Since the early 2000s, we have been traveling to the small village of La Grave, France to engage in some of the biggest lift-accessed ski terrain in the world while experiencing French mountain culture. Each time we travel here, our athletes come away with vastly improved ski skills, a greater respect and appreciation for the mountains, a widened world-view, and some lifelong memories.
Why La Grave?
Or maybe the question is, why do we keep coming back? Until you have skied here, it is hard to know how special this place really is - and those who have skied LG tend to keep coming back. La Grave has only one lift - a telepherique with one mid-station that slowly takes skiers up to 3200 meters with a rope tow that rises another 600 meters. That’s it. The lift is slow, and can be crammed but it’s where we meet some amazing locals, share stories about our skiing accolades, and let our legs rest after skiing thousands of vertical meters of steep, off-piste terrain.
Over the years, we’ve spent time in the telepherique cars talking with (and skiing with) people like Rob Hess - one of the first Unites States IFMGA Mountain Guides and current owner of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, Doug Coombs - Legendary ski mountaineer, mountain guide, and founder of Valdez Heli Guides, Liz and Miles Smart - ski mountaineers and IFMGA Mountain Guides, Ptor Spricenieks - Professional ski mountaineer featured in Dreamline, Pelle Lang - Owner of Skiers Lodge La Grave and IFMGA Mountain Guide, and Joe Vallone - La Grave local legend and IFMGA Mountain Guide, who we currently work closely with on our most recent trips to La Grave. This place attracts some of the best skiers and the best people, and for very good reason. By skiing here, being immersed in this culture, and spending time with some of these amazing people, our athletes have become part of the rich fabric of ski history that has been woven in this little village.
Yeah, the ski terrain is pretty great too… 2000-meter couloirs, open glacier runs, deep- north-facing powder, and sunny southern slopes. The terrain here is rugged, uncontrolled and often bigger than the stuff you see in the Freeride World Tour. Professional athletes venture to La Grave every year for training, film projects, and iconic ski descents. As Joe puts it, “everyone who comes to La Grave will leave a better skier.”
Our 2018/2019 team was kind of like a small, specialized strike team. With only five very strong ski athletes, the international flight to Lyon was easy. The long day of travel pays off as we drive up the mountain pass past le Deux Alpes and enter La Grave where La Meije peak, the Telepherique, and many of the ski lines come into view while the faces of our athletes Ellison, Tallie, Kai, Henry, and Leah begin to light up.
The drive to our rental house is even steeper with more switchbacks to get us up the hill from La Grave to a smaller village called Ventelon. From our south-facing stone house, we can ski through the farm fields down to the Telepherique each morning to meet Joe for a café, a croissant, a game plan, and a lift ride.
Our Guide and CVA Guest Coach, Joe Vallone
Our partnership with Joe has been a special thing for our athletes for many years and there are a few big reasons why we continue to work with him each time we visit La Grave. Like our athletes learn in the program, local knowledge and experience is incredibly valuable - especially from someone as highly qualified as Joe. Having someone who has such an intimate knowledge of the terrain allows our students to apply their skills in this amazing environment, push their limits, and gain many new techniques for big mountain skiing and travel. Still a kid at heart, Joe challenges our athletes to hand drumming battles in the gondola cars, will show off his 360s on pin-tech bindings, but most importantly, can relate to our athletes as a former competitor himself and help provide them with an unforgettable experience.
With coach Patrick and Joe in the lead and some advantageous weather on the way, the team was in for 10 days of steep powder turns, smiles, and hardcore lactate buildup.
