I am teetering on the edge of a cliff at the top station of Les Deux Alpes. I normally feel confident on my carving skis but this feels like no ordinary black run.
Around me are some of the most spectacular views of the French Alps known to man, but all I can do is focus wide-eyed on the sheer drop below.
Adding to my apprehension is the fact that I am harnessed to another skier and what seems to be the world’s longest parachute is draped behind us on the snow.
“Are you ready?” says Luc, my parapenting pilot, as he makes a final check of the equipment. “Allons-y!” We pick up speed and drop into the abyss.
Seconds later we are soaring high above snow-capped peaks. I now understand why, in a second life, most people would like to return as a bird. The white corduroy slopes stretch out below my hanging skis and the air is fresh and crisp. The sun, set high in a blue sky, glimmers off the mountains.
We grab the thermals and go ever higher, climbing to what seems an altitude way above the mountains that immediately surround us. Is that Mont Blanc with a crown of cloud in the distance, Europe’s highest summit? As we begin our descent, Luc tells me that in summer he is regularly followed by eagles, but as they are migratory birds I was not so lucky during the first weeks of March.
It’s the best possible view of Les Deux Alpes, an area I have come to with the Ski Club of Great Britain. I’m here to experience the full range of skiing on offer – from groomed slopes to the savage and unpisted runs of La Grave. For while Les 2 Alpes offers a vast ski area of 225 kilometres of signed pistes between 1,300m (Mont de Lans village) and 3,600m (glacier) – perfect for family skiing – it is also home to Europe’s most challenging off piste runs at La Grave.
Les Deux-Alpes is a long, narrow village sitting on a high, remote col. The six-day pass covers La Grave and gives two days in Alpe-d’Huez and access to Serre-Chevalier (an hour away over the Col du Lautaret) and other resorts. There are buses twice a week to Alpe-d’Huez. The village is a long, sprawling collection of apartments, hotels, bars and shops, most lining the two streets that form the one-way traffic system. There is a wide range of building styles, from old chalets through 1960s blocks to more sympathetic recent buildings. The place has quite a buzz, in the early evening at least.
The resort sits high among the southern Alps, with great views from the upper slopes of the Ecrins peaks.
But despite Les Deux Alpes’ easygoing charms, La Grave beckons.
As we leave the comfort of Les Deux Alpes’ beautifully groomed ski area, a group of about thirty skiers wait patiently in line, even though there is no ski lift. Soon, the reason becomes clear as a piste-basher chugs towards us trailing lines of knotted ropes – this is our lift over to La Grave. We each grab a handle and are soon being tugged merrily towards La Grave. The imposing 3,983m high glaciated peak of La Meije looms into view above the 12th century village of rambling stone cottages.
Forget Courchevel-style fashion here, nearly everyone is sporting ropes, harnesses, shovels, avalanche transponders and helmets. Our guide, Maxant Danilo, noticing the anxiety on our faces, assures us that the harnesses are just a precaution. If one of us fell into a crevasse, it means he could attach a rope to us to haul us out.
“Don’t be tempted to deviate from my path as sometimes the most benign-looking snow can cover a deep crevasse underneath,” he warns us. “And never follow tracks in the snow unless you know where they lead.”
Hiring the services of a High Mountain guide like Danilo is a must in La Grave as there are no ski patrols outside the marked glacier routes and, because of the high altitude, weather conditions can change very suddenly. Conditions at La Grave couldn’t be further from those found at popular ski resorts in that it is a universe entirely devoted to “freeride”, with all that notion implies in terms of responsibility and risk. Tackling La Grave’s rebellious slopes is no easy matter: just imagine a 2,150m, non-stop, vertical descent, with no marked runs. Apart from the valleys, you can choose either Le Pan du Rideau or Les Trifides. These steep corridors require real skiing prowess and knowledge of the area. The Chancel route is more accessible, but like the others, is a steep mountain route, with all the challenges you might expect.
We find the skiing enjoyable but tough and although we are all confident off piste skiers, by lunchtime our thighs are aching, not least from having dropped into several of the infamous 45-degree chutes that in places are barely wider than a ski is long.
When these funnels of hard snow drop below you towards giant shards of rock, it has a way of focusing the mind. Most of us experience a tumble or two but sometimes falling is not an option as we go one by one through narrow corridors of ice and rock. It is controlled skiing at its best, learning to use edges to maximum effect to reduce speed. “A popular saying here is that in ski resorts they adapt the mountain for skiing but here you must adapt your skiing to the mountain,” says Danilo.
By the time we complete our third run down the mountain, our bodies are well and truly spent. We reflect on an incredible day’s skiing at L’Auberge Edelweiss, a favourite with bon-vivant skiers and cyclists, run by a former City financier Robin Gray and his Dutch wife Marlon Treffers. It is a privately-owned centuries-old coaching inn in the heart of the La Grave village and is less than five minutes walk from the “Téléphérique”.
Enjoying warm slices of wild mushroom tarte, local cheeses and delicious red wine, we embrace the rustic hotel’s atmosphere as the sun goes down over the hulk of La Meije. We’ve had both feet in La Grave – and survived.
LES 2 ALPES NEED TO KNOW
How to get there:
There are regular transfers from both airports. For more information, visit www.les2alpes.com
The ski area:
Les 2 Alpes offers a vast ski area of 225 kilometres of signed pistes between 1,300m (Mont de Lans village) and 3,600m (glacier).
417 ha of skiing; 1400 ha of off piste
Lift pass – 2012/13
Six-day (and more) passes include: free access to the swimming pool and ice-rink, discounts on many non-skiing activities, free access to the ski area of Grande Galaxie, two days at L'Alpe d’Huez Oz / Vaujany (VFD shuttle) and one day at Serre Chevalier, Montgenèvre (Voie Lactée) and Puy St Vincent and Sestrières.
Instructor for one day off piste: €81 per person. Six-day: €469 (four people maximum).
Paragliding: take off with skis from the top of the “Diable” cable car at 2,400m in a tandem flight to land in the resort
Hotel de la Valentin is a family-friendly two-star hotel with 27 bedrooms. The hotel also includes a restaurant and wellness area with a sauna, Jacuzzi and fitness room.
From €49 per person per day half board.
From €70 per night for two in a double room, with breakfast.
For more information contact:
www.les2alpesleisure.com - +33 (0)4 76 79 22 43
In the resort
Les Sagnes (creperie)
On the slopes
Chalet La Tourra
Ski Club Freshtracks run a number of ski holiday options to Les 2 Alpes and La Grave including seven-night development holidays to Les 2 Alpes from £850 (price includes flights, resort transfers, chalet-hotel accommodation, instruction and Ski Club Leader service) and seven-night off-piste holiday options to La Grave from £995 per person (price includes accommodation in the Edelweiss hotel, a mountain guide each day, Ski Club Leader service and return transfers from Geneva). Four-night weekend holiday options are also available to La Grave.
Ski Club Freshtracks holidays are perfect for independent skiers. The holidays are split into six categories: Action, Performance, Weekend, Off Piste, Heli and Touring. All holidays are graded by ski standard, ensuring the best possible skiing experience.
EasyJet flies to Grenoble from Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London Gatwick, London Luton and London Stansted. Prices one way start from £26.99 and include all taxes (prices are subject to change). Visit www.easyJet.com to book.
The Ski Club of Great Britain is a not-for-profit snowsports club which offers benefits to its 31,000 members. Membership costs £50 for an individual, £93 for families and £22 for members aged under 24.
Go to Skiclub.co.uk/freshtracks or call 020 8410 2022 for more information.