Mix one of the largest ski areas in the world, with lots of fresh snow, five days of guided backcountry snowboarding, and six experienced and enthusiastic snowboarders. With these ingredients, this review of Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp in Portes Du Soleil was destined to be one of the best snowboarding trips of my life.
I booked on the Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp for the same reason most boarders would – I love riding powder. But also because I’ve realised after a few days with guides, that my guideless off-piste exploits did not take into account mountain and avalanche safety.
So I signed up for the camp looking forward to finding fresh lines, but also to get avalanche safety training, learn how to use avalanche equipment properly, and to enable me to make safer decisions. The Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp in Portes Du Soleil delivered all of this and much more.
Introducing Mint Snowboarding
As of 2015/16 season Mint Snowboarding has been going 10 years. It is based in Morzine in the Portes Du Soleil ski area that includes the resorts of Avoriaz, Chatel, Les Gets and Morzine in France, and Morgins, Champery and Les Crosets in Switzerland.
Mint are a snowboarding school offering private and group lessons for all levels, plus they are one of the only schools in Europe to teach kids from three years old using the Burton Riglets system. Mint also offer a range of advanced snowboarding courses and camps, covering everything from freestyle to freeride, and splitboarding to instructor training.
Mint offer a few options throughout the season for those wanting to head off-piste. There is a beginner freeride camp for those making their first powder turns, the advanced backcountry camp that I attended, and a backcountry splitboarding camp for those that want to get into touring.
Review of Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp
Our Mint Snowboarding guide was David. Originally from Britain, he has lived in the area since he was 18 and has been an Aspirant UIAGM Mountain Guide – one of a handful of snowboarders to have ever gained this qualification – for over a decade.
He took us to some amazing slopes, finding us first tracks through a variety of terrains. I think the only way to properly write this review of Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp in Portes Du Soleil, is a day by day account of our adventures.
But before I do, a quick advance warning. I am not going to detail the routes we took, as I don’t want this article to guide people into repeating our backcountry exploits. Mountain conditions change all the time, and David made safety decisions based on many factors. At some points this meant turning us away from what to the untrained eye looked like safe descents.
Also I am going to take the opportunity for a safety warning. Going off piste is dangerous, you need to have the correct avalanche safety gear and know how to use it. If you don’t know an area you should have a guide, and you should never go alone. In my opinion all good reasons to book on a Mint Snowboarding camp yourself.
Day 1: Testing our snowboarding ability
On the first day we met at the top of the Prodains Express in Avoriaz. I have to admit I was slightly apprehensive about what we would be doing and whether I would be up to it. I needn’t have worried, as during the first morning David asked us what we wanted from the course and most of our answers – except cliff drops (cheers Alex) – were the same.
Before we did any riding we went through some basic avalanche training, including how to understand the avalanche bulletin and how to use the transceiver. It had been snowing for 24 hours so we quickly headed off to some safe slopes to test our ability in fresh powder. It turns out that all six of us were similar level riders.
Our first run was from the top of the Grand Coombes chair coming back down into Prodain. It took in an un-pisted black before heading further into the Coombes bowl and finally coming out through the trees. It was a great start through untracked powder that had us all grinning from ear to ear.
Our second run was to be our first taste of proper backcountry. From the top of Le Fornet Chair we hiked and climbed across the ridge before heading down into Vallee De La Manche.
Getting to the run was an adventure itself. There had been an avalanche that we needed to hike across. David explained that walking across an avalanche is safe as it has already slipped, but you need to be very careful around the edges. It was tough going, and a good eye opener as to how hard an avalanche is to travel across, but that was just the warm up.
We also needed to climb over the ridge, normally this is easy but because we had to follow the avalanche path we met the ridge at a five meter high section. At first this was a fairly easy climb, but as we got higher it became steeper and more icy. By kicking icey foot-holes, combined with a helping hand from David, we all made it to the top.
We had seen from the weather forecast that 120kph winds and heavy snow were due later in the afternoon, well they were picking up already. Strapping in on an exposed ridge, with a strong wind carrying what felt more like ice than snow was not particularly nice, but as soon as we got lower conditions improved.
We stayed on slopes that were under 30 degrees, working our way down into Vallee de la Manche. Although it was still windy it was more sheltered lower down and great fun. It is an awesome run, leaving the first tracks through open undulating terrain, followed by riding through the trees.
We stopped for lunch with huge smiles on our faces. From my perspective, this review of Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp in Portes Du Soleil could not have got off to a better start. After lunch we hopped on the bus to Morzine and then Ardent.
The forecast terrible weather had set in, so we spent a couple of hours doing avalanche transceiver training just off the Chaux Fleurie chair in the Lindarets area. Of course there was some powder to shred on the way there and back.
I am not going to go into detail about the avalanche training here but will write an article dedicated to it which you can read here (sorry not written yet).
Day 2: Tree runs & avalanche training
As forecast the second day dawned with heavy rain at low altitude, snow higher up and strong winds everywhere. David had said the day before that we would do most of our avalanche training on this day. But before we did there were some fresh lines to be had as it has snowed a lot overnight.
