Sunday, August 3, 2014

Le Grand Colombier (No. 35)

Le Grand Colombier is number 35 on our list of highest named Jura peaks, and was the last of the highest 50 that we'd yet to climb, so a sunny day in mid-summer (2 August 2014) provided the perfect opportunity. It's located at the very southern tip of the Jura - in the Pays de Bugey - where the Rhone River cuts its way between the Alps (on the east) and the Jura (to the west). The Colombier massif is quite an imposing landmark - dominating the skyline from every angle for miles around.

 Le Grand Colombier from the French village of Artemare.

Before the walk, we stayed overnight in a nearby village (in France) called Artemare - staying at a lovely B&B - from where we had great views of the mountain from our bedroom window. On the morning of our hike we awoke to a lovely fine day - with nothing but a few puffy cumulus clouds high above us, and a thin band of early morning cloud wrapped like a piece of string around the base of the mountain. Sunshine filled the valley, and glinted off the white limestone rocks at the top of the range. It looked perfect.

The view from our bedroom window on the morning of our hike.

From Artemare, we drove northeast to a little village called Virieu-le-Petit - which we drove straight through - and headed-up the road (the D120C) that leads to the Col du Grand Colombier. About half way up to the col, we pulled-over onto a flat area (at about 1175m) that has previously been used for storing logs during forestry operations - where we parked the car and set-out on our trek. The site is marked "La Selle" on some maps, and "Fromentel" on others, and is just 20 or 30 metres further along the road from where the D120C  meets the Lochieu-to-col-du-Grand-Colombier road (the D120). Some hikers start from La Selle, while others use Virieu-le-Petit, Sur Lyand, Culoz, Lochieu, Anglefort and Munet as starting points. All have their pro's and con's. (I'd recommend walkers get themselves a topographic map (ING) of the entire Colombier massif, or the "Randonées pédestres en Bugey" guidebook.)

 Road sign at the junction of the Lochieu - Virieu le Petit roads.

The site at La Selle where we parked the car and started our walk.

 Road sign at La Selle -pointing up the D120 to Le Grand Colombier.

We took a few photos around La Selle, looking first up the road to the southeast (towards Le Grand Colombier), and then scanning the ridgeline in front of us around to the northeast - where we were heading - towards the distinctive Roc Passin outcrop on the horizon high above us.

The cliffs of Roc Passin on the horizon - high in the forest above La Selle.

Roc Passin.

At about 11am, we set-out on our hike - initially in a southeasterly direction - up the road towards the col du Grand Colombier - for about 350 metres, until just after we'd passed a small barn and reached an old stone fountain on the side of the road. There, between these two landmarks, we turned-off the road onto a small forest track on our left - and headed northeast.

Heading-up the road towards the col du Grand Colombier.

The barn  a few hundred metres above La Selle. 
The road graffiti from past cycle races. (It was most recently used for the 2012 Tour de France)

Turning off the col road onto the small forest track towards Roc Passin.

The turn-off was easy to find, and marked with a wooden sign pointing towards "Le Trou de la Roche".

We headed northeast along what was probably an old forestry logging road - for about about 200 metres, then "zigged" right, back to the southeast. After about another 200 metres, we turned left again, and started a long, steep climb along a traverse up the mountainside towards Roc Passin. There were no sign-posts to mark these two twists and turns, so we just stuck to the "road most traveled" and that kept us on the right track.

Approaching the left-turn about 500 metres into the walk.

About another 250 metres, we came to the end of the forest road, beyond which the trail plunged into the forest and became more like the typical mountain/forest single-file walking track. An old tree stump, adorned with an artistic arrangement of stones marked the start of this section.

The rock-adorned tree stump at the start of the single-file walking track near Roc Passin.

Occasionally we caught glimpses of the white limestone cliffs of Roc Passin through the tree above us (to our right), while off to our left the steep slope plunged far down to the valley below, where we could see villages and pastures far beyond the edge of the forest.

The trail through the forest below Roc Passin.

The track took us over a mixture of (at different times) lovely leaf-litter, slippery wet rocks, and through dense forest, and open sunny clearings - the latter filled with waist-high wildflowers in full bloom.

Lis heading through a patch of mountain wild-flowers.

