Author Archives: Mark Gilbert

La Pass Portes Du Soleil

Wheel fun in the mountains

OK this is not a climbing article, but it is about having a great time in the mountains. These days I spend a lot of my spare time mountain biking and after completing the Dusk ‘til Dawn event last October with Andy, Ant and Aaron, I was after another challenge for the lads. I had read a couple of articles about La Pass Portes Du Soliel (PDS).

The Portes Du Soleil is a ski resort spread across 12 villages in the Haute Savoie, at the edge of the Alps on the Swiss/French border, just south of Lake Geneva. They have decided to diversify into Mountain Biking to support the local economy during the summer months. The Pass Portes event kicks off the summer opening of the chairlift system.

The idea is that you start in one particular village, chair lift up to the top, then ride down to the bottom of the next lift. The full circuit is 75km, the intermediate 45km and the discovery 30km. After a few phone calls debating the various merits of each option we finally signed up for the 45km route, this would give us 4000m of descent and only 300m ascent (the full-monty was 6500/500m). Unfortunately for us Ant gets a better offer of doing Kili 3 weeks before the trip, so it’s down to Andy, Aaron and myself for the main event. (Ant was successful in summiting Kili)

Accommodation was arranged in the village of Chatel, which turned out to be very picturesque, and a little quieter than the two main resorts of Morzine and Les Gets. Jo and I decided to take our main holiday straddling the event; the others were to join us for a long weekend of riding. After a overnight stop outside of Reims, our arrival at Lake Geneva gave us temperatures of 34C – a tad warmer than the 20C we left in the UK.

The Haute Savoie is a lovely area, somewhat lower than the main Alps, much quieter and really rather beautiful. The whole area is great for walking, cycling (on and off road), via ferrata, climbing, and white water rafting. Our pick of the natural wonders was Fer A Cheval, an amazing cirque of limestone cliffs about 5km long.

Wheel fun 1

Our first day out proved a bit of an adventure, the temperature and closed chairlifts raising body temperatures some what. This, combined with closed tracks and tree felling, gave us a fun but frustrating first day. After taking some advice from a local we head into Champery for our next trip. This time the cable car was working and was rated for 125 people. So out with the leg and elbow armour, and we were really riding in the Alps – big mountains and blue skies – bliss. The chosen route was part of the PDS, the tracks were wide, being used to service the cable cars and some of the alpine farms and huts. This is not to say they didn’t hold their own challenges, loose dusty gravel and deep drainage channels certainly keep you on your toes.

The route down from the cable car was steep, and fun. A new trail obstacle then appeared; low bridges over electric fences, but with a structures similar to cattle grids, interesting. Soon we arrived at a small refuge and sampled the local cakes and drinks – why does simple food in the hills always taste so good? We then diverted off the main track for a short, moderately technical, single track descent. After that, what followed was a amazingly fast descent on farm tracks and finally minor roads back into Champery. This proved a real learning curve, water bars that cross at 45 degrees in one direction and then out of the blue change direction, and more downhill than you would get in a weekends riding in the Lakes. And yes, the brakes do get hot – dripping water from the Camelbak evaporates instantly!

The Friday before the event sees Andy and Aaron join us and the first of the chair lifts open. Our warm up ride is from Chatel itself and proves great fun. Fast forest tracks, rocky technical single track with some very scary drop offs and of course great mountain and ice cream huts. The day finished with the compulsory bike fettling, ready for the main event the next day.

The following morning saw an early start, with Jo kindly ferrying us up to the first lift of the day – the Super Chatel. This is a two man / two bike enclosed lift that takes us high above Chatel close to the Swiss border. Cautiously we don the body armour and launch down the hill side. This starts what is to become the usual sight of Andy off in the distance followed by Aaron and me as tail-end Charlie. Eventually we’re spat out on the road between Chatel and Morgins. We tackle the short road section, passing road side Via Ferrata and catch our breath at the Lac La Cassiere. A short section of unmade road takes us into Morgins, where a fast road section takes us to the bottom of the Telesiege (TS) de la Foilleuse. This was to be a more airy adventure, bikes hooked to the end of the chairs and us looking on with trepidation as our pride and joys disappear into the distance. The Morgins Down Hill course passes beneath our feet and we are happy that it’s not on route!

