For those seasoned skiers and snowboarders who are looking for the next big challenge, the next jaw-dropping, eye-popping, heart-stopping mountain adventure, La Grave should be the first choice from a long list of prestigous French alpine villages worth exploring. In the Haute Alpes, just 77km from Grenoble, this tiny village has a bigger reputation than most major resorts. Boasting a majestic and astoundingly beautiful mountain, this is a place for serious skiing. It is most definitely not a place for novices.
With only a single lift it might sound as though the village would struggle to yield a single day's sport, however, the lift ascends to a heavenly nowhere high up the dominant peaks of La Meije; with no pisted runs to help the timid make their way back down the mountain offers the brave and spirited skiier the promise of unpatrolled off-piste delights. In La Grave you are carried 3200 meters up the mountain and are left to ski back to base whilst negotiating couloirs, crevasses, and the constant possibility of avalanche. Your technical ability and your imagination, (and more sensibly a guide), will be the only limits to your sense of freedom.
At the top of the ski lift you simply have two choices, left or right. Choose left and you will have to descend via the Chancel route, which leads to the Banane, Patou and Puyvachier Lac couloirs. From the bottom of these steep-sided corridors you can either traverse across to the mid station or attempt the Freaux couloir down to the eponymous village. The entrance to this couloir is easily mistaken with the entrance to a frozen waterfall, so extra caution must be practiced at this point.
Turn right at the top station and you enter "Les Vallons de Meije" which in turn leads to the notorious Les Triffide couloir. In 2004 the Triffide couloir was the scene of a fatal avalanche in which Romain Berger, a competitor in the Derby de La Meije, sustained catastrophic head injuries. Berger had been training for the event, which takes place every year, and attempted the couloir despite its not being included in the competition for safety reasons.
A number of other routs are possible but generally involve complex route finding and occasionally some abseiling. Fortuitously the village and mountain are close to the larger resort of Les Deux Alpes, and so a couple of days at La Grave can be fitted into a ski itinerary fairly easily. Crossing the Girose Glacier is all that separates the two locations, so it is possible, with a small amount of hiking, to ski both places in one day.
Derby de la Meije.
The annual backcountry downhill competition hosted at La Grave is as prestigious as they come. Contestants, those people foolhardy and skilled enough to enter, race down 50 degree slopes at 90mph for the glory of attaining top spot on the podium and a share of the 10000 euro prize fund. To win the race it has become necessary to straight line one of the massive couloirs; plant your pole and make a turn and you'll have missed any chance of winning. The race has such a huge reputation that one competitor has claimed comparing the race to a traditional downhill is, "like comparing the Niagara falls to a sprinkler." For two days the village population increases from 700 people to a bulging 1500, as a swarm of contestants, supporters and spectators vie for a piece of the action. A race that was held in Chamonix until it was deemed too dangerous now has pride of place in a sleepy mountain village. A mecca for freeriders and free skiers La Grave is surely a place to visit at least once in a lifetime.
Getting there, accommodation, and food.
La Grave is best approached from Grenoble, which very conveniently has an airport, train and coach station. Regular coaches run from the train station to La Grave/Villar d'Arene (+338 20 08 38 38), or arrange for a hire car and enjoy the 90 minute drive through the mountains.
There are several hotels and appartments to choose from including the 3 star Hotel le chalets de Meije, the 2 star Hotle Castillan, and Les Chalets de La Grave. Prices range from 30-220 euros per night, with the higher prices including professional mountain guides and the option of ski touring and heli-skiing.
French and Italian cuisine are the main types of food available in La Grave's restaurants. For a late night pizza, sandwich or beer you could try the ever popular Les Vallons pizzeria, or for an apres-ski drink the pub Les Bois de Fees will cater to your needs. La Grave is not a party town however, as most people who make the effort to go tend to favour burning off energy on the mountain.
Finally, La Grave has recently been identified as featuring amongst the Top 5 Off-piste Ski resorts in Europe.