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IN THE MORNING, thick, wet snowflakes silently build up outside the base station of La Grave. Overhead, the great yellow bullwheel is silent, and any slight sound from the creaking machinery is muffled by the falling snow outside. The télépherique’s five cabins hang motionless from the cable, their brightly painted forms contrasting sharply against the winter landscape. The 400-horsepower engines beneath the floor are also silent, awaiting the coming day. For nearly 40 years, this is how every winter morning in La Grave has begun.

Alas, this harmony is threatened, the road access to the little mountain village now unexpectedly blocked by a critical landslide that occurred last spring.

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The word mythical is well used when describing La Grave, and in this case, justified. It is not an exaggeration to claim that this little place is unique. In the mornings as the lifties prepare to fire up the cable, you can feel the vibe of excitement in the air; it is one of both calm and anticipation. And after a 40-minute, 1750-meter ride, skiers are greeted by a massive, wild mountain without a single groomer in sight.

In this untouched terrain, there are no bombs controlling the mountain. No ski patrol watching the runs. It is vast and wild, totally natural and breathtakingly beautiful. Everyone skis at their own risk, wherever they want and without anyone interfering. The lift is solely a means of transport; the lift company has no responsibility once a passenger steps from the cabin.

At almost every ski resort, the mountain has been redesigned and developed to suit the desires of those who ski there. But in La Grave, it’s the other way around. Here, the mountain decides.
THE TÉLÉPHÉRIQUE DES GLACIERS DE LA MEIJE was built in 1976 and designed by M. Creissels. Using the téléphérique is like walking into a cultural museum. The old cabins haven’t changed since 1976, and they brighten up the mountainside, six clusters of five cabins each, a spot of yellows, oranges and reds against a white background. The station itself is simple, just as it was 40 years ago when it was built. “The cable car can stay as it is,” Regis Jouffrey, a passionate and long-time liftie explains. “But if we keep the lift as well maintained as it is now, it can live to be as old as the Eiffel Tower.”

The lift is the spine of La Grave. It’s what keeps the village going, feeding it and its people for a few months of the year. Everyday, someone at the lift is working on a piece, on a car or on the cable. There is constant activity and movement, the job of lift upkeep a constant. Most of the 15 men and women on staff are locals who have worked at the lift for 15 or 30 years. For them, the téléphérique is like a family business, as they care for the machine as if it were their own flesh and blood.

“The team knows the machine inside out. Most have worked here for 30 years and learned every breath it takes,” David Le Guen, the lift’s commercial manager explains. “They know the sounds, the movement and know directly when something hums differently. We all learn and evolve with our téléphérique. This cable car is our baby.”







The word mythical is well used when describing La Grave.

The pieces of the machine
The pieces of the machine The pieces of the machine The pieces of the machine
FROM THE TOP of the téléphérique, La Grave can be spotted far below. The 12th-century village is still just a small town—there are no nightclubs and neon signs are few and far between. As in every little village in France, cafés, restaurants and bars are scattered along the sidewalks, but the village is by no means adjusted for tourists. It lives its own true life, and as a visitor to town—much as when riding the lift and skiing the mountain—you must adapt.

But as of late, there has been a cloud over the small village. On April 10 of this year, La Grave fell into a series of complications. Without warning, access to the village was abruptly cut off when the only road coming up from Grenoble was closed. Catastrophic landslide and rockfall threatens the Chambon tunnel, situated above the Chambon dam, and no one is sure when the road will be open again. Now, with access only from Briançon, La Grave has turned into a dead-end, cut off from a vital road and the outside world.
THE SITUATION IS DIRE Many people work on the other side of the closed road, and high school kids now cannot get to their school. Due to rock fall, boat transfers over the dam are at times too dangerous, so a temporary, weather-permitting helicopter transfer has been put in place. The only other option is a steep, 40-minute mountain trail over the hill. For La Grave, commerce has slowed to a crawl.

France’s Premier Minister, Manuel Valls, finally visited the area in July giving a much-needed boost to the distressed villagers, and the case was declared a natural catastrophe. A new tunnel, deeper through the mountain, where the rock is more stable, is envisioned to be ready to use in almost two years.

For now, a temporary, one-way road on the opposite side of the dam is scheduled to open in November. But the mountain is steep and avalanches are a problem. There are a lot of questions about how much the road can be used when winter arrives. For the much-needed ski tourism in La Grave, from Grenoble, Lyon and beyond, it is essential that the road functions smoothly.

On top of all of this, in less than two years, the lease that has allowed the téléphérique to operate will expire. With all of the road problems, the complexity of the lift contract has moved into the shadow. So far, no one knows who will take over and what will happen. And no one is certain when, or even if, things will return to normal in La Grave.








No one is certain when, or even if, things will return to normal in La Grave.



JETFORCE TECHNOLOGY

Das Ergebnis der jahrelangen Zusammenarbeit von Black Diamond und Pieps ist der erste wiederaufladbare Lawinenrucksack.

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CARBON WHIPPET SKI POLE
WHATEVER HAPPENS to the road or the lift lease, the next two coming winters in La Grave could be back to the epic days of the early '90s, when the mountain stayed untracked for days after snowfall. A winter for true and passionate skiers willing to take a longer road to get to one of the most magical resorts on the planet. It sure is worth the detour, and any keen skier showing up would help the community to survive.

So nonetheless, hope remains for the inhabitants of La Grave and the skiers who have experienced its unique spirit. La Grave, we believe, will remain with its current spirit long after the road reopens and the leasing issues are sorted out. In an ideal world, the lift will only remain still in the quiet mornings, and it will continue to serve passionate skiers for whom it is a portal to Shangri-la. But all of this will require more than hope. It will take hard work, a little luck and—above all—the right person or company to step in; someone who understands the importance of preserving the rare and precious jewel that is La Grave.



Words: Josefine Ås
Photography: Mattias Fredriksson
Videography: Spindle

“It is vast and wild, totally natural and breathtakingly beautiful.”