Skiing in La Grave

In the shadow of La Meije, the last major Alpine peak to be conquered by climbers, La Grave’s vast snowfields, high glaciers, giant seracs, difficult moraine fields, and menacing couloirs can bring true exhilaration – and its less welcome companion, danger.

La Grave Ski Area Overview

La Grave is capable of providing even the most experienced skiers and snowboarders with a fresh sense of wonder but it demands the utmost respect. “You need a good dose of humility and responsibility” to ski here, according to the resort. Crevasses and avalanches are always a threat, and it makes excellent sense to hire a guide. Some itineraries, particularly in reaching some of the more technical couloirs, may require the use of climbing equipment. As Francis Ginet and Fabrice Villaret, authors of a booklet describing the off-piste possibilities in the region, stress: “The quality of the snow may make certain usually very safe slopes dangerous for several days. A slope that was good and safe yesterday won’t necessarily be so tomorrow.” And readers are reminded: “skiing in the wilds should never be confused with wild skiing.”
There are no groomed runs, but the two main routes down, Chancel and the steeper Vallons de la Meije, are marked both on the map and on the ground, and are skied so often that they are piste-like, at least in places, so if there is anywhere on the mountain that intermediates can cope with, it’s these runs. Although there is no formal ski patrol as such, there is a patroller stationed in a wooden hut near the gondola station who will give you advice about the mountain and current conditions.
There used to be a third marked run – Pylônes – but it has now been removed from the map. It’s steeper than the other two and, unsurprisingly, follows the route of the pylons. 
But once you stray from these routes, you need to know exactly what you’re doing, where you’re going and what equipment you need. In practical terms, that means hiring a guide. (Strictly speaking, you should hire a guide just to do the marked itineraries, and that is the safest thing to do, but most skiers don’t.) Your guide can then show you routes down to La Grave and the valley road approaching it (which is mostly North-facing) or runs off the back towards St Christophe, which is mostly South-facing.
There also also plenty more skiing, on-piste and off-piste, in Les Deux Alpes which you can ski over to from La Grave’s top lift, Return is by the snowcat tow or via a 20-minute hike. There are some buses between the two villages, but not many.
Serre-Chevalier is just a half-hour’s drive away from La Grave and has excellent tree skiing which provides a welcome change in poor visibility. Again there are some public buses between La Grave and Le Monetier, the nearest lift station in Serre Chevalier, but not many. Most La Grave lift passes entitle you to a discount on the Serre Chevalier lift pass. 
Near to La Grave, and well connected by buses, is the small village of Le Chazelet which has some good, sunny beginner slopes, and some La Grave lift passes entitle you to use them, or at least give you a discount. But whilst these slopes are geographically close to La Grave’s they are a world away in terms of steepness, so very few skiers spend time in both areas. 

Advanced & Expert Skiing in La Grave

La Grave is famous for its couloirs, including the three Trifide couloirs. There are many long ski routes down to the valley road that leads up to La Grave, and also ‘off the back’ to St Christophe-en-Oisans. The Derby de la Meije in April is an off-piste race, which sounds suicidal but it’s quite safe and great fun.

On a good powder day, this is as good as it gets. There is a wide variety of couloirs – some unthreatening in good snow, others much more severe, particularly in icy conditions when they are best avoided, no matter how skilful the skier. Negotiating a terrifying “no fall zone” traverse is necessary to get to the legendary Pan de Rideau (Curtain’s Edge) which is almost 50 degrees in places, with a bergschrund (crevasse between the glacier and the rock) at the bottom.

The three Trifide couloirs are probably the most famous ones, partly because they have been the scene of many tragic accidents over the years.

On the other side of the mountain, there’s an excellent and not over-difficult off-piste run down to the remote climbing village of St-Christophe-en-Oisans – again, best done with a guide. it’s mostly south-facing so snow conditions have to be right. To return, you’ll need transport back to the picturesque little village of Venosc, from where you can reach Les Deux Alpes by gondola. Les Deux Alpes has good black run and off-piste skiing too, so you might wish to make a few detours on the way back.

Holding a race in a ski area renowned for its extreme off-piste might seem crazy, but the Derby de la Meije is over 30 years old and is one of the safest times to ski in La Grave because the more terrifying couloirs are roped off for a day. In theory, the race is run from the top of the ski area to the bottom, but as it’s held in April, it usually ends at the river as there is not quite enough snow to reach the village and in a really bad season it might stop at mid-mountain (2400 m). Some racers, making as few as half a dozen turns, have completed the course in little more than six minutes! But you only have to be a fairly good skier, not an expert one, to take part. Teams are encouraged to have men and women, boarders and skiers, and if you can’t win a prize for being the fastest, you might still get one for having the best fancy dress. For more details see:

Intermediate Skiing in La Grave

Intermediates, with an instructor or guide, are limited to the two main runs in La Grave, plus the skiing in Les Deux Alpes.

Intermediates, with an instructor or guide, should be able to cope with the two main runs in La Grave, although even they are quite gruelling. They should certainly not stray further afield without a guide. Instead, they should ski over to Les Deux Alpes where there is much more intermediate skiing, and whenever they can, have a day or two at Serre Chevalier which is 30 minutes away by car. On the whole, however, they would be much better off if they were based at one of these resorts rather than at La Grave

Beginner Skiing in La Grave

La Grave is not a good place to learn to ski, but there are nursery slopes and ski schools in nearby La Chazelet and Col du Lautaret.

It is extremely rare for a ski area to have no nursery slopes, but this is one.

If beginners have been suckered into joining a group of advanced skiers that are coming to La Grave, there is a ski school just over three miles away at La Chazelet and more nursery slopes at Villa d’Arène and the Col du Lautaret. 

Once they start to progress, there are also some gentle blue runs at the top of the Les Deux Alpes glacier, which can be accessed from La Grave. But other ski resorts have much better facilities.

Boarding & Freestyle in La Grave

La Grave welcomes snowboarders but doesn’t have special facilities for boarders or freestylers – it’s just not that kind of resort. Instead, they are welcome to tackle the same off-piste slopes that skiers descend on.

Skiers and boarders alike have no special facilities – as this is not a ‘resort’, there is nothing specially prepared, be it piste grooming or park. It’s just a big mountain full of steep descents. Confident snowboarders, like their skiing brethren, will enjoy the ski area, but if looking for terrain parks head elsewhere.

La Grave Mountain Restaurants

Although La Grave doesn’t have pistes, it does have three mountain restaurants.

Perhaps surprisingly in such a gung-ho, minimalist area, there are as many as three mountain restaurants. The most popular is the refuge on the Chancel route down. There is another on the Vallons de la Meije side, at the mid station (Peyrou d’Amont) with superb views of La Meije, and one more at the top of the gondolas: the Haut-Dessus at the Col des Rouillans (3211m)


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