After one last scramble up a stony chute - over a stretch of wet, slippery rocks - we suddenly broke out of the forest and found ourselves standing on a small ridge facing-up towards the main ridgeline of Le Grand Colombier. Directly in front of us was the huge steel cross that dominates the skyline at the top of the ridge, while off to the right we could see the summit of Le Grand Colmbier and the line of peaks and troughs beyond. Off to the left we could see the rooftop of the Granges du Colombier - our next landmark, so we turned north in that direction.

Looking-up at the cross that dominates the ridgeline of Le Grand Colombier.

The view southeast along Le Grand Colombier ridgeline (the summit is on the left).

Heading north towards the Granges du Colombier guesthouse.

Le Granges du Colombier.

We walked over to just short of the Granges du Colombier (1390 metres), where we stopped for a few moments to take a photo or two, and then to get our bearings for the next leg of our trek. One option here was to pick-up the walking trail that more-or-less headed straight-up to the big steel cross on top of the ridgeline, but we opted to continue north towards the Col de Charbemène. This option would add about another 40 minutes (or thereabouts) to the hike, but provided what we considered to be the best section of the entire trail - an ascent up the Colombier ridgeline on a spectacular section of the GTJ cross-France walk-trail.

Trail sign at Granges du Colombier (1390m).

We walked past the front of le Granges de Colombier, then up-and-over a steel style, and followed the track north-northeast - past the trail signs which pointed towards Charbemène (and Sur Lyand - Le Virieux-Martin)

On the trail leading away from le Granges de Colombier.

The trail was very well marked on this section (in total contrast to the completely unmarked section that we'd followed to get up to here from La Selle). It hugged the edge of the forest for a few hundred metres, and then turned gently right into the predominantly fir and beech forest. It made for very easy walking, and we were able to "sit back" and enjoy the countryside.

Heading into the forest near the col de Charbemène.

Not surprisingly, given the mostly flat traverse along the mountainside, it didn't take us very long to reach the col, where we stopped - once again just for long enough to take a few photos and to enjoy the surrounding views. By now there was quite a bit of cloud gathering around us, so the views of the Alps that we had expected - to the east, in front of us - didn't really exist. We could see down into the Rhone valley far below, and the foothills of the Alps, but none of the peaks were on show - on what should have been a ragged Alpine skyline.

Trail sign at the Col de Charbemène (1317m).

At the col, we swung right back around to the south, and followed the red-and-white-stripe marked trail that headed-up towards the Croix du Colombier and Le Grand Colombier. The trail cut a trench through the thicket of alpine wildflowers that filled the col - for about 50 metres - and then disappeared into a black hole on the edge of the forest.

Heading into the forest from the col de Chambemène.

This section of the trail turned-out to be our best part of the walk. Lis called it "Lord of the Rings" country, with lots of tall trees, gnarly roots, nooks and crannies, rocks and ridges, and quite a few sections that required careful attention to avoid slipping and falling off the trail. We fully expected to see elves and trolls!

On the ridgeline trail up towards le Grand Colombier.

This part of our hike was along a section of the the GR9 walking trail, and from time to time we came across the red-and-white markings and the GTJ trail signs. It really was quite an enchanting forest track.

GTJ trail signs in the forest just north of Le Grand Colombier.

Negotiating one of the steep rocky sections along the GTJ.

Eventually we broke back out of the forest and onto the alpine meadows, which were once again filled with a colourful explosion of wildflowers in full bloom.

Heading up to the first small Le Grand Colombier crest - at about 1450m.

Walking through a colourful alpine meadow in full bloom.

Our first glimpses of the mountain top, and surrounding panorama, didn't fill us with much hope of getting any of the famous views that one is meant to get from le Montagne du Grand Colombier. Out to the east, over the Rhone valley, the Alps were almost completely clouded-out; while off to the south, we could see fresh tufts of wispy clouds scudding up from the valleys southwest of the ridgeline, coming and going, surging over the mountain-top, and occasionally obliterating the landmarks at the top of the ridge. We had a distinct feeling that our lovely sunny day was about to be extinguished.

Looking south towards the top of Le Grand Colombier, 
with the true summit in the far distance.

Hoping to at least have some clear views from the summit before it all disappeared, we headed straight up towards the cross - le Croix du Colombier - across the wildflower-strewn, gently-rounded grassy hilltop

Approaching the last steep ascent to le Croix du Colombier.

Before long, we were standing under the huge lattice steel cross (1525m), with clouds now scudding all around us and the wind screaming-out as it seared past the four steel cables that anchored the cross to the ground. Metres before we reached the cross, we stopped at the beautiful orientation table and checked out the information about the million peaks that we should have been able to see on the horizon - had it been a beautiful clear, sunny day. Unfortunately, for us, our only views were down - into the Rhone valley to the east, or back towards the Grange Du Colombier.

