La Grave has long been a hallowed destination for skiers and other mountain athletes. The small, 12th century French village sits at the base of La Meije, a stunning peak in the Massif de Ecrins. A colorful téléphérique (that’s French for cable car) gives skiers access to one of the largest, most rugged lift-accessed off-piste zones in the world. Essentially backcountry skiing without the hiking, the 7,000 vertical feet of terrain accessed by the téléphérique is never groomed, patrolled, or roped off. But this haven of unfettered, easy-access big mountain skiing is in jeopardy.
The lift, owned by the town of La Grave and leased to Téléphérique de la Meije (TGM), is up for re-leasing in 2017. Locals fear this will lead to one of two ugly situations: massive resort development that would change the face of La Grave, La Meije, and their local low-profile lifestyle, or a shuttering of the lift entirely. And a new non-profit, Le Signal de La Grave, is the only thing standing between La Grave and unwelcome change.
The ski area as it is now is fraught with liability issues and not profitable compared to major ski areas (for reference, TGM makes roughly 0.5% of what Vail makes in a year). So it’s a tall order for any profit-seeking investor, particularly when the local culture is decidedly anti-development and pro-uncrowded powder days and a calm, authentic town life.
That’s why Le Signal de La Grave wants to create a “Public Private Partnership,” which would effectively make the téléphérique a community-run, community-funded endeavor (similar to Mad River Glen). This would protect both the mountain and the town from profit-minded development, and would lay the framework for a self-sustaining ski area supported by the cooperative efforts of locals and other passionate members of the mountain sports community.
At the moment, they’re crowdfunding as much as possible to get their efforts off the ground and to secure the lease for the téléphérique. But their initiatives extend beyond the lift, because La Grave isn’t just a hub for skiing: It’s a favored spot of mountaineers, mountain bikers, hikers, backpackers, and climbers.
Le Signal de La Grave is committed to protecting and developing all mountain sports in La Grave by maintaining a sustainable level of tourism (which is a boon for the valley but could easily create overcrowding) and building both physical and social infrastructure to encourage more athletes to explore the Massif de Ecrins. They also hope to implement environmental sustainability initiatives to ensure their town is as green as possible in their food, waste management, and energy sources.
Real, authentic mountain towns enthrall us because they feel honest; a product of a connected and considerate community with interests and ethics like ours. That’s the real goal of Le Signal de La Grave. Even if they don’t secure the lease for the téléphérique, they’ve committed to serving their community with an eye towards freedom to play and sustainable living. To see what they’re protecting, check out the below video, released last year, about the area.
Photo by John-Morgan Galeyn.