We drove through Montricher on our way to the Col on Sunday, the 17th of February, looking-up at the thick, grey clouds that blanketed the crests of the Jura's eastern-most, and highest ridgeline (and wondered aloud if this was a good idea). The ridgeline is famous for its panoramas, but we weren't expecting any magnificent views on this particular day, and were soon driving in the mist - as the road snaked its way up from Mont-la-Ville towards the top of the Col. We parked the car in a small car-park about 750 metres west of the Auberge du Mollendruz, near a place marked "Fontaine Froide" on the topo map (1171m). There we pulled on our snowshoes and backpacks, and, at about 11.30am, headed south into the mist. (We'd left our departure as late as possible, hoping the weather would get better.)
Ahead of us, the trail disappeared into oblivion under a dense, smothering white-out, with visibility restricted to about 100 metres. But it was still relatively early, and anticipating (and hoping) that the clouds would lift and burn-off as the day warmed-up, we plunged on into the deep, fresh, powdery snow with bright optimism. Despite our positive thoughts, the weather showed no signs of "letting-up" as we headed along the trail, wrapped-up in our full snow gear against the bitter cold.
In no time at all, we reached and passed the Chalet du Mollendruz - a popular destination for Col du Mollendruz day-trippers at any time of the year. Today, despite the weather, there were plenty of brave souls cascading down the toboggan slope just alongside the buvette, while inside we imagined that every table would have been filled with day-trippers seeking refuge around the warm fire - downing their coffee and croissants, or wine and fondue. We had no plans to stop and enjoy such creature-comforts, and quickly passed-by following a trail just west of the chalet.
We more or less followed a set of snowshoe tracks adjacent to a ski du fond track - that headed south towards the Col du Marchairuz. It took us into the heavily snow-laden, coniferous forest called the Bois des Croisettes. We were now just east of the Creux au Cheval, and, further up the slope, the Haut du Mollendruz. Having left the within-day-tripping-range Chalet du Mollendruz and the main trail, we now virtually had the entire forest to ourselves. It was fabulous walking.
We continued to head more-or-less due south through the forest for just over a kilometre, before we broke-out into the open again near a small cabine just southwest of the Combe de la Neige (at about 1300 metres in altitude). Off to our right, hidden among the clouds was an alpine farmhouse called Pre de l'Haut Dessous. But we couldn't see it, and weren't heading in that direction.
Instead, we skirted around the small cabine, and picked-up the trail that zig-zagged its way up the Cote de Châtel ridgeline on the eastern side of the combe that we'd been following since Col du Mollendruz. The trail sign pointed towards our destination - Le Châtel - and further-on to Montricher.
We cautiously picked our way up the steep and, at times slippery, slope. It didn't take us long to reach the crest of the ridgeline, where we also picked-up the main snowshoe trail that ran more directly north-south between the Col du Mollendruz and Le Châtel.
We stopped to take photos of the ice crystals that formed neat patterns on the snowshoe trail signs. It was no wonder that we were feeling the cold. It was freezing up here, and compounded by a bitter wind that blew-in from the north.
Being only a few kilometres from the Col, it didn't take us long to reach the Châtel farmhouse (which, like just about every other farmhouse in the Jura at this time of the year, was abandoned for winter). Through the mist we could hear a couple of other hikers huddled under its verandas, no doubt stopped for a quick bite for lunch). During the summer months Châtel doubles-up as a buvette, serving tasty mountain fare of wine, cheese, bread, pasta and mushrooms to passing Jura hikers.
A couple of hundred metres further along the trail we reached the crest of Le Châtel ... and its magnificent wood and steel and glass cross. It was quite imposing, especially the way it gradually just appeared out of the mist as we approached it. The word "châtel" is derived from the Old French word chastel, and Latin chastellum, and means "a small castle built to defend a communications route". In this case it is in reference to a small castle that used to dominate the village of Montricher - which was just down below us somewhere ... obliterated in the mist.
The cross had been erected by the residents of Montricher in May 2008. The origins of the cross - Montricher - is interesting for a number of reasons ... with one (for me at least) being its name. It was originally (in 1049) called Mons Richarius or Monsricharius, i.e., "Mount Richard". This was changed to Monte Richerii in 1177, then to Monrichie (in 1412) then to Montricher - its current name - in 1301.
