For our last day in La Grave we wanted to descend one of the big ‘frontside’ runs that make their way down to the valley floor – from top to bottom that’s 2300m vertical. For reference most major North American resorts have a vertical drop of around 1000m. Jerome wanted us to check out ‘La Vaute’ – a classic couloir with a 30m rappel in the middle. Due to the previous warm temps the lower faces had thawed and iced up, but as today was warmer than the last few days there was a chance it would be soft in the afternoon so we decided to do a few runs and have lunch first before heading down.
So we did a warm up in Vallons and went back up to check out the Trifides couloir, which is another of La Grave’s more famous lines. It was around 40-45deg in steepness and the snow was firm but grippy. After a bit of rockhopping in the entrance we were in the couloir and had a great time. Good challenging steepness without being too steep or scary.
After Trifides we headed up to the 3200m station for lunch as we wanted to give the lower face of La Vaute time to thaw. After lunch we headed up to the top of the poma at 3500m and skied some mellow glacier pow while looking for the entrance
As it rolled over and got steeper the snow became wind-affected and quite tricky to ski. Similar to the snow in Pan de Rideau but without the 50deg steepness attached, it definitely required some new techniques, some of which were more effective than aesthetic. The crust was definitely breakable and a jump turn would have had your skis buried and your body going over the high-side like an out of control motorcycle racer.
I’m fond of the saying ‘It’s not that you can’t ski bumps, it’s that you can’t ski, and the bumps just prove it’ – and the wind affected snow we were finding in La Grave was definitely proof that if you subsituted ‘windslab’ for ‘bumps’ in that sentence it would hold just as true. The legendary Doug Coombs who passed away in La Grave in 2006 also had a saying ‘There’s no such thing as shitty snow, just shitty skiers’. La Grave was proving this to us in spades. I can’t remember a time when I learned so much about my skiing in just 3 short days as I did in La Grave.
The couloir gradually narrowed and steepened until we found the rappel zone, Jerome dug out the anchor and started preparing his rope. I had done quite a bit more rope work than Nicole in previous years including a couple in Chamonix in 2012 so I was quite comfortable with the setup but this was Nicole’s first effort and she performed admirably.
La Vaute translates to ‘The Vault’ in English and it’s easy to see why as you make your way down the couloir – enormous rock walls on each side and above, the only access is via a rope and the only sign of civilisation is the road thousands of metres below.
The snow remained windpacked and shitty, right up until the point where we transitioned into the zone where it had thawed in the previous weeks and refrozen, where we found wafer-thin drifts of fresh windblown snow resting as a thin veneer on top of the brown refrozen slush & frozen avalanche debris.
The warming that was forecast for the afternoon never eventuated due to grey skies forming in advance of an approaching storm.
I’ve often mentioned that in France you have to pay for an epic descent with a horrible runout, but this was taking it to the next level. Absolutely rock hard, sheet ice slick faces with the occasional mogul to get in the way. It was combat skiing at it’s absolute finest, and we skied very gingerly as a fall would have resulted in a large slide.
It was actually so bad that it was good, the kind of skiing where you just grit your teeth and get stuck into it – again La Grave proving that the mountain is boss.
I will do a proper review later in the trip but by this stage we are absolutely smitten with our new Blizzard Kabookies. Yet again we’ve ended up on the same skis due to women’s models not being imported into Australia in lengths above about 160, but we are absolutely stoked with our purchase. I am on the 180 and Nicole is on the 173, we have mounted them with our Dynafit touring bindings and given them a good workout in a wide range of conditions.
And so ended our trip to La Grave – Jerome hitchhiked back up to the car and came back down the road to pick us up and we began the 4 hour journey back to Cham with the excitement of a storm brewing and more powder.
I couldn’t be happier with our three days in La Grave. I have wanted to ski there for a very long time, and it possesses that rare and exceptional honour of living up to it’s reputation, and exceeding it by a great deal.
It is a true challenge of the all facets that make up an expert skier, technically, physically & psychologically. It exposes any weakness more brutally than any other ski area I’ve seen. Even Chamonix for all it’s hardcore elements also has the more benign resorts in the valley allowing you to take a softer option.
I can’t wait to go back.