After a flurry of initial activity that yielded some great skiing our legs began to tire and the weather turned again, so on Tuesday morning we slept in but felt a little guilty and wanting to improve our climbing fitness so we skinned 840m vert up to the mid station of Flegere. It was quite a mundane effort and didn’t warrant any pics but I wore my Suunto Ambit so you can see what we got up to by clicking here. Wednesday was a clear day off as we wanted to get our legs ready for a three day trip to La Grave.
We had stayed at La Grave two years earlier but not technically skied there. We skied a long couloir over the back called La Rama but due to logistics it made more sense to have our car at Les Deux Alpes and ride the lifts there even though it could be accessed from La Grave.
We left Chamonix at 6am this morning and rolled into the carpark just before 10 – we were concerned with high winds we could see blowing snow on the ridgelines during the drive but all was calm at La Grave so we got our tickets and headed up the wonderful, ubiquitously French cable car system. Not before spying the local market and taking a picture of the cheese truck with La Meije towering overhead. We eat a lot of cheese in France and it is very important.
The lift is a strange pulse-lift arrangement with a mid station at 1800m, and then at the top of the first telepherique at 2400m you swap into another which takes you to 3200m. Then a short walk takes you to a snowcat which tows you to a poma, which then takes you up to 3550m. This poma is on a glacier and has no towers as such but the cables are suspended by other cables, and the bullwheels are mounted to enormous rock walls. I wish I could have taken photos but it was absolutely freezing at the top so the chance was zero. In fact Nicole’s nose started going white until I spotted it and got her to cover up!
We skied some nice powder on the glacier and then headed over to the ‘Chancel’ side of La Grave, after skiing some nice grippy windpacked snow we dropped into the Couloir Banane which is a moderately steep chute that’s considered somewhat of a loosener. It was probably 40deg but filled with nice round bumps made of grippy snow and we worked our way down and thoroughly enjoyed it. After that it was some more nice grippy windpack skiing until we got to about 2200m and the frozen spring snow made an appearance and we skied icy bumps in the forest until the mid-station. Proving for the umpteenth time that in France you are made to earn a superb run with a shitty runout.
We rode the lifts at the top and Jerome suggested we skin up to the Breche Girose – from there we could scope a particular descent or follow the glacier back down in what looked to be some nice powder.
The run we were scoping out we later found out to be called ‘Le Pan de Rideau’ and it is one of La Grave’s more notorious descents. It involves a steep & extremely exposed traverse to a steep snowfield, with a big crevasse at the bottom. Following the steeps is a rolling glacier in shady pow. We looked at the traverse, which was supposed to be the hard part, it was in good nick so we dropped in. (Some French walkers were at the Breche with a camera and took shots of us dropping in – I have given them my email address, hopefully they send them) The snow was dry & grippy and while a fall would have been fatal that was never going to happen in this snow. However at the end of the traverse our fortunes took a turn for the worst. The snowfield was indeed steep, quite wide before narrowing to a couloir below. It was probably 50 degrees but unfortunately covered in grippy punchy windblown snow, and as soon as I finished the traverse, two words came out of my mouth: “Too Steep”.
I’ve been battling a knee ailment for the last couple of years which means my right leg is now much weaker than my left, I ski in quite a lot of pain & I need to resort to sub-par techniques to minimise this. On this particular occasion I just didn’t feel that I had the strength to deal with this punchy snow, especially if I got caught off-centre on my weak side. Maybe in different conditions the line would have been another story, but today rather than ripping the steeps as I love to do I decided discretion was the better part of valour and sidestepped my way down the steeps. It was quite an ignominious occasion as we spent over 40 minutes descending a face that I’ve now watched on YouTube be skied in 40 seconds. But it was a long way down with rock and glacier exposure and a fall would not have been pretty. Due to the soft nature of the snow we were never in any danger, we could always kick a small ledge to stand on to rest our legs.
And the biggest fucking insult is that looking at the below photo it looks like absolutely nothing:
Anyway, all was not lost, there was some superb shady powder down below on the glacier and we took full advantage of it.
Once again the powder transitioned to windpack, which transitioned to icy bumps in the trees back to the mid station so we could download to town to complete our day.
La Grave is one of those places that I’ve heard about for years and I’m stoked to finally ski. It has a fearsome reputation as being wild and steep and I can attest first hand that this is indeed the case. I’m not at all ashamed to have been humbled by it – the mountains deserve our respect, and above all you need to make the kind of decisions that allow you to ski another day. While sidestepping a prize line isn’t a moment of immense pride, it’s also nice to know that you recognise your limitations and act within them.