“Regarding La Grave there is a massive amount of misinformation, badly written articles resulting from poor research, and quite a lot of simple lies. Even Donald Trump would blush at some of the recent comments.” Sarah Stirling sorts fact from fiction concerning the future of the brilliantly backwards mountain village of La Grave.
La Grave – the clue, as they say, is in the name
Picture a rough old mountain village on the road between Grenoble and Briançon, with a population of around 500 people. Add some shade. La Grave spends three months of the year in it, because a vast, steep and north-facing mountainside overshadows it. Keep looking up and you'll eventually see the crown: 3,984m-high, spiky-topped peak, La Meije.
Add one lift-line, accessing over 2,000m of steep, unadulterated, experts-only vert. Sprinkle on some serious features: huge cliffs, steep couloirs, forests of epic tree-skiing, and finally a climax of soft pillow-covered meadow leading to a river at the bottom. Peek round the back of the mountain: there are big south-facing runs here.
Characterful La Grave is the last bastion in a homogenous white-out of European ski resorts. British Mountain Guide Al Powell, who has worked 15 seasons there, told me it's "the ultimate have-your-cake-and-eat-it off-piste skiing destination" but "it's not sustainable". La Grave is so good because it's so hardcore and unspoilt by infrastructure, but because of these things, hardly anyone goes there, so it doesn't make any money.
La Grave's lift-operating licence is now up for renewal, and The Telegraph recently reported that the neighbouring Les Deux Alpes resort could take it over, with a “view to improving the link between the two resorts” and vastly increasing the ski area.
The paper also reported the mayor wanted to install a new top-to-bottom cable car, which would turn the Dome de la Lauze above La Grave into “a southern rival to Chamonix’s Aiguille du Midi,” and prove so expensive to install that "it would have to be linked to real estate development”.
How likely is all this to actually happen? I spoke to Brits who live there to find out if now is the time to make a last pilgrimage to La Grave.
La Grave village. Photo: Shutterstock / Athena Images
A virtual tour of La Grave's current set-up
Beginning with a 40-year-old cranky gondola, the journey from the village at 1,480m to 3,530m takes 40 minutes. There are four stops: 1,800m, 2,400m, and 3,200m on the gondala, then a final drag-lift, which takes you onto a glacier, just below the Dome de la Lauze.
From here it's a 15-minute walk to the top of neighbouring resort Les Deux Alpes, which is a world away in character. You can look down on 50 lifts, 100 manicured pistes, 200 snow cannons, and the usual ski resort paraphernalia.
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Or you can walk back and look down on La Grave, where the gondola deposits you by one restaurant on a windy ridge. There is only one sort-of piste, which sees little traffic, except when it’s used as the opening schuss of the annual top-to-bottom freeride race, the Derby. There’s no avalanche control. You’re probably on your own.
It's not just the single lift-line that offers excellent crowd control. To get a picture of the seriousness of the terrain, check out 23 of La Grave's most legendary routes, described on the website of the local Skier’s Lodge.
Yep, you can see why it's quiet, and you can see why serious off-piste skiers love it.
La Grave's one telepherique. Photo: Shutterstock / Alex Ivanov
Lift up for renewal – the end of La Grave as we know it?
By next spring, a committee of locally-elected people including the mayor and regional politicians, will have chosen between six bids to take over the La Grave ski area for the next thirty years.
British Mountain Guide Al Powell told me that as well as the proposals described by the Telegraph, there have been some more inventive ones, including expanding Les Chazalets, a little ski station on the opposite side of the valley to La Grave, and connecting it to La Grave to cross-subsidise the survival of the free-skiing there.
Al commented: "Eventually the La Grave lift will need replacing – and at that point, sadly, something will have to change to finance the building of a replacement."
Robin Gray, a Brit who has owned Hotel Edelweiss in La Grave for the last 15 years, isn't worried. He told me that, whatever happens, the seriousness of the terrain could not allow normal pistes to be made, and said that most who live in La Grave aren't concerned about the outcome of the ski lift tenure:
"La Grave will always remain steep and often extremely cold, being high and north-facing. This in itself limits the development possibilities. We have a core of enthusiastic regulars who keep the place going. What developer would build a hotel, if it was possible, when there’s no sun in the village from November to the end of January approximately?"
He also told me:
"There won't be a significant change to the lift structure: no pistes and no artificial snow-making are allowed."
La Grave landscape. Photo: Shutterstock / Alex Ivanov
Other than possibly replacing the drag lift on the glacier with a proper lift to 3,600m, there won't be any changes to the actual lift system. La Grave doesn’t have any fancy shops or restaurants, and that’s unlikely to change either, because building anything is prohibited. La Grave lies on the border of the Parc Des Ecrins, where all development is also forbidden.
Al Powell agreed: “There is a big uncertainty for the future of the lift but personally I don't think the lift will close just yet, as they always seem to find a solution. However, I've no real idea how structurally sound or mechanically reliable the lift is – it could go on for years, or break tomorrow for all I know!"
"It won't last forever in its present form, so do get down there and support the place!”
The good news re access to La Grave
It’s usually a 90-minute drive from Grenoble to reach La Grave, but the main access road closed in spring 2015 after landslides. A relief ‘route de secours’, constructed for light traffic, opened and closed periodically last winter. Alternative access routes added at least two hours driving. The tunnel is now repaired and extended and due to open again on 15 December.
La Grave's tourist office website: lagrave-lameije.com
British Mountain Guide Al Powell's website is Alpine Guides. He's been guiding there for 15 years.
Edelweiss Hotel in La Grave is a centuries-old coaching inn run by Brit-in-France Robin Gray.
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