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A Love Letter to La Grave

A Love Letter to La Grave

Once in a lifetime, you find your perfect (mountain town) match.
By Kelley McMillan
posted: 02/04/2014
La Grave Telepherique

After 25 hours of traveling across Europe and a cold, sleepless night on the floor of the Milan Central train station, I landed in La Grave, France late last January. It was early evening as I rolled down La Grave’s main drag. The town was quiet and mostly closed, save for the low din of guffaws coming from the Le Bois des Fees bar. Though the Meije, the 13,068-foot peak that overlooks the valley, was obscured by clouds and darkness, I could sense that it was there, somewhere above me. It had the gravitational pull of the moon and had drawn me, over many years and miles, into its orbit.

I’d come to this storied village, set along the ancient road to Rome in the Dauphine Alps, because I was looking for the perfect place, a destination I’ve searched for my entire adult life. I chose La Grave because, like many, I’d heard that it was a skier’s Shangri La: over 7,000 vertical feet of steep, off-piste terrain, endless powder, and a quaint 12th-century village. This is where Doug Coombs moved after getting exiled from Jackson Hole for too many out-of-bounds infractions, and where he died. I watched Jordan Manley’s short film, “The Skier’s Journey” and was taken by the granite-lined couloirs, the wild and free vibe, and by the fact that La Grave’s four ski patrollers and a team of guides report to the mayor, who decides after every significant weather event if the lift, a 30-car, rainbow-colored Telepherique that looks like something out of the Jetsons, should open. I was intrigued by this mountain, which necessitates that you take responsibility for yourself—there’s no avy control; no proper ski patrol to cart you down the mountain if you fall, no sign posts delineating runs (or crevasses or cliffs). It demands that you do your homework, said the legendary guide Joe Vallone, who’s lived in La Grave for 12 seasons, in “The Skier’s Journey.” It was Vallone who, in the summer of 2012, told me skiing here would change my life. Turns out, he was right.

So, there I was, last January after a 16-inch storm, walking down La Grave’s main drag, looking for the Skier’s Lodge and a guy named Pelle Lang. I expected Lang to be one of those jaded, grizzled guides (after all, he is one of the most accomplished skiers in the valley, a former military sniper, and has won the Derby de la Meije on teles) and the lodge to be a barebones hostel full of hot-air spouting Seth Morrisson wannabes. Instead, I opened the door to sexy Moroccan lamps hanging from the ceiling, Turkish rugs covering the floor, and old-school skis hung on the walls. Incense wafted through the air as a group of friendly middle-aged Swedes invited me to join them at their table for dinner. It was equal parts French farmhouse, Alta’s Peruvian, and a Turkish hookah den all rolled into one. And, I was surprised when this gentle, understated, 53-year-old guy with three kids trailing behind him walked into the dining room and introduced himself as Pelle. Already, my notion of La Grave was being turned on its head.

It’s thanks to Lang that La Grave is what it is today. In the '80s, the Swedish-born Lang was ski bumming in Chamonix when he started hearing rumors about a mysterious village outside of Grenoble with one lift that served over 7,000-vertical feet of Grand Montets-style terrain, but minus the crowds and commercialism that had started to creep into Chamonix. He checked it out, liked what he saw, and spent his first season in La Grave in the late '80s.

Lang immediately recognized its potential as a freeride mecca and took steps to make it one. He convinced the Telepherique’s owner to start running the lift in December instead of February, extending the season and revenue opportunities for what was then, and still is, largely a farming community. In the late '80s, he opened the Skier’s Lodge, offering all-inclusive stays bundling guiding, accommodations, and meals for reasonable rates. The goal was, and still is, the “never-ending search for powder,” whether that means exploring La Grave’s endless maze of couloirs or taking a van to the neighboring resort of Sierre Chevalier or further on to Italy. Lang also recognized there was a fine balance between La Grave’s commercial interests and preserving the resort’s unique charm, inherent to which was a decidedly anti-commercial ethos—most years the Telepherique doesn’t make a profit. In the mid '90s, Lang convinced Coombs to come to La Grave and he went on to set up his infamous Steep camps there. By the late nineties, Powder and other ski magazines started to cover La Grave. Skiers started to come. And thus, La Grave, as we know it, was born.

My first morning in La Grave dawned clear, cold, and stable. I was paired with Tyler Jones, a UIAGM-mountain guide who spends his summers guiding on the Grand Teton, Denali, and Rainier, and his winters working for the Skier’s Lodge. Over the next four days, he showed me the best skiing of my life. We started with La Voute, a 6,000-foot granite hallway slathered in powder. And Jones kept on delivering the goods: fresh tracks in Les Freaux, Chatreuse, and Patou. He held the keys to the kingdom and kept unlocking its doors.

Each day, La Grave took my breath away—with the endless skiing opportunities that offer you the chance to take your skiing to another level; with the farmer’s market at the base of the Telepherique where ski bums buy saucisson from local farmers; with Lang’s kids building a snowman by the medieval village church; by the Skier’s Lodge’s open mic night where Vallone played drums alongside a 62-year-old local in a shag coat and a few American high school kids that he was coaching for two weeks. The stars aligned in La Grave—I’d never seen another place like it.

After four days of blissed-out skiing, Jones took my group down one final run on Trifides 1, one of La Grave’s classic lines. The sun was starting to disappear behind the mountains, casting a bluish hue across the whole valley, as spindrift whipped off the Meije. We paused at the bottom of the chute, looking down at the tiny village below, taking it all in. The snow was deep. The sky was clear. The glacier twinkled above me. It was quiet and still. I felt so very alive on the side of that mountain, in that great space between life and death, which seems to hide around every corner in La Grave. And in that instant, I knew I didn’t have to look for my perfect place anymore. I’d found it. Which is why, one year later, I packed up my life, grabbed my skis, and moved to La Grave for good.

Stay: The Skier’s Lodge

Simple, all-inclusive accommodations in town. The standard package includes four-course meals daily, seven nights lodging, and six days of guided skiing for about $1,500.

Eat: Au Vieux Guide

Au Vieux Guide serves up traditional French mountain fare: tartiflette, foie gras, and apple tarte. A three-course meal of some of the best food in France, according to Vallone, costs 26 euros.

Drink: Le Bois des Fees

Hit that local favorite for cheap beer, burgers, and pizza.

Guides: At the Skier’s Lodge, ask for Pelle Lang or Tyler Jones. Book Joe Vallone through his company, Provallone.

reviews of A Love Letter to La Grave
A great article about one of the truly special ski meccas. I lived in Grenoble for a year and it was such a wonderful spot to ski. Even in an especially poor snow year. Highly recommend Joe Vallone as a guide.
I don't know about the name "La Grave", but the descrtiption of the wonderful ski times excites me. Great article. I'd like to visit the place & of course, ski it. Tom
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