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All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

- JRR Tolkien


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News

Oct 20, 2017

Extreme Ski Area La Grave Given a New Lease on Life

La Grave will avoid the grave! Once thought to be destined for conversion into a run-of-the-mill ski resort, the mountain that is arguably the most extreme ski area in Europe (the world, even?) just got a new lease on life.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

La Grave, in the French Alps, is to skiing what open-water shark diving is to visiting the local zoo; it’s as untamed as a ski area can be while still technically being one. There are no trails on La Meije, the 3,984-meter tall mountain that is La Grave: no blues or black diamonds; no lodges, no halfpipes, no trail signs. Rather, there are just perfect bowls and couloirs of steep off-piste skiing, sheer 1,000 foot cliffs, crevasses, and other objective dangers that only those with a few screws loose would really be interested in. Turns out there are quite a few of us around with more than several screws rattling around up there: since the La Grave Gondola―the single lift that services the area―began operating consistently in the late 1980s, skiers in search of a greater adrenaline rush have been flocking there. La Grave developed a reputation for “backcountry big mountain skiing, without limitations, without grooming and without the effort of hiking up,” according to a recent press release from the resort.  

La Grave Gondola. Photo: OTLaMeije.

A now-dissipated sense of impending doom over La Grave’s future began several years ago, as concern spread over what would happen when the lease held on the Gondola by Telepherique des Glaciers de la Meije (TGM) ended in 2017. The general assumptions were that the Gondola would simply be shut down and left to rust, or bought by some large ski resort conglomerate that would turn the mountain into a typical commercial resort―the antithesis of La Grave as it was.

Over the decades, the seriousness of La Grave has been responsible for plenty of close calls (and deaths, as well).  For example, in an article at SnowBrains, Miles Clark writes, “I have a friend who went there once and ended up above a thousand-foot-death-cliff without knowing it. A rescue helicopter happened to be flying by and noticed his horrible position.  The heli dropped down, hovered above them, and shook its tail in the skiers left direction.  They [followed] its direction until the next thousand-foot-death-cliff where again, the heli directed them to safety once more.”

Those who ski La Grave do so knowing full-well the risks they face. But the expertise required to ski La Grave, it’s free-for-all nature, is still worth it for them. It offers an experience unrivaled by other lift-accessible mountains.

So when SATA, a company that runs other ski resorts, bought the lease on La Grave Gondola this past May, the dire prognostications for La Meije seemed all but assured. The skiing community prepared to mourn: the La Grave of the past was going to be dead and buried.

But then, like like Lazarus rising from the grave, hope was reborn. Details of SATA’s lease emerged: La Grave was to remain wild. “The contract clearly states that the first and second stage of the lift leads to an unsecured off-piste area with no groomed slopes,” reads the press release from La Grave. “The only groomed run remains the one on the glacier, which will be maintained with the existing T-bar at least until the third gondola lift is built, it indeed it is.”

Christophe Monier, the Managing Director of SATA, explained his company’s interest in La Grave commercially, but also its commitment to maintaining La Grave’s specialness: “La Grave is an authentic destination that arouses interest and makes you want to take part in its development. It has been left to stew in its own juices but it has enormous potential. In winter this potential is already put to good use, but for the summer season there is considerable room for improvement. It is extremely interesting to look into that.” 

And, offering double reassurance, just in case the contract terms weren’t enough for the skeptics, Monier said of La Grave’s wildness and differentness from conventional ski areas: “We need to cultivate that difference, therein lies its charm.”

Photo: OTLaMeije.

To get the right amount of stoke before you book your trip to La Grave, read the following playful excerpts from the press release about the area’s early days:

Skibums of the Golden Age

In the early nineties, a group of passionate backcountry skiers and snowboarders from various corners of France, Europe and the world had started calling La Grave home during the winter season. They looked tirelessly for new lines to ski.

These seasonal inhabitants of La Grave were easily recognisable by their torn clothes mended with thick layers of duct tape. Spending money on fancy gear was not their priority. Skiing was.

The legend Paulo gave his name to a line that is rarely skied by common mortals, except in the case of rope loss. He discovered the fearsome couloir Polichinelle whilst paragliding. He snowboarded with his Sorels, and when his legs got tired from riding with a heavy backpack filled with supplies for the Chancel hut (Sorels are pretty soft and offer precious little ankle support), he would simply flip around and ride the Chancel traverse fakie (tail first) with his swallowtail board.

Gunnar had his very own exit from the Pan de Rideau: Gunnar’s passage. He lived for free in the low ceilinged shed under La Chaumine, sharing accommodation with the garbage bags.

The skibums rather resented the fact that the itineraries “back there” were made public. Best to keep your lines secret then. For years to come, skiers in La Grave would pointedly look the other way if asked where they were going, or heaven forbid, if someone asked to come along. Plans for next day’s gig would always be made in whispers. Unwritten rules of conduct forbade the showing off your harness, nobody were to know that you were heading for a line that required a rappel. When going into Orcières you hid your tracks by walking in over the rocks to ensure that nobody would follow.

