My friends know that I try to live a life without having expectations. I usually don’t expect anything from people, situations, places. After a few years I still haven’t clearly understood whether it’s some form of unconscious defense mechanism which helps me not to get upset or disappointed or simply my choice of putting myself out there, embracing the impermanence of our world, accepting whatever life brings to me. I am sure that by now you would have worked out for yourself that although life doesn’t always give you what you look for, most of the time brings to you what you need. To summarise the concept with a phrase I heard from Jeff Johnson in a beautiful movie called “180° South”: “The best journeys answer questions that in the beginning you didn’t even think to ask”.
Now, if you have skied La Grave even only once in your life, or at least you have heard something about it, you can probably guess that for somebody like me, even the thought about going there puts seriously at risk the whole “not having expectations” philosophy. I have been excited and could barely sleep since the moment I knew I was going to spend a week there. Fortunately, this was only a few days before I got there.. so I didn’t lose too much sleep.
If you haven’t been to La Grave, then it’s probably a good idea I tell you something about it. First of all, it’s questionable whether you can call it a ski resort. Yes, there is a lift, literally 1, split in two parts. It’s basically a two-stage gondola system, approximately 30 years old, probably even older. The first one starts right in the centre of town at 1,450 mt, runs through one intermediate station known as P1 at 1,800 mt and terminates at Peyrou d’Amont, at 2,800 mt. The second stage runs directly from Peyrou d’Amont to the Col des Ruillans, 3,200 mt. That’s it. You will not find any other form of mechanical access to the mountain. Or perhaps there is one or two more t-bars on the glacier De La Girose, towards Les Deux Alpes.
In terms of the skiing, although there are only two main routes you can follow, “Les Vallons de La Meije” and the “Chancel route”, don’t be fooled by that, it will not be boring, quite the opposite in fact. La Grave is the only place I know where you have lift access to a vertical drop of almost 2,300 mt which means that if you are fit enough, 2 or 3 runs in good and stable snow conditions would probably be all you do in one day. The trouble is, there are no marked slopes (or at least the type of groomed slopes you would expect to find in a ski resort) which means there is quite a lot of homework to do before you drop in in terms of avalanche danger and general terrain hazards: rocks, crevasses, seracs, to name a few.
You see, in normal ski resorts you have all sorts of people working on the mountain taking care of you if you need help, ski instructors, ski patrols, lift people, etc. In La Grave you will only find a few people looking after the gondola and a bunch of mountain guides with their groups. Although I am an instructor myself, I have to confess that I don’t miss the presence of ski schools. It was quite refreshing being on a mountain in France and not seeing the ESF red jackets around. What you might miss and wish they were there, are probably the “pisteurs”, the French ski patrols, the people who work to make sure the slopes are safe. They check avalanche conditions and if necessary they bomb big faces to release avalanches before the resort is open to the public to reduce the risk of people getting into trouble.
So when you decide to take the lift up and ski down you have to remember that you will not find people showing you a safe way down. You have to make your own decisions and if something happens you can’t expect a very quick rescue.
Over the last 20 years I have been riding all over the Alps, a couple of states in the US, Western Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I have seen many different mountains and ski resorts and I can tell you that La Grave is not the typical ski resort/mountain village and La Meije is definitely not the typical mountain where people have adapted the mountain to the skiers. Here the skiers have to adapt to the mountain. It’s a unique place.
If you want to ski La Grave, there is only one place I can recommend, Skier’s Lodge. It’s the best and safest way to ski around La Meije. It’s run by a great guy, Pelle, a Swedish mountain guide who has lived and worked there for over 20 years. He runs the little hotel and provides guiding for all its guests. Check out the website:
These two are great short videos about La Grave worth watching:
The village is sooo quiet. What I noticed the very first time I went there years ago and keep noticing it every time I go back is the contrast with the scary and intimidating mountain faces just on the other side of the valley. What I like the most is probably that although it is definitely a place where you can take big risks knowing that the smallest mistake can have very serious consequences, it’s basically a high intensity place like Chamonix or other skiing meccas, the atmosphere in town is the typical quiet atmosphere of a very small French mountain village. Nothing to do with the buzz, the noise and the adrenaline you feel in the bars in Chamonix after a powder day
We went off touring one day in an area just few minutes’ drive west of La Grave. Snow conditions were good when we set off in the morning but temperature went up during the day and we found ourselves in the middle of a spring afternoon with pretty heavy and wet snow. Overall a nice day though, I am always happy to stretch legs and play with my splitboard
This should give you a better idea regarding what I mentioned before about sometimes finding these faces intimidating. They are big, wild, extremely aesthetic, capable of sending down powerful avalanches. Glacier de La Meije