Passport To Solitude

Jun 23, 2011
by Dan Milner  
Riding the lift-accessed trails of the Portes du Soleil has become almost an annual pilgrimage for many hardened mountain bikers, but to go and do it when the chairlifts are closed is about as hardcore a challenge as you can get.



Portes du Soleil. Photo by Dan Milner
  I couldn't remember why I'd had the notion to go and ride the extensive Portes du Soleil when the chairlifts are closed but for some reason - probably that inner sense of needing to punish myself for some forgotten sin - it had sounded like an interesting idea at the time. The problem was that I'd pitched it to my riding buddies and, well, that was that; they'd snapped it up. The ensuing flurry of enthusiastic e-chat meant there was, it seemed, no backing down. Although I'd ridden the Passeport loop - a 60 mile tour of the lofty ski stations of the PDS - a couple of times in summertime, I'd also never sat down and pawed over a map of the region. Perhaps I should have done. It's funny how climbs seem so small and climb-able as you look down at their grassy inclines sliding beneath you from the effortless comfort of a chairlift. Once you do actually paw over a map of the Portes du Soleil you get the opportunity to emit suitable ''oooh''s and ''ahhh''s while marvelling at how big the hills actually are. To emphasise the point, the VTT map marks its 'hills' with contours in 100m increments. These are the same 'hills' that normally leave you in forearm-cramping exhaustion at the foot of descents before grabbing a chairlift-ride up for another lap. They are the same 'hills' that have witnessed many a DH race and a Peaty triumph. And they are the same 'hills' that are annually invaded by 3000 riders for the weekend of the Passeport du Soleil, the event that marks the opening of the linked PDS system in its entirety each year: 24 lifts and 220 miles of marked bike awash with riders.

Portes du Soleil. Photo by Dan Milner
  But this time we're only interested in one trail: the official Tour PDS. The map that is freely handed out by the tourist office clearly shows this XC-orientated route that circumnavigates the core of the PDS system and it's this orange line that had first sowed the seeds of intrigue among my old-school roots. We knew from riding the Tour PDS previously that it's a hefty and demanding loop to tackle in one day even when using the lifts to cover the majority of uphill. One time we approached it with such casual abandon that we ran out of time and got turned back at one lift half way around, so to attempt the loop when the lifts were closed would be a meaty challenge indeed. By my reckoning we could ride the 90 Km loop in two days, staying overnight halfway round and carrying just the essentials - waterproofs, change of shorts and a toothbrush - in our backpacks. There was only one way to find out. To get an early crack at the challenge whip we head to Morzine the night before, where we consume our body weights in local specialities at the La Chamade restaurant, nigh-on the only eating establishment open at this time of year. It's late September and Morzine is as dead as a slumber party in a morgue. Still, we're not here to party we all agree as we emerge from the restaurant and into the night air to be met by light drizzle. Okay, so it's raining, but the forecast is good at least.

Portes du Soleil. Photo by Dan Milner
  Seven a.m. and the traffic outside is suspiciously noisy meaning only one thing: it's still pissing down. Cars are sluicing through road run-off when there should be rays of sun slanting through the curtains. Damn that weather forecast. It's always been sunny when I've ridden in the PDS and I clearly remember that our itinery distinctly included riding dusty, fast alpine trails beneath a warm autumn Sun. I ponder the prospect of two days of riding in the rain instead and bury my head wishing I had a body double I could slip into my place. Give it a few minutes I think. By 9:30 and the end of an extended breakfast the rain has indeed eased off, leaving the mountainsides cloaked in stubborn but atmospheric mist and encouraging us to venture outside. The truth of the matter is that we really don't know how long the day's rides are going to take or exactly how much up there is ahead of us. Sometimes a lack of preparation seems to be more enticing - certainly more exciting - than having everything worked out before you set off. We each packed head-torches though just in case our lack of preparation didn't work out.

Portes du Soleil. Photo by Dan Milner
  We're fettle-free (almost) and on the way by 10 a.m. sloshing alongside the river and hoiking front wheels over swollen puddles. We roll into Montriond and find the start of trail and set off along a gently climbing, beautiful singletrack that potters between autumnal beech trees. The heavy rain of the previous night has coated every rooty section with Teflon it seems, a quality that when combined with the off camber aspect of the trail renders staying upright almost impossible. We challenge ourselves to clean each section, but secretly, inside each of us wants to get shot of all this nonsense and get on with the ride proper. It's 11:30 and we've only covered about 3 miles.

