The Future of La Grave | Is Europe’s Best Secret Ski Resort in Danger
A local's perspective from a ski resort at a crossroads
Words & photography by Vanessa Beucher
Few ski resorts are as revered by mountain lovers as La Grave. Nestled against the giant north face of la Meije mountain in the French Alps, this freeride mecca has been a kind of mythical Valhalla for more than 30 years.
At the core of this small village pulses its vital artery: the legendary ski resort lift. But its lease is set to run out in June this year, and La Grave is at a pivotal stage in its existence. A lot of issues remain uncertain and there’s a thick layer of mystery around how the transition will take place, and whether this unique place will lose its wild character for good?
"Will this unique place lose its wild character for good?"
Located at the border of the Ecrins National Park, this jaw-dropping spot is far from a typical ski resort. Instead visitors will find a 12th-century stone village with unnamed streets, hamlets with a staggering view, and an untouched mountain, which you explore at your own risk. There are no groomed pistes or artificial snow or avalanche control: the mountain sets its own standards and rules.
"In very few other places do you get the feeling of being so fully in charge of yourself and your riding companions…"
Every time a sizeable snowfall occurs, a team of local guides and patrollers go up and ski the area to assess the risks. A local commissioner is then summoned to evaluate the avalanche risk, and ultimately decide whether the lift should open or remain closed for the day. This system has no equivalent on the planet. On the mountain you’ll find steeps and flats, open fields, gullies, forests, clearings and endless couloirs involving rappels. You might ski incredible powder, snow that has been chopped up or smoothed out by the wind, rocks, crust, spring snow or ice.
Riding La Grave is a huge learning curve and in very few other places do you get the feeling of being so fully in charge of yourself and your riding companions. This kind of toughness, together with long cold winters, might very well explain why, with less than a thousand year-round residents, it shelters an incredibly close-knit community of more than fifteen different nationalities, united by the same deep passion for this place and its unique vibes.
Forty years ago, la Grave was just a tiny rural village at the foot of a beautiful mountain, which was popular with mountaineers. As was the case in a lot of other remote alpine villages, many locals left to look for work elsewhere as job opportunities were relatively scarce. But in the early 1970s, when the Ecrins National Park was created, a project to build a gondola from la Grave to col des Ruillans at 3200 metres gradually took shape. The mayor wanted to create work for the younger generation and give his village a new focus.
The lift was originally built for summer tourism: it would take alpinists and pedestrians close to summits and glaciers, providing easier access to a vast untouched mountain area. On the 14th July 1976, the first section was ready to welcome visitors and in February 1978 skiers could board on the second section taking them to a mountain terrain with a huge potential.
"One of them had heard talk of a place with a lot of vertical, steep skiing, good forests and nobody around. They decided to check la Grave out and never looked back…"
But a few months after the opening a bomb attack at the first lift station destroyed part of the machinery. The perpetrators were never found. After that, the operating deficit grew bigger every year until the lift was forced to close in the summer of 1986 because the cables were too worn. As there was no budget for renovation, the local authorities went in search of someone to take over. Denis Creissels, the engineer who designed the lift, signed a thirty-year lease and the gondola started running again in July 1987. In these years, it had a decent number of visitors but there were no big crowds in winter and people mainly came from the surrounding areas. Late winter and spring skiing was the norm as early winter was considered way too cold under the north face of la Meije.
In 1988, a few freeride addicts were enjoying an après-ski drink in one of the skibum hangouts of Argentière, close to Chamonix. The Grands Montets ski area was getting too crowded for these lovers of fresh tracks. One of them had heard talk of a place with a lot of vertical, steep skiing, good forests and nobody around. They decided to check la Grave out and never looked back. Thirty years later, two of them, the Crud brothers, still spend every winter season here. Only in spring do they head back to the snowy peaks and wild rivers of their native Alaska.
"Yet you’ve never really needed to get up at dawn for fresh tracks."
The same year, Swedish mountain guide and skiing legend Pelle Lang decided to trade Chamonix for la Grave, the little village where he found the untamed mountains he’d been longing for. Then, until now, he’s been doing his best to make la Grave well-known beyond the French borders. Lang has concerns for the future of la Grave: “The only thing now is to wait for the mayor and his team to make their decision…of course I fear the future when the BIG ones take over the ski industry. It is a shame that the great deal of uncertainty about what lies ahead for la Grave could not be resolved before."
Another major figure in skiing history once decided to call la Grave home. Doug Coombs, a fixture of the freeride scene in Jackson Hole and one of the pioneers of heliskiing in Alaska, chose the village as a base for his steep skiing camps in 1993. Over the years, more and more American dedicated riders have found a freedom here that they do not have at home where off-piste skiing is mostly prohibited.
