Going Euro: La Grave

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Going Euro, Feb 2005

Top elevation:

11,647 feet

Vertical drop:

7,054 feet

Marked trails:

10 miles

Population:

800

Six-day ski pass:

$200

More info:

+33-4-76-79-90-05; lagrave-lameije.com

The Resort:

La Grave's underground fame owes less to what it is than to what it isn't. It isn't groomed. It isn't built up. It isn't lively. It really isn't a "resort" by traditional standards. But the combination of quiet farming village, lonely gondola, and vertiginous steeps has enchanted experts ever since the first ski bums whispered La Grave's name 20 years ago. Perennially in the shadow of 13,064-foot La Meije, La Grave's runs are as steep and hairy as it gets. And while its lower slopes are covered with large pines-and offer superb tree skiing-the rest of La Grave is imposingly Alpine: all hanging glaciers and 50-degree chutes below the most rugged peaks this side of Chamonix.

On-Piste:

La Grave isn't euro-carving country, but head south from the topmost T-bar at 11,647 feet and you'll hit the groomers of La Grave's evil twin: hyperdeveloped Les Deux Alpes. Numerous cruisers include Le Y, below Lac du Plan, which charts a curvy course that looks a lot more like "le S."

Off-Piste:

These 7,000 vertical feet of north- facing, crevasse-riddled powder fields demand a guide-either Miles Smart (milessmart.com, see below) or a local at the Guides Bureau (guidelagrave.com). They'll help you tackle the complex, summit-to-valley descent of the Girose Glacier or take you couloir hunting: The Trifide, Banana, and Fréaux Couloirs will keep you busy for days.

Aprés: At the slopeside Chalet Alp Bar, you can watch stragglers descend in La Meije's long shadow. Later, Le Pub and Les Bois des Fées, on La Grave's only two-lane street, fill with Americans, Scandinavians, and Germans.

Shelter: Skiers on a budget flock to Gà®te Le Rocher ($20; gite.le.rocher@free.fr), a short walk from the gondola. For longer stays, try the Skiers Lodge (skierslodge.com). Run by La Grave's original ski bum, Pelle Là¥ng, its $1,250 weeklong packages include guides, big dinners, and day trips to neighboring resorts.

The Tip: Every April, a thousand costumed (or naked) competitors blaze almost 7,000 feet downhill, in groups of ten, following whichever route they please. It's the Derby de la Meije (derbydelameije .com/fr)-and the post-race party is wild.