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Nestled at the foot of the Massif des Écrins, along France’s eastern border with Italy, sits the sleepy ski resort town of La Grave.
Situated in the shadow of the iconic peak, La Meije, this idyllic little town of just 500 full-time residents is the perfect place for any off-piste adventure in the Hautes Alpes. Ski tourers from around the world head up to this town for its legendary runs and excellent snow conditions.
From the top of the town’s only gondola are two unique runs that last for more than 2.000 vertical meters! If you are feeling adventurous, you can also strap on some skins and head a bit farther up the slopes of La Meije for some longer and even more thrilling runs.
Be forewarned, that off-piste skiing in La Grave is not for beginners. It is highly recommended to hire a guide because, while the area is patrolled, there are no formal avalanche controls. A certified guide will be able to take you to the best spots and keep you safe to the best of his or her abilities.
All that being said, La Grave is a beautiful spot and, along with the classic routes from the top of the gondola, offers a plethora of other routes through varied terrains and landscapes.
“I particularly like this place because we have the opportunity to ski in a real alpine and authentic environment,” Damien Fontaine, a local IMFGA-certified guide, told Explore & Share.
“The quality of the snow is usually very good in La Grave,” he added. “And when the conditions are not the best on one side of the domain, we’ll go to the other side. Ski options here are endless.”
The area around La Grave certainly seems endless. The hamlet is surrounded by coniferous forests, glacial lakes and spectacular rocky overlooks. You could spend months exploring all the different runs in the vicinity of the town, especially once you head up onto the slopes of the massif.
However, take a second before booking your next ski holiday, and have a quick look over some important facts and information you should consider before deciding when to go and where, exactly to ski.
As was previously mentioned, there is one gondola that will take you the top of the Col des Ruillans, at 3.200 meters. From the terminus of the gondola, there is an additional lift that will take you a bit farther up to the top of the Girose Glacier, at 3.550 meters.
From the Col des Ruillans, there are two skiing routes, one on the left-hand side of the gondola and the other on the right-hand side.
The one on the left-hand side takes you along the Chancel route. On this route, you will head down through several couloirs, including the Banane, Patou and Couloir du Lac. After the couloirs, you head around the Lac de Puyachier and past the Refuge Evariste Chancel.
Past this point, the path diverges and you may either head directly to the valley floor along the thrilling and steep Fréaux Couloir before ending up in the village of Les Fréaux. Or, you may head back to the P1, which will take you back down into La Grave.
This route offers some stunning mountain views, as you head from couloir to couloir, before taking you through a beautiful alpine forest before you will arrive back in civilization.
Meanwhile, heading out to the right of the gondola at Col des Ruillans, takes you along the famed Les Vallons de La Meije. This stunningly scenic route, takes you down several steep couloirs, framing excellent views of the mountains ahead of you, before bringing you down into the valley and along the Romanche River.
Along this route, there is an option to return, via the P1, back toward La Grave. This avoids heading into the high meadows, which begin losing snow before the rest of the run does and are a bit more challenging later in the season.
Heading up along the final lift after the terminus of the cable car, again, brings you to the highest point that you can reach mechanically in the resort, the Girose Glacier. From here you can either head south along the Vallon du Diable to the village of St Christophe en Oisans (though you need to arrange for transport back to La Grave from here, or head back up the mountain and down a different route).
There are several direct routes to take through the Vallon du Diable, including through the Chirouse and Orcières valleys. Both of these routes are best suited for advanced skiers as they involve some complex route finding and even a bit of abseiling.
However, the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and scenery are well worth all the effort, if you can manage it.
It is also possible to ski directly back to La Grave, from the Girose Glacier. In order to do so, you will head down onto the Glacier du Rateau before rejoining the Vallons de La Meije.
For more straightforward runs, there is a stop earlier on the gondola at Peyrou d’Amont, that offers some excellent straight shots right back into La Grave.
And all of these are just the routes in La Grave and at the foot of La Meije. The region is full of plenty of other of ski touring locales as well.
Be sure to speak with your guide when booking both to get his or her recommendations as well as to outline the kind of skiing you want to do and what scenery you would like to see!
From December to April is the best time to visit La Grave for off-piste skiing. The town is consistently ranked as one of the sunniest in France, which means there are plenty of sunny and clear days to enjoy on your ski trip.
In the town of La Grave, the average temperature in the winter is around 1ºC to 2ºC from December to February. This increases to about 3ºC to 5ºC in March and April. Remember, as you gain altitude, temperature does decrease at a rate of about 1ºC for every 160 meters.
In spite of all the sunny and clear days, the town does get plenty of snow. From December to February, La Grave receives between 10 and 12 days of snow, getting about 120 to 140 mm of snow over this period. December is generally the snowiest month.
Luckily, once the first snowfall has arrived, it is generally cold enough on the mountains to sustain permanent snow cover until April.
The average cost of an off-piste skiing trip with a guide in La Grave largely depends on how many people are in your group, what is included in the trip and for how long the trip lasts. Remember to always ask your guide for specific price quotes.
However, for a single day of off-piste skiing with a guide you can largely expect to pay between €70 per person to €350 or €400 per person. This discrepancy entirely depends on how many people are in your group, with the €70 for groups of 5 or more and €350 or €400 for a single person.
These trips will generally include the guide’s fee and, in some cases, group equipment if it is needed for the excursion.
Some guides also offer multi-day hut-to-hut off-piste skiing trips around La Grave. This is generally a group trip requiring a minimum number of people and costs about €1.000 per person, including the guide’s fee and expenses, group equipment, accommodations and half-board meals.
If you are arriving from outside of Europe, the best way to get to La Grave is to fly into either the international airport at Geneva (GVA) or Lyon (LYS). Then you can hire a car and make the 3 or 2.5 hour drive, respectively.
Please note, sometimes during the winter the road from Grenoble to La Grave is closed due to inclement weather. Keep this in mind when traveling here by rental.
If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of a car rental (who among us really does), then you can use public transit to arrive at La Grave. From both Geneva and Lyon, you can take either a train or bus to Grenoble. Trains are a bit faster than buses, but cost a bit more.
From Grenoble, you can either take a bus directly to La Grave, which is the most direct and cost efficient route. There are also train services to Briançon with the option of then taking a taxi on to La Grave.
If you are coming from within Europe, then it is probably easiest to fly directly into the local Alpes–Isère Airport, which offers direct flights from various European cities. Otherwise, Lyon has a fairly large international train station, which is another option too.
For those who are feeling more adventurous, BlaBlaCar is an excellent long-distance ride sharing app that could get you to Lyon, Grenoble, or even La Grave, from any number of European destinations.
So what are you waiting for? Book your next off-piste ski touring trip to La Grave now and enjoy the quintessential alpine skiing experience, from pristine powder to picturesque scenery!
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