This community was obviously quite reticent about revealing the identity of this little paradise where everyone knew each other by name.

Photo: Robert Forte-TGM.

“Valley X – Europe’s Last Uncommercialised Ski Area”

So the first years La Grave remained a fairly well kept secret. Photographers sold their photos under false names, La Grave was called Val Terces (anagram for Secret) or Valley X (P-tex, lies and duct tape, 1994) to avoid attracting the crowds. In 1989, British journalist Adam Ruck wrote an article where declared that he had decided to talk about this place that he had hitherto kept secret because he would rather share it than see it perish for lack of visitors (La Grave – a serious situation).

Kim and Joe, an American couple, were skiing in Val d’Isère in the early nineties, but it wasn’t quite what they had hoped for. “A guy in our group told us La Grave would be the perfect place for us”. – “Swell”, said Kim, “where is it?” –“I don’ know”. In the autumn, Kim and Joe happened upon a mention of this mysterious place once more in a two-line ad in Powder Magazine. Christmas of ’93 was their first meeting with La Grave. They stayed at La Chaumine with the Swedes. “There were tons of snow and the lift opened just for us.” Since then they have been back every year, and now that they are retired they spend the whole winter season here.

During the nineties, La Grave’s international reputation kept growing, helped on by a steady flow of journalists and photographers. Many of the regulars were less than happy about La Grave becoming a recurrent theme in the ski magazines. In an article from 1995 a snowboarder expresses his worry: “What with all that has been published about La Grave lately, it’s going to be awful this winter. Last year there was nobody here, but don’t write that in your article. You need to tell people that it’s dangerous […]”. The same year local photographer Bertrand Boone says “if I publish my photos now, it’s because I know that is over”. Having experienced the years when you had the Vallons de la Meije to yourself, he was feeling a little sad. His greatest fear: that La Grave should become like any other ski area. But La Grave never did.

Checkout the world’s best adventures at The Outdoor Voyage for other amazing destinations like La Grave!

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Travel

Jan 15, 2019

Not Your Father’s Ski Trip: Jackson Hole, WY

Inspired by images of her dad’s Jackson Hole college ski trip, the author heads north to tour the Tetons and tack a few pictures to the family scrapbook.

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

The author’s father launching a cliff at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort cerca 1987

This film shot of my father going big on a set of ridiculously thin, twin-tipped K2s cerca 1987 instilled in me a deep gratitude for today’s fat freeride sticks and a sense of duty to keep the family’s cliff-hucking legacy alive. Scrapbook open on his lap, my dad extolled the terrain of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which he visited “back in the good ol’ days” at Colorado State University. He described a steep wonderland besotted with cliffs that beg for reckoning. After the past several seasons of wimpy Colorado snow totals whilst Jackson churned out foot-deep day after foot-deep day, I was enthused by the resort’s inclusion on my 2018-2019 Ikon Pass. With my own graduation looming in May, I figured the time was right for some Teton escapades. Like father, like daughter.

Car outfitted with a socioeconomically oxymoronic stash of ramen and expensive ski gear, I punched seven hours northward and arrived the night after a vicious storm cycle spat 20 inches of fresh flakes onto the mountains. The next day popped bluebird and my posse navigated the foreign slopes via trial, error, and the inexhaustible freneticism of college kids on vacation. We nabbed fresh tracks on Headwall and Casper Bowl, giggled down pillows on the Crags, and pinballed around the Hobacks. A ride up in the iconic Jackson Hole tram revealed a closed Corbet’s Couloir, ostensibly requiring another wave of coverage before its seasonal unveiling. I was forced to settle for a waffle at Corbet’s Cabin instead of matching my dad’s drop into the legendary chute. With the blood of my father and powder-fueled adrenaline surging through my veins, I willed myself over the most tantalizing cliffs on offer in Rendezvous Bowl.

The iconic Jackson Hole Mountain Resort tram, cerca 1987
Corbet’s Couloir: a timeless classic
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, cerca 1987

In the words of the great Cyndi Lauper: Oh daddy dear, you know you’re still number one, but girls, they wanna have fun.

It’s part and parcel of parenthood to agitate over the safety and well-being of one’s children. I’ve subsumed backcountry skiing into my hobbiesnew territory for this family’s lineage. On my nascent out-of-bounds outings, my father, a textbook concerned parent, grumbled about avalanches, terrain traps, and my insurmountable naïvity. Several seasons of diligent education, one avy bag, and countless snow pits later, I’ve earned his reluctant acceptance, if not enthusiasm, for my backcountry pursuits.  In the words of the great Cyndi Lauper: Oh daddy dear, you know you’re still number one, but girls, they wanna have fun.

