we'd climbed on a memorable hike (in near-Arctic conditions) last winter.

Our amazing picnic site on the Jura crest - with Le Grotte de la Marie du Jura, 
Roche Franche and le Reculet emerging from the wall-of-cloud in the background.

Lunch-time view towards the Crêt de Chalam.

Looking north at the Grotte de la Marie du Jura, 
and (in shadows in the mid-ground) the summit of les Avalanches.

Sunshine fills the huge, rocky gouged hollow of Roche Franche.

We had a fabulous lunch, soaking-up the views and the occasional ray of sunshine that broke through the scudding clouds above and around us.

At around 12:30 we packed-up and headed a little further north along the ridge to the second summit of Pierre de la Lune (1506 metres) - where (as has become our custom), we had a nip from our hip-flask of French marc, and took a ceremonial "flying-the-flag" photo to commemorate the occasion. Pierre de la Lune, in the Rhône-Alpes gets its name from the distinctive white calcareous limestone rock of the Jura. Its name literally means "the stone of the moon", or "moonstone".

At the top of Pierre de la Lune (1506m).

Sufficiently wind-chilled, we headed further north along the ridge towards our second summit of the day - les Avalanches. It was just a few hundred metres ahead of us, although it frequently disappeared from our view as we were sequentially shrouded in cloud, then bathed in sunshine, then plunged back into cloud again.

Walking into a white-out upon leaving la Pierre de la Lune.

Approaching les Avalanches, with Roche Franche in the far distance.

With a beautiful, easy trail before us, it didn't take long to reach the top of les Avalanches (1497m) with its imposing, towering cliff faces and rubble-strewn scree slope far below. Once again, we dropped our packs to wander around the summit and enjoy the views, before taking more celebratory photos to record being on the 60th Jura peak that we'd stood atop since beginning this little Jura Mountain Rambling project two years ago. (Pierre de la Lune and les Avalanches are actually ranked numbers 43 and 44 respectively on our list of highest named Jura peaks).

The summit of les Avalanches (at right) with Roche Franche in the distance.

Enjoying the views north from les Avalanches.

Roche Franche and La Grotte from les Avalanches.

Standing atop les Avalanches (1497m).

After soaking-up the amazing views to our heart's content, we dropped-down the north side of the peak to begin our return journey back to Feigères. The trail hugged the cliff-tops, so we stopped from time-to-time to turn around and check-out the rugged landscape one last time before we had to leave the crest and head downhill.

Looking back at the western cliffs of les Avalanches.

Standing on top of this highest Jura ridgeline - that disappeared into the distance to the southwest in one direction, and to the northeast in the other - and then seeing the same, near-impenetrable barrier replicated by the second ridgeline to our west, it wasn't hard to see why the long Valserine Vallée that stretched-out between the two ridgelines had been of such strategic importance to commerce and trade, and transit and defence in centuries past. Once called "the Spanish Road" - as it had actually been under the control of the King of Spain in the 16th century, linking lands he controlled in Franche-Comté to others in Italy - it was frequently filled with columns of Spanish soldiers marching up and down the valley. At different times it has been of great strategic importance to the Kings of France, the French resistance (during WW2), columns of Roman legionnaires (following Caesar into Gaul), and, more recently, tradesmen, farmers and foresters with their fare of cheese, grapes and wine, clocks and timber.

A last glimpse into the Vallée de Valserine below Crêt de Chalam (far right).

Only a couple of hundred metres beyond les Avalanches, we left the ridge trail and (turning right, cross-country) headed east down the mountainside - towards an alpine farmhouse called "la Capitaine". A trail didn't really exist until we'd reached the farmhouse, beyond which we (at first) followed a two-wheeled forest track that led down towards Tiocan (the start-off point for hiking to the top of le Reculet and Crêt de la Neige).

Heading down the forest trail from la Capitaine.

After a couple of zigs and zags, we left the road and picked-up a walking trail (marked "les Bas Monts" on the topo map) that headed southest down through the forest towards the village of St-Jean-de-Gonville (the nearest village to the north of Feigères). Like the trail we'd taken up the mountain earlier in the day, this was a gorgeous, leaf-littered, shady trail through the forest, past fallen logs, rocky outcrops, mossy groves and all manner of enchanted nooks and crannies.

A moss-covered fallen log on les Bas Monts walking trail.

