La Grave, France - 2/06

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La Grave, France - 2/06

Postby ChrisC » Fri Sep 29, 2006 2:46 pm

La Grave lives up to much of the hype that surrounds it. It is tough, crowd-free, unspoiled, glaciated and incredibly scenic. Much less a ski resort and more a lift served backcountry skiing experience. To try an American metaphor, it is Mad River Glen meets Mt. Rainier.

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Mountain
La Grave,s vertical is an astounding 7,000 ft (think Alta on top of Whistler) 4,600 to 11,600 ft. It faces almost due north and any other light is blocked by La Meije towering over at 13,000 ft. There are no defined, patrolled, avy protected routes. You are on your own. However, there are two well-known itineraries: Vallons (east side) and Chancel (west side). Neither is overly challenging and mostly high intermediate/low expert. However, route finding can be tricky. And the point of La Grave is not to stay on the beaten path.

Most descents at La Grave consist of the following segments:
1. Open, glaciated terrain
2. Technical couloirs
3. Tree skiing

The difficulty comes from not-so-much the steepness, but from the unrelenting, rugged technical challenge. There are no groomed paths. No catwalk to space out on. And you need to be proficient at many types of terrain ? tight turns, bumps, trees, obstacle avoidance, boulders, etc. Fitness is necessary.

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Guiding
You need a guide. You need avy gear. And why bother with La Grave unless you put a harness on and get into something scary via a rope?

We found a guide -- via a Chamonix guide friend-of-friend -- who was willing to negotiate for multi-day deal, well below the Official Guide Bureau. He was great and trying to start a practice in the Southern French Alps. It is truly amazing the certification process to become a mountain guide. The US has no equivalent. You need excellent skills at many mountain disciplines (rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering, off-piste skiing and ski touring) and superior skills at two of them in order to achieve this certification. If you want his info, email me. This being France, we were probably breaking some territorial union rules which might have resulted in a strike and the closure of La Grave for a few days :)

Lift.
Painted in rainbow colors, the aging pulse gondola takes about 30 minutes from top-to-bottom. It?s actually 2 gondolas; one gondola has a mid station called P1. At the mid station it just slows to crawl and you jump in without supervision. Don?t screw up or get caught napping. It?s the funkiest lift I?ve been on.

The lift is closed approximately 1-2 days per week due to high winds, heavy snow, instability, etc. While visiting, it was closed 2 out of our 4 days. This is how avalanche control is done at La Grave. Too dangerous, close the lift. The La Grave guides make a decision every morning before lift opening at 9am.

Snow Conditions
The base was 150cm in early February and snowfall ranged between 20-40cm. This was good, but not excellent. The mid/lower mountain was well-covered with soft surface conditions all the way down to town. The couloirs were well covered since they are sheltered and get good blow-in snow. The problem was the exposed areas of the upper mountain. The lack of trees and scouring winds stripped much of the snow. Combined with no maintenance and an inherent rocky mountain, you had to be careful. It reminded me of the traverses at Alta/Bird that get scoured.

Also, the mountain never sees the light of day which keeps temps cold and prevents the snow from consolidating into a base. Most of the compaction is due to wind. Good/bad ? soft snow, but less solid base to cover rocks. Locals say that rocks are always present ? even in the best years. Until you get to a 200cm base, they will be there ? and probably even when you get above that.

Season
La Grave probably has a small sweet spot for its season. Different parts of the mountain "ripen" at different rates.

Almost unskiable until mid January.
February. The mountain is filling in and getting better. Lower mountain is great.
Early-to-mid March. Optimal time to ski La Grave. Lower mountain starts to deteriorate.
Late March onwards. Lower mountain suffers spring conditions to melt off. Upper mountain best filled in and still powdery.

Crowds
There were no crowds. None. Zero. There were so few skiers; it was like having your own private mountain. We rarely saw another person on the mountain. Occasionally, a group might ? just might ? show up while we were waiting for the lift. Never have skied anyplace so uncrowded. Wild. In fact, there seemed to be more ice climbers than skiers. And there were no women. None. I think I saw just one or two on the hill. It was a very much a macho sausage fest.

I'm not sure this truism would hold on a March powder weekend.

Mountain Food
Despite few crowds, there are 3 places to eat on the mountain. How do they stay in business? The summit station is a traditional cafeteria. Despite it being February, it was too cold to its deck. The mid station restaurant was great and always had a table for us at noon. At the base of the lake couloirs, the Refuge Chancel (http://www.refuge-chancel.com/) is even more unique.

Town
La Grave is a charming French village with a few inns, bars, restaurants and a ski shop or two ? and not much else. Oh, a cheese shop. Truly low-key. Sleepy almost. Just being non-French stood out. The Bois de Fees (Ferry Forest ? go figure) is one of the only popular bars. Had shots of Genepi ? alcohol fused with mountain wildflower. Our guide who made his own gave advice on the different colors.

