I was tired of breaking trail in the fresh snow, night was falling fast and the wind was blowing steadily against me. I was beginning to get worried, which was silly, I kept telling myself. This was the Jura for goodness sake, not the Alps. The area I was in was so tame that the col I was crossing could be reached by car in the summer. My hotel was surely not far ahead. Just a little more effort and I would be safe for the night.
Sunshine into Mist
Above Prés D'Orvin
It all started in a very civilised fashion. It took a bus from Biel to Prés D'Orvin where, in early spring sunshine and with good snow cover, I put on my cross-country skis to cross the Chasseral (1607m), highest point in the Bernese Jura. The flanks of the mountain above Pres D'Orvin are pleasant and gentle, like some gigantic park with wide-open spaces punctuated by fine old trees. I made rapid progress on well-cut tracks, passing a couple of skiers coming the other way.
Soon, however, I found that I was cutting tracks in ever deeper snow and that the wind was freshening. I had crossed the ridge well below the Chasseral and was following the trench of a narrow dry valley on the north-east side of the mountain. The further I proceeded the deeper got the snow but at last, after what seemed an interminable struggle, I emerged on a bleak plateau down which a cold and clammy tide of mist was pouring to meet me. There were some guide poles at infrequent intervals but at last they disappeared altogether and I proceeded on a compass bearing and a prayer to emerge on the summit ridge of the Chasseral not far from the television mast. I descended the ridge towards the hotel which was frozen solid, like some ancient cake forgotten in a deep-freeze. I had a quick lunch on the hotel forecourt. Locked inside the ice were all the values of civilisation but outside I might as well have been in the frozen wastes of Labrador.
Looking back along the dry valley
From White-Out to Black Piste
I was now faced with a puzzle: how to get off the ridge? There was a band of low rocks between me and my onward journey. I could scramble down them with some difficulty but cast about for an easier route, eventually finding one that I could ski. I descended gingerly finally running out into a high plateau that led to the next ridge that I had to cross. Struggling up the steep slope I felt both lonely and intrepid but this feeling, which continued until I reached the crest was dispelled in an instant as I crossed, and emerged, to my surprise, at the top of a black downhill piste. This was typical of the whole day, which I was to spend flicking between wilderness and civilisation.
I descended the piste cautiously to find a busy world of skiers, cars and chalets down below. I set off along some tracks that seemed to be heading my direction, happy not to have to break trail for the moment. These climbed steadily up a gentle ridge, L'echalette, and then stopped suddenly. But I was now in gentle farming country. Although I was breaking trail, everything was still very civilised. Indeed, casting about for the onward trail I came across a "buvette" and stopped for some apple juice. Chatting to the locals, I asked them how far it was to the Vue des Alpes, my hotel for the night (I hoped). "An hour and a quarter," said the proprietoress. "No no, an hour," said some of the locals.
But either they were superhuman, or did not account for the conditions because an hour and a half later I was still making slow progress towards the col. But suddenly, I was over it and I could actually glide down hill. I gathered speed and soon found myself at the junction for the hotel. A short last effort and a brief climb and this particular adventure was over. I was soon sitting in the bar of the Vue Des Alpes, freshly showered, eating my supper and drinking a glass of red wine whilst all around me middle-aged couples danced to the music of a one man band singing, for example, "New York New York" in French.
Ten o'clock of the next day and I was again at the top of a black piste. I had broken trail for an hour between Vue des Alpes and Tête de Ran and then found myself at the bottom of a ski-lift that I paid to be dragged up. It started gently but I foolishly failed to let go at what I later discovered was the half-way station and found myself dragged to the top of what was an extremely steep slope. This being the Jura, I knew there would be an easy way off on the far side. I knew wrong. It was even steeper. A very delicate ten minutes followed as I descended a steep slope in fresh powder.
From mist into sunshine
I was now able to follow cut tracks and even encountered fellow skiers going in the opposite direction. The mist was clearing and the sun was beginning to appear. I assumed, falsely, that I would now be able to complete the rest of my trip speedily. In fact it turned out that I had merely joined a local circuit. In a very short while I had slipped from civilisation into wilderness again and was breaking trail.
I had my lunch by a deserted chalet under the slopes of Mont Racine. It all looked rather steep but I thought that I could force a way up through the woods. I was wrong. Soon I was climbing in a steep gully. Then I was climbing in a steep and narrow gully. Then I was cursing and swearing in a gully so steep and narrow that all I could do was side-step. The gully narrowed further and I was forced to take my skis off. Carrying one in each hand and kicking steps I sweated my way up to the crest of snow above me. Suddenly I was there on a ridge with beautiful cornices and with a beautiful view to the Lake of Neuchâtel and the Alps beyond. Way back to the north-west I could see the Chasseral. It made me proud to think that I had come over there.
Looking along the crest of Mt Racine
I was now very tired and beginning to look forward to my journey's end. But my skiing was not over yet. A complicated traverse followed, first along the ridge and then down an unofficial route along the summer path to the meadows in the valley below. Much to my surprise I managed a few telemarks. Another ridge followed for me to climb and then another valley and then another traverse but finally I was bowling along on a steep track and unsteady legs to the hotel at La Tourne where I hope to spend the night. Sliding, clattering and striking sparks from my edges I swept round a corner of the track and back into civilisation. I was soon in the bar drinking a beer and discovering to my disappointment that the hotel was full.
But, it didn't matter. An hour later, I sat back in the bus as it sped towards Neuchâtel, reflecting contentedly on my tour and congratulating myself on having escaped my own stupidity. This was one tour in which I had overestimated my strength or underestimated the terrain and the conditions or both. I promised myself a fine Fondue in Neuchâtel and it did, indeed, turn out to be delicious.
Lake of Neuchâtel from the summit of Mt Racine