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Skiing in La Grave - La Meije

LA GRAVE

There are no half measures in La Grave: the glaciers are enormous, the skyline is dominated by sharp, jagged peaks, and the landscape is criss-crossed with blue seracs extending down towards the valley.
A harvest of snow and ice
La Grave… The name is Gaulish in origin and refers to the bank of pebbles and rubble left behind by the turbulent Romanche, the torrent which traverses these wild slopes. Boasting a landscape shaped by avalanches, La Grave is proud of its identity as an unsecured, unpisted ski area. A country for free men! No signs, no grooming, no warnings, no nets, or any of the other safety features found at other ski resorts. Here freeride reigns supreme... pure and unadulterated. This is La Grave's distinguishing feature. For those who come here, the mountains are perceived as a place of freedom where one ventures at one's own risk. The imposing peaks pressing down on all sides command immediate respect. Getting off the gondola at 3,200 metres, you're greeted by the sight of La Meije, the imperial Goddess of l'Oisans, flaunting its 3,983 metres of uninterrupted granite.
One of the last mountains in the Alps to be conquered
This particularly stubborn summit was eventually conquered in 1877 by a robust quadragenerian by the name of Pierre Gaspard. Our man--a chamois hunter--was peeved at the multiple Alpine conquests claimed by English mountaineers, and refused to accept the idea that HIS Meije could be conquered by foreigners. So at the age of 40, he decided to take the bull by the horns, became an alpinist and mountain guide, and conquered the summit, taking one of the last peaks in the Alps. The full story of the expedition is set out in a book.
Summit conquered in 1877
"Unpatrolled high altitude zone: you ski at your own risk"
La Grave is not about groomed slopes. Rather, it offers some of the most amazing off-piste conditions anywhere in Europe, and possibly in the world. As with all off-piste areas, a shovel, an ARVA beacon and a probe are essential equipment. A harness is also recommended if you plan to venture into glacial zones. Obviously, you need to know how to use these accessories. Never go skiing alone, and never follow tracks in the snow unless you know where they lead.
On the glacier, you can ski on the marked routes. If you venture outside the ropes bordering the routes, you run the risk of falling into a crevasse. If you choose to ski in the unsecured part of the glacier, you need to take the route via the Col du Lac to get to the Chancel refuge.
No signs, just freeride...
Several factors affect your choice of itinerary when skiing off-piste, including the level of snow, weather conditions, your own proficiency as a skier, and any information gleaned from patrollers at the bottom, near the ticket booths. Hiring the services of a High Mountain guide is highly recommended If you're unfamiliar with the site. Bear in mind that there are no ski patrols outside the marked glacier routes.
Because of the high altitude (3,200 metres), weather conditions can change very suddenly.
Conditions at La Grave couldn't be further from those found at popular ski resorts in that it is a universe entirely devoted to freeride, in the noblest sense of the term, i.e., with the emphasis on "free", with all that the notion implies in terms of responsibility and risk.
... as long as you're sensible
Mountain patrollers at La Grave
Ski patrollers were first introduced in 2002. Their job is to provide skiers with as much information as possible about the area so as to heighten skiers' awareness and ensure the preservation of this amazing site. They can inform skiers about the risk of avalanches, the weather, and the best routes. They are posted in the "Info risques" chalets, just opposite the ticket booths. All of the patrollers are qualified High Mountain guides and/or Pisteurs-First-aiders.
After each episode of heavy snowfall, the pisteurs and guides, together with other professionals, decide whether or not the cable-car lift should be opened.
Every day, the patrollers prepare a snowfall and weather bulletin, which is displayed at the ticket booths.
Unparalleled routes
Taming La Grave's rebellious slopes is no easy matter: just picture a 2150 m, non stop, vertical descent, with no marked runs.
You can get to the 3200m-altitude Col des Ruillans by cable car in under 30 minutes, for a ride that only heliskiing can rival. In fact, La Grave is like heliskiing, but more affordable, and with a smaller carbon footprint.
Apart from the valleys, you can choose either Le Pan du Rideau or Les Trifides. These steep corridors require real skiing prowess and knowledge of the area.
The Chancel route is more accessible, but like the others, is a steep mountain route, with all that this implies.
The phase inspired by the La Grave website, says it all: "Only two marked slopes on the glacier and for the rest, use your imagination..."
A touch of history: the La Grave-La Meije cable car
The original 1934 idea was to build a cable-car system between La Grave, the Pic de l’Homme and La Meijette, to lower the summit by 25m, and build a restaurant. Many detractors saw the project as a grave violation of the Goddess of l’Oisans' souvereignty. The site was subsequently listed, nipping the project in the bud. Work nonetheless began in 1975, and was completed one year later. The La Meije valley cable car system was born, under Meije's impassive gaze. In the night of November 16th, however, the cable-car departure station was destroyed in a bomb attack. Despite these ill omens, and some economic setbacks, the project continued, and today the installation serves one of the most spectacular off-piste areas in the world…
quicker than on foot
The La Meije Derby
First organised over 20 years ago, the Derby is the only global ski and snowboard event that sees more than 800 competitors meet up for 3 days of mountain racing.
The race starts at the Dôme de la Lauze, at an altitude of 3550m, and the aim is to reach the finish line as quickly as possible. All types of ski and snowboard equipment are accepted. and there are no imposed routes, apart from a few compulsory check-points. Some areas are prohibited for safety reasons. The best competitors complete the descent in under 10 minutes, while others take up to one hour… In 2009, Nicolas Anthonioz, a skier from Les Gets, won the event for the 2nd time in an amazing 5'29'', just a few seconds short of the record for the 1850-metre vertical descent between the Dôme de La Lauze and les Chalets de Chal Vachère.
Curiosities and events
LA GROTTE DE GLACE
Hollowed out near the restaurant at Les Ruillans, at an altitude of 3200m, the Grotte de Glace--an exploit in itself--reveals the internal workings of the Girose glacier via an amazing voyage 30m below the surface, along deep, natural crevasses inhabited by ephemeral figures sculpted on-site by a team of artists. Open from the end of June to the beginning of September. www.grottedeglace.com

MONDIAL DU MONOSKI, from 14 to 16 MARCH, 2011
The French Monoski Association is hosting the 11th edition of the world's largest meeting of monoskiers. The "Mondial du Monoski" will be held in La Grave from 14-16 March, and in Auris en Oisans/Alpe d'Huez from 17-20 March.
The Mondial du Monoski is the highlight of the Monoski Test Tour 2011, which includes 11 events held throughout the Alps and the Pyrenees. During the tour, the association runs introductory courses in monoskiing, as well as tests, competitions (derby, slalom, moguls, KL, bordercross) and various other events (KL, big air, concert ...).
Practical information
Getting there
By road: 77 km from Grenoble, or 38 km from Briançon on the N91.
By bus with Meije coaches: +33(0)476 799 209

Cable car
The first gondola leaves at 8 a.m.
Open in in winter from 31 March to 2 April, 2010.
Open again in July and September.
La Grave cable car: +33(0)476 799 465

Tourist Information Office: +33(0)476 799 005
Website: La Grave-La Meije
Accommodation
Winter-sports.com invites you to visit its rentals in La Grave that can accommodate up to 30 guests.
Click here to visit them now.
Photos: N. Cuche E. Beallet
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