Being located on a strategic communications route along the eastern side of the Jura, Montricher was chosen as the site to build a small castle by a local noble called Rodolphe, the son of Adalbert II of Grandson - which he commenced, on a small hill above the village, in 1049. Unfortunately, the ravages of time, along with two devastating fires (in 1770 and 1828) which all but completely destroyed the castle and village, means there is little evidence today of the castle. Just a few ruins and wall foundations. The stones of the town walls and the castle were used to rebuild the village after the second fire, and perhaps the only substantial reminder of that past glory exists in the form of the local church which has an imposing round tower - complete with arrow slits, look-out ports and thick impenetrable walls - which is thought to be the chapel of the old castle.
Having "explored" the summit as best we could in the white-out, we searched around for a suitable place to hunker down for lunch. It was now about 12.45 - an hour and a quarter after we'd started our hike. We found a neat snow cavity just on the lee of the crest, behind a small clump of fir trees - where I did the strange snowshoe shuffle/tramp-around to flatten-out and harden a small patch where we could drop our packs and backsides whilst having lunch.
It turned-out to be quite well-sheltered from the wind, although we did get an occasional blast of snow into our sandwiches and tea - as snow was whipped-up by the wind scuttling across the white, barren landscape, or blown out of the trees above us. It didn't matter. We were having fun.
Despite our hot tea, and customary nip of heart-warming French marc, we weren't inclined to hang around too long. The weather wasn't getting any better. The sun had made a couple of desperate attempts to break through the last layer of cloud above our heads, but it didn't look like it was ever going to really win that battle. So we dragged our snowshoes back on, now all encrusted with ice, and headed back out into the mist.
We sloshed our way back out to the cross through the powdery snow and took the obligatory Swiss flag photo to mark the occasion.
Another small group of snowshoers appeared out of the mist from the north, no doubt heading towards Montricher - which is about three or four kilometres southeast of Le Châtel. We made a mental note to come back this way again in fairer weather, perhaps coming-up from Monricher. One reason for doing so (in finer weather), is that there is an interesting archaeological site on the trail between Le Châtel and Montricher - at about 1400 metres - at a place called Châtel Arrufens. It is a well-researched and documented Bronze Age (4th-5th centuries) site that was extensively excavated by an archaeologist named Jean-Pierre Gadina, between 1966 and 1973. It was further studied in the 1990s by two other Swiss archaeologists - Mirielle David and Daniel Elbiali Paunier - who recorded many discoveries, including coins, pottery and other artefacts.
Le Châtel is meant to provide a fantastic panoramic viewpoint of the distant Alps, lakes and plateau ... but there was nothing today - just a white wall of nothingness. The eastern side of the summit - called the Côte de Châtel - drops away very steeply and, with no other ridgelines in front of it, affords uninterrupted views for miles and miles to the north, east and south. But, with no such views being afforded on this occasion - nada, zilch - we soon turned our backs and hit the trail - heading due north back towards the Col. It was now about 1.30pm.
This time we stayed on the main snowshoe trail, which took us back past the Châtel farmhouse, over a small hilltop (at 1404m), then gradually down the main ridgeline and into a majestic fir forest
Eventually we intersected another trail at the northern end of the Combe de la Neige, then continued along a fantastic forest track that wound its way among the trees. Getting closer to the Col, we began encountering an increasing number of other walkers - it's obviously a popular trail, and well sign-posted. As well as having a well-tramped trail, it also had a couple of useful-looking interpretive signs along the way, and other distinct and regular markers. It would be hard to get lost on this route.
Not surprisingly, it didn't take us long to get through the downhill forest section, and we soon found ourselves approaching the Chalet du Mollendruz - although this time from the south. We walked straight up to the chalet, where we stopped briefly to take a few photos, and to look inside at the packed clientele who were enjoying the warmth, as well as the wine and fondue that adorned just about every table.
By now we were thinking of our own wine and warmth - that was awaiting us via an open log fire - that we'd soon be enjoying back at our house at Les Côteaux. So we snapped-off the last photos of the day, and headed back to the car.
We arrived back in the car park at about 2.20pm, where we dropped our snowshoes and backpacks, and swigged-down another hot thermos of tea. It had been a relatively easy, and short walk, but thoroughly enjoyable and easily accessible. We'll certainly be coming back ... but next time on a day when the views will be able to live up to their reputation.
Jura peaks bagged:
- Châtel / Le Châtel (No. 68)