A powder day in La Grave
9th March 2016 | James Cove, La Grave
Iconic. Authentic. Unique. Legendary. Epic. It is the only resort where all these adjectives genuinely apply. PlanetSKI has just hit it on a powder day.
There is no other ski area like it in the world.
It has just one lift (with a mid-station).
It starts at 1,450m and goes to 3,200m and then there is a short T-bar that goes to 3,600m – that’s a vertical descent of 2,150m.
There are no marked runs, no avalanche controls and no grooming.
It is a single big mountain, mostly north facing, with seemingly infinite ways down.
It is only for advanced skiers and snowboarders; those with skills, knowledge and a thirst for adrenalin and excitement.
And reaching La Grave in the first place has just got a whole load more interesting.
In April 2015 a landslide came down above a tunnel in the main access road.
And then it was found the surrounding rock face had high quantities of water permeating the rocks and more could go at any minute.
It was the only access road from Grenoble and it was shut.
A makeshift road was constructed on the other side of the valley.
It took 5-months to build and at times they worked through the night to complete it.
It now has a number, RS 1091, but it is like few other roads.
It looked good as we pulled on to it.
But looks can be deceptive.
This is the same stretch of road above, but from another angle.
It was built on an existing route – a mud footpath.
At one point it really is single file only with a sheer drop on one side – the squeamish should perhaps not look out of the window.
In my opinion it is THE perfect way to arrive in La Grave.
For me getting kitted up in the car park with the mighty La Meije towering overhead at 3,983m and anticipating what is to come is one of the most exciting feelings one can have in the mountains.
Especially on a powder day, and I have been lucky enough to have had some truly epic ones in La Grave over the years.
Today did not look as though it was going to disappoint.
The only way to ski the area properly is with a local mountain guide or local ski instructor qualified to lead off piste.
They will show you, in safety, the best routes.
We had 29-year old, Federico Querio, an Italian who has made these mountains his adopted home.
His goggle tan is as distinctive as his laugh. His knowledge and passion of the mountains is second to none.
He also gave me the best description of how to live a life that I have heard in a long while.
“It is better to drive a Ferrari for 1km in the fast lane, than drive a Fiat for 100kms in the slow lane,” he said in his distinctive Italian accent.
And this is what he found for us.
The symbol of the resort is its iconic lift that was installed in 1977.
The colours and style testify to it.
And in the mid-mountain station there is free refreshment of offer – you don’t get that at Courchevel 1850.
So, why is it such an untamed mountain?
It used to have other lifts, marked runs and even a piste patrol.
There is evidence of its past.
But the economics didn’t work out – there wasn’t enough income to justify the costs.
So, it went back to basics and its roots; a big and untamed mountain.
Perhaps surprisingly it has a mountain restaurant at the summit.
Like the resort, it is a one off.
At the back these occupy the space – musical instruments, skis and a Salvador Dali poster.
Look closely at the microphone stand.
It is a ski pole.
My colleague on the trip, Chris Madigan, saw it too.
“Music and skiing; they both require duct tape,” he observed.
While in the opposite corner were essential restaurant ingredients.
Outside after lunch at the top people simply fan off to find their own way down.
Many have harnesses, ice screws and ropes.
They can be needed and danger lurks everywhere.
We came across a lone Hungarian snowboarder who was lost and disorientated. He said he was going to try to walk up to get back to neighbouring Les2Alpes that is accessed by a tow.
He proposed to walk up this slope at 3.45pm with a vague hope of getting home.
Federico told him in no uncertain terms he was doing no such thing and he must catch the lift down to the village of La Grave and we would give him a lift back in our van.
Federico may well have saved his life.
We met the lone snowboarder later at the bottom after we had finished our day and went for a beer.
It turned out he was a Physics PhD student and was with friends from his symphony orchestra in Budapest.
How he ended up on his own in La Grave we never quite worked out.
We didn’t chastise him, but we did buy him a couple of beers and offered some gentle advice on the dangers to be found in the high mountains.
La Grave has its name for a reason.
As we put all the gear in the back of the van on easily my best day of the season so far I took two decisions.
I am often asked what my favourite resort is and I say Zermatt.
I love the place with all my heart, but from now on I will answer La Grave.
I don’t care how pretentious I sound.
It is a very, very special place.
And I will bring this guy here soon – my 21-year old son, Alex Cove, who is currently working as a ski instructor in Canada.
It is my fatherly duty to show him the best spots in the mountains and I take my responsibilites seriously.
He will fall in live with the place like me.
And as the day ended I remembered that La Grave may not have marked runs, avalanche controls or grooming.
But it does have a lone wooden bench in the trees where one can have a rest and contemplate the absolute and total beauty of the mountains.
Looking out across the mountains ask oneself the question “Why is skiing the best thing one can ever do with one’s time?”
I still can’t answer the question in words (written or spoken), but I know its true.
James has been staying with Neilson Holidays in Les2Alpes – see here for further details.
Federico Querio works for the local ski school, European Ski and Snowboard School.
James is currently on a 2-week trip visiting a few resorts in the Alps.
He started in Les2Alpes, Alpes d’Huez and La Grave.
Now he is moning on to Avoriaz & a few other resorts of the Portes du Soleil.
He will dip into Chambery in Switzerland and then it’s off to the Tirol in Austria – Nordkette, Soelden and St Anton; see here for his first reports from Les2Alpes and Alpe d’Huez.
See here for the main PlanetSKI news page with all the latest stories from the world of snowsports.
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