After quickly retrieving the bikes we are blown away with the view including the Dent du Midi and the Dent Blanche. Absolutely amazing, and we’re on bikes!!! J

Wheel fun 2

Off down the hillside for a short but enjoyable descent to Champoussin, a small hamlet above Val D‘Illiez. As we joined the queue for the TS Aiguille des Champery, we bumped into a couple of Brits doing “the full course today and tomorrow”. We refilled with bottles water before being whisked to an airy ridge.

The following section was really good fun – narrow, technical and exposed (not so different to climbing after all!). As we finish this section a young guy comes running up to us with a video camera, “Are you Brits?” Must have been our total lack of style! He was a freelance shooting an article on the event, so Andy obliged with an interview (Autographs later?). We headed off down the track and found a spot for some Tea (Andy’s ever ready Jetboil to the rescue as usual). We then picked up part of the track that Jo and I had ridden earlier in the week. Aaron and I got the water fizzing on the brakes – Andy’s had no effect at all. No wonder he’s always first down! Aaron clocks us at 41mph heading into Champery, despite the melting tar on the roads.

Champery is total assault on the senses – Parascenders, jump bikes, professional cross country racers, trade stalls and most importantly food and drink. Great local cheese raclettes, local sausages, fresh bread, squash energy bars, chocolate – a veritable feast – and all included in the €38 entry fee. After soaking up the atmosphere we headed to Telepherique (TP) Champery – Planachaux. This time the TP was full to bursting, loosing count at 35 riders and bikes. After taking in the views above Champery we retraced part of the first down hill section Jo and I had tackled earlier. All was going great until we headed off to the bottom of TS des Mossettes. Andy had followed a small section of single track parallel to the main track; the first thing I see is Andy and the bike flying through the air. Aaron and I arrive on the scene to find Andy with a cut eye, grazed wrist and bruises. Fortunately the body armour had done it’s job but the seriousness of the event hit home.

The next summit is a very airy perch and the track down to Lac Verte is twisting far below us.

Wheel fun 3

Andy is off at full tilt again, but I’m more shaken by his flying demonstration. The next section is very loose, so loose that when I try to walk I can’t keep upright. The only solution is to put the seat right down and play that back brake. Once down to the lake the track could be a piece of Thetford single track, well until we hit the large section of snow 😉

Wheel fun 4

As we push on the next section is technical singletrack, rock steps, loose shale – great fun. As we are whooping away down the hill we come across a chap searching in his pack. It turns out that he’s lost his puncture patches. We sort through our pack, and despite all running tubeless tyres, find some old fashioned patches. Turns out his new fangled compressed CO2 canister doesn’t do much more than give him frost bite so we lend him a pump too.

We are getting to late in the afternoon and fly down into Les Lindarets. More food and drink is available, but we rush on to the next lift – the wrong lift, part of the classic route. We unload at the top and check our maps, we follow a section of the route until we cross a road and head back down the hill side. Lots of hairpin bends and we’re soon back down again. This time we take the correct TS de Chaux Fleurie, and follow a lovely flowing track overlooking Avoriaz.

Wheel fun 5

We stop at a hairpin before heading back into France. The last section had seemed almost flat, but looking back we had dropped a considerable distance. It was amazing how blasé we were becoming to the descents. As we dropped into the top of the Pre La Joux we followed a four wheel drive vehicle stretchering off a youngster – good wakeup call to take care with the final section. We opted out of the final chair lift and climbed on the bike instead. The rerun of the previous days section was rapid, and yes this time Andy’s brakes did boil water.