Lodging
The Skiers? Lodge and Edelweiss seem to be the best known and most obvious (only?) choices. Skiers? Lodge is more all inclusive ? guide, meals, etc. We stayed at the Edelweiss. It had good homemade French food, reasonable prices and flexible owners.

Trip Planning
If you plane on skiing La Grave for more than a few days, you most likely will be skiing a few of the other mountains due to lift closures or better snowfall elsewhere. Alp d?Duez, Serre Chevalier and Les 2 Alpes are all 20-30 minutes away. However, the mountains and valleys funnel storms differently, so if you are hunting powder be prepared to travel.

Who should go?
Well, this is not heli/cat skiing where you are shuttled to the best powder everyday. It is more backcountry with the aid of a lift - and it's rough around the edges (variable conditions, obstacles). Vertical maximaization is also not really part of the equation. Expect less than 5 runs per day if not fewer. Understand this attitude and you will love La Grave.

Resources
Here are some web links I used:
Description of runs with visuals http://www.skierslodge.com/2Frameindex.html .
Another descriptive site http://pistehors.com/backcountry/wiki/H ... -Off-Piste
Off-piste guide book http://www.editionsvamos.com/index.php? ... p&Itemid=8

Trip Report and Photos
Here is the good stuff.

It all starts from a simple A-frame lodge at the edge of town. Note about 10 cars in the parking lot.

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The token danger side at the top of the gondola.

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The view from the summit.

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The easiest of the Trifides Couloirs.

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The Glacier de la Meije. That?s my group out there in the vast space.

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The ice cave at the foot of the glacier.

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Another Trifide Couloir.

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La Meije.

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P1. Just sit and wait on the stairs.

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Busy mountain café.

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Chancel Itinerary

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Banana Couloir

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Banana exit

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Patou Couloir

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After the Larch trees

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Lenticular clouds on La Meije ? always a good omen!

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Powder

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Patou Couloir

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Inside Patou Couloir

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Couloirs du Lac (Patou, Banana, Derobe) as seen from the Chancel Refuge
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Cote Fine Couloir
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Yep, lots of snow
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Another tight couloir entrance....or Why to hire a guide!
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Me slutting for the camera.
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Another great La Grave day. Time for a shot of Genepi and some town photos.
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Last edited by ChrisC on Wed Sep 26, 2007 12:26 am, edited 15 times in total.
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re: La Grave, France

Postby Tony Crocker » Fri Sep 29, 2006 4:35 pm

Outstanding and informative report. Admin should put it in the Resort Features section IMHO.

Extremely Canadian runs trips to La Grave in the "sweet spot" period of early March. http://www.extremelycanadian.com/skitrips/lagrave.htm . That might make a good pretrip before 2008 NASJA in Bretton Woods.
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re: La Grave, France

Postby Patrick » Fri Sep 29, 2006 9:53 pm

Thanks Chris. \:D/

Very informative. As you know, I did my own investigation about La Grave and know two people that have gone. The first one from France and did without a guide once and went back with a guide. The other one is a GIRL without a guide and without avy gear. :shock:
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Re: re: La Grave, France

Postby ChrisC » Sat Sep 30, 2006 1:21 pm

Tony Crocker wrote:Outstanding and informative report. Admin should put it in the Resort Features section IMHO.

Extremely Canadian runs trips to La Grave in the "sweet spot" period of early March. http://www.extremelycanadian.com/skitrips/lagrave.htm . That might make a good pretrip before 2008 NASJA in Bretton Woods.


Thanks.

La Grave is one place where you want to maximize snow base. And I do not think it gets a ton of snow.

There really is not that much below P1. Perhaps the best reason for lower mountain snow is for attempting one of the couloirs/paths that end upon the highway outside of town. We did not get to try any of these due to lift closures.

Looking at the Exremely Canadian trips, I noticed they to Alagna. (Years ago, Powder/filmakers were refering to La Grave as Valley X. Now I've seen Alagna written up as Valley Y). However, I am convinced Zermatt/Matterhorn/Mt. Rosa sits in a snowhole - blocked by mountains from the north and south. I wonder why they do first week of Feb?
From the Zermatt website
But at higher altitudes (eg. 2500m) the snow pack does not even reach its greatest depth for the year until March. In fact one of Zermatt's biggest and best advanced areas (Stockhorn/Triftji) does not normally open until February, because it requires a lot of snow to cover its rocky slopes. But then it remains superb until May.http://www.ski-zermatt.com/winter.html

Anyways, I think Italy is to inconsistent to ever plan a ski trip. Someday, I would like to ski Eastern/Central Switzerland (Andermatt or Engelberg) and Austria (St. Anton).
Last edited by ChrisC on Tue Oct 03, 2006 2:06 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: re: La Grave, France

Postby ChrisC » Sat Sep 30, 2006 1:45 pm

Patrick wrote:Thanks Chris. \:D/

Very informative. As you know, I did my own investigation about La Grave and know two people that have gone. The first one from France and did without a guide once and went back with a guide. The other one is a GIRL without a guide and without avy gear. :shock:


Thanks.

