Thursday, March 13, 2014

La Cornette (No 47) & L'Egasse (No 56)

La Cornette and L'Egasse are two relatively little known peaks in the Jura Mountains, frequently bypassed by hikers looking to climb their higher, more prominent and more popular neighbour - Chasseral (ranked number 13 in the Jura - at 1607 metres). Despite being overshadowed by Chasseral, they're still legitimately on the list of the highest named Jura peaks - at number 47 and 56 respectively, so were there to be climbed one sunny day. And a sunny day it was on Sunday 9 March, 2014, when we set out to "bag" these two peaks.

Quite surprisingly, this is the first Jura summit hike that we've logged for 2014, mainly because we've been hiking elsewhere these past three months, have been traveling further afield, or have been restricted by the many weekends of less-than-favourable weather that typified the winter of 2013-14. If I'm going out to bag a Jura Mountain peak these days, the weather has got to be as ideal as possible. (Enough of the grey weather photos, I say).

And such was the case (i.e., sunny weather) last Sunday, when we drove about an hour and a half north of our home in St George, past Neuchâtel and Lac Neuchâtel, and back up into the Jura foothills to a small village called Nods (885m) from where we intended to start our hike. We drove straight through the town and found the road that headed-up to the Col du Chasseral, but stopped just on the outskirts of the village - in a car-park - from where we commenced our hike. We left the car-park at about 10:30am and, in glorious sunshine, began making our way up the forested slopes just north of the village.

Trail interpretation panel on outskirts of Nods.

With our snowshoes strapped to our backpacks, we "skipped" our way along the paved road that leads towards the Col - which is about five or six kilometres further up the mountain. But after just 500 metres along the road we came across a boom-gate that blocked further vehicular access - a regular winter seasonal closure due to the heavy mantle of snow that blanketed the upper slopes of the range at that time of the year.

The barrier gate on the road to the Col du Chasseral.

We negotiated our way around the gate, and then continued along the road atop the well-trampled-down snow. We were still in just our hiking boots. About a further 500 metres along the road, we crossed-over the main ski piste that comes down the mountainside from Hotel Chasseral to Nods, and soon after that turned right - onto a well-marked snowshoe trail (that followed the same route as the main summer walking trail up the mountain). It was a great trail, which led us through a beautiful patch of (predominantly spruce) forest. As one would expect, we were in high spirits as we began gaining altitude up towards the top of the main Jura ridgeline. We had about 600 metres of vertical altitude to gain to reach the crest, and about three kilometres of horizontal trail.

On the gorgeous snowshoe trail through the forest.

Sunlight filtering through the forest near Le Brulé.

For the most part, it was a relatively easy, gentle gradient, and well packed-down by previous walkers and snow-shoers. But after about a kilometre, we began to sink deeper into the snow and each step became progressively more difficult, so we stopped and pulled-on our snow shoes, after which we continued with much greater ease and assurance.

Heading-up through the forest near Les Cordonniers.

The snow shoes really became beneficial once we emerged from the forest again - at the upper tree line (at about 1400 metres) - where the snow was fresher, and deeper, and the gradient quite steep. Off to our right we got our first glimpses of the huge (120 metre high), red-and-white striped, communications tower that stands at the top of Chasseral (or Gestler - as the mountain used to be called under its German name) - which is the highest peak in the Bernese Jura. We'd first summited Chasseral back in September 2012 and, if you're interested, you can read the account of that hike here. Ahead of us, on the horizon, we could see our first destination for today - the semi-snow-covered Hotel Chasseral. I have a fondness for Chasseral for a number of reasons, one of which is that it was the setting for Hermann Hesse's famous 1907 short story "The Wolf". It's a sad tale, but well worth reading.

 Lis standing above a half-buried trail marker just below Chasseral.

 The distinctive "barber's pole" communications tower atop Chasseral. 
It was erected in 2010, on a site that has had a telecommunications station 
since June 1945.

The only landmark across the open ground (the "Paturage de Chasseral) below the Chasseral ridgeline was the half-buried (and completely closed) Métairie Neuf Chalet - which is marked Mét. de Nods on the topographic map. (A métairie is an alpine farmhouse / tavern, where the owners provide seasonal meals to travelers - including home-made cheese - usually served in a traditional fondue.)

Sign outside the Métairie Neuf Chalet (or Nods?).

We stopped just long enough to take a photo, then pushed-on up the last stage of the ascent to the Hotel Chasseral. Once this landscape thaws-out (in spring), it's possible to drive (or catch a bus) all the way up to the hotel, so it's a popular day-trip destination throughout the summer months. But now, with a healthy blanket of snow over the whole mountain-top, the only visitors are those who are prepared to walk, snowshoe or ski all the way to the top of the ridge.

Heading-up the last ascent towards the Hotel Chasseral.

We got there at about mid-day, about an hour-and-a-half after we'd left Nods, and immediately flopped-down on one of the huge rocks that lined the southern edge of the ridge. At 1548 metres, it marked an altitude gain of about 600 metres from where we'd left the car in Nods. It looked like an ideal spot to enjoy our lunch, so we dropped our packs, took out our food, and munched away while we gazed-out over the plateau towards the distant, hazy Alps.