We stop at a hairpin before heading back into France. The last section had seemed almost flat, but looking back we had dropped a considerable distance. It was amazing how blasé we were becoming to the descents. As we dropped into the top of the Pre La Joux we followed a four wheel drive vehicle stretchering off a youngster – good wakeup call to take care with the final section. We opted out of the final chair lift and climbed on the bike instead. The rerun of the previous days section was rapid, and yes this time Andy’s brakes did boil water.


For those that haven’t tried it riding in the Alps is learning experience compared to the UK. You can obviously choose the technicality of your route, the same way as you would at Coed-y-Brenin or the Seven Stanes, but the amount of descent is not negotiable! I ended up with tennis elbow from holding the back brake on for such a long time!!!! Although we did see one or two V-braked bikes, I’d suggest that disc brakes are almost compulsory (180/160 minimum, 200/180 preferable), and that full suspension will make the whole experience much more enjoyable. Take plenty of brake pads, and I’d also have to give the nod to large (2.3-2.4”) tubeless tyres. Knee/shin and elbow pads are also to be recommended, and I would suggest that a lightweight full face helmet would be a good idea, especially if you are prone to “air time”. Lastly if you are used to SPDs, get yourself some flat pedals and Five Ten do some very sticky shoes too.

For more details of the PDS try

Excitement On Sella

Well the “To Do” list got a little shorter this summer. Via Ferrata
(VF) is now among the ever-growing list of things to try to fit in
during the year. Andy Turner and I have wanted to give this a go for
several years, and this year we managed to make it happen. Jo and I
decided to take a walking holiday in the same area and Polly decided
that she’d like to have a go at the VF too.

We choose Val Gardena, better known as a downhill ski resort, as our
base. What an absolute beautiful valley, stunning scenery dominated by
Langkofel (on the right) and the Sella massif.

The Sella Massif and Langkofel from Ortisei
The Sella Massif and Langkofel from Ortisei
(click on any picture for image in Flickr)

Our only oversight in planning was drastically under estimating the
travel time from Trevisio airport to our accommodation in Ortisei. Five
hours in rain and hail, in a left-hand drive hire car on Italian
mountain roads, preceded by a 3:00am start for Stanstead meant that we
slept well the first night. So well, in fact, that 10:00am was the
first we saw of the next day.

Leaving Jo to explore the village and to find some cake for our return,
we headed for Passo Gardena. We had decided that an easy warm up would
be a good idea, getting us familiar with the local rock and more
importantly the Kletterstieg kits used to attach each of us to the
fixed iron work. For those that have not tried VF, a Kletterstieg unit
looks a bit like a double cows-tail, connected to your harness via a
KISA (Kinetic Impact Shock Absorber). This is like a self- belay
device, but allows you and the equipment to take lobs with fall factor
greater than two, and live to tell the tail!


With only a 15-minute walk in and a grade of 2A we chose CORV2 for our
first route (See footnote1). On with the harness, add a chest harness
and larks foot on the Klettersteig unit. The first part of the route
was unprotected and the last few moves before the cable started were a
bit tricky in the now damp conditions. The route starts with a short,
slightly overhanging ladder and then moves onto a small arete. The next
section starts with a short step over a narrow gully and our first
introduction to exposure. The route then traverses a buttress
diagonally depositing you onto a wide arete. At this stage the
protection also disappears for a while, until the next vertical pitch
is encountered. This pops out leaving only a short ‘crux’ section
before the summit cross is achieved. Three adults occupy most of the
summit, and after sampling the local ham and cheese, we prepare for the
return trip. The top pitch is a little tricky in reverse but soon we’re
descending a gully back toward the car. For me this was the most
worrying section, dubious anchors and loose rock, my favourite 😉

Climbing on CORV2
Climbing on CORV2

The next day we were much better prepared, and up for more of a
challenge. Today we were to attempt Via Ferrata Brigata Tridentina (or
CORV4 in the book), with a book time of 5 to 7 hours. This is a 3B
route, more technical and more serious. You may however sense a theme;
the walk in is only 10 minutes. We kitted up in the car park and
traversed along a path, passing some impressively overhanging bolted
routes before arriving at the start with another group, part of which
were also beginners.

