“It’s a mecca amongst skiers and snowboarders. A place so well respected it is rarely mentioned in case it gets ruined…”
La Grave in the southern French Alps is the kind of resort skiers and snowboarders get misty-eyed over. It has just one lift and no pistes. Instead you can pretty much ride wherever you want, at your own peril of course. When the avalanche risk is above average they don’t even blast the snow with dynamite, as is common practice in other resorts, instead a team of guides check the slopes for safety and send a message to the Major who then decides whether to open the mountain that day.
La Grave and its old atmospheric village are about far removed from a modern swanky ski resort as you can get. There are no five star hotels with spas or Michelin-starred restaurants, no heated pavements or shops selling luxury handbags or diamond crusted skis. It radiates remote and down to earth vibes.
“It’s a mecca amongst skiers and snowboarders. A place so well respected it is rarely mentioned by pilgrims in case it gets ruined…”
As local snowboarder and photographer Vanessa Beucher says: “It’s a real–life Valhalla. Few names resonate with so much power in the collective unconscious of all mountain lovers.” Or as my friend Woody puts it: “It’s a mecca amongst skiers and snowboarders. A place so well respected it is rarely mentioned by pilgrims in case it gets ruined by the Fat Face Val d’Isere *****.”
Yet this March the 40-year lease on the resort’s lift is set to expire leaving a big question mark over La Grave’s future. Will it be taken over by one of the grand neighbouring ski resorts such as Alpe d’Huez and turned into red and black runs? Will it be closed for good? Or is another future possible, whereby it retains its unique charm and essence amid of sea of other identikit ski resorts?
Joost Van Zundeert, a La Grave long time resident who originally hails from Belgium, is gunning for the latter and has set up a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign with the aim: “Let’s Keep It Wild.” With two days left to run the Indiegogo campaign is already 10k over their original 45,000-euro target.
Van Zundeert tells me: “We are at a crossroads. I believe we have to go in this direction. We have a special place. Let’s keep it unique and people will come.” He says he has no problem with big ski resorts but there should be something for everyone, including people who want a more natural, authentic experience and who don’t care about how many miles of piste a ski resort can offer.
What La Grave offers is slopes which are constantly changing. Skiing or snowboarding here where the mountain is ungroomed is more like surfing in the ocean in that it changes according to the weather, it’s more natural and untamed by humans. You can also ski or snowboard in relative solitude (the lift takes just 25 people) and even with necessary improvements to the lifts Van Zundeert doesn’t plan to make the resort busier. He sees the growth coming from summer visitors, including mountain bikers. He also plans to make the resort a world-leader in environmental management.
Vanessa Beucher tells me: “Mountain villages are unique and fragile ecosystems. La Grave, with less than a thousand inhabitants, shelters an incredible community of more than fifteen different nationalities, united by the same deep love for this place, its surroundings and its unique vibes. The threat is that an investor who does not share the same vision disrupts this subtle balance by implementing detrimental changes to the environment, to the economy and to the community as a whole.”
“Grass-roots initiatives are budding everywhere as more and more people realise that it is possible by joining forces to take their destiny into their hands to move collectively in the right direction.”
Van Zundeert is confident their campaign, which has the backing of many local businesses who have offered gifts ranging from local honey and goat’s cheese to nights in hotels or days with ski or mountain bike guides to backers, will make it through to the second phase. And a final decision on the lift is expected in March.
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