Part 1: Assorted Episodes in the Ecrins: A Backcountry Adventure in the Southern French Alps.
Words by Matt Carr, images by Ken Ezeji-Okoye
For any skier with an appetite for adventure, and an appreciation for the untamed, a trip to La Grave, France and the surrounding area ought to be high on the bucket list. Having spent a little (not enough) time there as a young pup, I had for many moons been yearning to go back with a good crew. The opportunity finally presented itself. Some calls were made, the idea pitched, a crew assembled. With me I had Will Robson-a journalist with the UK’s Fall Line Skiing magazine, Ken Ejezi-Okoye- a Canadian photographer from Val d’Isère, Dave Searle- an aspiring mountain guide from Chamonix, Stephen “Chipie” Windross- an experienced skier and climber from Tignes, and Joe Vallone- a hugely respected American guide and inextinguishable bonfire of stoke. Joe came to La Grave 12 years ago with Doug Coombs and like Doug, felt he’d found the place he’d been looking for and never left.
We’d be based in Chantemerle, one of the quaint villages in the Serre Chevalier ski area. Its extensive and well-spaced larch forests are home to some of Europe’s finest tree-skiing. In one direction out of town the road winds 30km northwest over the 2057m Col du Lauteret to La Grave. 15 km to the east lies Montgenèvre on the Italian border, a veritable Augusta of mini-golf terrain where much of Candide Kamera 1 was shot, passing by the ancient fortified town of Briançon, a Unesco World Heritage site. The concentration of quality diversions in this area is therefore rated “high to very high”. We would divide our time between the 3 for a week, hitting each area for a couple of days each, depending on where seemed likely to be best that day.
We began in Serre in far from ideal conditions. “The worst he’d ever seen in January” said Joe. It hadn’t snowed in a fortnight, the base was thin, and it was 19 degrees (Celsius) in town when we arrived. Local kids were in shorts and t-shirts: it was January 9th…
Day 1 we awoke to 100mph winds ravaging what little snow there was. Remaining vertical was a challenge:
The wind was in fact our only hope of finding good snow. We spotted a ridgeline that looked cross-loaded with a few cm of windblown soft snow, so heads down we battled the wind and fought on up the ridge.
And I blasted some frozen water skyward
Further down Chipie found a nice tube- the snowline in the background is at 2200m- normally in January it’d be a least 1000m lower. Despite the challenging conditions, it was a great day to start the trip. The terrain in Serre Chevalier was evidently excellent; we just needed some fresh snow to jazz it up.
The next day we bombed over the pass to Joe’s home patch La Grave. Joe was one of the first American IFMGA-qualified guides, and knows this remote corner of the Alps as well as anyone. It’s for this reason that he’s been the first phone-call for TGR and every other big film crew that have rolled through here over the years.
The terrain here is massive- as big as anywhere in the world. Towering over everything, La Meije stands guard at 3984m- the last major peak in the Alps to be climbed, in 1877.
The "piste map" of La Grave tells its own story- illustrating as it does the one lift from 1400m to 3200m, with an optional extra 400m (towed by snow-cat) taking you to 3600m. On the way down, there's sometimes one short groomed piste right at the top, but most of the rest is taken up by exclamation marks.
Joe points out some of the classic lines pioneered by Coombs, himself and others back in the day. A guide and harnesses are not mandatory here (here there's nobody telling you what to do), but both are highly advisable. Much of the terrain is glaciated, and many of the best 2000m+ vert lines involve mandatory rappels: this isn't a good place to follow tracks.
At the halfway point of the lift, you help yourself to free Yogi tea.
We lowered Kene into a crevasse and a mini gap-session broke out!
Dave wasn't in the mood for airs- he wanted to get barrelled
Local legend has it that the Choucas that fly around the summits here each represent a skier that has died here. It's a little melodramatic for my tastes, but they certainly are beautiful.
Moon is the giant bear-dog that belongs to Philippe, the owner of the awesome restaurant at 3200m. Each of his paws must measure 15cm across. Moon splits his time equally between sleeping on the terrace (whatever the weather), shouting at the Choucas for waking him up, being adored by every human that comes by, and charging down behind when Philippe skis down at the end of the day. A magnificent canine.
Chipie gets ready for lunch at the atypical but awesome mountain restaurant. Dress code: smart-casual-mountaineer.
Stay tuned for part 2 & 3 in the coming weeks.