Tilting The Axis In La Grave

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The toothy summit of 13,071 foot La Meije dominated the skyline during TGR's trip to La Grave this winter for the filming of "Almost Ablaze."

Words by Ian Macintosh, photos by SKFR_20140305_0293.jpg

La Grave, France - population 497. Stone dominates the construction here, as a combination of scarce wood resources and succesive fires made timber an unrealistic building material.

For those that do not know about La Grave, it’s a tiny village in the southern French Alps consisting of barely five hundred year round residents. The village is dominated by the glaciated and cliffy face of La Meije, a peak whose ridgeline is punctured by five teeth that hint at the dangers that the area’s mountains harbor. In 2006, Doug Coombs, an American skiing legend, died here trying to rescue a friend who had fallen down the Couloir de Polichinelle. This place is no joke. The “ski area” has one marked and groomed run accessed by a rope tow. Otherwise, the other lift, a thirty five year-old prototype gondola that was never duplicated due to its inefficiency, accesses 6,456 vertical feet of skiing that contains no marked pistes, no no avalanche control, and no ski patrollers.


Ian Macintosh gets ready to board La Grave's téléphérique, a gondola that was a prototype in the 1970's yet was never replicated due to its inefficiency.


While La Grave is more synonymous with insane steeps, crevasses, ice, and rocks than blower powder, Mac still knows how to find it when it counts.


"As far as line selection goes, I highly suggest not falling..." Ian readies to drop into the Pan Du Rideau.

We arrived in La Grave at the tail end of a month of stormy conditions to blue skies and stable snow. We thought we would start off with a classic La Grave line, the Pan de Rideau. This line begins with a traverse above 300 meters of exposed cliffs, gaining access to a fifty-degree face above the crevasse-riddled glacier below. Given the average attitude of a run here, it was the perfect line to get our feet wet. We skied it as a team, Johnny Collinson belaying Joe across the traverse so he could ski cut some slabs hiding in the corner of the run. It was a great warm up to start off the trip and a good indication of what was to come.


Ian Macintosh, Todd Ligare, and Johnny Collinson: The TGR La Grave Class of 2014. Say cheese!


Beacon? Check. Climbing harness? Check. Today's copy of 'Le Monde?' Check. Bota bag? Check. All the necessities in France.


The trio boot up the Northwest face of le Rideau, which would take the first victim of the trip with its shallow, sharky slopes.


A banged-up Todd Ligarre follows Johnny Collinson back through the narrow streets of La Grave after a tough day.

In the following couple of days we started tagging off some big lines and learning the lay of the land. A few days into the trip we decided to try our luck with the aesthetic northwest face of the Rideau. The only way to ski this line is to climb straight up it. On our way up, we noticed that the face was rocky as hell, with French shark fins buried just underneat the month’s copious snow, but we thought we’d be able to manage it. It was Todd’s turn to go first, but two turns in, he clipped a clump of rocks and went down, the ugly sound of his knee colliding with shale ricocheting up the pitch. We winced at the sound. Todd’s La Grave trip was over.


TGR's La Grave guide, Joe Vallone, shows off the fancy pencil tricks that have won him accolades as a trusted guide in some of Europe's gnarliest mountains.

And then we were three. Johnny and I, along with our guide Joe, still decided to go for some even bigger and more consequential lines in the days following. Joe had pointed out a line to us called the Serret Du Savon, a skinny couloir that would take us six hours to climb. We parked in a village called Villar-d'Arêne and skinned up the Glacier Du Tabuchet. This lead into a successful mission through a very exposed s-curve line and down the Glacier la Meije, where we were able to ski continuously for over 6,000 vertical feet. It was not a line to mess around on, with variable snow covering the spaces between ice and rock. As Joe said, “Although it wasn’t a charging line or banger conditions, it was an incredible highlight of my season. It was one hell of a face!” To celebrate, we went out for a team dinner where Johhny ate a rare hamburger, which turned out to be a really, really big mistake.

And then there were two. Johnny was very sick, spraying out of both ends and at the same time, Mother Nature started blowing all the snow away. We took a day off to re-group, let Johnny rest and wait for the winds to die down. Our next move was to hike into a refuge in the Ecrin National Park, with hopes of finding some big protected couloirs that the wind had not destroyed.


Despite the sunny skies, Johnny Collinson is still a little worse for the wear waking up at the Refuge Alpe De Villar d'Arene.


Hour "don't ask me" of the crew's approach on the Parc Des Ecrins to the Banana couloir.

We spent one night in the Refuge Alpe De Villar d'Arene, waking up early the next morning to begin our two-hour approach to a cirque full of couloirs. We decided that a line called the Banana Couloir had the best chance for good snow. Johnny was still suffering and decided to sit this one out, so Joe and I forged on. It turned out that couloir did not have good snow, but we went for it anyway. Two thousand feet of fifty to fifty-five degree tight skiing on hard packed snow made for some fast, on edge, no mistakes shredding.


TGR lenswoman Jill Garreffi, with the chance for epic b-roll on the line, focuses intently on her duties despite the delicious French wine.

The rest of the trip was filled with numerous scary moments and fun descents. Skiing down into small villages, double repels into sneaky lines, Tyrolean traverses over rivers, and countless other unforgettable good times. And to cap it all off, on our last day, we went to a restaurant at 9,600 feet, had dinner, watched the sunset, partied, and skied down under the full moon. It was a perfect way to end an incredible trip to some of the most demanding and steepest mountains Europe has to offer.


Skiing into the night down the Vallons De La Meije into La Grave. Look forward to footage from La Grave making an appearance in this fall's ski film, "Almost Ablaze."

For more photos from photographer Greg Von Doersten, check out gregvondoersten.com.

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