La Grave Ski Trip and Paris, January 18 -28, 2002 - Martin Friedrichs
7,000 feet to just under the rugged La Meije Peak, the last and perhaps most difficult major mountain peak to be climbed
in France. The tram was strictly designed for summer tourists and climbers, as the mountain is clearly not skiable. The
whole trip up brings tourists over a series of jagged cliffs, steep couliors and hanging glaciers. In the 80's the main
highway moved and the town of La Garve started to dry up. Around this time Pelle Lang, the Swedish extreme skier
(Sweden's version of Doug Coombs and Dean Cummings combined) convinced the town to open the lift in winter. He
wanted to run an extreme skiing lodge, bringing "advanced" skiers down the mountain in its natural state, i.e. without any
ski trails or controls. It was to this lodge and mountain I went (alone as my friend Bill had to back out for business
reasons) on January 18th for a week's vacation.
They picked me up from the Grenoble station and after an hour and a half I arrived at their remote, but beautifully situated
lodge high in the Alps. This lodge only attracts the most hard core and rugged among extreme skiers. There is no real town
or other activities. There are no conventional trails. There are no options for going at your own pace or selecting your own
terrain. If you are not prepared to ski this mountain you just don't come here. The 16 other skiers were all very prepared.
Most came with their own avalanche transceivers, harnesses, search probes and shovels and multiple skis for varied
conditions. I would have to borrow or rent everything. The lodge also had another dozen guests taking an advanced
avalanche training class in real conditions.
That evening Pelle's first task was to determine which of the four groups he would start you out in. On a scale of 1-10 I
boldly ranked my self as a 7 as an off piste (off trail) skier. Among the general skiing population that is certainly true, but
among this crowd I had no idea. Skiing for a week with Dean Cummings in Valdez, Alaska did not seem to impress him.
He then asked I had ever skied Chamonix “ the long time Mecca of extreme skiing. Why yes I said, I had skied there for
a week in the 80â€™s with Patrick Vallencant 's guide company). But I never got the last two words out (guide company)
as he jumped in to tell me Vallencant (perhaps the world most famous extreme skier) was his idol and inspiration for
starting this lodge. Unknown to me, thinking I had skied for a week with Vallencant himself, Pelle put me in his group “
the first lead group.
Unfortunately they were going through the worst snow year since 1963 and the last major storm had hit in October, four
months ago. On the first morning he took us an hour away to another ski area Alpe 'Huez. Here we would have an easy
day as he saw how everyone skied off piste. On the first run he took us to a 2000 vertical foot slope down the backside
of the mountain. The 30-degree rolling pitch of this slope would have made it an easy expert run in good conditions. But
our conditions consisted of patches of wind blown partly frozen crud interspersed with equally large patches of grass and
rocks. One needed to ski it with very high-speed giant slalom turns to cut through the crud and then glide over the grass to
the next snow patch trying to avoid the larger rock out croppings. I was grateful to have rented skis for $40 dollars for the
week realizing I was putting at least that much damage into the skies every day. The skiing was certainly challenging and
exciting (a fall here would be very ugly) but not quite in the way I had envisioned. As this was the best snow on the
mountain we skied high speed runs here all morning. The one other American “Martzy was a 32-year-old woman for
Seattle. She was not only a better skier then me but stronger and more aggressive. She was skiing in two of Doug Coombs
"steep camps" the week before and after this week and was using this week as a relaxing break. She had first been put on
skis at the age of two and used to get in 150 days a year. She was now down to 40, but at the speed she went that was
would be the equivalent of 150 for me. The other woman in our group was Helena from north of the Arctic Circle in
Sweden. She had just come back from a moose hunting trip, where if I understood correctly, she had to carry the moose
(or parts of it) some 20 miles. She was the strongest and best skier in the group and (excepting Dean and Pelle) one of the
best skiers I have ever skied with. I pretty much brought up the rear of our six-person group. But I was thankful for the 6
days a week I had been working out that allowed me to keep up with all of them. The last run of the day was to be a 6000-
foot trip down from the top of Alpe d'Huez. After going up 5 lifts we found the final lift had just broken and we were
forced to ski down the regular trail with all the other normal skiers. Well, we survived this humiliation but it was not an
auspicious start to the trip.
The next day we skied La Grave, whose rugged terrain and spectacular views clearly lived up to its reputation. Alas the
snow did not. As most of my fellow skiers were on their own equipment, the majority of routes that were over bare rock
were eliminated. We spent most of the day on the upper glacier or the one steep route down that had decent snow. As this
was going to wear thin over the next four days I asked Pelle if we could drive our group to Chamonix (4 hours away)
where they had better snow. In an amazing display of accommodation he agreed to raise the issue with his other three
guides, since the offer would have to be made to all guests. The conditions at La Grave were such that when asked at
dinner every client opted for the long trip to Chamonix and staying in a hostel there. We arrived at Chamonix at noon and
took long 7000 foot off trail descents in almost non-stop fashion in much better snow conditions. By the time we stopped
for lunch at 2:30 I felt I had gotten in a full day's skiing.
