Forty-eight miles southeast of Grenoble, France, off a precarious road cut through the Romanche valley, the 12th-century farming village of La Grave has quietly become one of the last bastions of lift-accessed backcountry skiing. Called ski sauvage, there’s no patrol, no avalanche control, no boundary lines, no marked runs. You can’t just take the lift up from La Grave and then piece your way down. Following the tracks of another skier could lead you to the edge of a cliff, where the only way down is to rappel. Rescue comes in the form of a helicopter. On certain runs, La Grave is the very definition of extreme skiing: Fall and you die.
Many say that La Grave is what Chamonix Mont-Blanc was a half a century ago. The sleepy village of about 500 people is enchanting, made up of ancient stone buildings, artisan shops, and a dozen restaurants and hotels that forgo the chichi après-ski scenes found throughout the Alps. All of this sits in the long, foreboding shadow of La Meije, the “Goddess of l’Oisans,” a 13,065 foot peak that dominates the sky and inspires as much fear as awe. When the bus first dumped me out in La Grave, nothing about the mountains looming overhead indicated that this was a ski area. Every track of snow looked to pour into a crevasse or run off a cliff. Only when I spotted a pack of gondolas creeping painfully slow up a sheer rock face did I realize that this was indeed the right place.
The téléphérique was installed in 1976 to 1977 and has since received little more than maintenance. In just under an hour, the creaky two-stage gondola carries skiers above the timberline to a fantasyland of glaciers, couloirs, and over 7,000 vertical feet of steep, technical skiing. Despite its folklore among hard-core skiers, this one-of-a-kind lift may be rolling to a stop. Its lease is up in 2017, leaving the La Grave faithful to worry that if no one renews it, this portal to wild, off-piste skiing might soon be coming to a close.
The majority of skiers who visit La Grave hire guides. Mine was an American named Joe Vallone. In a mountain town full of lions, Vallone is a pride all his own. When pro skiers and film crews roll into La Grave, they hire him as their guide. He has left signature tracks down the mountains that are unmistakably his, mainly because he is one of the few with the moxie to carve them. Vallone once skied Pan de Rideau—an extremely exposed run in La Grave that requires traversing a 900-foot cliff onto a bergschrund-riddled glacier—completely naked. Some in town think he is a bit of a cowboy, always pushing for bigger, more daring descents that he isn’t exactly shy to tell you about at the bar later. Yet when it comes to getting to the core of why La Grave is revered among expert skiers, Vallone is the guide that many call.
He burst through the door, his eyes wide and intense and his hair exploding from a bandana. Vallone dropped his backpack on the table and began unloading gear. Out came a rope, an ice ax, ice screws, carabiners, crampons, a belay device, avalanche beacons, a shovel, and then finally a handful of nylon webbing that he balled up and tossed over to me. “Here’s your harness,” he said. “It’s a bit of a diaper, but it will hold you.” My guide had arrived, and I was terrified.
“I’m taking you to the classic classic,” he told me, repacking his gear, “La Vaute.” The route required skiing down the face of a crevasse-ridden glacier, Glacier de la Girose, and then rappelling down a 100-foot cliff into a snow-filled couloir, where we’d ski all the way to the valley floor below and hitch- hike home. Not exactly a warm-up run. I began uneasily threading my clunky ski boots through my sorry excuse for a harness, as Vallone fastened his ice ax to the outside of his backpack for swift access.
We exited the mountaintop restaurant at 10,500 feet above the village of La Grave. The light was flat and gray. The day felt ominous. The night before, record winds scoured the mountain, gusting hard enough to almost derail the cable car. The result was an avalanche that rated four out of five with snowdrifts loaded in areas that could be prone to trigger. The overnight wind had also left the glacier dimpled like a golf ball, the snow stretching out below like the sands of low tide. There wasn’t a track on it. We’d be the first.