Portes du Soleil. Photo by Dan Milner
  We spin around the Montriond Lake, gaining some time advantage by means of the fast 4x4 track before starting the climb towards the Lindarets village. The track has been worn shiny over the centuries and the wet bedrock is a traction-challenge for our rear tyres. A spectacular, gushing torrent of a waterfall gives us the excuse to stop and gawp (take a breather) before continuing our plod upwards. We climb out onto a road just alongside a dormant telecabin biding it's time before the winter hoards descend upon it again. Our presence on the road raises eyebrows in surprise from a couple of roadies that are teetering down its slippery surface, and although the buzz of knobblies on tarmac is always an irritating accompaniment, it lets us climb a good 200 metres without too much fuss. It's the only road section we encounter in the two days ride. The goats of Linderets have formed a welcoming party, but they are the only inhabitants showing their faces at the village. The cafe I have in mind for a cuppa is well and truly shut. I'm not sure why I thought it would be open - habit I guess - so instead we occupy a picnic table, open up the map and then immediately bury it in the multitude of snacks that tumble from overstuffed Camelbaks. Eating always takes precedent over map reading. Usually from here we'd take one of the chairlifts to the top of the ridge above Chatel or to the peak that separates Les Crozets from Avoriaz, and Switzerland from France. For all of us it's familiar terrain, but today there is something special about our surroundings. The chairlifts have been closed for over two weeks now, sitting in silence while the mountainsides around them disappear under a swathe of autumnal colours. Although surrounded by a landscape of tones of red and brown we are the only people to be experiencing the beauty of the PDS in such a state, almost as if nature was waiting for everyone to go home before getting changed.

Portes du Soleil. Photo by Dan Milner
  We set off into the climb that will bring us out above the DH tracks of Chatel. It's a first gear grunt up a graded piste, though none of us remembers it being so steep having ridden it in the other direction on our way back towards Avoriaz. The recent rain has soaked the ground making spongy and slow. It's far from the dusty blast of a descent we know it to be in summer! With a thousand metres of climbing in our legs since leaving sodden Morzine, none of us are unhappy to reach the highest point. We lay the bikes down and have a look around. The peaks that surround us are dusted in snow, making it look a little like the New Zealand in the 'Rings trilogy. Keith likens it to 'back home', home being North of the border for him. Bursts of sunshine pick out details in the spectacular views and make it hard to tear us away. It's 2 p.m and we seem to be making good time so there is no rush, but we all know what lies ahead of us and there's none of us that isn't grinning at the thought of it.


Portes du Soleil. Photo by Dan Milner
  The place is deserted like someone dropped a neutron bomb on the PDS and we are the only four people left. Luckily, for us at least, it seems neutron bombs don't blow the seals on forks. With a push on the cranks we each set off straight into one of Chatel's hand-crafted downhill trails, chasing each other around its berms and over its small table tops. Behind us there is no one; not an 8-inch travel beast bearing down on you nor a knight in body armour elbowing his way to the front. We have the whole of Chatel, the whole of the PDS to ourselves, to ride it how we want. That s not to say we don't blast it as fast as our 'nads will let us. It would have been disrespectful not to.

Portes du Soleil. Photo by Dan Milner
  Without a ton of rubber hammering it each day, the trail has smoothed itself out, it's ruts filled in and the tyre-pumped gloop long washed away and the predictability of the ride leaves us all grinning at the bottom. It's a grin we'll all carry for a while longer yet as we climb up a short way to roll into what is unanimously voted the most fun section of singletrack on the whole Passport circuit; a rollercoaster of rocky, bouncy trail that cuts a traverse around the mountain. Deviating slightly from our summer route, we cut off to the right and climb onto another ribbon of trail that then drops through tricky wet roots onto the pas de Morgins, the col that forms the Swiss-French border. Its 4 p.m when we roll into Morgins and check into our hotel. It's comfortable and welcoming, which is lucky as it's the only one open in out-of-season Morgins. With no back-up or support van to carry luggage, choosing what to wear for dinner is easy: you wear what you carried in your camelbak. The bell's of the church opposite the hotel are conscientious enough to let me know the time on the hour, every hour all night long so by the time breakfast comes I'm a little grumpy. We have a gander at the map and see that yesterday we climbed 1300 metres and today we have about the same. The reward for our daily efforts though is the same vertical in descent.

Portes du Soleil. Photo by Dan Milner
  The route out of Morgins starts alongside yet another dormant chairlift and climbs lazily up a jeep track: it's smooth and the going fast. We emerge from the forest and into the sunshine and stumble into the yard of a small milking-parlour-cum-cafe. It's an unexpected surprise and we have little idea of how long today's ride will take or how tough the climbs will be, but having a little sit down with a cuppa while enjoying the views is irresistible. We are punished for our indulgence as immediately following the cafe interlude the track becomes loose and traction-less. We struggle with the challenge, each cleaning one section to be forced to dismount at another. Now we're right in the backside of nowhere it seems and alone, we continue the climb upwards as it meanders up a rolling mountainside. All around us the grass is long and golden and as we near the top of the climb we see remnants of snow. Suddenly, as we reach the Portes du Soleil pass at 1950 metres, we are smacked in the face by the sight of the Dents Blanches, the spectacular wall of rock that dominates this side of the PDS. More gawping is called for. It's quite a special moment, made all the more powerful by the joint notion that not only are we alone up here but we didn't use the lifts to get here. Nowadays, the two go hand in hand it seems.

