Snowboarding: One foot in La Grave

Matt Carroll tests his snowboarding skills (and his nerve) on 'Death Mountain'
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The Independent Travel

Fall now, and you're in huge trouble. This is the thought that flashes across my mind as I strap in and prepare to plunge into one of the steepest couloirs I've ever seen. I've come here, to the village of La Grave, in the French Alps, to sample what is reputed to be the most challenging (not to mention scary) off-piste terrain in Europe.

Each season, the debate rages about which resort has the best backcountry, and each season the same names crop up: Chamonix in France and Verbier in Switzerland. La Grave hardly ever gets a mention – at least by the general skiing populace. Yet, among those in the know it is a place to cherish.

Located in the Vallée Romanche, 40 minutes' drive from the well-used resort of Les Deux Alpes, La Grave has been attracting hardcore skiers since the Seventies. They come here to flex their skills and test their nerve on the super-steep chutes that surround the village.

While resorts such as Chamonix and Verbier are known equally for their accessible pistes as for their technical stuff, La Grave is renowned for being a "no-fall" zone. Basically, if you come a cropper here it's curtains.

Among those to perish in recent years was Doug Coombs, one of the best free-skiers of them all, who was killed in 2006, after losing his footing in the treacherous Couloir de Polichinellein. On the other hand, not everyone believes that La Grave's fearsome reputation is justified. Pelle Lang, owner of Skierslodge chalet, which specialises in backcountry trips in the region, argues that there's a lot of hype about La Grave.

"The view of this place as 'Death Mountain' is really inaccurate," he said. "There's a huge number of tourists who come here and ski safely. I could have a group of intermediate skiers here, no problem."

Which was lucky, because at that point I was feeling pretty intermediate. Having ridden some steep terrain in my time – including the Kashmiri Himalayas and the notorious Jackson Hole in Wyoming – I saw La Grave as the next logical step. But listening to some of the stories about this place, I was hit with a bout of nerves. What if I wasn't good enough?

"This is not just a place to do extreme terrain," said Pelle. "It's also a great area to learn. There's an incredible amount of varied terrain here – from trees to couloirs, to open bowls and valleys – where you can practise new skills."

Pelle knows the contours of La Grave's peaks and troughs better than most. Originally from Sweden, he set up Skiers-lodge in 1989, when even fewer people had heard of La Grave. With the growth of off-piste skiing and snowboarding in the last 10 years, an increasing number of people have been beating a path to Pelle's door.

The atmosphere in Skierslodge is not that of your typical chalet. Arriving in the packed dining room on my first night, I was struck by the high levels of testosterone wafting about. Groups of rosy-cheeked guys with goggle tans were sat around excitedly swapping stories of that day's adventures; it feels as if there's an almost tangible "us against the mountain" team spirit among the people who come here.

Early on, I got talking to a group of Scottish lads who were here on their annual boys' winter break. "We heard about La Grave through friends who've been here," said one of them. "We've tried other resorts but wanted to avoid overcrowded places where you get families in single-piece ski suits."

The next day, my guide Didier decided to break me in gently. After taking the lift (there's only one) from the village up to the main ski area, we dropped down into the Vallée Interdite ("forbidden valley"). Somewhat surprisingly, the place did not live up to its intimidating name. I found myself cruising happily down a long, natural gully that went on for miles and which was bordered by steep, sculpted sides.

Lest I get too comfortable, however, there was plenty of scary stuff lurking in the background. A closer look at the sides of the valley revealed narrow chutes dangling down like pieces of string; it was enough to make my palms sweaty just from looking at them.

"That couloir is called Trifid 1," said Didier. "A lot of people have died in there."

We carried on down the valley, insignificant specks on this vast landscape, before coming to a halt outside a huge ice cave buried within a glacier. Inside, I felt as if we'd stumbled into Superman's lair. It was absolutely silent and sculpted like a film set. Despite its solid appearance, the cave changes shape each season as the glacier slowly melts, inching its way down the mountain.

From here we dropped back down into the village, to be greeted by an epic view of the mountains that lie behind it, before heading to Les Vallons Pizzeria for après ski snacks.

This mellow introduction to La Grave's fabled landscape was enough to put me at ease – at least for a while. But sitting outside in the late spring sunshine, the scenery alone was enough to raise my pulse rate; everywhere I looked, steep Alpine peaks stretched away into the distance, like rows of freshly bleached teeth.

While most of La Grave's Alpine neighbours have become tainted by ugly concrete hotels and tacky bars, here is a place that's somehow managed to retain its charm. The families who live here have been farming this land for generations; after nine o'clock at night you can hear a pin drop in the village.

However, just as I was beginning to relax, Pelle pulled up a chair and issued a challenge: "I'm taking a group over to the village of St Christophe tomorrow – it's beautiful, why don't you come?"

How could I refuse? After all, this was what I'd come for. After a night filled with anxiety dreams, I joined the Scottish contingent the next morning as they kitted up with harnesses and helmets and headed up the mountain.

One Scot was unashamedly jittery about the terrain we were tackling. "I'm not sure I'm comfortable with this," he pleaded, as he and I – the only boarders – faithfully followed Pelle into a steep couloir while the skiers waited at the top..

And suddenly there I was, trying not to look down as I concentrate on keeping my turns clean on the 40-degree slope. The consequences of wiping out here are simple: I won't stop falling until I reach the bottom.

My Scottish friend is not enjoying it all. Having stopped halfway down to consider his position, he's urged on by Pelle. After dragging us in here, Pelle now decides that perhaps this is a bit much after all and instructs the skiers to take an alternative route.

Eventually we all make it down in one piece, but now face a five-kilometre traverse through the Vallon de la Selle, to the village. Picturesque it may be – with a babbling stream and the spring snow glistening in the sun – suitable for snowboarding it certainly is not. While the skiers simply get on with it, using their poles to generate momentum over the uphill stretches, the Scot and I are forced to endure a 40-minute thigh-burning scramble, before finally having to get off and hike. Oh well, only a few more kilometres to go until we reach St Christophe. At least that's what Pelle says...



A week at Skierslodge (00 33 4 76 11 03 18) costs from £580, including breakfast and four-course dinner and six full days guiding. Three days' fully inclusive car hire in Grenoble starts from £59 with Holiday Autos (0870 400 4461; www.holidayautos.co.uk)

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