“Count to 10 and then follow me,” Vallone instructed. “Always stop above me, never below, and then I’ll tell you about the next section.” He shoved off, gliding onto the glacier and falling into a beautiful rhythm. Eight, nine, ten—I set out after him, schussing down the packed powder. The snow had a spring to it that pushed my skis through each turn. For the uninitiated, skiing powder snow might be as close to outer space as you’ll ever get on earth. You’re momentarily freed from gravity, suspended over the world like a satellite. Your soul floats up with your skis.
The glacier funneled us into a series of steep chutes where we eventually met the rappel point to lower ourselves into La Vaute. Vallone instructed me to take off my skis and strap them to my backpack. Then he pulled out his rope and fished out a chain-link anchor bolted to a rock buried in the snow. La Vaute is a highly trafficked couloir by La Grave’s standards, a narrow chute of snow cut between towering rock walls that runs all the way to the road thousands of feet below. But it is not without inherent danger. In 2012 a 30-year-old guide and his 50-year-old client were killed right here.
“Clip this to your harness,” Vallone said, handing me a carabiner tied to his rope. “I’m going to lower you in.” I walked to the edge. Below me was a pit of snow and rocks. I couldn’t see the bottom. He said, “Alright, sit back and lean over the edge.” I did. The harness squeezed my crotch, reminding me that I did indeed have the balls to do this. “You know,” Vallone said, as he readied to lower me in, “I’ve always wanted to ski this.” “What do you mean—you’ve never skied this?” I snapped. He smirked: “I mean ski this without a rope. No rappelling. I know of only five people to have ever done it. Doug Coombs was one of them.”
Doug Coombs, the master, the legend. He was why I was here. Coombs grew up 10 miles away from me in Massachusetts. We learned to ski on the same hill, some 20 years apart. Yet from that bunny slope west of Boston, Coombs went on to become arguably the greatest extreme skier of all time. I watched his career unfold in the pages of magazines and the reels of ski films. It was a career that ultimately led him here to La Grave, where its boundless terrain and tight-knit community fit his personality. He put La Grave on the map for Americans like Joe Vallone, whom Coombs mentored and gave his first guiding job more than a decade ago. Then, in April 2006, Doug Coombs was killed in an accident while trying to save a friend in a couloir not far from this one. He was 48 and left behind a wife and son. I was here now, hanging over the edge of this abyss, trying to understand what had lured the greatest skier of a generation, my hero, to a place so far from where we both had started.
Into the couloir I went, kicking off the icy rock walls until I met the snowy apron below. Vallone rappelled down behind me like a commando. We clipped into our skis and then took it all in. Giant granite walls ripped hundreds of feet into the sky to our left and right. A steep alleyway of snow snuck down between them. It would be like skiing between skyscrapers, except with falling rocks and avalanches looming overhead. Through the gap between the rocks, I could make out blackbirds floating in the opaque sky. Legend has it that these birds hold the souls of fallen skiers, so many of which this mountain has claimed. Perhaps that’s the lure of this place. La Grave teaches the ultimate irony of life: It’s when we’re closest to death that we feel most alive. Vallone set off skiing. I followed, on the run of my life.
The Short List
Who to Hire: Joe Vallone, licensed by the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations, specializes in climbing, skiing, and alpine mountaineering. 33-6/32-04-68-53; provallone.com.
Where to Stay: Skiers Lodge, owned and operated by legendary ski pioneer Pelle Lang, caters to advanced skiers for six-day guided expeditions. Rooms, from $77; Rte. Nationale 91, La Grave; 33-4/76-11-03-18; skierslodge.com.
Where to Drink: Le Bois des Feés is located on the main drag and known for serving the best pizza in town. Rte. Nationale 91, La Grave; 33-4/76-79-81-03.
Where to Eat: Hotel Restaurant Castillan is a cozy French brasserie across from the main lifts facing La Meije mountain. Rte. Nationale 91, La Grave; 33-4/76-79-90-04; le-castillan.com.