We met at the top of the Ardent gondola and took the Lindarets chair up. From there we traversed across the ridge a bit towards Ardent, before doing a great run through the trees back to the Ardent gondola. We did a few similar runs in the area with David filming us for video analysis, before stopping to complete our avalanche training.
Again if you want to read about the avalanche training I will be writing an article about it soon. However we all did multiple individual rescues, team rescues and multiple burial rescues. During training we saved many backpacks from suffocation within the 15 minute window.
We also dug a huge snow pit to look at snow layers to help predict weaknesses in the snowpack. Particularly dangerous was depth hoar – icy granules a.k.a. sugar snow – which causes faceting in the snow pack and has created a persistent weak layer. This will unfortunately cause avalanches all the 15/16 season.
Although we were in a sheltered spot, there was still strong wind, deep powder and constant snow to keep us company. Having been digging holes and wading through powder for a few hours we retired for lunch in a pretty bedraggled state.
After lunch conditions were still bad with much of the mountain closed. So David set about teaching us nose press 360s, and how to properly carve a board. We then has 1 on 1 coaching sessions based on the video analysis to help iron out any bad snowboarding habits.
I discovered I had ‘claw hand’, which appears when conditions are tough or I am tired. My backhand hooks around like I am about to hug – or claw – someone, sticking out over toe side which makes it harder to initiate turns. Learning this improved my riding and in opinion is a huge added bonus to the Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp in Portes Du Soleil.
Day 3: Cliff drops and Chatel
Overnight there had been plenty of fresh snow, and it was still snowing. We met at the top of the Ardent gondola, and started with the Chaux Fleurie chair. We did a great off-piste run back under the lift through untouched powder.
As per Alex’s request today we were going to do some cliff drops. I have to admit this had me feeling a little nervous, but we started small, and through the day built them up. After the first cliff drop I realised they are great fun and progressively approached them with more confidence.
Throughout the day we hit a few cliffs including one below the Chaux Fleurie chair. By the end of the day I had a better than 50% success rate. Wipe outs were in deep powder they didn’t hurt, although the effort digging – or even swimming – your way out was pretty exhausing.
Of course the day was not entirely about cliffs, we also rode plenty of powder in the Chatel area. Our runs included a great route from the top of Chaux Fleurie down to Pre la Joux. Plus various routes in the bowl above Plaine Dranse, popping across pistes and hitting natural half pipes and other features.
The highlight of the day was a run from the top of Les Combes near Tete de Linga. This involved a fairly long toeside traverse in the direction of Point Du Midi, followed by an icy and rocky climb. At one point we needed to strap our boards on in order to give ourselves more purchase on the icy face, so we could hop our way up.
We were rewarded with a large, open and untouched bowl of deep, fresh powder. There were many whoops on the way down as we had earnt our fresh lines. The run ended through the trees bringing us out into the Linga area of Chatel, stopping off for a roof drop along the way.
For the last run of the day we traversed along the ridge between Chatel and Lindaret in the direction of Ardent, and then took a long and fun off-piste route all the way back to Ardent. For me this became our home run.
Day 4: Couloirs and Switzerland
It had been snowing for four days, so when Thursday dawned with blue skies we knew it would be the best conditions of the week for my review of Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp in Portes Du Soleil. After meeting at the top of the Ardent gondola we took the Prolays chair up and did an off piste route down to the Mossettes chair, from the top of which we headed to Cubore chair.
From the top of Cubore there is a big powder field on either side. To the right of the chair is a huge powder field, however there had been a couple of avalanches. David said he wouldn’t go that side today as the rest of the slopes around the avalanches were prime to slide, but many people were skiing and boarding there.
We headed down the left side for a quick run before meeting Tammy, the founder of Mint Snowboarding, who was joining us for the day. She arrived in time for us to tackle our first couloir.
After a short traverse toward Switzerland you come to a couloir with a nice wide entrance. There was plenty of space all the way down, although you need to watch out for a big boulder in the middle that is just out of site from the start.
The couloir bought us out into a wide powder field that runs alongside the famous Swiss Wall. We laid fresh lines before joining the piste towards the bottom.
We then took the Chavanette chair back up over the Swiss Wall. There were hundreds of people on the steep black piste, most of whom were just trying to get down to say they had done it. It was a stark contrast to the empty off-piste route we had just taken.
We headed back to the mid-point on the Cubore chair and boarded a similar line to before but headed past the couloir we had taken. Our goal was further afield and we followed the ridge before dropping into a much narrower and steeper couloir into the Swiss side.
This brought us out further over in the same powder field as before. Although people had been down before us there were plenty of fresh lines to enjoy as we motored through the powder towards Les Crozets. Part way down I missed that everyone was heading slightly right and in my powder glee fell into a small gully, that required an energy sapping climb back out.
We then took a couple of pistes, and a couple of chairs to reach the top of the Swiss Mossettes chair, which heads to the same spot as the French Mossettes chair. We then boarded and hiked along the border between France and Switzerland to the peak of Montagne De L’Hiver.