We followed this trail until it intersected the highest of the two forest roads that we'd cut across on our way up the mountainside earlier in the day. We turned right (southwest) onto the road, and followed it until we reached our morning walking trail - the Sentier des Chèzerans at a waypoint marked 1055m on the map.
 There, we turned left onto the track and headed east, then southeast, down through the leafy beech forest. Once again, the trail was just lovely, and a hell of a lot easier than what it had been on the way up in the morning.

The Sentier des Chezerans through the forest above Feigères.

Less than two hours after we'd left the summit (at about 3pm), we arrived back in Feigères - about five and a half hours from when we'd set-out that morning. Although we'd got none of the weather we'd been expecting, or none of the views we'd been hoping for (over Geneva towards Mont Blanc and the Alps), it had been a magnificent hike. As mentioned earlier, les Avalanches was our 60th Jura peak - a milestone which we though would be worth celebrating as we climbed into our car and began thinking about getting in to a hot bath, with glass of red wine, once we were back at our home in St George. Life doesn't get much better than that.

Jura peaks bagged:
  • Pierre de la Lune (No. 43) 1506m
  • Les Avalanches (No. 44) 1497m

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Roches Blanches (No 52) and Crêt de la Neige (No 51)

 Checking-out Roches Blanches (at left) and Crêt de la Neige (right) from the summit of Mont de la Maya in October 2012.

It's been a long time between summits this year, but we finally got around to hiking to the top of a couple of new Jura peaks this weekend - Roches Blanches (No. 52) and Crêt de la Neige (No 51).
Both peaks are located on the second ridgeline behind Le Chasseron, near Ste-Croix - which is about 75 minutes drive north of our home in St George. We headed-up there via Lausanne and Ste-Croix on Saturday, 5 July 2014, and parked the car at the base of the ski lift in Buttes (770m). The drive up and over the main (eastern) Jura ridgeline was as lovely as ever, and it got even better once we'd passed through Ste-Croix and entered the Vallon de Noirvaux and some beautiful precipitous gorge country at the headwaters of Le Butte river. We slowed-down to enjoy the views, and to watch a couple of chamoix that sauntered along near the side of the road at one point.

Buttes is a very picturesque, old village in the District of Val-de-Travers, in the Canton of Neuchâtel. The word "Buttes" comes from the French word "butte" meaning "a small elevation". The first records of the village had it down as "Boutes" (1342), which, if derived from "bout", referred to its location on "the extremity of a territory" - perhaps alluding to it being so close to the Swiss-French border, as well as the border between the cantons of Vaud and Neuchâtel.

 The village of Buttes basking in the sun 
below the Montagne de Buttes ridgeline.

We parked right alongside the "Auberge des Fées" (Hotel of the fairies), and shouldered our packs before heading-up the Jura ridgeline that loomed-up on the southern side of the valley.

We stayed around for a few minutes to check-out the impressive-looking information board, which showed all of the winter ski-lifts and pistes, as well as the summer hiking routes, and mountain-biking and VTT "mountain-scooter" trails. We hadn't been completely sure of what route we'd take up the mountain until now, but, after checking-out the map, decided to follow the well-marked "green" trail that led all the way to Le Chasseron (1607m, No. 14 on the list of highest named peaks in the Jura).

Information board in Buttes. The cutting through the forest in the ridgeline above marks the location of the ski-lift to La Robella. It runs all-year-round.

At around 10:30am,  in beautiful sunshine, we headed-up the road south of town, found the start of the off-road trail (just west of the La Plata homestead), and began zig-zagging our way up the mountainside.

Heading out of Buttes.

The trail wound its way through a beautiful tall mixed forest (mainly beech and fir) called the Bois de Ban. Mostly it was easy going, with thick, spongy masses of soft, cushioning leaf-litter underfoot. In some places, especially as we skirted around the western side of Crêt Rond (989m), it got quite steep and rocky, but still a gorgeous trail.

A section of the trail through the Bois de Ban.

From time to time, the trail intersected with the VTT "mountain scooter" trail - a specially made course for kamikaze trail riders who like the idea of charging down the mountainside on one of those fat-wheeled scooters. There were jumps and all sorts of obstacles and features built into the course (as well as lots of netting and giant cushions strapped to trees to keep life and limb together).

Sign post warning trekkers about possibly meeting downhill-racing mountain elves (on scooters) at Plan des Auges (1040m).