Ah, so that's what's out there ... somewhere.

Erected in 1984, the orientation table is truly a work of art - one of the best we've ever come across: It is colourful, artistic, informative and smart. Too bad we couldn't see any of what it was pointing at, but we enjoyed being there anyway. We should have been able to see Mont Blanc and the Alps, the Monts du Chat and its distinctive Dent du Chat, the Chartreuse and Jura Mountains, and the region's three big alpine lakes: Lac du Bourget, Lac Annecy and Lac Leman. Down below us somewhere was the town of Culoz. But, unfortunately, none of the lakes and landmarks were in view while we were standing there.

The orientation table at le Croix du Colombier.

Almost the only thing we could see were the last landmarks further south along the ridge - the cross itself, the jagged summit of Le Grand Colombier and the huge, adjacent power pylon - all of which featured prominently on both the table and the skyline.

A view over the orientation table towards le Croix du Colombier.

The view down towards the Granges du Colombier.

The Granges du Colombier again (in better light, on another occasion).

At about 1pm, un-captivated by the view, we headed downhill to the nearby col du Grand Colombier (at 1501m, it is the second highest road pass in the entire Jura - being just one metre below the highest - Col du Chasseral, 1502m). Luckily for us, the only picnic table was free (surprise, surprise ... given the quickly-changing, now wintery conditions), so we sat down and munched through our trail lunch of baguettes, cheese, chocolate and hot tea, and gazed at the fabulous views in the Rhone valley far below. By now we had pulled-on our wind-cheaters and sat with our backs to the wind gazing in the general direction of the view of the Alps that would have been there if ... (if only if).

The sign at the col du Grand Colombier - a famous Tour de France landmark 
and mecca for amateur cyclists.

After our picnic lunch, we wandered around the col for awhile, checking out the interpretation panels, gazing down into the sun-filled Rhone valley between Anglefort and Culoz far below, and (looking ahead, up the ridge), to where we were headed next.

Cycling graffiti on the col du Grand Colombier.

Interpretation panel about the mountain flora at le Grand Colombier.

Trail sign at col du Grand Colombier (1498m).

Our next destination was our summit-of-the-day - Le Grand Colombier - which was just another 10 minutes or so across the col road and further along the ridgeline. We followed the trail, which was not always that distinctive - given the thousands of people who must come up here every summer, until we reached the summit.

The ridgeline south of the col du Grand Colombier.

The summit (1531 metres) is marked by a geodesic pyramid, so we stopped there (at about 2pm) to take our customary ceremonial photographs, to fly our Swiss flag, and take a nip of some heart-warming French marc - from the hip-flask that I keep stuffed-away in my back-pack for such occasions.

Lis under the geodesic pyramid at Le Grand Colombier.

Le Grand Colombier gets its name from the Latin word colombus, columba which means a "dove", and is thought to have been applied to the place where doves and pigeons are common. An alternative meaning is that the name refers to rocks in which caves are common - in which doves and pigeons might seek shelter.

Trail sign atop Le Grand Colombier (1531m).

Celebrating standing at the top of the Jura Mountains' 35th highest named peak.

Getting to the top of Le Grand Colombier was a special occasion for Lis and I - as it meant we had now been to the top of all 50 of the 50 highest named peaks of the Jura Mountains. Fortunately, there was another couple of hikers there at the time, so we asked them to take our photo to record the occasion. We were feeling pretty chuffed.

Lis and I at the summit of Le Grand Colombier (1531m).

Unfortunately, the weather conditions were continuing to deteriorate, so we didn't stay long at the summit. Instead we continued further south along the ridgeline, heading first for, and then right under, a huge steel pylon which carried a string of power cables over the mountaintop.

Looking back towards the summit of Le Grand Colombier.

The steel power pylon near the top of Le Grand Colombier.

After the pylon, the trail quickly dropped away from the summit, across a rocky patch of polished ancient Jurassic limestone, across a grassy patch, and then into a thicket of alpine forest. It took us first past the Pierre Fillola, and about 500 metres further south, the imposing and distinctive white cliffs of Pierre Amion.

Heading south along the ridgeline towards Pierre Amion.