To be honest, I think you could easily ski a day at La Grave on the main routes with out guide/gear. The greatest danger with them is glacier travel (har to know where it starts/stops) and potential serac falls. And the trees are as safe as anyplace. However, there is such a temptation to explore -- you could easily get sucked off the main paths.

If you are there for more than a day - a guide is really important. Often just for route finding. Even with a topo map and off-piste guide - this is not a simple mountain. There is a giant cliff band that runs along the base of the mountain. Ice climbers love it. Skiers - well - I think this is the area the Doug Coombs died -- sadly. Enough said.

La Grave lift tickets are cheap - 30 Euros. Combined with a share of a guide - the total is probably 100 Euros. With lift tickers at Vail, Aspen, Stowe, Deer Valley at/near $80 - it's a fair relative price. For me, it was simply the cost of doing business, no secound thoughts.

I'm sure there are quite a few women that enjoy La Grave. However, the ratio was even more skewed than places like Jackson Hole or Chamonix.
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re: La Grave, France

Postby ChrisC » Tue Oct 03, 2006 4:40 pm

I agree that March 1 st would be prime time La Grave.

I got cold, fluffy snow till the base (even the last field before the river) - but I wanted more filled in crevasses and rocks at the summit. I should not complain...i got new snow and skied every line possible for my time there.

After March/April....temps can rise and cause the couloirs to become super icey. But they can be resurfaced in a night with nes snow -- sometimes big-time storns as the Edelweiss owners described.

Anyways, March 1st +/- 2 weeks is the best. Late Feb...fine too.
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Re: re: La Grave, France

Postby Patrick » Tue Oct 03, 2006 7:30 pm

Patrick wrote:The first one from France and did without a guide once and went back with a guide. The other one is a GIRL without a guide and without avy gear. :shock:

ChrisC wrote:To be honest, I think you could easily ski a day at La Grave on the main routes with out guide/gear.(...) However, there is such a temptation to explore -- you could easily get sucked off the main paths.(...)There is a giant cliff band that runs along the base of the mountain.

That's what the group that was with the girl did. "Let's go under the rope" for their last run and ended having to walk back up for a longtime once they saw two boarders cliff back up and mentioning that there was a cliff. It could have been tragic.

ChrisC wrote:If you are there for more than a day - a guide is really important. Often just for route finding.

First person I mentioned skied it first without a guide, he took a guide the next time he went and he told me how much better the experience was.

ChrisC wrote:I'm sure there are quite a few women that enjoy La Grave. However, the ratio was even more skewed than places like Jackson Hole or Chamonix.

I'm sure you're right. The girl i'm talking about isn't your typical girl. :lol:
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re: La Grave, France

Postby ChrisC » Tue Oct 03, 2006 8:45 pm

ChrisC wrote:
I'm sure there are quite a few women that enjoy La Grave. However, the ratio was even more skewed than places like Jackson Hole or Chamonix.

I'm sure you're right. The girl i'm talking about isn't your typical girl.


Can I have her number??
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re: La Grave, France

Postby ChrisC » Wed Oct 04, 2006 1:22 am

edit
Last edited by ChrisC on Thu Oct 26, 2006 7:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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re: La Grave, France

Postby ChrisC » Wed Oct 04, 2006 1:45 am

I did this report because - even with the internet - there are a lot of questions. I try to answer some from a USA viewpoint. Yes, you need to get along with locals.....but I do not speak French.
Last edited by ChrisC on Tue Oct 31, 2006 6:30 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: re: La Grave, France

Postby Patrick » Wed Oct 04, 2006 7:44 am

ChrisC wrote:I do this report because - even with the internet - there are a lot of questions. I try to answer some from a USA viewpoint. Yes, you need to get along with locals.....but I do not speak French.

I know that when I was researching a possible trip to La Grave in 2003, I couldn't find much (French or English).

I'm sure your report is very appreciated. :P
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re: La Grave, France

Postby ChrisC » Tue Oct 31, 2006 6:56 pm

Here was a great trip report from TGR with pics from a La Grave bluebird powder day.

http://www.tetongravity.com/forums/show ... eadid=5712

A sample.
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TGR Trip Report
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