Yet you’ve never really needed to get up at dawn for fresh tracks. La Grave remains a fairly well-kept secret. Photographers sell their images under false names, the village being sometimes called Val Terces, an anagram for Secret or Valley X, as featured in the mythical piece P-tex, lies and duct tape, to keep crowds away. But it becomes inevitable that its reputation kept growing and from the 1990s onwards, a steady flow of skiers, journalists and photographers have continued to shape the myth. Some fear that the face of la Grave could undergo a major change with the increasing number of visitors but it hasn’t really so far. The village still has a few shops and major crowds are not an issue on the mountain. But will this subtle balance be upset by the change of lease and the new owner? This year, la Grave may well face one of if not the biggest challenge in its history.
The current operating license expires in less than six months, precisely in June, thirty years after the reopening of the lift. At the threshold of a new contractual agreement, the most important question is undoubtedly the following: what will the new face of this legendary off-piste mountain look like? Yet, whoever the new owner is, they will have to follow certain guidelines and obligations: the commune wants to preserve the natural and wild character of the domain, strongly limiting any changes not directly connected to the lifts. They do not want any groomed runs or use of artificial snow.
Also, the contractor will be obliged to keep the mechanical installations in excellent condition and improve the altitude restaurant. After the first bidding stage the commune announced on 13th December 2016 that there are only two candidates remaining for the last round. They’ve chosen not to disclose the identity of the potential new owners, thus sparking an intense debate and an undeniable amount of stress among the local population.
La Grave has had it tough for almost two years as in April 2014 the major access route from Grenoble suddenly closed when part of a mountain collapsed at the Chambon lake, damaging the road tunnel. The village found itself at a dead end for almost eight months and despite a temporary road, which was built on the other side of the lake, the flow of visitors decreased significantly, causing a real slowdown of the economy.
"A bomb attack at the first lift station destroyed part of the machinery. The perpetrators were never found."
Different scenarios may await this small village and close-knit mountain community. One of the potential buyers is rumoured to be large French corporation Compagnie des Alpes. Founded in 1989, it owns about a dozen mega ski resorts in the French Alps, including les Deux Alpes and Serre Chevalier.
Will we witness a dramatic influx of visitors and therefore more accidents raising debates over the security on the mountain? How about real estate development projects disrupting a subtle balance in a village that until now has been far removed from large upscale mountain resorts? The same considerations can be applied to the SATA group, which owns nearby resort l'Alpe d'Huez, the largest employer in the district of Bourg d'Oisans, and which may well be one of the two remaining candidates.
Even though it did not make it to the final round, it is worth mentioning the local initiative Signal de la Grave. Long-term la Grave resident Joost Van Zundeert decided to set up this association, claiming a 'soft approach' to mountain tourism. Hailing from Antwerp in Belgium, he discovered la Grave together with a friend about twenty years ago and it was love at first sight. He fears that a large corporation taking over the lift might change this fascinating microcosm and that a certain alchemy could disappear for good.
Encouraged by Samuel Rieder, a fellow countryman, they set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise awareness about the future of la Grave. The speed and intensity of the donations went far beyond their expectations. And from the New York Times to Powder magazine, the campaign received massive international media coverage, revealing that la Grave truly stands apart in mountain culture. In mid-December, they were notified by the commune that they had not been chosen for the second round but the impetus created by this campaign remains and Joost plans to support local sustainable initiatives in la Grave, such as donating to AVAG, the association maintaining mountain bike trails in the summertime, or developing electric bike and biomass unit projects.
The future of la Grave may not be clearly written yet but one thing is for certain: this change of lease has at least provoked a necessary debate. Of course, the threat is that an investor disrupts this subtle balance by implementing detrimental changes to the environment, to the economy and to the community as a whole. On the other hand, it is quite healthy to see a local initiative strive to set up a truly innovative project with a global green vision.
Joe Vallone, a highly-respected international mountain guide and longtime la Grave resident, sums up the issues at stake in a few sentences: “Whoever takes over the lift, I just hope the new relationship can bring the town together. The lift, commune and local people need to work as one in order to keep this town alive. Having spent twenty years of my life in the States, I have seen first hand what big money does when it buys out a mountain. The character of those mountains and everything that is so special and unique about those places is lost forever. Yet, no matter what happens, I am pretty sure I'm not going anywhere, anytime soon. With or without that lift, la Grave truly is one of the best places in the world to live if you are a skier and/or mountain enthusiast." The challenge of course is keeping it that way.