By the time we arrive under Pierre Amion - Sous Pierre Amion (1370m) - the white-out conditions had completely enveloped us, such that we only caught brief glimpses of the imposing Pierre Amion rockface whenever there was a break in the scudding clouds.

Trail sign at Sous Pierre Amion (1370m).

Landmark in the mist - Pierre Amion - from the col du Grand Colombier Road.

At about this point, just where there is a steel cattle-grid on the col du Grand Colombier road, the trail met the road - which we then followed for about four-or five hundred metres further down the hill. With the weather going from bad to worse, it now began to drizzle with rain, so we dragged-out our pack covers, and resigned ourselves to getting wet for the foreseeable future.

Heading into the rain and mist on the road down from the col du Grand Colombier.

After about half a kilometre on the road, we turned off - towards the west - into the entrance road to the Auberge du Colombier - which took us on a u-shaped arc back around to the north.

The entrance to the Auberge du Colombier.

By now, it was a total white-out and we could hardly see the auberge as we approached it, let alone the almost indistinguishable trail that we were intending to follow.

The inn in the mist - the Auberge du Colombier.

Just before we reached the inn - virtually right before the entrance gates - there is a trail sign on the left-hand-side of the road - pointing uphill along the fence-line towards Chavornay (which was not our destination today). Instead we were making our way first to a locality called Pryse - from where we weren't entirely sure of our route, but were relying on taking some sightings from the landscape and landmarks. Unfortunately, with the white-out, none of these were going to help us today, so we were going to have to follow our instincts and "mental maps" of the topography as much as anything else.

After a short, steep and slippery climb up the ridge behind the auberge (to about 1430 metres), we reached the rocky ridgeline again, where, near a jagged limestone outcrop, we luckily spotted the weather-beaten wooden "En Pryse" trail sign.

En Pryse - wherever that is, hidden in the mist - at 1430 metres.

With no landmarks to guide us, and a foot trail that disappeared at times into a maze of mud, and rocks, and cow-prints, we forged our way slowly southwest and downslope, heading for a small un-named col now in the "middle of nowhere". Capping things off, a thunderstorm suddenly erupted above us - with a colossal clap of thunder and a bolt of lightning letting us know we were probably in the wrong place at the wrong time. Needless to say, we kept our heads low, didn't stop for any more photos, and headed downhill as fast as we could through the mud and slush - as heavy rain now tumbled down all around us. The thunderstorm didn't come as a complete surprise, as we'd been awoken by another last night - as huge cracks of thunder and lightning lit the mid-night skies above Artemare, and reverberated off the surrounding Cliffs of the Jura and Alps across the Rhone. The tumult reminded me of the writings of Lord Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley who wrote about the thunderstorms echoing back and forth between the Saleve and the Alps and the Jura on the other side of Geneva. Byron described one such thunderstorm as thus:

"From peak to peak, the rattling crags among Leaps the live thunder! Not from one lone cloud, But every mountain now hath found a tongue, And Jura answers, through her misty shroud, Back to the joyous Alps, who call to her aloud!"

Mary Shelley, inspired by both Lord Byron and the Jura, weaved a Jura storm into her epic story "Frankenstein":

"... we witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. It advanced from behind the mountains of the Jura; and the thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight."

Percy Shelley also wrote of the torment of the famous Jura storms in his poem "On the dark height of Jura":

"Ghosts of the dead! I not heard your yelling
Rise on the night-rolling breath of the blast,
When o'er the dark aether the tempest is swelling,
And on eddying whirlwind the thunder-peal passed?

For oft have I stood on the dark height of Jura,
Which frowns on the valley that opens beneath;
Oft have I braved the chill night-tempest's fury,
Whilst around me, I thought, echoed murmurs of death.

And now, whilst the winds of the mountain are howling,
O father! Thy voice seems to strike on mine ear;
In air whilst the tide of the night-storm is rolling,
It breaks on the pause of the elements' jar.

On the wing of the whirlwind which roars o'er the mountain
Perhaps rides the ghost of my sire who is dead:
On the mist of the tempest which hangs o'er the fountain,
Whilst a wreath of dark vapour encircles his head."

Heading downslope through the mist (and into a thunderstorm) 
"somewhere" southwest of Pryse.