Over 10 days of skiing in and around La Grave, we ticked off most of the major lines that can be skied with a group like this. These included:
- La Vaute
- La Freaux
- Chirouze Left
- Chirouze Right
- Trifide 1
- Trifide 0
- Le Banane
- Le Patou
- Cote Fine
- Saint Antoine
- Couloir Rama
- Col Girose and Girose Glacier
Here are a few details from some of the proudest ski descents and rewarding days of the trip:
Storm day! We woke up with just a few inches of new snow but snow throughout the day would mean some powder turns. Without much wind associated with the storm, the snow was falling lightly without consolidating on the surface and made the skiing feel DEEP! We skied down the Girose Glacier towards the entrance of La Vaute (The Vault in English). Before we got into the actual couloir, multiple athletes mentioned that this was the run of their life. Athletes were in the “White Room” and skiing better than they ever have. After a thousand vertical meters of skiing first tracks into La Vaute, we got to the rappel station. The ski mountaineering aspect of La Grave is another reason why it is so special. Our team was able to apply some of the skills we learned on our fall rock climbing trip, to this technical section of the ski line. One-at-a-time, each athlete was lowered by Joe down a 30 meter section of un-skiable cliff and met by Patrick at the bottom. Excitement and adrenaline were still at all time highs as we were able to look down the other half of the couloir that was yet to be skied. This was a day our athletes will never forget.
Skills targeted: Powder skiing technique, glacier safety and travel considerations, ski mountaineering technical descents, couloir safety and etiquette.
The Saint Antoine Couloir was our big objective for the day and may have ended up being the line of the trip for us. After an avalanche transceiver group check, we warmed up on Trifide 1, a 600-meter couloir and one of the iconic lines seen right from the lift on the way up. The snow was awesome for skiing steep couloirs today - chalky and grippy but with a soft, forgiving feel. For the Saint Antoine, we approached from the bottom, threw skis on our packs and boot-packed up the couloir, checking out the line as we went, knowing the 500-600 meter climb would be well worth it for the turns on the way down and to have been the only CVA group to have skied this line nearly 20 years of coming to La Grave.
With a tight choke-point in the middle of the couloir, we split the descent into three sections - top half - choke-point - bottom half. Athletes put their steep skiing technique to work on the top section, working to control speed with well-placed and cleanly-executed hop turns while also exercising their mental stamina to not get intimidated or “psyched out” by the steepness and exposure.
After sidestepping through the choke point, our athletes opened their turns up and gained a little speed in the bottom half of the couloir which was full of soft snow. Ptor Spricenieks gave some hoots and hollers from behind the lens as he snapped some photos of the line. The success of this ski descent seemed to set in for the athletes while coming out the bottom of the Saint Antoine.
Skills targeted: steep skiing technique, transitions in steep terrain, considerations for climbing up a ski line, slough management.
Skills day! After having completed a Level 1 avalanche course in Jackson Hole previously this year, we wanted to continue building on the mountain safety skills that were relevant to an environment like La Grave. Glaciers can be incredible to ski on, but they also can pose significant hazard with countless crevasse openings. Knowing how to read a glacier, how to identify the most dangerous parts, and how to rescue someone out of a crevasse, were all topics that we covered today.
Skills targeted: glacier safety and crevasse awareness, reading a glacier, crevasse rescue, using a rope versus not using a rope, group management on a glacier.
One of the most rewarding ways to round out a trip to La Grave is to ski off the South face of the glacier lift and ski about 15 kilometers out to the small mountain village of St. Christophe. The run we took starts with a quick traverse to the top of Couloir Rama, a narrow and aesthetic line with amazing corn snow from its southern exposure. Though it was February, the high alpine sun created a completely different skiing experience than the rest of the trip as we ticked off one final line to add to the list before heading home.
While skiing the long, mellow valley checking skiing past south-facing ski lines and north-facing ice climbing routes, it was an amazing time to reflect on the experience and lessons of the trip. At last, we skied through a snow covered farm, over a road, and literally took our skis off on the cobblestone sidewalk of St. Christophe. We celebrated with a café and a croissant in the local bookstore/restaurant, again sharing ski stories with the locals in the street who, without a doubt, all had amazing days in La Grave.
Until Next Time
After this trip, our athletes had so much experience, knowledge, and skill to draw from and apply to other skiing scenarios in other mountain ranges. We are grateful that the La Grave community has been so welcoming to us over the years because this place has had such a profound impact on our athletes. We can’t wait to go back. Thanks to Joe Vallone and Ptor Spricenieks for making this trip so special.
Written by Patrick Scanlan, CVA Backcountry Program Director, 2016 - Present.