La Grave is indeed one of the most famous, if not THE free-ride "ski resort" in the world, but more than just a ski resort.
Meet Tom, a lifetime friend, my best man, and ski patrol here at 3200m of altitude for a tour in the heart of the Pays de la Meije.
Alpinists, climbers, skiers, mountain lovers, crazy dudes skiing down 2000m D- in 6 minutes for the Derby, hippies, and racers have at least once in their lives heard about La Grave.
Nestled in the north of the Southern Alps, the small village of La Grave and its 6 hamlets lived, until 1976, mainly from agriculture. Considered a true alpinism destination after Chamonix, the main peak of La Meije was reached for the first time in August 1877 by Emmanuel Boileau de Castelnau and Pierre Gaspard.
Its iconic and colourful gondolas were designed by Denis Creissels and achieved in1977. They link the village, at 1470m, to the glacier at 3173m and radically changed the destiny of the ski resort.
It takes about 30 minutes to get from the village to the top. You will have to change from the 1st section to the 2nd at 2400m, so you have a little bit of time suspended in the air to get used to the altitude (although I remember being sick on my first time when I was about 9!) and to admire the walls of rocks and glaciers around.
At the top, the view on the mountain range is pretty breathtaking: the Girose Glacier that you can see, a glass in your hand from the terrace of the restaurant Le Chalet 3200, the Meije summit on your left and if you're lucky you can even see the Mont Blanc.
Lunar, dry, nearly deserted the day we went, the destination is likely to be busy during the season from January to March and on powder days.
From here, you can either keep going on the T-Bar of the Girose Glacier (which aims to be changed soon by a gondola) for the view, otherwise, choose your way down: from 3200 to 2400, which is a faster rotation so you will be able to ski more and have better snow, or down to the village at 1450, which is, to me, an option to be kept for the last run unless snow conditions are excellent.
As you can see on the map below, there are nearly no secured slopes aside from the blue runs at the top so every run is Free Ride and that's the reason for most of the skiers (99,9%) to take a trip to La Grave. It's you and the mountain. True Story: I remember a guy from Paris telling me that he went there to show off with his friends and took nearly the day to get down because he thought it was easier. It's a call back to your human capacity. La Grave is not easy. But for so many reasons a must-try.
For the first section, there are no trees, you need to know or ask for the best way down. Or you can use FatMap to help you. Consider using Les Vallons for the first run, this is THE classic way, the top of Chancel or the Trifides are classic alternatives for your runs.
Down at the bottom, you can't miss having a drink at the Skiers Lodge or for a local experience at the Bois des Fées. If you dare, ask for a Mélèze (literally Larch) a local liquor made out of Larch flowers, very close to the Génépi, strong and sweet: it's good for the legs.
PS: Each year since 1988, the Derby de la Meije is gathering 900 crazy people racing for the fastest run from the top at 3500m to bottom (read approx. 2000 meters down depending on conditions). The record is held by Seb Meyer in 00:04:17.72. Yes, 4 minutes.
As this is my very first article, please let me know if it was useful in the comments!