Sunday, May 27, 2012

Crêt de la Neige (No 1)

 Flying the Jura souvenir flag (in France) at Crêt de la Neige.

There are only three peaks in the Jura higher than 1700 metres, and today we climbed to the top of two of them: Crêt de la Neige (No. 1 at 1720 metres) and Grand Cret (No. 3 - 1702m). It was a "big day" for Jura summit "twitchers" like us.

With a forecast of about 25 degrees (Celsius) and a mix of sunshine and cloud, the day beckoned for a hike to the top of the very highest peak in the Jura - Crêt de la Neige - across the border in France. Crêt de la Neige (and its two flanking 1700+ peaks - Grand Crêt and Le Reculet), is located in Pays de Gex (Ain départment) in France, about 18 kilometres west-northwest of Geneva.

This southern part of the Jura has been a part of France since 1674, when the previous imperial fiefdom of the "Free County of Burgundy", or Franche-Comte, was annexed by its larger western neighbour. Previously, at least since the middle ages, this southern part of the Jura had been carved-up into a number of smaller districts, including Gex and Franche-Comte, all of which were eventually absorbed into France.

 Our starting point, the Tiocan "buvette".

Our walk started at 10am - at the Tiocan restaurant carpark (835m), just up the mountainside from the village of Thoiry. We had driven through Thoiry, past les Hauts de Thoiry, up the Rue de Reculet and along a rugged forest road (route forestière) to Tiocan. Just as we were about to get onto the walking trail we stopped to check-out a trail-head sign reminding us that we were about to enter the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Jura in the Réserve Naturelle Haute Chaine du Jura. It's a special place.

 Signpost at Tiocan.

Taking the trail just to the left of the restaurant, we headed virtually straight-up the mountainside on one of the steepest tracks that either of us has ever climbed. Initially it was through dense forest on a steep, stony and leaf-litter covered trail, but soon after we had taken the right-hand fork at le Croisée (1190m) - at about 1300m - it was on a hard-surfaced all-weather track. Not long after, we broke-out of the forest and into more open country, with just a few small, stunted conifers dotting the landscape.

Heading-up from Tiocan, the forest is mostly deciduous (including chestnuts) until about 900 metres, after which it becomes predominantly coniferous  - until about 1500m. Above 1500m, it is replaced by subalpine mountain meadows with scattered (and mostly stunted) conifers. Interestingly, the trees along the ridgeline in the vicinity of Crêt de la Neige and Le Reculet include the beautiful little "mountain pine" (Pinus mugo) which, while not so common in the Jura, is a feature species in the Alps and other mountain ranges throughout Europe.

 Lis at Le Croisée.

Immediately after we broke out of the forest we spotted a couple of chamois standing on a craggy ridgeline above us, looking out over the Pays de Gex and the Geneva plain below. Higher up, to the northwest, we could see Le Reculet (the second highest peak in the Jura), with its distinctive iron cross on the summit, and collection of summiteers wandering around below the cross.

 Le Reculet with its landmark iron cross.

However, Le Reculet wasn't our destination today, so we turned off the Le Reculet trail just near the Thoiry Devant farmhouse (at 1490m) and headed north towards Crêt de la Neige.

 Lis passing the Thiory Devant farmhouse.

Not long afterwards we reached, and passed, the Curson refuge (1580m), after which the trail took us through an amazing, ancient exposed limestone reef, so similar to many that we've walked over on coastlines around the world today ... yet this one dated back to the time of the Jurassic Sea - millions of years ago. Now, here it was almost two kilometres above sea level, and tipped-over onto a steep angle. It was an amazing real-world geology/geomorphology lesson.

 Standing on a multi-million year old limestone reef 
once polished by the Jurassic Sea.

This 145-200 million-year-old Jura limestone and its rich collection of fossils (especially ammonites), was first scientifically described by Alexander von Humboldt in 1795, following an extensive expedition into these mountains. He called the ancient sea beds "Jura-Kalkstein" or "Calcaire de Jura". His work was followed-up by others, including Leopold von Buch who established a formal system of rocks for similar fossiliferous periods (at the time in Germany and England), and palaeontologist Albert Oppel who fully realized the significance of the ammonites of the "Jurassic Period". This name became adopted by other geologists of the time, who understood and appreciated the value of the identified ammonite fossils from the Jura Mountains for providing a consistent clue to the age of rocks from the same period in geological history - the Jurassic Period. Amazing stuff, and a treat to be able to stand among it, and be connected to it. The experience reminded me of that saying (usually associated with rockfalls): "Geological time is now."

The last bit of the trail to the top of the Jura ridgeline was through some of the best walking scenery we've ever encountered. A rugged trail winding through gorges and grottos, over ancient limestone reefs, and through gorgeous colourful beds of wild daffodils, gentians, buttercups and daisies. The butterflies were going ballistic. Somewhere in the trees nearby a cuckoo was busily imitating a Swiss clock.

 Lis hiking through a patch of daffodils.

At about noon, two hours after we'd left Tiocan, we reached the ridgeline, and in just a few minutes were standing at one of the summits (the "false" summit) of Crêt de La Neige. It had a sign there saying 1720m, but it is really the 1718m subsidiary "peak" - what was once called the "Cholesky signal peak". Like a lot of the mountain-tops of the Jura ridgeline, Crêt de la Neige has multiple peaks. This one was marked, but the true highest point lies hidden among the rocks and bushes further along the ridgeline to the northeast.

