I found myself dangling over Trifides because, for years, I had heard rumors of a traditional French village all but bypassed by time that lay at the foot of a crowd-free mountain where powder lasts for days. I’d heard it was a place where skiers linger over bottles of Burgundy and plates of duck au citron at lunch, then step into climbing harnesses and rappel into runs.
During a week in La Grave in late February, I would discover it was all true. On my first night, I met my guide, Pelle Lang, 55, a former Swedish military sniper turned mountain guide, at the Skiers Lodge, his 33-person hotel and guiding service on La Grave’s main street. Over dinner, lamb topped with Dijon mustard sauce, he told me what to expect.
“At other resorts, the mountain adapts to the skier,” Mr. Lang said. “Here the skier adapts to the mountain.” And indeed, skiers headed to La Grave should be ready to adapt and to have their notion of skiing turned on its head.
Mr. Vallone, 40, who has spent 14 winters in La Grave, added: “You can throw everything you know about skiing out the window because you’re going to be starting from scratch.
“Be prepared to ski the most wild, natural, intense and incredibly humbling terrain that you could ever imagine possible.”
I’ve heli-skied in Alaska, and spent seasons in Chamonix, France, and Telluride, Colo., but as Mr. Lang took me on the Téléphérique for the first time, it became clear this mountain was unlike any I’d ever seen. A foot of new snow had fallen the night before, and spindrift whipped off La Meije, a sea of icy blue glaciers pocked by crevasses and cliffs unfurling down its flanks. Ski tracks crisscrossed slopes as steep as elevator shafts.
“It’s wild, a real mountain. It’s beautiful and you feel free when you ski in a place like this,” said Jean Charles Bonsignore, 47, one of La Grave’s four ski patrollers.
For the most part, the ski patrol here does not mark hazards, close runs or tell skiers where they can and cannot ski. Instead, four patrollers roam the mountain and sit in a shack at the bottom of the Téléphérique, informing skiers of the mountain’s risks. “We give skiers the information to help them make their own decisions,” Mr. Bonsignore said.
Anything and everything is fair game here, and for many, that is the crux of La Grave’s draw. “For me, it’s absolute freedom,” Mr. Vallone said. “I felt like I had handcuffs on when I was skiing in the States. Now, I feel like those handcuffs have been removed and I can do everything I want to do, been trained to do.”
To taste that freedom, proper equipment is mandatory. An avalanche transceiver, shovel, and probe — tools for rescuing someone buried under snow — are de rigueur. Avalanche airbags, backpacks equipped with a deployable, inflatable balloon that help a skier rise to the top of a slide, are commonplace.
Because of the mountain’s inherent risks and complicated terrain, most skiers hire a guide, and after years of hearing about Mr. Lang, I knew I had to ski with him. More Zen master than hardened soldier, Mr. Lang is largely credited with beginning La Grave’s ski industry. In the late 1980s, he stumbled upon the quiet farming community and its Téléphérique, which at the time served primarily to lift hikers and mountain climbers into the alpine.
He immediately recognized La Grave’s skiing potential and set about realizing it. In 1989, he opened the original Skier’s Lodge, where he envisioned, “a heli-ski lodge but without the helicopter.” He aimed to deliver world-class skiing and the kind of camaraderie that is forged over communal meals and powder turns, so he created all-inclusive packages suitable for advanced intermediate and expert skiers with guided skiing, room, board and loads of wine — at a fraction of the cost of the average heli-ski trip.
Over the three days that I skied with Mr. Lang, we sliced down treacherous cliff faces in boot-deep powder, swooshed through gently pitched larch forests with perfectly spaced trees, and skied to lunch in St.-Christophe, a 23-person village in the next valley over. Between runs, we sipped home-brewed genepi, an herbal liqueur made from high-alpine flowers, and were serenaded by a dishwasher who emerged from the kitchen at Chalet 3200, the mountaintop eatery, and began jamming on a saxophone.
But change may be in the air in La Grave. The current lease for the Téléphérique expires in June, which means a large ski resort conglomerate could come in, scoop up the lease and alter the resort’s character forever.
Driven by the desire to preserve La Grave’s wildness and down-home atmosphere, a local crowdfunding movement called the Signal of La Grave has gained momentum. The initiative hopes to generate enough money from investors and donations to keep the mountain in the community’s hands.
But, at least for now, the rewards do not come easily in La Grave. Skiers might have to hike to a run, or wait 15 minutes while a guide sets up a rappel. The Téléphérique takes 45 minutes from top to bottom, and skiers might tally only two runs in a day.
“You got to work hard for it, but just hard enough,” said Alex Aarvold, 36, a children’s orthopedic surgeon from Southampton, England. “Sometimes you’ve got to drive that extra bit, hike to get to that powder run, but it’s the best run you’re ever going to have.”
The once-in-a-lifetime skiing can come at a cost. According to Pascal Guiboud, La Grave’s guide de veille, or head ski patroller, three people have died on La Grave’s slopes over the last five years. Fatalities usually occur because of people slipping on firm snow, falling off cliffs or into crevasses.
Many believe, however, that the danger has been overhyped. “It feels nicely dangerous. We all have families and office jobs and responsibilities, and if it was really, really dangerous, we wouldn’t do it,” said Fraser Smeaton, 36, the owner of a London costume company. “But you’re on the edge. You’re pushing the boundaries, and it’s a bit of a thrill.”
When I unclipped from the rope and slid into Trifides, I felt that thrill. I understood the magic that has drawn so many serious skiers to La Grave and keeps them coming back. One guest at the Skier’s Lodge summed it up perfectly when he said, “It’s raw and wild and makes you feel very alive.”
As I kicked my first turn into the deep, soft snow, I knew exactly what he meant. I felt very alive indeed.