Piste off! Skiers fear new lift will threaten La Grave’s old school charm

<span>Cable cars of the Meije Glacier in Ecrins national park in summer. </span><span>Photograph: Francois Roux/Alamy</span>
Cable cars of the Meije Glacier in Ecrins national park in summer. Photograph: Francois Roux/Alamy

There’s nothing like scrambling along a jagged granite ridge resplendent in russet and lime-green lichen, when it should be covered in snow, to remind you that the climate crisis is in full swing. My guide, Maxant Danilo, and I are at an altitude of more than 2,500 metres in the Hautes-Alpes, but even though it’s late January, conditions on south-facing slopes such as these feel more like late spring. Our snowboards are strapped to our backpacks instead of our feet.


Danilo, who works for a guide collective based in nearby La Grave, tells me the resort actually had one of the strongest starts to a winter season in recent years, with plenty of snow and low temperatures from November until the middle of January. The problem is, the constant mild weather since has melted much of the snowpack.

Yet he’s not too worried. “You can always find snow to go touring around La Grave, however unpredictable the conditions,” he says. And to be fair, aside from that rocky traverse on the ridge, we have. Using splitboards – snowboards that split into two to act as touring skis so you can hike uphill – we’ve climbed about 750 metres this morning, mostly on soft snow, with the odd patch of ice, for which we had to attach crampons to our splitboards.

The route, called the Col de Côte Plaine, is relatively gentle, making it a great introduction to touring for competent skiers or snowboarders. Danilo says he often brings first-timers here. From the swooping valley we ascend to our picnic spot at the top, where we sit facing the Écrins massif and dramatic La Meije mountain. The views are extraordinary, with nothing but nature visible to the eye, bar the odd solar-powered weather station.

The only people we encounter are a group of excitable ski instructors planning to ride down a steep couloir on their day off. After a leisurely lunch in the sunshine, the snowboard run down is a lot of fun. We keep going as long as we can, dodging patches of grass until the thawed terrain takes over and we have to walk the last stretch to the road, where Danilo hitchhikes back to collect his car from where we left it in the morning.

If we’d had binoculars at our lunch spot, to the right of La Meije we might have glimpsed La Grave’s cable car, a Pantone swatch of sunny orange, yellow, and red, which Danilo and I board the next morning. I’m nervous, even though I’ve been snowboarding for 20 years, because La Grave has a formidable reputation as a hardcore ski resort. Except it isn’t really a ski resort in that it has no pistes, maintained trails or safety markers, beyond a raggedy orange flag that is meant to warn there are cliffs below.

But Danilo assures me that La Grave – which at 3,550 metres offers some of the highest lift-accessed terrain in the Alps, with a north-facing aspect that keeps the snow good for longer – need not be dangerous if you hire a guide on your first visit so you can be shown the safe routes down. However, he acknowledges that you should be comfortable riding black runs in a range of conditions and have some off-piste experience.

The mood across La Grave feels rebellious and old school, capturing a spirit I recognise from ski resorts two decades ago

Twenty minutes or so into our ride up from the village, the old lift comes to an abrupt halt. Looking serenely out of the window, Danilo tells me it’s one of the resort’s many charms, affording skiers and snowboarders the chance to savour the sight of La Meije mountain up close, its dark grey rock contrasting with the snow-covered glaciers all around it.

At a typical modern ski resort, super-fast lifts whiz thousands of skiers around a vast piste network. A trip to La Grave is about reframing the mountain experience and embracing a slower approach – taking the time to appreciate these majestic yet fragile landscapes. We’ll do a total of three runs all day, albeit long and epic ones, with Danilo finding us some lovely soft snow to ride. We see no more than a handful of people. On busy days there may be 700 people on the mountain – a fraction of the number frequenting most ski resorts – but as everyone spreads out quickly, even those busy days feel quiet.

La Grave boasts a low environmental footprint, thanks to the lack of piste grooming and snowmaking. However, the future of the upper section of the resort, much of which is taken up by the Girose glacier, is more controversial. An energy-intensive button lift should take skiers and snowboarders to the top, but as the glacier is receding it can only run part of the way. Instead, visitors have to use a rope tow pulled by a piste basher for the first section and then, after the button lift, hike to the top.

The lift company Aeon, which also owns nearby Alpe d’Huez and Les Deux Alpes, wants to replace the button lift with a cable car, enabling more people to visit the glacier and take in the panoramic views that stretch as far as Mont Blanc. But many locals are against the scheme and want the glacier to be returned to its natural state, with access to the top restricted to those happy to hike uphill for at least 40 minutes.

On the terrace of La Grave’s Hotel Castillan, which faces La Meije and is a popular après-ski spot for guides, I meet Erin Smart. Originally from Seattle, she has been coming to La Grave since 2004, having fallen in love with the “wild rawness” of the place, and has worked as a guide here since 2016.

Many fear the lift company would target a more upmarket clientele if the cable car was built

Smart is against the cable car idea and thinks the area should be reserved for low-impact ski touring. “I don’t think they’re looking at the bigger picture of the climate crisis,” she says, pointing out the loss of ice depth and volume at glaciers above us, a process which she says has accelerated exponentially in recent years and will continue to do so. “New lift infrastructure would affect people’s enjoyment of that upper glacier, a unique environment we should be protecting at all costs,” she says. She adds that if the top was limited to touring, the powder there would last longer – powder being the fresh snow that skiers and snowboarders come to La Grave specifically for.

But when I talk to a hotelier who has lived in La Grave for 46 years, since his hotel and the lift first opened to skiers, he tells me he supports the new plan. “If you’re running a business, you can’t be anti these developments,” he says. The issue has divided the village and its surrounding hamlets, some of which date back to the 12th century.

There are no luxury hotels, no Folie Douce (the après-ski party chain with branches in eight Alpine resorts), and few shops beyond equipment rental places, a boulangerie and a fromagerie. Plus, the prices are incredibly reasonable. Many fear this would change if the cable car was built, and that the lift company would target a more upmarket clientele. This, they believe, would threaten not only the identity of La Grave, but also its affordability for locals and visitors.

At hostel Gite le Rocher (dorm beds from €60 half-board; breakfast and dinner were hearty and excellent) walls are adorned with vintage snowboards, 80s music posters, giant Lego Pokémon builds and stickers urging guests to boycott the region’s Winter Olympics bid.

The mood there and across La Grave feels rebellious and old-school, capturing a spirit I recognise from ski resorts two decades ago but have rarely seen since. And as the snow in the Alps gets less reliable and skiing becomes ever more exclusive, this rootsy enclave, which centres on back-to-nature skiing, snowboarding, and touring, led by a passionate local guiding community, feels more important than ever.

This trip was provided by La Grave Tourisme with train travel from Brighton to Grenoble via Trainline. A day with a guide in La Grave costs from €106, or €141 including lift pass. Gite Le Rocher offers half-board stays from €58.90pp. Sam Haddad is the author of online newsletter Climate & Board Sports