Looking up the first section of Via Ferrata Brigata Tridentina
Looking up the first section
of Via Ferrata Brigata Tridentina

The route splits into two major sections. The first is predominantly on
stemples (steps that look like overgrown staples epoxied into the rock)
moving up then across a fairly steep slab. By this stage the weather
has started to rain, but the rock is proving amazingly sticky for
limestone. After encountering a short ‘traffic jam’, we emerge between
two massive boulders on a very wide ledge. The next climbing is about
15 minutes walk away, and we do our best to put some distance between
ourselves and the other people.

The next section is about 300m of ascent and includes a full gambit of
wire, stemples and ladders. The rain redoubled its efforts but we were
not to be deterred, but were slightly cautious in case the dreaded
lightening made an appearance. The climbing was varied and absorbing,
with some pitches verging on VD. We were tracked by a couple of old
hands one of whom was using a single krab to clip in. (The Klettersteig
units include two krabs so that you can leap frog any anchors, leaving
you with at least one krab connected at all times.) Fortunately /
unfortunately (delete as appropriate) the cloud somewhat truncated the
views, but just occasionally the whole route appeared below, with the
valley floor 600m, or so, below. Exposure by the bucket load.

Andy on the Bridge
Andy on the Bridge

Style wasn’t high on the agenda and all thoughts of a pure rock bound
ascent were forgotten, wet limestone and walking boots do that for you.
The arms and legs were certainly starting to feel it when at last the
final part of the route appeared: a short suspension bridge surrounded
by cloud and little else. The cloud somewhat spoilt the view, but have
a look in the September 2005 issue of Trail (pg 129) if you want to see
what it should have looked like. The ironwear stopped and 15 minutes
later we are purchasing hot chocolate in the Pisciadu hut. Very welcome
as we all sat there steaming.

Only the descent to go: it was with a bit of trepidation on my part
that we set off to find the route down: a 650m gully. As it turned out
the descent was pretty good. The steep upper section was well
protected. Although many of the Europeans weren’t bothering to use the
ironwork, they did go very quite at the crux! The protection stopped
just as the angle eased a little, and whilst there was a lot of scree
to descend, the path was fairly good (although apparently it can be
vague early in the season).

Andy, Polly and Mark preparing to descend from the Pisciadu hut
Andy, Polly and Mark preparing
to descend from the Pisciadu hut

What a superb day: great climbing, good company, but shame about the
views. This route has something for everyone. In fact you could go one
better and combine this route with the complete traverse of the Sella
massif, next time perhaps.

Descending on Via Ferrata Brigata Tridentina
Descending on Via Ferrata Brigata Tridentina

If you’ve been thinking of giving Via Ferrata a go, then do it, it’s
superb fun. There are plenty of cheap flights to that part of Italy,
but don’t underestimate the travel time on the Italian roads. Whilst on
suggestions, if you have a go yourself we all recommend the Salewa
Klettersteig kit, the special karabiners are so much easier to use than
twist lock and safer than simple snap gates. You’ll appreciate this
most of all when the climbing gets tricky. Also make sure you get some
suitable gloves, the cable does get frayed and is pretty sharp.

Geordies Falling Down

Almost a year on and a sense of deja vu as we bundled into Fraoch
Lodge, “Aren’t they the same Geordies as last year?” Sure enough it was
the same guys and they are booked on to the same course as us. Having
decided last year that the Cairngorm plateau required some extra honing
of the navigation skills we had returned for some tuition from Andy
Bateman of Mountain Innovations.

