La Grave is the Mecca of the expert skier. No other centre in Europe comes anywhere close to providing such an intense mountain experience; no other centre is so dedicated to serving the skier who has transcended the piste (trail) and who is searching his or her spiritual enlightenment on skis.
200km from Lyon, La Grave nestles deep in a valley 2500m below the imposing summit of La Meije. Traditional stone buildings line the main street; narrow alleys branch off and wind their way up the steep valley sides. La Grave is a mountain idyll.
La Grave's mountain facilities are wonderfully minimalist. A gondolaway rises in several linked sections from the village, 1400m to the Glacier du Vallon, 3200m. From here two small ski lifts climb to the Dome de la Lauze, 3564m, from which the ski area of Les Deux Alpes can be reached. Given what's on offer in La Grave though, why bother?
Aside from certain areas of the glacier that are secured against crevasse danger, La Grave has no pistes (trails). New snowfalls are never blasted away with dynamite; if the pisteurs judge conditions to be too dangerous, the gondola simply does not open. Noticeboards at the gondola stations display an evaluation of the day's avalanche danger; skiers are expected to make their own personal risk assessment and ski accordingly. Mountain guides can be hired in the village. Avalanche transceivers are used widely.
There are two main descents from the Glacier du Vallon, one on each side of the gondola. 'Les Vallons de la Meije' runs with the gondola to its left; skiers pass through an immensely imposing valley with the towering walls of La Meije and Le Rateau to the left. At the top of Les Vallons the Trifid couloir system provides a range of 'optional extras' for those in search of yet more excitement; for most however, the sense of awe of the normal descent is quite sufficient.
The alternative, 'Chancel', runs with the gondola to its right. The gondola is actually out of sight for almost the entire descent, but amongst such imposing mountains as those of La Grave, who really notices a tiny gondolaway, dwarfed as it is by endless walls of rock and ice. The skier passes through bowl after bowl of what can be the most fantastic powder snow to reach the remote Refuge E. Chancel, 2500m, where the friendly guardian serves traditional mountaineering fare in the cosy interior of the mountain hut. You can even stay the night here, but do ring first to confirm. From the refuge the descent continues, traversing through trees to join the lower section of Les Vallons or one of the intermediate stations of the gondola, depending on snow cover.
There are no night clubs in La Grave, no glitzy pubs or discos, no sports centres and no swimming pools. If nightlife is what you come skiing for then you should ski somewhere else. La Grave is for people who live to ski.
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