La Grave is an isolated traditional mountain village that straddles the road between le Bourg-d'Oisans and Briancon, at the foot of the imposing La Meije massif on the fringes of the Ecrins National Park in the Southern French Alps.
Along with Chamonix and Mont Blanc, La Grave and La Meije are two of the most respected names in European mountaineering; La Meije was the last major summit in the Alps to be conquered, and when you stand in La Grave and look up at the mountain's sheer walls of gnarled rock laden with ominous looking seracs you can see why. To the snowsports cognoscenti La Grave and its Vallons de la Meije ski area are also almost legendary destinations, steeped in the ethos of pure no-boundaries freeride and extreme skiing.
Other than a couple of secured and pisted routes on the Glacier de la Girose on the summit sector, there are no pistes here; the entire area is totally off-piste and is only suitable for advanced skiers & snowboarders, preferably accompanied by a qualified local high-mountain guide.
Although access to the start of the ski routes is relatively straightforward, either by uploading via the two-stage gondola lift from La Grave or by linking in from the summit sector via Les Deux Alpes over the deceptively easy pisted run on the Glacier, once you begin your descent here you have entered into a serious big-mountain environment that has claimed many lives
La Grave is no ordinary ski resort, in fact it's not a ski resort at all, it's a serious mountain station that just happens to facilitate snowsports as part of its remit to open up this high Alpine environment to all mountain-sports enthusiasts; aspiring expert skiers and snowboarders who come here tend to fall in love with it.
There are no real pistes here, there are also no avalanche protection systems, no slope signs and no boundary ropes; this is purely an off-piste freeride station. You can roam wherever your inspiration leads and conditions allow, but this requires a high level of technical ability and high-mountain expertise, ideally accompanied by a qualified local guide.
There are two classic routes: the Vallons de la Meije and the Vallons de Chancel.
The Vallons de la Meije descends to the skier's right of the gondola line: the uppermost section is steep and rocky, but not extreme; the upper half of the slopes are wide and open and often gets tracked-out to a piste-like condition; the lower half is much tougher, descending all the way to the valley floor, and requires a hike out up to La Grave village.
The Vallons de Chancel route ranges out into the steep and rugged terrain far to the skier's left of the gondola: the upper section of the route passes through some challenging terrain at the tongue of the glacier before traversing over to the Refuge Chancel, whose terrace is perched atop a cliff. The mid-section of the descent gives a good workout over wild and gnarly terrain, with a tricky traverse through the forest to reach the gondola mid-station and/or to join the lower section of the Vallons de la Meije route to the valley floor.
Off the slopes and apres ski
The village of La Grave winds along a short stretch of the main road that bisects it, offering a smattering of simple hotels and bar/restaurants, a small supermarket, a couple of regional produce shops, a bakers, and a launderette.
Tales of the day's adventures over a couple of refreshing beers is the apres-ski scene of choice in La Grave, usually on the terrace of the bar at the Hotel Castillan close to the gondola base terminal, facing La Meije. Later on, it's more of the same over dinner, perhaps with a few more relaxing drinks in a laid-back local bar.
More hedonistic visitors and seasonnaires party-on later at the K2 Bar and Pub Le Bois des Fees, both of which encourage dancing and have occasional live music. Mostly though, people head to bed early to get enough rest in order to tackle the next epic day 'on the hill'.
Bars and clubs
Edelweiss Hotel Bar
Pub Le Bois des Fees
Les Vallons Pizzeria