The idea of linking the village of la Grave to the summit of la Meije goes back over a century. In 1894 a Dr. Prompt planned to build a hotel of 50 beds on the 3983 meter summit. He wanted to treat people suffering from respitory illnesses in the high mountain air. His planned involved a subterrenean cog railway to bring his patients to the summit. His planned didn't find any backers but in 1934 he was back with a plan for a 4 leg cable car to reach the mythic summit. One major problem with the plan is that the summit of the Meije is too pointed to accomodate a cable car station. This was no problem for Dr Prompt who proposed demolishing the top 25 meters with dynamite much to the horror of the French Alpine Club.
More serious plans were divided in 1958 when the mayor, Ernest Juge, wanted to exploit the local "white gold" to replace the decline in agriculture. He proposed a ski domain on the sunny slopes from the le Chazelet to Villar dArène and onto the Col du Galibier. Finally the other side of the mountain, the steep and imposing vallons de la Meije, were chosen for a cable car. In 1963 the project was in place and had serious backing but the préfet refused a state guarantee.
When Denis Creissels, a cable car designer from Chamonix stopped at la Grave one day in the 1970s the Mayor asked him put together a design suited to the terrain and finances. Now in his late 60s, Creissels' CV is impressive, if you've ever skied in France the chances are you've ridden in one of his lifts, from the Aiguille du Midi Cable Car, the "boules" of Grenoble to the wind proof DMC system (Double Monocâble Creissels or simply Double MonoCâble) his designs can be found in the most prestigious ski resorts.
Denis Creissels used his own money to fund the la Grave cable car with help from the state. Between 1975 and 1976 "it was a real building site in the high mountains", he recalls "we put the pylons on rock outcrops, that way they would be safe from avalanches." There is 1000 meters altitude between each stage.
Creissels opted for a 'pulse' system instead of a detachable cars. The number of people that can be carried is lower but it gives significant economies. There are six trains of cabins which slow down twice as they climb. This system has the advantage that skiers can get on and off at a third distance without having to build an expensive intermediate station. If you compare it to the cable car at Lognan or Grands Montets at Chamonix, for the same performance in terms of length, height and capacity, the cable car at la Grave was a quarter of the cost. In addition it allows skiers to get on at the first pylon (P1) at 1,800 meters, useful early and late in the season.
The first leg to 2400 meters was opened in July 1976 but from the start the cable car was controversial. In November 1976 the bottom station was dynamited. This didn't prevent the second stage, carrying skiers to the 3200 col des Ruillans, opening on the 13th of March 1978. Troubles were not over for la Grave. The pulse system was widely criticised in 1986 when the company operating the lift went bankrupt, the cable car didn't correspond to current regulations. Creissels recalls "For me it was a question of pride to buy the cable car, they said to me that it was 'badly thought out and badly built' ". His first action was to get the system working again, it had lain idle for 18 months. Afterwards he built a drag lift on the Girose glacier, largely to assist skiers crossing back to les Deux-Alpes. But there are no questions to increase the capacity of the original lift, something that would "damage the quality and style of skiing at la Grave". However the operators would like to find ways to increase visitor numbers during the week.