As Martzy went off to Verbire I was left with 15 Swedes. Although they were all very friendly and spoke excellent English
it was somewhat strange. All the other Americans had canceled their trips due to concerns over flying accross the Atlantic.
Their spaces were filled with Swedes who canceled ski trips to Canada for the same reason. I understand the concern of
many people but found it mind boggling that the type of people who seek out extreme skiing would be so concerned about
flying. It reinforced my own view of most people's total misconception of real versus perceived risks. Pelle told me he had
never lost any of his 4000 weekly clients in his 13 years in business despite the high risk nature of the activity. This would
not apply to unguided skiers in this terrain who have innumerable mishaps. Pelle's worst accident was when a client
walking with his skis in town slipped off a path and fell 500 feet into a ravine. Most of his other accidents were on easy
sections where the skiers were no longer fully focused. This certainly matches my experience where all my recent
accidents have been on relatively easy slopes. The only person in his lodge ever caught in an avalanche was Pelle himself.
After being buried for 25 very long minutes his clients found him and dug him out using skills they learned that morning.
He had a giant scar on his forehead where someone's shovel first made contact. I asked if they all got a free ski week but
he seemed to miss the humor in this.
As the weather on the morning of the fourth day was clear it allowed us go up the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix to take
longest and perhaps most famous ski run in the world. This 9000-foot decent down the Vallee Blanche glacier is rarely
skiable in January, but here the light snow pack worked in our favor. To start the route we need to navigate a true knife
edge ridge with a 60 degree slope over a 9000 foot drop on one side and 2000 foot plunge on the other. This is done by
lashing our skis to our backs, putting crampons on our ski boots and roping ourselves to our guide. We then gingerly
straddle the ridge and make our way with baby steps some 400 feet down. Having guided us for three days Pelle (who live
in Chamonix for 5 years) felt comfortable taking the two lead groups down the "interesting" route. This consisted of
crossing many snow bridges over gaping crevasses, skiing around and down gigantic blocks of snow and ice, and taking
steep chutes interspersed with tranquil snowfields. It is truly one of the most spectacular ski runs in existence. It was made
all the more dramatic as we race an approaching massive snow storm that was finally coming after 4 long (months for
them, days for me). The clouds enveloped Mont Blanc and the other intervening peaks and raced us down the glacier. We
succeeded in crossing all the dangerous sections before it hit. We got to the bottom at 2 p.m. after and 8 a.m. start. That
afternoon gave us a taste of powder skiing that we hoped we would have on our last two days on returning to the La
Alpe dâ€™Huez in a raging snowstorm was unrecognizable from only 3 days before. Our tracks would be buried from
one run to the next. The next morning it cleared making our final day was one of those rare perfect days in skiing. Crystal
blue skies, perfect powder and untracked off trail terrain that only the guides knew about. Physical conditioning really paid
off as Pelle saw no reason to stop on one 2000-foot top to bottom decent after another. Lunch was unanimously vetoed as
this group put in what seemed like countless runs down untracked 35% slopes of endless powder. Our final decent was to
be on the 6000 foot run we had missed the first day. But once again luck was against us as we just missed the final tram
of the day. Pelle's plan B consisted of a 5-minute hike leading us to what looked like a virgin field of powder. As we all
plunged in we were greeted by the screeching sound of metal on rocks. Unfortunately wind conditions had only left a foot
of powder over a jagged scree (rock) field. But based on timing we had no option to turn back. An inauspicious ending to
an otherwise great trip. We had to ski lightly down thousands of feet as the rocks below shred our skis. I was grateful I
had borrowed a pair of Pelle's powder skis. The delay required him to beg an attendant to restart a lift so we could get to
our waiting vans. I for one, need to get to Grenoble to catch a train that night to meet Randye in Paris.
I made the train with only minutes to spare and arrived at our Paris hotel at midnight. Randye and I then spent three lovely
days in Paris. With only an hour of rain and exceptionally warm temperatures we could, in total relaxation, see all the
sights and neighborhoods we planned. Off-season allowed us entry to the museums and attractions without the typical lines
or crowds. Having been there before we saw many of the more out of way spots and sites. Listening to the beautiful
signing of Sunday services at Notre-Dame and the cathedral at Mont Martre was particularly wonderful.
For any family members still reading this I should add on the way to Grenoble I stopped in on Lyon and following
Christopher's excellent instructions visited the site of Mom's birth and where our grandfather lived and worked. For
anyone's future use I will post those instruction on the shared section of our web site including the French instructions I
gave the taxi driver to take me there.