La Grave Lessons: Spring Time = Go Time
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Being the digital age, I’m more in touch with friends back home than I ever could have been only a number of years ago. It’s both a blessing and a curse as I’ve made the best of seven weeks worth of high pressure, high temperatures, and highly icy conditions here in France—all whilst being inundated with seemingly non-stop reports of the unending pow cycles pounding British Columbia. So, when friends have checked in with me throughout the winter and asked how France has been treating me, I’ve mostly answered, “it’s been challenging.”
The benefits of having stuck it out until now include: a bigger network of friends and shredding partners, weather favourable to motivating people, better snow coverage (up high anyway), daytime heating that softens hard slopes on certain aspects and preserves pow on others, strong legs, and being more habituated to exposure and adverse conditions. As a result, that last two weeks have made my whole season!
Lately a fantastically talented female French shredder has been showing me some of her favourite lines. Nasta (our famous French shredeuse) was kind enough to take me to the Davin couloir not long ago. It’s a sheltered run further up towards Serre Chevalier in an area that makes Roger’s Pass or the Duffey Lake Road look like a MacDonald’s children’s playground. It was only about a 4000 foot ascent that day, following closely behind Nasta and her brother Niels, but about 3500 of those feet were enclosed in a couloir that, at its top, housed about 60 cms of fresh. French pow is not a myth, I’ve seen it! In the days that followed Nasta brought me to even more pow, kindly sharing her own lines down the classic road runs accessed from the telepherique.
Following that, I hooked back up with my usual Swedish riding partner, Lars. The Pan de Rideau (potentially La Grave’s most notorious run—made famous anew by Chad Sayers and Jordan Manley in their Skier’s Journey episode) was in shape, and it was finally time to go. The run requires a traverse above some countless number of feet of life-ending exposure—through rocks and shale. The traverse had been put in the day before but had blown back in, but Lars broke trail confidently as a few onlookers piled up behind us, prepping themselves for the same tense move. Ice axe in hand, I made my way across the traverse with a composure that surprised me. Three months prior I would have been shitting bricks. Five people had skied the line the day before and their tracks were still on the face. Lars made the decision to ski the 50 degree descent in our own undisturbed snow, which was a great call. We jumped the bergschrund at the bottom and now had a super long, cruisy, pow-covered glacier to Euro-schnoodle our way down. And let me tell you, it was schnooldly!
A couple of hours later, on our way to a different run, a serac broke off and pummeled the line through the Pan de Rideau with an ensuing avalanche and giant powder cloud. A couple of people were still on the sketchy traverse at that point, and I don’t imagine their underwear remained clean!
Next, Lars and I boot packed up Couloir Saint Antoine, a slick little gem visible from the telepherique. There was a techy pinch point that required climbing moves on our ascent, and on our way back down we paused to use a rope at that point. The rest of the couloir was filled with righteously preserved spring pow at its finest. In keeping true to my North-American ego, it felt good to lay first tracks of the season on a feature so visible from the lift.
After a day off, I got word of a trip to go ski the Enfortshors glacier—which is the only reasonably navigable route down from the Breche de La Meije this season. I hooked on to the overnight trip with Tyler and Farmer (two Americano guides), and an Austrian named Mattias. To get to the Breche we skied the terrifyingly icy 50 degree Couloir de la Girose before heading up to the Col de Replas, which gave us a 4000 foot corn run. We regained that elevation in order to sleep at the Promentoire refuge, one of the many amazing huts in the Parc des Ecrins. Had we been a day or two later it would have been a catered affair; these huts have guardians that cook for you once the spring and summer season are on. We brought our own food, but hut booties and blankets were all waiting for us—it was a sweet deal!
The next day started with some bootpacking, followed by some tense down climbing, and finally another short skin. The descent was potentially the biggest I’ve ever done, but it had more to do with route finding than anything else. To be on a 5000 foot line, the entirety of which is a no-fall zone, is an experience to say the least. Two people had skied the face the day before (first of the season I believe) and their tracks made it look as though they did a lot of poking around to figure out their way through!
A couple of days off and the Tabuchet glacier was next, which was potentially the biggest single vertical ascent I’ve ever done. For the Tabuchet, we started at valley bottom, in Villar D’Arene. We began the 7000 foot climb at 7:00 AM, crampons required for the first icy bit. The Tabuchet is a much more navigable run, and lower angle, but he last 200 vertical feet of climbing had been pretty hard on me and seemed to drag on forever. I still haven’t quite gotten used to high altitude, and a lot of the time it feels like trying breathe in outer space to me. Once at the top we chilled at Europe’s second highest and first oldest refuge for a good couple of hours—having a nap in the sun. The glacier skied awesome, but we still had some route finding at the bottom given the amount of melt.
La Grave takes on a whole new character in the spring, and moving through mountains in new ways is thrilling. It’s important to stay humble though, and to remember that this stuff is daily life for the locals. Most of these objectives and descents are only intermediate routes for real ski mountaineers, as bad ass as they might seem to me. In many ways, this is a totally different sport. The tradition of alpinism and the character of the people here—who make daily use of routes that would make someone famous back home—is something that resides at the core of the culture of the Alps.
Xavier de la Rue, Jeremy Jones, Seth Morrison, and Andreas Fransson are just some of the people bringing ski mountaineering back into the popular consciousness of our vacuous modern ski culture. But, putting aside all the flash and quick edits by ski companies (admittedly having been lured out here by much of that marketing myself), I can tell you that the biggest experience I’ve had out here is that of becoming a beginner in something that I thought I had been doing my whole life.
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