Finding deep snow on Headwall
Pillows aplenty on the Crags

After two days of charging in-bounds, my psyche longed for the solitude of the skintrack. Teton Pass, Grand Teton National Park, and the resort sidecountry make the area a veritable playground for backcountry enthusiasts. It’s a family affair in Jackson; a fraternal ethos is evident in the fact that 97% of the nearly 4 million acres of Teton County are federally owned or state managed. Locals are quick to mark their territory on Teton Pass with the exclamatory hieroglyphs of first tracks, but the terrain is ample enough to find virgin snow. After giving the snowpack several days to stabilize post-squall, we found wiggle room on north-facing aspects along the Mail Cabin Creek drainage. Our final line of Day 1 was the Do-Its, a bifurcated powder track that converges and meanders twelve hundred feet back down to the road. At the hill’s zenith, minute snowflakes collapsed into liquid and rolled from our hardshells. We stood atop a wind-plumped knoll and observed the gnarl of peaks, foregrounded by Mount Taylor and Mount Glory, tumbling into a horizon of exposed rock and liquescent white. The unperturbed flank below screamed for human contact. I was all too happy to oblige the siren’s call with a quick tuck into the void. My skis made that sanctified first contact with the snow below. A crescendo of polestrokes invoked a maelstrom of flakes to drown the world in white. Hips squiggling, mind locked to the minutia, dopamine and adrenaline flooding the nervous system, and a raven on high with a vantage point a ski cinematographer would kill for. Then I burned through the mountain’s vertical; the dance with gravity ended in an expository wave of white smoke. I looked back and the sublime evidence was a single, undulating track across the otherwise unblemished face.

Cloud inversion over the Teton Valley from the top of Mt. Glory
Top of Mt. Glory

My final day in Jackson came courtesy of Exum Mountain Guides, an 80-year-old Teton-based guiding service that offers instruction and adventure on rope and skis in North America, the Alps, Andes, and Himalayas. The service traces their lineage to local legends of the 1930s like Glenn Exum, Paul Petzoldt, and Barry Corbet. They’re the granddaddy of Jackson guiding services and the resident experts on Grand Teton National Park. Despite the government shut-down and limited National Park operations, dedicated employees were plowing the entrance road and ensuring access to some of the Tetons best snow staches. My guide for the day was Brendan O’neill, who informed me of the birth of his daughter Jessie three weeks prior as we puttered to the Taggart Lake Trailhead.

If newborn Jessie was taxing this new dad’s sleep and energy reserves, his athletic, assiduous pace on the skintrack suggested otherwise. I asked Brendan about fatherhood, hoping to glean some insight into my own dad’s relationship with raising a daughter. He hopes to have Jessie on skis the second she can walk; he would be thrilled if she took to alpine or nordic racing, but amenable if she chose not to compete; he is excited to show her the world beyond the boundaries of a ski resort. As we muscled up towards Amphitheater Lake, I mused that twenty years from now, Jessie might look at pictures of her dad guiding in far-flung locales and make plans to fill and transcend those footsteps. I wonder if Brendan knows how much she will look up to him and his accomplishments.

Exum Guide and new father Brendan O’neill

  Even the evergreens projected patriarchy: the tallest trees nucleated their sapling broods with paternal solemnity, each molecule of powder glistening in the shaggy green branches. We broke through the forest onto snow-covered Amphitheater Lake, a cirque bounded by the bald, mangled granite of Teewinot to the north and Disappointment Peak to the west. On a snack pitstop, we watched another party of skiers lay down tracks in Spoon Couloir, a steep, enticing chute on Disappointment Peak’s lower haunch. Brendan seemed to sense my desire to get after a big alpine line and suggested we bootpack the Spoon must have been his newly acquired parental mind-reading superpower. After crossing the lake, we cut a haphazard zig-zag to the top of the Spoon’s apron and transitioned to the bootpack. 500 feet of vertical boot-punching propelled us up the gut and bookended the nearly 5,000 feet of vertical notched from trailhead to objective. From our humble perch on Disappointment’s flank, an electric blue sky slumbered atop a soupy mass of clouds, hallmark of a Teton Valley temperature inversion. Backgrounded by this topsy-turvy atmosphere, I skied down the hard-packed snow of the spoon’s handle into its apron of softer powder.

The Spoon Couloir visible on looker’s left of lower Disappointment Peak (center)
Bootpacking up the Spoon

Grand Teton, senior pinnacle of its range, poised with patriarchal authority over Middle Teton, Mt. Owen, and all the rest

To redeem the remainder of our hard-earned vertical, Brendan led us through a mellow glade percolated with unrumpled pillows aplenty. Matching his cuts through the pines was reminiscent of a childhood spent following my dad around the resort as I learned to trust my edges and my body. As I ripped skins back in the parking lot, giddy with alpine energy, I turned to gaze up at the Grand Teton, senior pinnacle of its range, poised with patriarchal authority over Middle Teton, Mt. Owen, and all the rest. I owe this unforgettable trip to Jackson Hole to my father for choosing to raise and inspire (and generously fund) a skier.

Thanks to Exum Mountain Guides for making this trip possible.

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