Vive la France: La Grave rules!

In 1977 the tiny village of La Grave constructed a telephérique from the village, at 1400 metres, to the shoulder of the great peak La Meije at 3550 metres. Like the Aguille du Midi in Chamonix it was a French statement of engineering and pride showcasing the beauty of the alps. A summer ride for walkers into the Ecrin national park and winter access for skiers. It was sabotaged with a bomb during construction. By Basque separatists? A local mountain guide? The mystery remains.
Sam Leitch did a season there in 2008, and decided it was more than time to head back to the “resort” generally acknowledged as the world’s most extreme last February.

just the one way up, so many ways down © guillaume le guillou
just the one way up, so many ways down © guillaume le guillou

France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria are home to so many giant ski areas. And get this, you’re allowed to ski anywhere you like! Straight off the piste two thousand metres down to the valley, if you can. But how? The Europeans have a long established guiding culture, with a Bureau du Guides in the mountain villages. Groups of visiting skiers hire an IFMGA accredited local guide to show them safely through the glaciated, steep terrain.
La Grave is the epitomy of all this. After the telephérique went in the 80s bought extreme skiing to the fore – essentially invented by the French pioneers of big, edge-of-the-possible steep lines before it got co-opted by American ski movies and the new wave of “extreme” ski comps there.
Pelle Lang, a young Swede who exchanged the growing crowds of Chamonix for the quirky little village of La Grave, founded the Skiers Lodge La Grave in 1990, and marketed guiding and accommodation packages in American ski magazines that helped put it on the radar to a wider audience. I spent a season working as a barman for Pelle in 2008, as a twenty-something skier with a confidence unmatched by my skills. The snow-pack was solid and early that year, and I was lucky to experience La Grave in optimal conditions.
Many people dream of skiing powder in the steep skiing mecca of La Grave. But the truth is it can be heaven in powder or hell on hardpack. I returned to La Grave for two months in mid-January, and the snow came late to Europe this year. Memories of skiing endless knee deep powder were soon replaced by the painful reality of skiing 2150 vertical metres of wind scoured coral reef. So I suck it up and ski the classic routes.

happy to be back at ‘the grave’ sam leitch rips up a high alpine line in the shadow of la meije © guillaume le guillou
happy to be back at ‘the grave’ sam leitch rips up a high alpine line in the shadow of la meije © guillaume le guillou

Europe can wait a bit longer between storms than say Canada, or Japan. But the great telephériques of France give access to the high, glaciated, alpine terrain. On powder days in La Grave it’s possible to enjoy 2400m vertical descents to the road. And if conquering the challenge of facing serious exposure is your thing then the Alps is your place to do it.
Unlike the mega resorts of Chamonix, Verbier or Val D’isere, the number of skiers using the La Grave telephérique number in the hundreds, not thousands.
Why? This a wild untouched area with no pistes, signs, avalanche control, or ski patrol. Many lines only go if you have a rope and harness to rappel in or out. Pelle Lang and his team of UAIGM/IFMGA alpinists know the ins and outs of this vast mountain. If you’re visiting for a week or two and want to discover it’s true potential a package at The Skiers Lodge is your best option. Apart from the T-Bar on the glacier above the telephérique and one groomed line off it, it’s all off piste here.
In this convoluted area of the Alps winds can blow hard up high in the alpine of La Grave, causing the telephérique to be closed. Whilst in the next valley, Serre Chevalier or Montgenevre, and Sestriere just over the border in Italy, can still hold deep powder.
On days like these Pelle’s clients just jump in the van with his local guides who know which resort is pumping. In January, as strong winds scoured the alpine in La Grave, I joined the clients on a drive to Sestriere. Sestriere was the main resort for the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, hosting the Alpine ski events.
After a pretty drive from La Grave we meet Pure Heliski Company on a small road to the side of the village. We sign the forms and receive ABS packs.
The briefing is simple, “The avalanche risk today is three out of five. If you’re caught in a slide pull the toggle. And stay down low when you get in the bird.”
I am with two snowboarders who are staying in the Skiers Lodge, Nico from Paris and Luke from Melbourne. We end up as a group of six with other boarders and skiers and our two Italian guides, Paolo and Chicco.
Our chopper arrives and we board for our first bump. We are happy as the pilot skirts through giant mountains and leaves us in the quiet of a high altitude peak. We are excited to see that the terrain we will ride is quite steep. Chicco drops and radios Paolo information on the conditions. One by one the clients drop into the knee deep powder. The group are all good skiers and boarders and the guides are happy and calm. Paolo jumps off everything twice as big as I do and soon we are all laughing.
One more bump and a few hundred powder turns later and we ski into the ski area at Sestriere in early afternoon. We join the guides for lunch in a village restaurant. As we contemplate an enormous entree of not much more than preserved meats, Paolo pulls out his iPhone to show me some ski shots. Chicco warns me,“He gonna show you video of him making sex!” Italians are funny and spirits are high We say goodbye and hit the road back to La Grave with the camaraderie of a day we’ll never forget.
It turns out that the strong winds that have scoured the powder from the high altitude in La Grave were absent from the neighbouring ski resorts of Serre Chevalier and Montgenevre, both within a short drive. So next day we jump in the van with Pelle’s head guide Eric Mossiere and hit the road to the next valley. It’s a contrast to be within the bustle of a big resort in school holidays. Having negotiated the crowds down low in the village however the alpine is a glorious combination of pistes, semi tracked side country and high speed lifts. The areas are so vast that there are no queues at the lifts. I see some untracked small cliff bands and wonder if there are hidden shark’s fins. After a test run I return all day surprised they haven’t already been tracked. I guess these resorts are so big and the majority of the visiting skiers stay on piste.
It’s cool to ski pow and then be able to return to the lifts on a groomed piste after the knee shattering, rock filled, multi kilometre traverses of La Grave. I realize that my future lies in areas like these. A lot of the skiers who hit the big lines year in year out have died lately. I’ve been lowered into some great couloirs but lack the alpinist skills to make the most of La Grave.

