Seeking a change from crowded, ultra-fashionable Alpine ski resorts, we headed into the beautiful, snow-laden Jura for a whole new set of challenges
On the wide open snowfields around Lajoux, more than 1,000 metres high in the Jura Mountains and at the heart of the Haut-Jura regional park, I was attempting to stand still while awaiting my first cross-country ski lesson. Attached to each foot was a long, slender and unfamiliar ski not given to adhesion with the snow beneath.
It was all I could do to stay upright as I took in my surroundings. Overnight, snow had fallen heavily, smoothing out every wrinkle and augmenting the many hillocks. Dotted across the plateau were isolated chalet farmsteads, their zinc roofs layered with snow almost half a metre thick. Beyond, and glinting in the low sun, were pine trees so heavily iced they resembled a party of petrified brides.
Lajoux, the small village away to my right, was described as a ski station, but it was unlike any I had ever encountered in the nearby Alps. There were no queues, even though there was only one tow; there were no brightly coloured fashionistas; no ski instructors marshalling troupes of precocious tots towards the lifts.
Rather, this was a resort devoted to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and, above all, farming. And I was here because the thrill of downhill skiing and the otherworldliness of expensive Alpine resorts had waned. My passion for mountains, deep snow’ and winter, was, however, entirely undiminished; I had been convinced that the Jura Mountains, which straddle the French-Swiss border to the north of Lac Leman, would offer new challenges and an authentic experience. I could see immediately that the high rolling crests and the long boat-shaped, tree-filled valleys – known locally as combes – offered endless scope for exploration, rather than the instant gratification of an Alpine blue run.
In this landscape, the valleys are cold and fill easily with snow. There are high limestone bluffs and the odd craggy peak to give the area a proper mountain air; but, in general, the margin of error is wide enough that even a novice can feel safe. With more than 7,000 kilometres of marked pistes and snowshoeing trails, I was unlikely to run out of possibilities.