For a few sections of the trail above Plan des Augues (1040m), the pedestrian and mountain-bike trails ran side-by-side, or sometimes even shared the same stretch of forest track. It paid to keep your eyes open, and wits about you. However, although the ski-lift at Buttes was operating - to take scooter dare-devils to the top of the run - at La Robella - we didn't meet anyone else on the trail. We had the entire mountain-side to ourselves, and that was an absolute treat. It was glorious. Appropriately, for such an enchanted forest, we came across a "Fontaine des Fées" (fairies' fountain), from which we took a drink, but at which we saw no fairies. However, the forest and trail was just gorgeous, so it wouldn't have surprised us if there were lots of fairies and elves in there.

Lis getting a drink from the Fontaine des Fées.

We finally emerged out of the forest, just after the trail had rejoined the road between Buttes and La Robella ... which in fact continued up and over the mountain - to Bullet on the southeast side of the ridgeline. Coinciding with us leaving the Bois de Ban it began to drizzle with light rain, so we sheltered for awhile under a tree and ate a snack bar. Once it became obvious that the rain wasn't going to let-up, we headed back out onto the trail and continued our journey.

Before long we approached La Robella (marked Petite Robella on the topo map) - which is both a farmhouse and a restaurant, and the staging-post for the top of the Buttes ski-lift. Despite the (now) gloomy weather and grey skies, La Robella was a burst of bright colour - thanks to hundreds of all-shades-of-red geraniums that were growing in pot-plant boxes that adorned the building.

Passing by La Robella farmhouse-restaurant.

We stopped just long enough to admire the hanging gardens, and to take a few photos, and to check-out an information panel about the famous writer, philosopher, musician and botanist Jean-Jacques Rousseau - who visited La Robella in 1765. (I previously wrote a bit more about Rousseau in the blog that I posted after climbing Le Chasseron in October 2012. You can read it here if you're interested.)

Upon leaving La Robella we decided to leave the marked trail and instead headed straight up the hillside due south of the homestead. This proved to be a (very steep) short-cut, and, in about half-a-kilometre we rejoined the walking trail - which ran alongside an old dry-stone wall that ran up and along the ridgeline. The wall also marks the boundary between the cantons of Vaud and Neuchâtel.

Heading up the steep slope just south of La Robella. The famous Swiss watch-making town of Fleurier lies far in the distance in the valley below.

We followed the trail along the spur until it reached a gap in the wall - at the point on the topographic map marked 1438.2 (there are a couple of small huts there) - at which point we crossed over the ridgeline and headed down into the small valley immediately to the south. There we came across a trail sign-post marking "Crêt de la Neige 1425".

Signpost at "Cret de la Neige 1425".

It obviously wasn't the crêt (being in a valley floor), but we could see the real crêt rising-up before us - just a little further to the south. We headed off more-or-less along the hard-to-distinguish trail towards Le Chasseron, which became a bit more apparent once we reached the ridgeline - at which point we turned southwest (off the trail) and made our way up the spur. About 300 metres further up the ridge we reached the highest point of Crêt de la Neige - 1472 metres - our first summit and destination for the day. It was now about 12.30pm (about two hours from when we'd left Buttes).

Lis at the top of Crêt de la Neige.

There was nothing of any note to distinguish the summit, and no signs of anyone ever having been up there. It's obviously an "off the beaten track" Jura summit, and probably relatively little known and climbed. I'm not sure why it's called Crêt de la Neige, but guess it's much the same as the other Crêt de la Neige - the highest peak in the Jura (1720m), way down south in the French Jura, overlooking Geneva: That is, because snow hangs around on the sheltered slopes long after it has disappeared from all of the neighbouring peaks and surrounding landscapes in spring. Needless to say, there was no snow anywhere in sight today. Just some scudding clouds and drizzling rain. So we stayed just long enough to take a celebratory photograph, and peer through the clouds to catch glimpses of Le Chasseron, then we searched around for a dry spot under a tree to have our lunch.

Atop Crêt de la Neige (1472 metres).

Le Chasseron (1607m) and Petites Roches (1583)m) from Crêt de la Neige.

After lunch (which we enjoyed out of the rain - under the shelter of a huge old fir tree), we shouldered our packs (at about 1pm) and retraced our steps back down the ridgeline, and into the swale where the 1425m signpost stood. We stopped there just long enough to get our bearings for our next destination - the summit of Roches Blanches - which we could see about one and half kilometres off to our southwest. Down the valley, not only could we see Roches Blanches, but also the peaks of about six other Jura peaks that we've climbed on previous Jura Mountain rambles: Le Chasseron, Petites Roches, Aiguilles de Baulmes, Dent de Vaulion, Mont de la Maya and Mont d'Or.