big mountain lines don’t come much bigger than at la grave - lars chikering ayers illustrates the point. © guillaume le guillou
big mountain lines don’t come much bigger than at la grave – lars chikering ayers illustrates the point.
© guillaume le guillou

But I’ll miss the parties! On a Saturday in February a big storm has just rolled through. There is close to a metre of snow in the village. I join a few hundred multi national ski bums in a line at the telephérique at 8.00 am. Visibility is limited to a few hundred yards. It’s a different stratosphere up the top, and we wonder what will happen. Sometime after nine a skier from the ‘Commission’ – a group of local alpinists who ski the area after a weather event and report to the village mayor on whether it’s safe to open – skis down from the mountain. Conversation dies as he addresses the crowd in French. He speaks for quite some time. Then he switches to English.
“Aaah both parts of the telephérique will be closed today. Strong winds and slab avalanches up high. Sorry.”
Visitors race for their cars to head to other resorts. Locals wander back home and commence drinking wine and smoking joints. That night a nine piece jazz band plays at Pelle’s Le Bar K2. The village assumption is that the telephérique could be closed again the next day. There is a collective will to please the snow god Ullr through mass consumption of Genepi and weed. A few hundred hairy extreme skiers, one pretty ski instructor from Thredbo called Ella, and a few dogs, dance and drink. Sexy Turkish Ayse runs the bar. Fifty-something Alaskan Bill, who has been shredding La Grave alone since the mid-80s, is cruising with a mohawk and a midriff top. The crowd spills outside onto the street to smoke and banter. I meet a striking red haired lady called Fanny, who is enjoying a cigarette, and discover she is the village doctor. The band plays until 4am. The next day the telephérique is open and the snow in the trees is amazing.

and you ask yourself, “how did i get here?” chad sayers slashing a serious ledge © guillaume le guillou
and you ask yourself, “how did i get here?” chad sayers slashing a serious ledge © guillaume le guillou

Which brings me too the rewards of La Grave. In late February La Grave finally gets half a metre without the winds that have thus far scoured the alpine. Two bluebird days later I meet with two locals and we hit the classic line Girose. At last I get the line I’ve been waiting over a month for. It just takes one ride of the telephérique to the top, and some navigation through the glacier, and then we ski 2400 metres of vert to the road in the bottom of the valley. Girose involves about four exposed crux points. But after previously skiing so much hardpack, in the shin deep powder we are feeling solid. La Graving!
There is conjecture on the future of La Grave. The reasons are complex. The telephérique is apparently barely profitable as the number of lift tickets sold is small compared to the mega resorts of France that attract large quantities of piste skiers. There is a glacier that periodically calves seracs which blast through the Zone Interdict on the return from the classic route through the easiest area called the Vallon. It’s a radical place. Will it be bought by a company to be developed into a normal, profitable resort? I ask longtime La Grave snowboarder, and the photographer responsible for the killer shots here, Guillaume le Guillou, for his thoughts.
“I think it will stay the same. You can’t build more houses here because of avalanches. Before people came here for the extreme riding, La Grave used to be an area that families would ski. The classic routes through the Chancel and Vallon are easy.”
“The snow used to be better, but the technology to ride is better now. Climate change has had an effect on many routes in La Grave. The Pan du Rideau used to get skied so much it had moguls. La Voute had a big chunk of ice at the bottom that you had to rappel past. Twenty nine people have died in the Triffid Couloirs. But when I first rode it I was overtaken by a dog jumping through the powder like a dolphin in the waves. Couloir du Polichinelle (where Doug Coombs died) was found by the snowboarder Paul Gascoin while he was parapenting home from work in a mountain refuge. There are no more ski bums like there used to be. One guy lived in his car the whole winter! All you needed was money for food and hash. And time. For me the alchemy of La Grave is the people. And La Meije.”

The Ticket La Grave
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It’s also possible to ski traverse over from the neighbouring mega resort of Les 2 Alpes (tickets are interchangeable), but make sure you contract a guide first.

not to worry, it mellows out once you hit the treeline, or not in dylan florit’s case © guillaume le guillou
not to worry, it mellows out once you hit the treeline, or not in dylan florit’s case © guillaume le guillou