Portes du Soleil. Photo by Dan Milner
  Keith and Mike have a little North Shore-esque play on some picnic benching and then we are off up a short, sharp grunt that brings us out above Les Crozets. In summer we'd ride the DH track down to the lift but this time we find a traversing singletrack that is fast and loose and cut across way above the empty DH trails. Fast jeep track encourages a race down to the bottom before we start the 200 metre uphill. The sun has had chance to dry things out and traction is back and welcome. The climb that looked foreboding from the other side of valley turns out to be 99% ride-able (100% with a little steely commitment and the lungs of a whale) and as we near the Col de Cou we're almost disappointed that it's ending. The views from the top are compensation enough and our disappointment soon fades as it dawns on us that it's all downhill from here back to Morzine.


Portes du Soleil. Photo by Dan Milner
  Our map shows a 4x4 descent all the way down, but we spot another small singletrack that, for want of a better term, takes a short cut down the mountainside. It's not a difficult choice for any of us and we opt for the latter, dropping into the foot-wide trail with a twinkle in our eyes. The descent has its moments, testing rider's mental resolve and courage as much as technical skills, but we're enjoying the challenge. As the gradient eases off the trail becomes a swooping, fast drop through pastures: classic Alps riding if you look outside the bike parks. Some damp rooty drops through woodland keeps us on our toes and make for some entertainment of the ''will he crash or wont he?'' variety, and then we find ourselves on the riverside trail that feeds back to Morzine's centre. It's a blast as we big-ring it the last few kilometres back to town, head to head racing, hanging on for dear life around the wet, leafy bends. And then we're there, rolling into Morzine in the mid afternoon sun, we're grinning insanely and frightening the few locals with the cackling laughs that we can't help but emit at the thought of what we just went and did. But inside we're all a little sad too, sad that it's over, sad that we won't be riding the Portes du Soleil until next year when the lifts re-open. Lifts, schmifts. We'll never look at the Portes du Soleil the same way again.



NEED TO KNOW:
The annual opening of the whole Portes du Soleil system is a big event, with up to 3000 riders of every ability honing in on the area. The next Passport event is the 24th-26th of June, 2011. You can of course ride the PDS system at any other time between June and September, when a few Euros will buy a day's lift ticket to access all the lifts in the PDS system. You can contain your riding within one area like Morzine or Chatel or link any of the marked trails into your own route. If you fancy the challenge then try the Tour PDS using the lifts for the uphill. Start early though and be prepared for some uphill pedalling; it’s a 90 Km loop that takes some stamina. Alternatively you can hit up the area out of season in September and ride the trails in solitude. Just be prepared for some meaty climbs (and just rewards) and accommodation and eating options to be limited. The tourist office issues free VTT maps of the bike trails, but if you really want to explore then get hold of the French ‘blue’ IGN walkers map number 3528. Check out the Portes du Soleil website for more information.

DOs and DON'Ts:
• Do check the weather and adjust plans accordingly. These are big mountains and snow at the top (2000 metres) is possible at any time of the year, even summer.
• Don’t venture out without packing some essentials in your camelbak. Out of season few places on the mountain are open so carrying your own food is essential.
• Do carry waterproofs and at least a basic change of baselayer and shorts if you’re going to do the overnight challenge unsupported. No one wants to sit in the hotel restaurant in wet, stinking bike gear after a days ride.
• Don’t underestimate the challenge of the Tour PDS. Even with the lifts open it’s a full (7 hours riding) day out. Without the lifts you are facing 1300 metres of uphill and some meaty and challenging descents.
• Do carry at least 2 litres of water. There are places to fill up en route but they’re not always where you want them to be.
• Do ride with some friends. You can find yourself a long way from home if things go wrong and having others with you will make it safer.
• Do close your double glazed windows at night in Morgins so you sleep through the church bells!


All photography by Dan Milner. You can see more of Dan's incredible work on his website.

Did you enjoy reading about Dan's Passport du Soleil adventure? Want to try a similar trip yourself? Let's hear what you have to say in the comments section below.

Editor's note: We'll be bringing you adventures from Dan Milner each month, so stay tuned!



