Jöttnar Pro Team member Alison Thacker describes the draw of Ski Sauvage - wild skiing - on the untamed mountains of La Grave.
Photography by Daniel Wildey
When I first heard of La Grave I presumed that it was at the head of a valley. How could it be any other way, with all the adjectives that I had heard used to describe it – isolated, peaceful, desolate, and wild? It was only when I first came to visit the place, 11 years ago, that I looked at the map and was surprised to see that it was actually situated on the main road between Grenoble and Briançon. I remember driving there, perplexed by the geography and description of this place, and being unsure of what I was going to find.
And what I found is what keeps me going back. La Grave stays the same, yet it’s constantly changing. Two runs there will never be the same. The mountain environment is forever fluctuating, dynamic and wild, resulting in a different ski experience every time. Yet, that is a theme that remains constant.
There are no piste markers, no snowmaking, no piste bashing, and no avalanche blasting. You need to be prepared to take this mountain as you find it. You need to make decisions and ski with caution. Skiing here is mentally and physically engaging. It’s not all steep and gnarly, but you do need to remain focused.
There is an exception to this, and that is the draglift on the Glacier de la Girose. This takes you to a high point of 3600m, where there are breathtaking views of the Alps, stretching across to Mont Blanc. Here you will find La Grave’s only piste. To reach the draglift, you take another step back in time, hitching a ride to reach it, grabbing on to a rope as the snow cat goes by. Watch out that the rope doesn’t get caught around your skis!
For me, there is one clear factor that makes La Grave a unique ski experience. That is the ability to access a vast amount of off-piste terrain straight from a lift, with the feeling of space from other people. There is the freedom to ski wide-open slopes, narrow couloirs and perfectly spaced trees, depending on what conditions allow. It might just be me, but even when it’s skied out, I seem to get enjoyment from skiing the bumps in La Grave!
Many of the descents are legendary, and recognized across the world as some of the best lift accessed off-piste runs in the world. But La Grave has even more to offer. The classic runs take you into some incredible positions, underneath the giants of La Meije and Le Rateau, and the glaciers that are pouring down from them. You feel like you are in the mountains, not just on them. The backdrop is second to none. When the clouds have obscured the mountain views, and the weather has closed in, the tree skiing is equally as breathtaking and engaging. La Meije reaches an altitude of 3983m. I often wonder how different La Grave might be if La Meije was 17 metres higher.
Even when it’s busy, it’s quiet. Last week, French and English half term, we joined the queue of 3 people for the lift. We skied 1750m of vertical descent off-piste, and we only saw one person. Even that was debatable. Some of the group saw him, some didn’t. He wasn’t exactly crowding our space.
Yes, the snow changes when you have such large vertical descent. It’s rare that it will all be perfect powder. But that’s just part of it. You get good at skiing all the terrain, skiing the whole mountain. La Grave is the only place I've skied were you are skiing “a mountain” not a resort, without having to put on a pair of skins. You are on a journey not a run.
I’ve been there on busy days too, when we have queued for over an hour for the lift. But even then, once you start skiing downhill, there is plenty of space for everyone. You quickly lose sight of the other people, and have powder turns for yourself. That’s when you understand why everyone in the queue seems calm. There is no rush. There is plenty of snow and space for everyone.
La Grave was in the spotlight last year, as the 30-year lease for running the lift came to an end. On the 15th June, SATA, who also run Alpe d’Huez, took over running the lift. The future of La Grave looks promising with the new contract stipulating keeping the wild nature of the area, whilst renovating and bringing the current infrastructure up to standard. I feel confident that La Grave will see positive change, but the reasons that keep drawing people back will remain.
Daniel Wildey is a freelance adventure photographer and is the editor of LEGEND.