To order, the temperature plummeted overnight and the area received a
good covering of the white stuff. Things were almost going to plan, well
apart from having spent most of the previous week in bed with the

Day One: This was to be at low level in the area adjacent to the
Ryvoan Bothy. We started off gently, practicing pacing and timing legs
along a well maintained path to the bothy. I usually prefer to use
1:25000 maps in the hills, but Andy’s preference is for 1:50000, arguing
(correctly I think) that in winter many of the features marked on the
larger scale map are obscured and that its easier to display the whole
days route on the 1:50000. Slowly but surely we begin to interpret more
and more of the subtle information contained on the map.

The bothy turned out to be full of smoke and alcohol so we remained in
the open air for a short sandwich break. “Right, get me to this point”,
and so the heather bashing began, No pacing, no compass, just
interpretation of the map. This pattern continued for the rest of the
afternoon, with occasional blizzard conditions to add that extra bit of

Dinner was up to the usual excellent standard that we’d began to
expect from Rebecca, the other half of MI. Homework too! Planning the
next day trip, breaking it down into manageable chunks, looking for
feature, to guide us on the way.

Sunday arrived and we headed to the ski car park. We were greeted by a
flock of snow bunting, -5C temperature and plenty of snow. The target for
the day was to navigate to Ben McDui, returning across the Cairngorm
plateau. Once again Andy stretched our interpretation skills, a Ptarmigan
was flushed and soon we were heading into the cloud. Slowly but surely we
worked our way to our main objective for the day, using increasingly
subtle changes in slope aspect and fall to cross-check our route finding.
With the snow becoming deeper the less fit amongst us (me) were beginning
to flag, Platypus hoses frozen solid and the bladders full of slush were
not helping. The promised break in the weather did not materialise and
there we were, on top of the Cairngorm in close to white out conditions.
By this stage the previous weeks cold was taking its toil and Andy
supplied me with some vile glucose syrup to keep me going. The conditions
were starting to slow more people down, particular one of the Geordies
called Shaun. We stopped to examine a snow bridge across a stream and
pushed on following a bearing and noting the changes in slope aspect. As
we descended into Coire Domhain Shaun was starting to look in a bad way,
he stumbled and the next thing I know is that his fallen in front of me.
Things were looking a bit serious. Andy B and Ant quickly carried Shaun
into the Coire trying to escape the worst of the wind. Shaun was covered
with a duvet and a large bothy appeared. Once we were ensconced out of
the wind Shaun was fed malt loaf and warm drinks. Amazingly quickly, he
started to resemble a human being again, and the as the rest of us fed
and watered the spirits began to rise. Suddenly things didn’t seem so
serious, rather this was a bit of a adventure. Aware of the short days we
broke camp and continued on, several of the gusts almost taking us from
our feet. The final top of the day was reached, and as we slowly worked
our way back down the ridge we dropped below the cloud and back into
reality. A few slips, slides and flailing axes and the car park was in

The course was over, but we wanted to continue the practice the
following day, Ant was keen on a Munro, the rest of us had to admit
defeat, so we spent the following day exploring the amazing valley,
Lairig Ghru. Ant reckons that next year he’ll have to take us on a car
tour and ensure the tartan blanket is covering our knees….I think the
alternative of snow holing or winter climbing might win the day.

I think we all came away much better equipped to navigate in hostile
conditions on what we had previously considered featureless terrain. I
must admit at times I questioned why I was struggling through such
difficult conditions, but would I have missed it…..not likely.

A Long Weekend in the Cairngorms

Having managed to link up with snow in the Lakes on only one of six attempts, this year Andy and myself decided that perhaps we should give Scotland a go. Unfortunately we could only fit in a long weekend. However, all was not lost as we remembered the regular circulars from
Mountain Innovations advertising accommodation and car hire for very reasonable prices. This coupled with EasyJet’s ridiculously cheap flights (35 pounds return with 20 pounds going toward airport tax) meant that the Cairngorms it was. A few phone conversations later and we were booked. A few more phone calls ensued and Ant was added to the party.