Lunch-stop on the rocks near Hotel Chasseral. It was first built in 1880, although rebuilt in 1925 when the original was destroyed by fire.

Although blessed with beautiful sunny, and intensely blue, skies above us, the views back down the mountainside and across the plateau to the Alps was somewhat less-than-perfect - being mostly obscured by a cloudy haze that filled the wide chasm between the two mountain chains. Through the haze, we could only just see the near side of the Lac de Biene below us, and we couldn't make-out the city of Biel/Bienne at the northeastern end of the lake at all. Similarly, we couldn't see much of the Alps - other than a thin profile of just the tops of the very highest peaks. No matter, the views around us - of the Jura - were magnificent. We had a great 360 degree panorama - that included Chasseral (to the northeast) and Chasseral Ouest (to the southwest). As mentioned previously, we'd been up this way back in 2012 - when we "ticked-off" five peaks - Chasseral, Petit Chasseral, Chasseral Ouest, Les Roches and La Corne - all in a single day's hike.

Trail signage at Hotel Chasseral.

After lunch (standard trail fare of cheese and home-made chutney sandwiches, hot tea, and fruit ... we had to ignore the alluring smells emanating from the Hotel's kitchen and dining room), we wandered around the ridge to check-out the signage, the views, and our next destination way-point.

We are there (at the red dot) - Hotel Chasseral.

Off to our northeast was the summit of Chasseral (1607m) and, to the north, Petit Chasseral (1571m) and the main Jura ridgeline.

Checking-out the views from the top of the Chasseral ridgeline.

To the southwest, the ridge was dominated by Chasseral Ouest (1552m) and further afield, the peaks of the southern Jura.

Looking southwest with Chasseral Ouest at left, and our trail down in the foreground.

To the north, less than a kilometre away, lay the second Jura ridgeline, on which were the two peaks that we were intending to climb today - La Cornette and L'Egasse. Just to their right (to the east) was the valley and gorge of Combe Grède - which we fondly remember as being the scene of one of best walks we'd ever had in the Jura (en route to the top of Chasseral in September 2012).

Looking northwest - with our destination peaks - La Cornette and L'Egasse 
across the valley above the half-buried Métairie de St-Jean.

We stood there for quite awhile - watching paragliders fill their kites and leap-off the mountain-top before gliding their way over the range and down through the Combe Grède gorge towards St-Imier on the far side of the main ridgeline.

A paraglider passes L'Egasse on their way down through the Combe Grède.

Sometime around 1pm, we left the ridge-top in the vicinity of the hotel and headed down the steep slope on the northern side of the ridge - clinging precariously to the thin trail that snowshoers and skiers had carved into the heavily compacted snow. At times it was quite icy, and thus very slippery, so required a bit more attention than what we'd had to apply thus far on our walk. Of course, that also made it all the more exciting.

Heading down the north slope below Chasseral Ouest.

Once down in the valley floor (the lowest point of which is about 1389m), we cut a new trail due west across the snow, passing by the (winter-abandoned) Métairie de St-Jean and some signage reminding us that we were now deep in the Réserve Naturelle de la Combe Boisse (established in December 1976).

Trail sign reminding us that we were in the Réserve Naturelle de la Combe Boisse.

From there we headed up the next ridgeline - on a route that more or less followed the border-line between the Canton of Biel/Bienne (to the north) and Canton of Neuchâtel (to the south). Occasionally we were passed by skiers - mostly hardy-looking athletes geared-up for hard-core back-country adventuring. We were tortoises by comparison to their downhill plummets, but kept a similar pace going uphill.

Heading-up the slope towards the La Cornette ridgeline.

Once at the top of the ridge, in a small col, we stopped just long enough to catch our breath, and take a few photos of lichen-encrusted, weather-beaten reserve signs, then turned northeast along the ridge - towards the summit of La Cornette.

Ancient sign in the Reserve de la Combe Boisse. Hunting prohibited.

Looking northeast up the ridgeline of La Cornette.

Along the way we passed another protected area marker - this time for the Combe Grède Nature Reserve (1,202 hectares, established in May, 1932). This bright, new, blue sign stood atop a couple of very old, weather-beaten stone markers whose purpose I wasn't exactly sure. However they looked like they were marking a boundary of some sort, perhaps between the St Imier (or Villeret) and Nods communes, or something like that.

Reserve sign atop old stone markers - perhaps the border between
 the cantons of Bern (ahead) and Neuchatel (behind), or the communes of St Imier (or Villeret) and Nods.

It didn't take us long to reach the very top of the ridge - the summit of La Cornette (1494 metres) - which is actually a twin-peak mountain-top, with a mountain refuge hut nestled between them.

The mountain refuge at La Cornette.

Cornette means "rocky point, or peak", and comes from the Latin word cornua - which means a horn, or summit, or high point of land. La Cornette is in the commune of Villeret, in the district of Courtelary, canton of Bern/Bielle.