Looking southwest from Crêt de la Neige, with Le Chasseron, Petites Roches, Aiguilles de Baulmes, Dent de Vaulion, Mont de la Maya, Mont d'Or and Roches Blanches on the horizon.

Mont de la Maya and Roches Blanches from the Crêt de la Neige signpost at 1425m.

We headed back up to the canton boundary ridgeline (that we'd passed over an hour or so before), and picked-up a small trail that headed uphill - southwest along the top of the ridge. We soon came across an old stone marker - dated 1719 - with the emblems of Vaud on one side and Neuchâtel on the other. In all we saw about three or four of these along the trail.

Lis at one of the old stone canton boundary markers, with the Crêt de la Neige ridgeline in the background.

We stopped at the first of these and took some photos, and soaked-up the beautiful views down the valley towards Le Chasseron and the other diminishing peaks of the southern Jura.

The view towards Le Chasseron - with the Chalet des Roches Eboulées (middle-ground at left) and La Deneraix Dessus (right) farmhouses in the valley of La Dénériaz below.

Mont de la Maya and the cliffs of Roches Blanches.

The trail wound its way through a beautiful forest - with steep cliffs and drop-offs on both sides. Despite the weather, and the dense forest, from time to time we got some great views of the surrounding peaks. The trail was pure wilderness, with plenty of obstacles in the form of fallen logs and rocky ridges to negotiate. We came across a trail sign advising us that we were now in the Roches Blanches nature reserve, with a suite of conditions to help protect the place.

The Roches Blanches nature reserve sign.

Although less than two kilometres in distance, this ridgetop walk still took some time - partly because it was uneven ground, and partly because it was such a beautiful place to be hiking, which meant we stopped a lot, to take lots of photos.

An old 1719 canton border stone.

Moss-covered rocks near the top of Roches Blanches.

Mid-summer meant there were lots of beautiful flowers along the trail.

Eventually we arrived at the highest point of Roches Blanches - 1470 metres - which was marked by another, more substantial, canton boundary marker stone. We dropped our backpacks, and pulled out a hip-flask of marc for a celebratory drink. It was now about 2pm.

The highest point of Roches Blanches - 1470m.

As always, and has become our custom for these rambles, we took a few celebratory, commemorative photos flying the Swiss flag, and then wandered around for awhile to soak-up the atmosphere and enjoy the views.

Enjoying a nip of marc at Roches Blanches.

Flying the flag at Roches Blanches - number 52 on the list of highest named Jura peaks.

Checking-out the views from Roches Blanches towards the southeast.

The cliffs and summit of Le Chasseron across the valley.

Roches Blanches is a popular destination for rock climbers ... but we didn't encounter anyone at all today. All we heard were the sounds of songbirds. And the only other beings we came across were huge snails and slugs. No chamois, no lynx, in fact nothing much of any note except some beautiful butterflies.

 That's where we were - atop the cliffs of Roches Blanches 
(taken from Petites Roches in October 2012).

After about half an hour, we re-hoisted our backpacks, and headed back down the trail - retracing the same route that we'd followed on the way up. It wound its way along the ridgetop, and through the leafy green forest back towards La Robella.

Heading back down through the forest.

Snowshoe trail sign on a tree near Roches Blanches 
pointing towards Crêt de la Neige.

We stopped from time to time to admire the views, and to take a few more photos. It really is a beautiful part of the Jura and well worth the trek up here.

One last look down the valley to the southwest 
before leaving the Roches Blanches ridgetop.

With the weather improving, and bursts of sunlight even brightening up the day, we headed back down the mountain towards La Robella and Buttes. It was an easy walk, through the same beautiful forests and flower-filled alpine pastures, and we soon dropped back down the 700 metres of altitude that we'd gained on the way up earlier in the day.

Wildflowers near the trail at Brama-Fam near La Robella.

The return trip was just as enjoyable as it had been on the way up, and we were soon back in the car-park at Buttes - arriving there at about 4pm - five and a half hours after we'd set-out this morning. The two peaks bagged today were our 57th and 58th of the Jura's highest peaks - leaving just 10 peaks unclimbed on our Jura Mountain Rambling list. Stay tuned.

Jura Peaks bagged:
  • Crêt de la Neige (No 51) 1472m
  • Roches Blanches (No 52) 1470m