35 Comments

  • + 6
 Sounds like an incredible journey. I like the idea of pedaling the PDS rather than using the lifts. Being out there under your own power with just your friends on empty trails is the soul of mountain biking. Great article, and shots!!
  • + 8
 How about showing a map with your route highlighted?
  • + 1
 yeah, maybe google maps?
  • + 2
 mappery.com/maps/Portes-Du-Soleil-Map.jpg Most of the trail ridden are shown here, use story to determine exact route

Great article, great journey, epic photos.
  • + 2
 almost any of those pictures could be POD. nice work boys!
  • + 1
 Righto, finally I got round to plotting a rough outline of the route we rode over the 2 days. Its a bit hazy in places, especially out of Morgins on the second morning, mainly due to a night's "sleep" punctuated by hourly chiming bells of the local church, but it will give you an idea. All you have to know is that its a lot of uphill... easy to forget when you're riding lifts in the PDS normally. You can see the map in the Porte du soleil gallery here: www.pinkbike.com/photo/6793172
  • + 5
 "Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous - to poetry."

Thanks for this, guys. Really great to see in the morning.
  • + 2
 Looks like a bit of artistic licence was taken with the route - not actually the PDS was it? Champery and Torgon missed out completely. Oh and Crosets is with an s not a z - nice photos though
  • + 3
 Why can't Pinkbike have an "Add to Favorites" button next to the pictures on blogs? I favorited 10/11 pictures and it took me a while to read the blog, having to click on the pictures. Such a great story, great pictures. Wish they made a video!
  • + 1
 well, thanks for the props Andrew! I'm not sure we set out to be "artistic" with the route (sic), more to try to actually enjoy riding it without pushing ourselves beyond the last bastion of pleasure (been there done that in both the Cristalp and Transalp races in the past.. dont need that any more). We set out to try to cover the bulk of the PDS 80 Km route, that when the event is on covers that distance using lifts for uplift.Without lifts means we rode the ups, and covered at least the 80Km, even with our artistic interpretation applied, not that we were counting. I've posted a map on Pinkbike with our route kind of marked on it ( www.pinkbike.com/photo/6793172 ), and yes we missed the Les Gets and Torgon extremeties, but what the hell, it was 2 big (8 hour days), a lot of uphill and a great sense of achievement. And yes you're right, Les Crosets is with an S (there is a Les Crozets but thats in the French Jura mountains).
And for you Morsinator, I have started Gopro'ing some of my more recent bike adventures, and you'll see a teaser for our recent Upper Mustang (Nepal) one here: vimeo.com/16040485
  • + 1
 Wow, this story brought back great memories. I was fortunate enough to spend 3 seasons as an XC/Freeride in the PDS. Though it has seen a huge amount of big bike treatment over the last few years, this is what the region is all about. I remember riding this same route pre-season trying to get the legs and lungs up to speed after the winter, and even when the lifts were open - the buffest, sweetest, most remote alpine singletrack was away from prying full facers... nice work Dan - made my day!
  • + 5
 Great photos and writing - thank you - can't wait to go hit it!
  • + 4
 there's some POD material here. awesome views/trails and a grand time on a bike! what's not to like?
  • + 1
 Agreed! These are amazing!
  • + 2
 Dan - you have that magical ability to inspire people (well at least me) to get out on a bike and ride till their legs fall off.
  • + 2
 This is mountain biking! No shuttle, no lift, just you, the bike, and the mountains.
  • + 2
 Loving these Trip articles. Really the only cycling things I enjoy reading and or find useful.
  • + 1
 I'm going there in the summer! I love this guys writeups.

Can anyone help me find a proper trail map for Chatel and the surrounding areas? I've been struggling. Thanks
  • + 2
 i'll be there this weekend Big Grin but for some downhill action!
  • + 1
 Nice article about... home! The Pass' Portes is actually gathering 5800 riders this year.
  • + 1
 Indeed, I was back there last weekend to shoot a Passeporte feature for a UK mag.. and it was rammed with riders, so much so they ran out of Tartiflette! Funny how quiet it does get only a week after the lifts close though eh! plenty of silent singletrack to hit then, all you have to do is ride up to it, as you well know!
  • + 2
 Wow. Just stunning. I've added this to my bucket list!
  • + 1
 I was, in like a fairy tale! awesome. thnx
  • + 1
 i live here !!!!!!!! its a perfect local to ride in any bike !!!!! perfect
  • + 1
 awesome photos as ever from dan. looks like hard work but very rewarding.
  • + 1
 Great article and incredible photos!
  • + 1
 this has just got me even more pumped for my holiday to Portes du Soleil
  • + 1
 Great article, great shots. Makes me want to go.
  • + 1
 Unreal Article, very inpiring.
  • + 2
 amazing riding
  • + 2
 Another article filled with PODs. Good job!
  • + 1
 Toothbrush! Sissies.
  • + 1
 Hey, we europeans are not anointed with the kind of dental perfection enjoyed by you guys over the other side of the pond, so a toothbrush is the least we can do.
  • + 1
 Ha! I'm English, actually, with a perfect pile of National Health choppers.

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