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9 March 2017

La Grave – The Off-Piste Skiing Paradise Facing Demise

Among the more hardcore skiers of the world, La Grange is akin to Mecca. The French resort is certainly not geared towards the beginner crowd, there is only one groomed length of slope, the rest is completely wild – glaciers, drifts, woodlands and couloirs. For free skiers, this is magic land, a place where skiing can truly feel like an adventure.

The village itself is unlike any other ski resort anywhere else in the world, a 12th century French village embedded in the flank of Le Meije, a 3,984 metre mountain located well south of Mount Blanc, the guiding beacon of the French alps. There are two lifts – a cable car which takes 40 minutes to reach 3,200 metres, and an old-school drag lift which will get you to the mountain’s only length of piste, some 3,540 metres up.

Haven though it might be, this strange, wild paradise may well soon be no more. The lease to the lift has always been privately owned, passing between various hands through the decades, but always struggling to earn enough money. Only the ballsiest skiers attempt La Grave; there is no avalanche control, no safety checkpoints, and every time there’s heavy snowfall, the lift runs the risk of being closed for hours or even days.

It first opened in 1976, with the second section opening 2 years after that. A few months later, disaster struck – the first lift station was blown up by a bomb, and to this day the culprit has never been found. So damaged was the machinery that the lift operated with less and less efficiency with each passing year, until in 1986 the cables became too worn and the lift shut down, seemingly for good. It opened again the following year, and started to gain the reputation it has today, thanks to the spreading word of hundreds of international skiers, all enamoured with the incomparable wonder of the slopes. Even then though, La Grange only scraped by.

La Grave only gets around a thousand visitors a year, which is paltry compared to the massive, syndicated resort of Le Deux Alpes, which sits nearby. In 2014, one of the main access roads to the village was cut off when part of a mountain collapsed, and the number of visitors dropped off sharply, despite the construction of an access road. Since then, profits have suffered and talk of the lift’s lease changing hands again has bubbled back to the surface. In June, the operating license will expire.

This kind of wild skiing is a dying art. Receding snowpack is already making it more expensive to maintain resorts, avalanche rates in the alps have been unusually high this year (several fatal incidents have already occurred) and the only people with the kind of capital necessary to keep resorts afloat are the big hitters. How can somewhere as unique and amazing as La Grave survive in that world?

Once the license runs out, the run of the lift will likely pass to new investors, and a lot hinges on their background and intentions. If one of the larger resort companies takes over, La Grave could soon be just another Alpine ski resort, stripped of the wildness which helped to define it. One such company is rumoured to have made it to the final two bidders. If a private investor takes over, they may do more to keep La Grave’s mythical status intact, but it’s an increasingly gruelling, thankless task.

At one stage, a crowdfunding campaign was set up to try and secure La Grave’s future, citing it as a shining example of a ‘soft approach’ to mountain tourism. The skiers who frequent La Grave, and the locals who maintain it, work around the ecosystem, rather than changing it. There’s no piste-bashing, no dynamite, no avalanche walls, everything is left as is. Any other day you could reach the top of the cable car and find powder, ice, or something in-between. It’s left in the hands of nature. This is what the crowdfunding campaign was established to protect, and while they didn’t make it far enough to bid for the lift, the money will now go towards supporting sustainable initiatives in and around La Grave.

Many ski resorts across the world provide work and habitation for locals, but La Grave strike a unique balance, the mountain unifies them, and they respect and protect it. The world of skiing might be stereotypically regarded as the domain of rich tourists, but there are places where it does a lot of good, and La Grave is most certainly one of them. 

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.