Meaning "Snow Crest", Crêt de la Neige gets its name from the fact that even in the hottest summers, pockets of snow hang around for months after winter has finished - buried deep in sinkholes and grottos, and hidden from the sun by the steep cliffs and gorges. In some holes it remains all year. ("Crêt" comes from an old Latin word - crestum, cresta, meaning crest. It is used to name the tops of mountains and ridgelines, or small hill-top plateaux; and may also designate stony ground.)

The Crêt de la Neige is a very nondescript summit, more of a long, flat-topped ridge, carved-up and gouged by gullies, canyons and gorges. The true summit takes some fossicking-around to locate as it is somewhat hidden by the small trees, shrubs and bushes growing along the ridgetop. We walked further along the ridgeline - which gave us great views into the Valley of la Valserine to the west. The best view by far was off to the southwest - towards Le Reculet which, with its bare, steep-sided peak, looked far more like a "real" mountain top than where we were standing on "Number One".

 Celebrating one of the summits (the lower one - the Cholesky signal peak) of the highest point in the Jura.

The actual height of the summit has been the source of some confusion and conjecture for many years. The confusion related to whether it was higher than Le Reculet or not, and whether the true summit was at 1717.6m or at 1720m.

In order to settle everything, Crêt de la Neige and Le Reculet were resurveyed in 2003 - which confirmed Crêt de la Neige as the highest peak, and disappointed the hundreds of climbers who'd been trekking to the top of Le Reculet for decades believing they had reached the highest peak; along with all of those who'd gone to the Cholesky signal peak (where the false "1720" sign is erected) thinking they'd reached the top of Crêt de la Neige.

View southwest from Crêt de la Neige, 
with Le Reculet in the distance.

Somewhat underwhelmed, we found a lovely grassy spot in the midday sun, and broke-out our standard fare of bread and cheese, apples and fruit-and-nut mix, and chocolate and tea. Then we lay back in the sunshine and closed our eyes. Life doesn't get much better than this. Below us lay gorges and ravines. A good place for a siesta.

 One of the patches of snow near Crêt de la Neige 
that hang around for months after the last winter snowfall.

Adequately rested, we re-hoisted our packs and headed northeast along the Jura ridgeline - along the Chemin des Crêtes du Jura, or the Grande Traversée du Jura - the 380 kilometres Jura trail that runs from one end of the Jura to the other along the ridgeline - the Haute Chaine du Jura. Here we were right at the southern end - the highest section of the route ... and we were in heaven.

With full bellies, we walked slowly along the ridgeline for about a kilometre, in the process passing over the very highest point on le Crêt de la Neige (1720m), then down through a saddle at about 1670 metres, and up to Grand Crêt (at 1702 metres, the third highest peak in the Jura). The ridgeline was typical Jura karst landscape, with lots of sinkholes, karst formations, gorges, grottos and caves. With tall cumulus clouds towering over the Alps and slowly making their way over Switzerland, we enjoyed the intervening sunshine, and took-in the views over Geneva and the plain de Gex to our east, the Vallée de Valserine to our west and views of Montoisey, Colomby de Gex and (in the far distance) La Dôle to our northeast. We once again the Swiss flag - my Jura rambling memento from Crêt de la Neige - and took a couple of celebratory pix, before heading back to Crêt de la Neige.

 Unfurling the "souvenir flag" at the summit of Grand Crêt.

Grand Crêt: Number three bagged.

Along the way we skirted the Canyon de Crêt de la Neige - a steep sided gorge still filled with deep snow, and passed-by a magnificent wind-blown tree that reminded us of just how fierce the winds can get in this neck of the woods. It's a rugged landscape - the Crêt de la Neige ridgeline - and typical of this exposed and ancient karst landscape.

 A gnarly conifer alongside the Chemin des Crêtes Transjurassien hiking trail. 
Le Reculet in the background.

We returned to Crêt de la Neige, took a few more photos at the (more picturesque) "1720m" sign, to properly record the moment of having climbed to the top of the highest peak in the Jura ... then we headed down. It was now about 2pm.

Atop Crêt de la Neige - Number One in the Jura Mountains.

 Lis heading back down the mountain. Le Reculet in the background.

Once again we made our way across the old limestone reef, the magnificent herb-fields of flowers, and then down into the forest below. Our knees took a pounding as we plodded down the steep trail, and we were glad to reach Tiocan again - at about 3.30pm - five and a half hours after we'd set-out. We figured we'd climbed more than 1,000 metres - one vertical kilometre - in getting to the top of the Jura. No wonder we were feeling a bit worn-out. My knees certainly were.

But once again, it had been a fantastic hike, in a magnificent landscape, in beautiful weather. Life doesn't get much better than that.

Lis in a patch of wildflowers just below Crêt de la Neige.

Jura peaks bagged:
  • Crêt de la Neige (No. 1) 1720m
  • Grand Crêt (No. 3) 1702m

  • Based on Peakery data, Crêt de la Neige is the 196th highest mountain in the Rhône-Alps, and the 1,523rd highest mountain in France.

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