logo

The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

image

Adventure Travel

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!

Continue Reading

image

Events

Jul 10, 2018

The 2018 Whitewater Awards: Nouria Newman and Benny Marr take the spoils.

The Whitewater Awards is a gathering of the world’s best kayakers to show off the biggest and best things that have happened in the sport over the past year.

image

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

 To be considered for an award, athletes, photographers, and filmmakers submit media taken over the past year that they believe showcases the best progression in the sport.  

There are sixteen different categories for submission, including separate male and female categories within the “Best of” kayaking categories. Categories include Photographer of the Year, Film of the Year, Expedition of the Year, Best Trick, Best Line, River Stewardship, Grom of the Year, Rider of the Year, along with several others.  Awards are decided upon by a voting process done by the Association of Whitewater Professionals.

This year’s Whitewater Awards was held in the Egyptian Theater in downtown Boise, Idaho. It was hosted on June 14th, the same weekend as the North Fork Championships, which takes place on the North Fork of the Payette River just outside of Boise.  The North Fork Championship is regarded as one of the hardest kayaking races in the world.

The race takes place on Jacob’s Ladder rapid, which is a rapid so difficult and consequential that most kayakers feel accomplished simply by surviving the rapid, much less racing the rapid. Nouria Newman, a 3-time NFC racer and winner of this year’s Whitewater Awards Female Rider of the Year describes it well,

“The NFC is the hardest race in whitewater kayaking. [Jacob’s Ladder] is a scary, consequential rapid. Running it is challenging, and it only gets harder to race it and make the gates.”

In order to minimize the risk involved in the race, event organizers have developed a strict qualification process for racers. 30 racers will qualify to race Jacob’s Ladder. Ten of them are pre-qualified from placing top ten at the event the year before. Those ten then read numerous athlete applications and vote on the next ten racers who will join them.  The last ten racers are decided through a qualification race on S-Turn rapid, another one of the North Fork’s infamous class V rapids.

Every year on this same weekend in June, kayakers, photographers, and filmmakers from around the world flock to Idaho to celebrate quality whitewater, progression of the sport, and the community that surrounds it. Both the North Fork Championship and the Whitewater Awards had great turnouts of athletes and spectators this year.

John Webster

The finalists of each category in the Whitewater Awards were presented in film format at the Egyptian Theater for the entire audience to view, with the winner being announced live. Winners were presented with an award and expected to give a short speech at the event. The big winners of the night were Nouria Newman and Benny Marr, who were awarded with Line of the Year and Rider of the Year in the female and male categories. Nouria says that voting for the “best” in each category is a challenging process, “…voting is always tricky, (look at both French and U.S. presidents, not too sure if they are really the best available option). And it is also very hard to compare lines and rapids. What’s bigger? What’s harder? I got voted Best Line of the Year with a good line down Parque Jurassic, a long technical rapid, but Rata’s line down Graceland, which is a huge slide, was equally as good, if not better.”

No matter how tricky the voting process can be, Nouria agrees that the Whitewater Awards plays a large role in the progression of the sport, “I think it’s super cool to see what people can do in their kayak, how they push the limit of the sport and how they open new possibilities.”

For more information about the Whitewater Awards, you can visit whitewaterawards.com, you can also follow them on Facebook and on Instagram.

You can follow Nouria on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

You can follow Benny on Facebook and Instagram.

Cover photo courtesy of Ari Walker

Recent Articles



Tony Riddle Crosses Great Britain Barefoot but Not Broken

Natural Lifestyle coach Tony Riddle put his rewilding practices to the test by running 874 miles across Great Britain entirely barefoot to support environmental sustainability.

Forrest Galante: The Modern-Day Charles Darwin

Except biologist Forrest Galante is not searching for the origin of species, more like auditing the books, and in a few very successful instances, erasing names from the roster of extinction.

Trans Himalaya 2019 – Part 3: The Invaluable Treasures of Ladakh

After the onset of the Northeast monsoon in the lower Himalayas, Peter Van Geit moves on to the high altitude rock desert of Ladakh in the Jammu and Kashmir region.

Privacy Preference Center

Necessary

Advertising

Analytics

Other