Reviewed by Mckenzie Funk
Aug 13, 2009
Trace a line formed by Maine's State Routes 16, 27, 4, and 142 and you will encircle some of the state's highest mountains. In the southern part of the circle you'll find the long, impressive mass of Saddleback Mountain, from whose summit drop the twisty, wooded trails of Saddleback the ski resort.
Sugarloaf boasts 138 trails, 15 lifts, and a bustling village at the base.
Even on the biggest dump days the place is peaceful: Lift lines barely push four minutes, and locals take leisurely dips into untracked shots all day.
When Swedish ski bum Pelle Lång chased a rumor to La Grave in 1986, he found one hotel, one mountain guide, and a weekends-only gondola climbing the treacherous northern wall of 13,064-foot La Meije. For groceries, he drove to Grenoble; for gas, he drove to Serre Chevalier. For 7,000 feet of untracked powder, he skied in most any direction. Today, La Grave (the town) and La Meije (the mountain) are little changed. The lift—and two T-bars—are now open daily, ski bums number in the hundreds, and there are 10 hotels and a few restaurants. But there’s still no avalanche control, grooming, or anything resembling “inbounds.” So bring a rope. Or better yet, hire a guide.
Powder Day: Ski the tree-lined chutes and ledges between midway stations P2 and P1 before dropping into the broad Vallons de la Meije. Stable conditions? Head west from the top station to Chancel’s 45-degree Banana Couloir.
Three Days Later: Follow a guide down the 7,000-foot Girose Glacier, with its towering seracs, bowls, and couloirs that lead to the gurgling Romanche River.
Must Hit: The four Trifide couloirs are responsible for most of La Grave’s 24 skier deaths since 1982. Trifide 1, at 800 feet long and 40-plus
degrees, is the easiest—and most often moguled. Leave Trifide 3 to the locals, or face a 40-foot rock-drop or rappel.
The Stash: The Pan de Rideau’s 1,500 vertical feet of sustained, 45-degree slopes funnel onto a crevasse-riddled glacier. Hike there from the T-bar to Pointe Trifide.
Backcountry Access: The Enfetchores Tour starts above the T-bar, and snakes up the Selle Glacier to the Rateau Notch. From here, skin three hours northwest to La Meije Col. Rappel 150 feet and traverse west for 5,000 feet of fall-line powder turns that only a handful of people ski each year.
Weather: Both Atlantic and Mediterranean storms pummel La Grave, nearby Alp d’Huez, and Montgenevre; ski them all.
Après: That’s French, right? Nobody told the farmers in La Grave. Trythe terrace at the Chalet Alp Bar or Restaurant Lou Ratel—owner Michou is
local color, squared.
Fuel: Breakfast is at your hotel; lunch is best carried in your backpack. Dinner is your time to explore. Try smoked trout and andouillettes sausage at Le Faranchin, uphill from La Grave in Villar d’Arene.
Up All Night: Le Pub, in the basement of the Skiers Lodge, hosts an international crowd that occasionally stays up past 10:00 p.m. Les Bois des
Fees, another “late-night” hot spot, has Latin music and dancing.
Digs: Pelle Lång’s Skiers Lodge guide service (skiers lodge.com) recently moved into the renovated Hotel des Alpes, making this the new epicenter for foreigners. Weeklong packages, including guides, transportation, and two meals a day, are US$1,400.