As hikes go it was fairly easy with no technical sections, although reaching the top was still tiring. From there we dropped into another couloir heading into the Swiss side towards Morgins. This proved to be one of my favourite runs of the week as once through the Couloir there was a massive bowl of completely untouched powder.
The route continued down on a narrow, winding line through the trees before joining the longest run in Portes Du Soleil. It may be long but it is also flat, and took about ten minutes of painfully slow snowboarding to reach Morgins.
After a lunch stop, the Corbeau chair and the Culet drag, we set about the hardest hike of the week. Technically it was not difficult, but the snow was deep, and to the reach the couloir running down the side of Le Corbeau was a pretty long hike.
This was the most technical couloirs yet, with bushes and rocks to avoid on the short steep chute. The reward was more untouched powder on the way down into Chatel. We took a bus across Chatel, a gondola and a couple of chairs in a mad dash to get back to Ardent before the lifts shut.
Day 5: Finishing touches to a fantastic week
The final day of my review of Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp in Portes Du Soleil dawned with surprisingly nice weather. It had snowed a little over night, and we were expecting bad weather after lunch.
So we started the day by continuing Thursdays Couloir theme. From the Lindarets Valley we took the Chaux Fleurie chair and headed along the ridge following the black run. We then hiked a short way and took a tiny, but very steep and icy couloir.
The drop in required that you either lower yourself into the couloir on your toes, or jump in and gun it. I opted for the safer version and I have to be honest it was pretty hairy, until I realised just how short it was and that I could have gunned it into the spectacular powder at the bottom.
We then did a few runs in the Plaine Dranse area, dropping a few cliffs and running through some gullies that were like natural half pipes. All the way through there was good powder and lots of natural features to hit and practice tricks on. We also did another off-piste run from Tete de Linga down toward Chatel.
Our final backcountry adventure of the week was a steep hike and icy climb near the top of the Rochassons chair. From the top the plan had been to drop into the Lindarets side of the valley, however some pretty formidable cornices had formed along the ridge making it unsafe.
Instead we dropped in toward Plaine Dranse for a great run down through a pretty much untouched bowl. Although this was the last new backcountry line, we followed it up with the run from the top of the Chaux Fleurie chair off-piste all the way back to Ardent.
Review of Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp: Summary
With my rather long, day by day review of Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp in Portes Du Soleil complete, I feel I should summarise it into some easy to digest points.
- We snowboarded around 25km each day, of which nearly all was off-piste
- Average daily vertical was 5000m
- We hiked, and climbed and found fresh lines each day
- Every day was exhausting and by the end I felt I could snowboard no further
- We learnt about how to reduce avalanche risk
- And how to rescue someone that is caught in one
- There was video analysis of our riding to iron out bad habits
- And we we taught how to do new things – all you had to do was ask
- The group was great and strangers became friends
- At the end of the week everyone was planning to book on the Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp again next year.
I have been lucky to go on a lot of snowboarding holidays in the last few years, often with off-piste guiding. However the Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp was by far the best snowboarding trip I have been on. The group was great, our guide Davis was amazing, the fresh snow was deep and the snowboarding was epic, plus I progressed as a rider.
Mint backcountry camp in Portes Du Soleil: Practicalities
The Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp in Portes Du Soleil costs €635 for five days of guiding, with a maximum group size of 6. If you consider a half day with a mountain guide normally costs around €250 it is pretty reasonable price costing under £100 per day.
I based myself in the lovely town of Morzine, which is at the base of the Portes Du Soleil ski area within easy reach of Avoriaz and Les Gets. You can access the slopes directly from town, but if you hop on a regular free bus for 10-15 minutes you quickly reach Ardent or Prodain with better access to backcountry riding.
I stayed in the excellent Chalet Joseph which is very central and costs £439 per week. The chalet has a lovely communal area with a huge TV, comfy sofas, Xbox 360 and table football. The chalet hosts Gemma and Anna were very friendly and the food brilliant – Gemma’s Lasagne was the best I’ve had in a long time.
Getting to Morzine is easy. Just fly to Geneva and you are around an hour from the resort. I flew with Swiss from Heathrow. Swiss offer free snowboard carriage, so if you are bringing your own board they are significantly cheaper than budget airlines. It is also more comfortable, with better leg room plus free drinks and a meal.
Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp: Conclusions
If you are an experienced snowboarder and want to learn about backcountry riding, while shredding powder and progressing as a rider, then I thoroughly recommend the Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp. If you are less experienced but want to get into off-piste then check out the Mint Freeride camp.
To conclude this review of Mint Snowboarding backcountry camp in Portes Du Soleil I will say I have come away from it a much better snowboarder. The camp challenges you whilst offering all the support you need to improve, whilst learning about backcountry safety.
It is now a week since I returned home and I haven’t stopped smiling, and have only just stopped aching. But I am already planning my next Mint trip – perhaps I will try the Mint Splitboarding camp in March.
To find out more about Mint Snowboarding visit: www.mintsnowboarding.com, to book with Rude Chalets go to www.rudechalets.com, to fly Swiss visit www.swiss.com and you can find out more about Morzine here: www.morzine-avoriaz.com