Saturday, May 10, 2008

Skiers Heaven in the French Alps

La MeijeThere have been a number of notes here and there in the hipster ski community about La Grave. About how huge it is and how wild. These adjectives are true but inadequate.

To trivialize: take 6 Jackson Holes, strip the trees off 3 and half off the other 3, layer 3 across and stack 2 high. Slather the upper layer with glaciers, gash liberally with cliffs, couloirs and icefalls and string a single telepherique three quarters of the way up. Top with two bizarre t-bars and a mangled Martha Stewart doll. This describes La Meije, the mountain at the bottom of which sits La Grave.

In fact is that just about anything that attempts to describe La Meije is inadequate. It is just too big to be described and has to be experienced and savored in order to get any idea about the place. La Grave offers a spectrum of ski experience available in very few places. So here's a bit of a lowdown about the whats and hows. The whys are up to you.

First, it's easier to get to than generally inferred. Fly into Geneva, walk 200 yards to the train to downtown Geneva, take a break there (may I recommend the Hotel Strasbourg, 1 block from the station) and then bomb down, again via train, to Grenoble (2 hours). You can also go in via Paris and take the TGV, but that can be a drag (have to get across Paris). From Grenoble, it's about 1.5 hour drive up to La Grave, past Les Deux Alpes and Alpe d'Huez. If you want to rent a car, it's much cheaper to reserve it from the U.S.

There are at least two other places to stay in La Grave: the Edelweiss and the Castillan. The Castillan is right across the street from the telepherique on the main drag. The Edelweiss is up a tunnelled stairway, well off the main drag. Remember that diesel exhaust may be one of the national smells of France.

6,000 feet down to the Romanche

La Grave really means skiing on La Meije. There's one main lift, a two stage telepherique and then a couple of t-bars on top. As specified, the easily skiable vertical is a smidge over 7000 feet. There are so many couloirs, it's pointless to name them, but some names that spring to mind are the Trifide, the Couloir du Lac, and the Banane. But one thing about La Meije is that you really should ski with a guide.

The guide issue gets kicked around a lot. Everyone knows that it's much easier to pickup at a bar if your stats include skiing glaciers without a guide in addition to those essential large body part measurements. But really, the point about planking with a guide is exposure to the really cool slots on the mountain without spending hours sleuthing around the ridges trying to delineate rad from rocky. Get a French guide.

Unfortunately, guides are generally expensive. The French ones charge about $300 per day.

La Meije

When we were there, it hadn't snowed in a couple of weeks and La Meije's couloirs and glacial expanses were less than fluffy. So we went over the Col du Lautaret, past Serre Chevalier and the ancient walled city of Briancon (worth a visit in itself) up over the Col du Montgenevre into Claviere, Italy. Here we spent the day riding the spectrum of lifts from gondolas to sex-change-rocket-launcher pomas (note guys: every newly ridden europoma should be experienced with the little circular disc well down toward the knees from the groin area lest you should speak an octave higher for the rest of the day) and floating through bowls and glades of diaphanous thigh deep two week old powder.

It's true, the Euros don't dive into the off piste, and so there was lots for us to shred. Another day, we went on a hike up a local spire (Mont Janus) for some fresh tracks that provided the best views, snow and thrills of the week.

Do not expect nightlife. Do not expect anything like Vail, Breckenridge or Whistler/Blackcomb. La Grave itself is an incredibly beautiful, old French alpine town that so far has escaped development. The buildings are nearly all old stone and timber constructions with knobbly weathered doors and shuttered windows. Lots of townfolks keep sheep in their basements and you just can't help feeling swept back in time, especially as you walk the twisted cobblestone lanes up to the 13th century church that crowns the village.

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