WORDS: Kelley McMillan
The Telepherique's rainbow-colored cable cars rise up over 7,000 feet from the 12th century village of La Grave, France, crossing a sea of glaciers, couloirs, and powder-covered bowls before reaching the top station, where craggy peaks etched with insanely technical lines fan out in most directions. There are no boundary ropes here, nor avy control, ski patrol, grooming, or marked trails. There are few amenities, save for three basic on-mountain restaurants and complimentary Yogi tea at the mid station. Quite simply, it's all about the skiing here, and La Grave serves up the one of the largest—and arguably best—expanses of lift-accessed off-piste skiing in the world.
However, La Grave's days may be numbered. Come 2017, the lease on the Telepherique is up for renewal and, at the moment, no one has stepped forward to take it over, which means the lift might stop running in three short years.
The town owns the Telepherique and currently leases it to the Telepherique des Glaciers de la Meije (TGM), which operates it and reaps its scant profits. The TGM is headed up by Denis Cressiels, the 79-year-old engineer who originally designed the Telepherique (and the iconic Aiguille du Midi lift in Chamonix) and took over the lease from the town in 1987. Encumbered by liability issues and commercial impediments, La Grave isn't a particularly enticing business venture for potential investors or leaseholders, and locals are wary of most outsiders who might be interested in taking it over. For now, La Grave is stuck in a quagmire and its residents are watching and waiting to see who will come to the town's rescue or usher in its demise.
All of this uncertainty has left locals fearing what the next chapter in La Grave's complicated history might bring. "People are worried," says Pelle Lang, owner of the Skier's Lodge and the legendary guide who is largely responsible for making La Grave the freeskiing mecca that it is today. Recognizing La Grave's potential as an unrivaled freeskiing destination, the Swedish-born Lang moved to La Grave in the late eighties and opened the Skier's Lodge, a cozy CMH-meets-Alta's-Peruvian-style hotel. Once settled, Lang began marketing La Grave to magazines, travel agencies, and other ski bums as a skier's Shangri-La. By the nineties, POWDER Magazine, Doug Coombs, who went on to live and set up his Steep Camps there, and hardcore skiers heeded Lang's call.
"It's a very scary thought if the lift closes," Lang says, reflecting on the unique place he's helped create. "The two worst scenarios," says Per Ås, a La Grave-based guide, "is the lift shuts and it's over forever. Or a big company buys it and wants to create a resort."
Both of these fears are very real. In the mid 1980s, the Telepherique, which at the time was owned and operated by the commune, or township, of La Grave, went bankrupt because it was spending more money than it earned and was shuttered for 18 months. For years, there have been rumors that Compagnie des Alpes, or CDA, (a European Vail Resorts-style goliath that owns the neighboring resort of Deux Alpes as well as Chamonix, Tignes, and several others) might take over the lease, and implement changes—pistes, new lifts, gaudy commercialism—that would alter La Grave's unique charm forever. David Le Gouen, the spokesperson for TGM, denies these rumors, though insiders are adamant that conversations with Compagnie des Alpes have occurred.
Locals are terrified that a company like Compagnie des Alpes will come in. A decidedly anti-commercialism ethos pervades La Grave—most locals don't care about making heaps of money; they'd rather ski and scrape by (many business don't open until after the mountain has closed for the day), and preserve La Grave's charm and limitless stashes of powder. "The guides want to keep La Grave very pure. The commune wants to take the lift back. Perhaps an investor will come in, but the local people aren't interested in any development here," says Lang.
But much to the chagrin of locals, a possible investor may see development as a necessity. That's because the Telepherique only makes about $200,000 a year. Compare that with say, Vail Resorts, which netted a $34.5 million profit in 2011. Sure it's an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it gives an idea of the scale of La Grave's profits. Even Creissels has said he will only renew it if he is allowed to build a cable car from Chazelet, a tiny village above La Grave, which has a small, family friendly ski resort, to La Grave. He wants to increase revenue opportunities.
In addition, La Grave sits in the Parc des Ecrins, the largest national park in France, and there are strict regulations governing development within the park's boundaries (though some locals speculate that it's plausible someone with a big enough wallet could come along and convince the government to adjust the national park's boundaries). So, in theory, La Grave is stuck with the infrastructure it currently has: the Telepherique, which is a blessing and a curse. The 30-car pulse system, the only one of its kind in the world and designed by Cressiels, has been operated by the same lifties for over 20 years, which means that even if the lease is renewed, there might not be anyone left who knows how to operate, let alone fix, the lift.
As for outside investors, La Grave is a tricky business proposition to sell. How do you explain to a slick businessman from any major city the appeal of a one-lift, avalanche-prone, cliff-and-crevasse-littered mountain with no pistes or ski patrol and locals who see any development as an anathema? As an entrepreneur himself, Lang is all too familiar with the fiscal challenges La Grave presents. "It's very difficult to make money in La Grave," Lang says. It's a fiscal risk for any bank in Grenoble, Lang continues, explaining why it might be hard to get any financial backing.
Liability is an issue, too. Like some other small communes in France, La Grave’s mayor is responsible for any accidents, injuries, or deaths that occur on the mountain, though it's a somewhat unique situation. When Cressiels took over the lease in 1987, he wrote a clause into his contract that absolved him from any liability, at which point the town assumed responsibility for anything that occurs on the mountain. In order to mitigate this risk and preserve La Grave's character, the mayor created what's called "the commission," a group of guides who ski the mountain after any significant weather event and assess the conditions. They deliver their verdict to the mayor, who in turn decides if the mountain will open. If an outside investor came in and partnered with the town on the lease, as many suspect the outcome in 2017 may be, any plaintiff in a liability claim against the mountain would most likely come after its deep-pocketed investors, not the town, which is broke. In addition, an investor would probably alter La Grave—add ropes, pistes, ski patrol— to make it safer and mitigate liability concerns. The options on the table are unappealing to both investors and locals, however it seems likely that in 2017 something will change in La Grave, though it remains to be seen exactly how.
With La Grave's future in limbo, the best outcome, Ås says, "would be for someone with a mountain passion to get involved." Le Guen, would like to see it turned into a co-op style model, owned in partnership by the town, guides, locals, and possibly an investor. But even if the town took over the Telepherique, some speculate that it wouldn't have the money to fix and maintain the lift, as La Grave is one of the poorest communes in France, and that this situation could lead to the lift closing, as it did in the 1980s, when the town last managed it.
For now, it's a wait and see situation. And while the outcome is up in the air, it's business as usual for the locals, who still lap the magnificent lines off the Telepherique and gather in the evenings for dinner parties and sip Chartreuse in ski shops, knowing that what they're experiencing in La Grave is something rare and magical and maybe fleeting. If the lift does close down for good, Lang says, "La Grave is very, very unique and it will never happen again, anywhere in the world."