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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.)