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The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.

- Alexander von Humboldt

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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!

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Features

Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.

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WRITTEN BY

Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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