Sign above the door of the La Cornette hut: 1492m.

We dropped our backpacks and wandered around for awhile, before snapping-off the customary, ceremonial, flag-waving shot, and savouring the views from yet another Jura peak. It provided excellent views back over towards Chasseral and other smaller peaks of the main ridgeline.

Customary ceremonial flag waving shot at the summit of La Cornette.

Just to be sure, we took photos on both of the peaks, then took a swig of water and munched our way through a tasty fruit-and-nut bar.

More flag waving at the second La Cornette peak.

Our next destination - the top of L'Egasse - was only a few hundred metres away to the north. But first we had to drop down off La Cornette, cut across a small, barren col, and then follow the ridgeline further northeast to the summit. We carved a path down the steep, forested slope, through the deep powdery snow, and were soon out on the col. And, almost before we knew it, we were standing at the top of L'Egasse (1460 metres). This isn't much of a mountain by most Swiss standards, but it's got one of the best names. It's derived from the local name for the magpie.

Photo from the Chasseral ridge showing the proximity of L'Egasse (right) to La Cornette (left).

Once again, we snapped off a couple of photos to mark the occasion. Interestingly enough, L'Egasse is number 56 on the list of the highest named Jura peaks ... and was also the 57th Jura peak that we'd summited since we started our Jura Mountain Rambling project at the beginning of 2012. That's very cool.

Atop L'Egasse (1460 metres).

Being surrounded by trees, there's not much of a view from the summit (and not surprisingly there were no signs of anyone else having been up there), so we didn't stay long. Instead we retraced our steps back down the ridge - from where we got much better views - especially into the valley of St-Imier in the middle distance and the next Jura ridgeline and its army of wind turbines (19) that stood guard along the Franches Mountains ridge. Hidden from us, through the trees not far below, was the Métairie de l'Egasse - which is a popular refreshment point when it's open - between June and October every year (but not on Thursdays).

Looking northwest from L'Egasse with wind turbines on the horizon on the next Jura ridge and the Jura ridgelines fading away in the distance in France.

From L'Egasse we retraced our steps back to the small col, from where skirted around the eastern slopes of La Cornette on a steep traverse that took us back down into the Mét. de St-Jean valley. It was a slippery slope in places, which kept us "on our toes" so to speak.

Heading back down the mountain below La Cornette.

Along the way we had some great views down into the surrounding valleys and adjacent hilltops - so we frequently stopped to enjoy the scenery, and take photographs.

View to the northeast - up the valley west of Petit Chasseral (which is just out-of-sight on the right).

Having dropped right back down to the valley floor, we then headed back-up the opposite, steep slope below Chasseral and the top of the main ridgeline - which we'd left just an hour or two earlier. Once again, it was slippery going at times, but a lot of fun. Fortunately, neither of us took a tumble, however our legs were aching by the time we got back up to the top.

The last ascent - up the main Chasseral ridgeline again.

Looking back over the Métairie de St-Jean, with the Combe Grède gorge behind.

Once back on the ridge, we made a bee-line for the Hotel Chasseral, where we dropped our snowshoes at the door and headed inside for a drink and snack. We reckoned we'd deserved it.

Dropping the snowshoes outside Hotel Chasseral.

About half an hour later, we emerged from the hotel, pulled our snowshoes back on, and got ready to head back down the mountainside to Nods. But first we checked-out the big panorama interpretation table (the Panorama de Chasseral) - which identified all of the distant Alps' peaks that we should have been able to better make-out through the haze. The table has been there for quite some time - erected by members of the Chasseral branch of the Club Alpin Suisse (CAS).

The panorama interpretation table near Hotel Chasseral - 
and the distant Alps above the cloudy haze.

We could make-out quite a few of the peaks which jutted-out above the haze, whilst below us lay Nods ... and 600 metres of steep, knee-pounding descent. According to other accounts one can usually see (on a good day) "the Vosges, the Alsace Plain, part of Franche-Comte, the Black Forest, the Swiss and French Jura, and the Alps" - especially the majestic Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. We were not so lucky today.

The Alps in the distance, and our final destination - Nods - at the foot of the mountain.

Once again, we walked past the Métairie de Neuf Chalet (or Mét. de Nods), took one last, over-the-shoulder glance at the Chasseral communications tower, and then plunged back down into the forest in the area marked on the map as Les Cordonniers and Le Brulé.

Last glance back at le Chasseral near the Métairie de Nods.

We made good time heading downhill and, about an hour after we'd left the hotel, we were back in the car-park near Nods. It was about 4:30pm - six hours after we'd departed from there earlier in the day. Between the main ascent, then the ups-and-downs between the other summits and ridgelines, we figured we'd climbed about a thousand metres over the course of the day. Our legs felt like they'd had at least that (and more), but our souls were soaring. Life doesn't get much better than that.

The Jura Mountain ramblers.

Jura peaks bagged:
  • La Cornette (No 47) 1494m
  • L'Egasse (No 56) 1460m

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