Tuesday, 19 February 2013

La Grave

La Grave is an off piste ski mecca. The town itself is a slightly mad mix of 'subculture' hipness and extreme sport freaks. There is definately something in the water in this part of the Alps that gives the place a more random feel than areas such as Chamonix!

From the town an antiquated lift system serves as access into some wild mountain ski territory, taking you from 1450m to 3200m. From here a lift tow takes you even higher onto the glacier itself and the link across to the Les Deux Alpes ski resort.

I'd first managed to ski La Grave a couple of years back. It had long been on my list of ski trips to do, and fortunately that trip was blessed by good weather and some fresh snow (especially welcome as there had little snow for almost a month prior to this).

Finding ourselves back in Les Deux Alpes for another family ski holiday and I was keen to do a return trip to La Grave. Needing some company for the trip I booked in with the ESS who I've used before and have been excellent. Traditionally they run the La Grave trip on a Wednesday, but want you to have a 'pre-test' on the Monday to check your skiing is up to the task! I dutifully turn up for my informal assessment.

Following Rene....
Our instructor was a talented Italian chap, Rene, who took us for a ski off the main slope of Les Deux Alpes giving useful instruction all the way. With lots of fresh snow the skiing was superb, even if the day was a little grey. At the bottom Rene asks do we want to go again - too right we do!

Wednesday arrives and its a bluebird day, but will the link to La Grave open, and will La Grave itself open? The recent week or so has seen lots of snow, but with this snow comes increased avalanche risk. In addition the link hits heights of 3600m and frequently has to close due to high winds...

Initial reports are not good. The link hasn't opened and neither has La Grave. We opt for an off piste day around Les Deux Alpes. No point waisting an opportunity to ski with a local instructor who will know all the secret powder pockets!

Powder fun

First run is on the Vallee Blanche side of the resort, and we're soon skiing some excellent powder. At the bottom Rene checks the current information. La Grave is opening, but will the link? We opt to chance it and start heading up to the glacier via the Jandri lift, and then the funicular train. Arriving at around 3400m we are blasted by winds and spindrift - it doesn't seem too hopeful.

However the final ski tow opens and we head for the link to La Grave. We may get there yet! At the top of the tow we have to pay 20E to cover the use of the La Grave lifts, and then its a tow to the top of the glacier at La Grave by being dragged along by a piste bashing wagon! This is entertaining to say the least.......

Preparing for the tow.

We finally reach the La Grave side of the glacier - the gamble has paid off. We descend to the top lift station using the only pisted run at La Grave. This crosses the glacier and is the safest way to descend especially without crevasse rescue kit, plus our guide can't take us off piste on the glacier itself.

At the station the main runs down La Grave take off. One side is the classic 'Vallons la Meije' whilst the other is the 'Vallons la Chancel' with lots of options in between. The locals know of many more routes!

Our first run is down the 'Vallons la Meije'. Most of the route has already been well skied, although powder lines can still be found. We set off on a descent down this wild and fabulous valley. High on our right the steep cliff faces still have sections of glacier with hanging seracs. It is an awesome place.

We enjoy the skiing, with Rene offering much constructive tuition on our functional but less than perfect off piste ski technique! Regularly he stops to give us more advice on those subtle movements that turn your ski technique into the brilliance you aspire to. Alas it needs lots of practise and more time away in great places like La Grave.

Eventually we hit the tree line, and most of the group enjoy the tights turns amongst moguls and trees. Eventually we hit the station at 1800m. This is basically a pylon sticking out of the forest where you can join the cable car without hitting the valley bottom. The lift at La Grave is a bit of a classic experience in itself!

Time for one more run before we have to try and hit the link back to La Grave. We start on the 'Chancel' side before reaching a col and dropping back onto the 'Vallons' side. From here we traverse across and join the mid station at 2400m.

Back at the top we stop at the top station restaurant for coffee and a bit of food - all very civilised! Some food and chat and suddenly we realise its almost 1530 hrs when the top tow shuts. Hastily we shuffle out and over to a waiting piste basher for another tow to take us to the base of the actual ski tow. This piste basher has two rope lines behind it with regularly knotted loops.

By the time all the remaining skiers had been gathered up there must have been close to 50+ of us behind the wagon! Surely recipe for disaster?! The tow goes surprisingly well until the end when one skier goes over and takes out a few others.

We grab the last ski tow to take us back to the top of the glacier. The rest of the link is shut though due to the wind so its going to be a bit of a walk back to Les Deux Alpe. As I'm dragged by the tow the sun drops behind the ridge in front of me and lights the skyline. The light captures the bubbling mass of spindrift snow being blown by the high wind - its going to be harsh once on the exposed glacier...........

Sure enough once at the top of the tow we are blasted by wind and spindrift. We gather as a group and press on. Its an initial slog up before reaching the undulating top of the glacier, where we shuffle and occasionally ski our way back to the resort.

Once officially back on the Les Deux Alpe side of the glacier I look back and see some lights through the spindrift. One of the ski patrol is passing on a skidoo. A line is thrown from the back and we get another powered tow but this time from a skidoo - this became interesting when we started to go downhill and the tracks of the skidoo got very close! We let go very quickly.

We enjoy a final ski back to base, via empty pistes on great snow, which became even more enjoyable when we got out of the wind. Rene takes for a final off piste run back to the resort base and a well earned large glass of Leffe! A classic day. I really do like La Grave.