Through a mixture of good planning, good navigation, and good luck, we found our way to the col, from where we turned right, north, downhill into the mist and into a long valley that ran parallel to the Grand Colombier ridgeline far above us to our right. (We should have found a yellow trail sign somewhere on the col pointing towards "Le Colombier", but it was lost somewhere in the white-out.) Similarly, downhill, ahead of us, we should have been able to see a dam and cattle trough as a landmark to head for, but both were completely hidden in the clouds. But then, quite incredibly and suddenly (and luckily), we walked right out of the clouds just above the dam and, soon found, behind it and the tough, the start of the forest trail that we'd been planning to find and follow.

Not long after, we came upon a wooden trail sign with yellow and black markings that point to la Source (in one direction), and Fivole (in the other).  We headed downhill - towards Fivole - and followed the yellow trail signs down through the forest. Just to the left of us we could hear a mountain stream bubbling its way down the mountainside.

Trail sign in the forest near "la Source".

The trail soon turned into a forest logging road - which we continued to follow downhill - whilst sticking to the yellow trail signs and heeding the "do not enter" off-roads (of which there were many, and marked with yellow crosses painted on tree trunks). Occasionally one of these "off-roads" led somewhere useful - such as a more direct route north back towards the col du Grand Colombier road - which we could have taken, but would have resulted in a long, boring walk down the sealed road to our starting point. So, we stuck with the forest trails - which were more uncertain, but more adventurous and scenic.

Trail sign at Montoux (1155m) en route to Fivole.

On the track down through the forest west of Pierre Amion.

Eventually, we reached Fivole (975m), from where we carried-on in more or less a northwesterly direction - along the forest road. From here on, our route back to La Selle was mostly un-sign-posted, so we had to follow our instincts and the topographic map - to make sure we got back without too many false turns.

Trail sign at Fivole (975m).

Our "rule of thumb" was to keep heading northwest, to keep to the more used roads and tracks, and to skirt around the eastern side of a steep hilltop that we could see on the topographic map. Even though we were now below the cloud layer, nothing was very visible through the dense forest.

The forest logging road heading northwest from Fivole.

Further downhill along the road we came to another trail junction - with trails heading off to Munet in one direction (west) and Virieu le Petit and Lochieu in the other (northwest). Nailed to a tree nearby was another distinctive white sign with red paint marking "Vierge de la Combe 20m". We headed down along the track towards Lochieu for a short while, then sensing we were headed in the wrong direction, doubled back. It seemed to be going downhill (while we needed to regaining altitude), and it seemed to be taking us to the left of the small peak that we needed to pass on its northern side (not to its south).

The crossroads where we should have done a sharp turn uphill, to the right.

Looking back towards Pierre Amion (on the horizon) and the last trail-sign,
and the track off to the north that we should have followed at this point.

Looking back at Pierre Amion on the Grand Colombier ridgeline.

We were now on a relatively steep, uphill trail, that alternated between being a two-wheeled forest logging road and a rough-and-tumble track. But mostly it was good-going, and easy walking. Once again, our key principle was to keep heading northwest, keep heading uphill, and keep to the more-used roads.

The forest road north of the "Vierge de la Combe" intersection.

At one stage the road took us past a barn, and then a half-hidden homestead, before plunging back into the forest. We just kept moving - northwest, then north, then west, then northwest, then north, then ...

The barn alongside the side of the road northwest of Fivole.

On one occasion, the trail split into three tracks, so we took the more worn option - on the left. On another occasion, we faced another bifurcation - and once again we took the road more traveled - this time on the right.

Decisions, decisions: our trail splitting into three in the forest northwest of Fivole.

Heading-up through the trees - just southeast below La Selle.

At around 5pm - six hours from whence we'd started - we finally broke-out of the forest just a few hundred metres southeast of La Selle - within direct eyesight of our parked car. After the uncertainty of the storm and white-out, and the ambiguous forest tracks, we were happy to be back at our destination. The storm had reminded us of the particular uncertainty of the Jura. We've often started our hikes in glorious sunshine, wearing t-shirts, sunglasses and sunburn cream ... only to find ourselves all wrapped-up in windcheaters and beanies and gloves sometime later in the day. We've frequently encountered all four seasons in one day hiking in the Jura. As the famous outdoorsman John Muir once said:

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn". 

We were also happy to have ticked-off the Jura's 35th highest peak - meaning we had now hiked to the top of the 50 highest named peaks in the Jura Mountains. I imagine we are probably the first people to ever have accomplished this feat - which I thought, at the time, was well and truly worth celebrating with a bottle of local pinot noir. And that's what we did.

Jura peaks bagged:
  • Le Grand Colombier (No. 35) 1531m

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