We’d chosen an early flight from Stansted and arrived in Edinburgh at 9am. As we were bussed to the car hire people we joked that we would probably be travelling in a SMART car. Shouldn’t joke, we had a Daewoo Matiz, my rucksack alone filled the boot but with seats folded and some 3D puzzle solving we were on our way to the Cairngorms. Provided we didn’t try to overtake going up hill, the tin can served its purpose and two and a half hours later we pulled up at the accommodation. Unfortunately no snow, well not down in Boat of Garten. Following a quick cuppa, we donned boots and headed off to Abernethy Forest to stretch the legs. 10kms later we arrived back, busily discussing the possibilities for a full day on the hill tomorrow. The evening meal was good home cooking with a twist; have you ever tried Chocolate and Chilli cookies?

Well it had to be Cairngorm, so after wheezing up hill in the Matiz we disembarked in the car park. Blinking, we did a double take; Plas Y Brenin minibuses get everywhere. Ant and Andy blasted away up the hill with me puffing in their wake. It was bright and very breezy but clouds were on the way. Soon we were amongst the skiers heading toward the restaurant. The wind had been increasing in intensity to the extent that when you let your walking pole dangle loose, the wind took it almost to the horizontal. Interesting! Eventually we arrived amongst the skiers and located the path from the restaurant toward the summit. The cloud level had dropped and we disappeared into the cloud and it started to snow, wonderful. A few minutes later we located the weather station at the summit, it looked very impressive covered in rime ice. Eventually we managed to brew ourselves a hot chocolate and retreated to the comfort of a bivi tent to have some lunch. After a quick discussion we decided that our navigation skills were lacking and so we reversed our route, our footprints from the trek up total obscured by the fresh snow. After playing dodgems with the skiers and snowboarders we wound our back to Aviemore and a quick gear fondle.

After more excellent food from Rebecca, we headed to a local hotel for a few bevies. Of course I had to sample a Scottish brew, …IronBru. At least the others had the decency to try a few whiskies, although Ant couldn’t see the appeal in Laphroaig.

The following morning we awoke to a winter wonderland; snow, sun and blue skies…perfect. We planned a ridge walk Meal a Bhuachaille, and outlier to the Cairngorm plateaux, so headed of the park close to Glenmore. After Ant parked the car with a hand brake turn we once again donned the four season boots. Well Ant and I did, someone else had forgotten to put their boots in the car! (Gratuitous Mickey taking is acceptable for 6 months or more.) Never mind, it gave Ant a chance to practice his rally driving skills on a short cut back to collect the offending (or should that be offended) items.

Now, all with boots we head of for the Ryvoan Bothy. It soon became apparent we had had a fair dump of snow, 7 or 8 inches (that’s 18 to 20 cm for the youngsters). Much to our surprise we soon bumped into a few cross-country skiers, making the most of the opportunity. The
views were wonderful, and as we chatted away we were soon at the bothy. After a quick brew we headed for the first summit of the day, passing some youngsters who had been using their survival bags to sledge down part of the hillside. As we approached the summit the cloud drew in, but we soon located the summit shelter and stopped for another brew and debated the unusual fillings in the sandwiches. The visibility dropped to 20 metres, but just as we started getting ready to move on the cloud cleared and we could now see for 50 miles. What a contrast. We followed the ridge to its conclusion and headed back toward the valley, soaking in the views as the sun and the clouds brought the landscape to life.

The evening meal with some folks about to go snow holing with Andy (the other half of Mountain Innovations), was full of friendly banter with our Andy the unfortunate brunt of the jokes, diverting flak from one of the other guys that had found himself out on the winter hills
with no hat or gloves (perhaps it’s something in the water?!) After an amble around a nearby lake the following morning we headed back to the airport, bristling with heavily armed policemen and women. It was a wonderful break. As usual the company was great, and Rebecca
and Andy “did us proud” with a warm welcome, good food and lots of helpful advice. I’m certainly looking forward to a return trip next winter, but perhaps I’d better not book the trip to coincide with my wedding anniversary…oops.