My friends warned me against taking a mixed-up mind to the most hardcore off-piste ski destination in Europe, but I have always been convinced that skiing steep and deep is one of the best tonics known to man.
Not long before arriving in the high mountain village of La Grave, I narrowly escaped an avalanche while preparing an attempt on Mt Ararat, Turkey’s highest peak. We had managed to dig one friend out alive, but tragically was too late to save the other.
Now, with new snow falling in Les Hautes Alpes on the slopes of La Meije (3,982m) and Le Rateau (3,809m) above the tiny French mountain village, I felt a strange mixture of sadness and joy at being alive against the odds. Above all I was experiencing an intense new sensitivity to my surroundings and to those close to me.
I was still not absolutely sure that I should have been back skiing. But I hoped that the complete concentration required on extreme slopes in a place of stark, natural, beauty might help ease the soul.
La Grave is no easy, nor ordinary mountain resort: it boasts the steepest of routes; a host of rugged narrow couloirs and an unrivalled vertical drop of 2,100m. Located between Grenoble (77km) and Briancon (38km) at the edge of the Parc National des Ecrins, green activists planted a bomb in the lift station in 1976. As a result today the severe slopes of La Grave remain unpisted, unblasted, unpatrolled and unmarked and immediately put a skier on his metal.
Early each morning a group of local mountain guides meets to decide whether it is safe to open the lift, but it nearly always is. Each skier is responsible for his own safety, and after deep falls of new snow avalanche-prone slopes are not dynamited as they are in most ski resorts.
Danger, fear and adrenalin make up the heady mix which lures the extreme skier to this rawest of terrain, yet most are highly experienced and place great store on safety. Almost all take avalanche transceivers and shovels as a matter of course and like to think of themselves as ski-mountaineers rather than simply recreational skiers.
There is none of the glamour and glitz of other ski destinations: no brash shops, nightclubs or oyster bars; just a few homely hotels and one friendly, old-fashioned, three-stage lift which makes its way sedately from the unspoilt 12th century alpine village at 1,450m up to Les Ruillans at 3,200m, near the foot of the glacier de la Girose which rises to over 3,500m.
The chances are that on the 35 minute téléferique ride to the top you will meet someone planning to race in the legendary 9km Derby de la Meije (April 7th this year) – one of the longest and most exhilarating ski races in the world. Starting at the Dom de La Lauze (3,650m), over 1,000 skiers take off in sets of 10 with the aim of skiing unmarked and ungroomed slopes from the top to the bottom in the fastest time possible, using any route. Last year’s winner took less than five minutes.
Or you might simply swap yarns on the intimate six-seater gondolas with other gregarious, gnarly-looking, skiers and examine the classic offpiste routes* as each one comes slowly into view.
First comes the forest between P1 (1,800m) and Deux Mille Quatre (2,400m), where there is excellent and challenging tree skiing on both sides in bad weather. Above this can be seen the two great long standard routes down the mountain: Vallons la Meije on the left and Vallons de Chancel on the right, each of which can take well over an hour to negotiate up and down.
Next, on the right, below the Brèche Pacave, come three superb couloirs: Patou (Little Patrick) , Banane (Banana) and Dérobe (Hidden) - all finishing at Lake Puy Vachier and often in good condition. I was lucky enough to ski all these routes in excellent powder on my first trip to La Grave and all have the advantage of being near the Refuge Chancel, a fine old mountain hut, open for lunch during the ski season.
After this, on the left, come four even more serious descents called the Couloirs des Trifides down a great scar of rock. They are named Trifides 0,1,2, & 3. Three of these have come into condition for the first time near the end of February but even in excellent snow Trifide 3 is rarely skied at all as it involves a 30m jump or rapel at the bottom.
It was in the classic Trifide 1 in 1995 that Arnie Wilson, the last FT ski correspondent to visit La Grave, was beset by tragedy just after he had finished his challenge of skiing every day for a whole year, with his close companion Lucy Dicker. Even though they had a guide and were a highly experienced party Lucy fell to her death in difficult conditions in the late afternoon.+
Depite his loss Arnie, like many involved in high risk activities, believes that skiers should accept responsibility for their own safety. But even in an age where off-piste skiing is becoming ever more popular not everyone agrees. La Grave recently partially lost a court case in which the family of a skier killed on the mountain sued the village authorities. The family was awarded €15,000 in damages.
La Grave now posts daily weather information and avalanche risk levels outside the ski lift and offers expert personal advice to skiers on conditions on any given route on any given day. But it has no plans to change the rest of its unique ski policy.
Bruno Gardent, deputy mayor in charge of mountain activities, says: “It is a big fight for us in La Grave. We have had less than a dozen people killed here in the last decade, which is an excellent record by the standards of other large offpiste resorts. We believe that young people, especially, need to take risks. They have to learn to take responsibility to make themselves safe. So they come here to this outdoor therapeutic clinic for wild people, get cured and don’t burn cars back home”.
As for me the awesome cliffs, chutes and peaks of La Grave; the companionship of several excellent mountain guides# and the kindness of Robin Gray – landlord at the Hotel Edelweiss – all helped transport me out of my own dark mood and renew my enthusiasm for life.
*Offpiste guide: L’Alpe d’Huez, Les 2 Alpes, La Grave hors piste; Francis Ginet & Fabrice Villaret;Vamos,1995 (tel 0165809640)
+Ski the World: a True Story of Love, Courage and Danger; Arnie Wilson; Blake Publishing 1996
#There are over 20 guides in La Grave in the high season, next to Chamonix and Zermatt one of the highest concentrations in the Alps. Bureau des Guides: www.guidelagrave.com 0033 476799021
Richard Cowper visited La Grave on two occasions in February 2006 and April 2004 and was the guest of Freshtracks, the offpiste arm of the SkiClub of Great Britain, the Hotel Edelweiss and the local tourist office.
Freshtracks www.skifreshtracks.co.uk 02084102022;
Edelweiss Hotel, restaurant and bar www.hotel-edelweiss.com;0033476799093
La Grave Tourist Office www.lagrave-lameije.com 0033476799005
Maison de La France 02073993535
Best bar: Castillan 0033476799004
Getting there: the closest airport is Grenoble 77km(2hrs). Lyons is 190km and Turin is 132km.
Air France: www.airfrance.co.uk; 08701424343
Map: IGN Massif des Ecrins Meije Pelvoux No 241