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A Winter Wonderland Among France’s Jura Mountains

Feb 27

Grateful that we didn’t have to trek up or down the cliffs or even really the get the GPS out to navigate, I settled into a gentle pace along the southern coastline towards the small community of Rosais itself. Before even getting there, thirst was setting in amongst the party and we found an even tinier hamlet where – lo and behold – there was a watering hole. The bar was run by a tremendously elderly couple: the man was seemingly half blind and the woman had the majority of her teeth missing, but looked very dignified in a head scarf and all-black outfit. Surely they had never had such an influx of non-Portuguese speaking strangers descend upon their bar as on this afternoon of glorious sunshine? Nor had they experienced such enthusiastic gratitude towards their cold beers and delicious chilled wines. All suitably refreshed, we rambled off down the road towards Rosais and the promise of another uniquely exotic and charming Azorean experience.

Snow Patrol

In a winter wonderland among France’s Jura mountains, Paul Lamarra gets his first taste of snowshoeing along the Grande Traversée du Jura. Three days, a blizzard and several mountain huts later, he’s hooked on the snowy sense of adventure. 

Snowshoes introduce a whole new acoustic to walking. On the hard icy stuff, the free heels flap and clack and the studded soles scrape. I felt about as unobtrusive as a one-man-band. But among the soft, fresh stuff I just sank a little with a comforting ‘flumff’. I was following my local guide, Murielle, through a forest in the Jura mountains on the French-Swiss border, and we were on the hard stuff. To have been making so much noise seemed sacrilegious as all other sounds were muffled in the snow-laden forest. Yet despite the din, Murielle continued to look earnestly for signs of wildlife and called for me to catch up and inspect her most recent find. Would it be the tracks of a lynx – the wild-ranging cat of which there are about 200 pairs in the Jura?

Or had she spotted a gelinotte, a rare cousin of the capercaillie? Alas, most tracks belonged to long-gone chamois and foraging squirrels – it seemed most unlikely they didn’t know we were coming from several miles away. So, giving up on the prospect of ever seeing any wild animals, I instead revelled in my new-found snowy freedom. Rather than staggering clumsily through the drift, the snowshoes allowed us to proceed with dignity at a respectable three kilometres per hour. The smooth, white crust laying several feet deep over the terrain below covers a rocky black bog that in summer would be riven with roots and crawling with vipers.

Freedom to Explore

The forest was a good place to get accustomed to walking in snowshoes, but I was eager to move onto some steeper ground too and get above the tree line to assess my domain. So from the forest in the valley, we carefully skirted a frozen lake to climb up through the thinning trees towards the Swiss border and the viewpoint at La Roche-Bernard. Our journey traced that of smugglers and French Jews escaping to Switzerland. In both cases they were forced to take the hardest routes, often in winter and at night, to avoid customs officers or Nazi patrols. The snowshoes performed well on the steep ascent. These are not the old-fashioned, tennis racket-style shoes of dubious efficacy; rather they’re lightweight, plastic, quickly fitted to most walking boots and relatively cheap.

Of course they spread your weight, minimising how much you sink in the snow. But they also have small metal studs on the sole for effective grip and a set of teeth at the toe of the boot, similar to the front points on crampons, which can be thrust into the snow or ice on steeper ground for extra leverage. In addition to the shoes, you need gaiters to keep your feet warm and dry, and walking poles for balance and hauling you out of the odd deep drift. But apart from the kit, there’s no special technique to snowshoeing except to remember that you can’t walk backwards (the tail of the shoe is likely to get caught in the snow and trip you up).

When we finally reached La Roche-Bernard, the far-reaching views allowed an understanding of the Jura mountains. Reaching just over 1,700m/5,577ft, this rolling range has wide boat-shaped valleys  that gather snow easily and are home to many tiny hamlets. Overshadowed by the nearby Alps, the Jura mountains are often overlooked as a walking destination. But unlike its southern neighbours, the Jura’s valleys (known as combes) and modest summits are, in winter, criss-crossed by thousands of kilometres of snowshoeing and ski-touring trails, allowing walkers almost endless winter adventures.

Mountain Hut Camaraderie

On day two, eager for further adventures, Murielle led me off in search of a view of Mont Blanc, giving me an insight into typical winter-life in the region along the way. As we climbed out of the Combe des Cives, Murielle explained that the people of the Jura have come to terms with their snowbound conditions. Their low-slung homes are built in such a way that the animal feed also insulates the living quarters, fresh water is sourced from melting snow on the roof, and their animals live on the windward side. However, it’s the need to socialise and keep spirits up that is considered the most important aspect of surviving the winter purdah. And as we neared the top of the 1,300m/4,265ft ridge, we were joined by skiers and walkers from every direction – all of us bound for lunch at the Pres d’haut hut. Ramshackle and low to the ground, the Pres d’haut exudes old mountain charm and the small windows – opaque with condensation – point to an inner warmth. Beyond the door at the back of the byre, in a wood-lined dining room, at least 40 of us crowded onto two long benches waiting for custodian Georges to bring thick pea soup and rye bread.

Evocative of an Antarctic base camp, wet hats and gloves hang around a wood-fired stove, where Georges’ wife poured water into coffee cups from a pot kept on the boil. Unreachable by car and only open in winter, it’s a treat that only those who arrive on snowshoes or skis can enjoy. Georges explained to anyone who asked that he had to drag a sledge carrying 40kg of fresh supplies from the valley every day. Wedged into a corner, I listened as locals – some of whom visited two to three times a week – regaled us with snowshoeing and skiing adventures all over Europe. One man told how he had once encountered the king of Sweden while skiing in a Swedish forest; another had skied down the treacherous, closed road leading from the Great St Bernard pass, and was forced to improvise a break to avoid an accident. The atmosphere inside became so convivial that the wintry weather outdoors was transformed into something to be relished and enjoyed.

Spirit of Adventure

It’s the kind of place typical of the Jura, and one of many huts offering overnight accommodation along the Grande Traversée du Jura – a newly developed 135km/84-mile route that starts in Mouthe and ends in Giron. Left to my own devices for day three, I embarked on a remote section of the Grande Traversée from the ski resort of Les Rousses to Lajoux, via the chalet de la Frasse and the Forêt due Massacre. It was a wrench to leave chalet de la Frasse’s massive log fire as it began to heavily snow outside. Following the yellow posts and flags that are placed along the route for the winter season, I made my way across the high open meadow. The contours grew increasingly vague in what was a completely covered snowscape – the whole terrain was as ephemeral as a billowing bed-sheet, making crests and hollows increasingly difficult to fix upon.

Moments like this made my trip feel exciting and epic, and my mind kept wandering to scenes from Where Eagles Dare and The Heroes of Telemark. I started appraising a chalet d’alpage for use as a shelter should the blizzard get any worse. Yet at no time did I feel in any real danger. The conditions were definitely not benign, but the route was comprehensively signposted and many new bunkhouses have been opened so there’s never an unreasonable gap between them. Indeed, it’s as safe as it can be without taking away all the adventure. My final exploit was to summit the Cret de la Neige – at 1,720m/5,643ft, the highest point in the Jura. In perfect weather we climbed from the downhill ski resort at Lelex onto an undulating crest that provided a balcony on the Alps and Mont Blanc in particular. The snow was deep and soft and the temperature was approaching -15˚C, but it didn’t stop us picnicking at the top in typically languorous French fashion while admiring the stunning alpine views. And that, for me, sums up the special appeal of the Juras. They’re on a scale that liberates rather than intimidates, and they show just how much can be achieved with a simple pair of snowshoes.