La Grave cable car turns thirty

The La Grave - Vallons de la Meije ski area is celebrating 30 years of operations this March but the idea of linking the village of la Grave to the summit of la Meije goes back over a century with some madcap schemes before the very functional Creissels designed pulse gondola was opened in 1978.


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 respiratory illnesses in the high mountain air. He wanted to build an underground rack and pinion railway to bring his patients to the summit but had trouble finding any backers (no Dragons Den !). In 1934 he was back with a new idea for a 4 leg cable car to reach the mythic summit. One major problem is that la Meije is too pointed to accommodate a cable car station. This was no obstacle for Dr Prompt who proposed blowing the top 25 meters off the peak with dynamite much to the horror of the French Alpine Club.

More serious plans were devised 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 le Chazelet to Villar d’Arène and onto the Col du Galibier. In the end it was the other side of the mountain, the steep and imposing Vallons de la Meije (valleys of the Meije), that were chosen for a cable car. In 1963 the project was in place and had serious backing but the préfet (departmental governor) 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. If you have skied in France the chances are you’ve ridden in one of Creissels’ lifts, in particular the wind proof DMC system. Creissels used his own money to fund the la Grave cable car with help from the state. He 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. The system has the advantage that skiers can get on and off at a third distance without having to construct an expensive intermediate station. The lift at la Grave was is a quarter of the cost of other systems in terms of capacity.

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 meter col des Ruillans, opening on the 13th of March 1978. Troubles were not over for la Grave. In 1986 the company operating the lift went bankrupt. Creissels bought the lift, for him it was a question of pride.  His first action was to get the system working again, it had lain idle for 18 months. He also put in a drag lift to link with nearby les Deux Alpes.

The future is uncertain for this mecca of freeride skiing. The lift is old and will need substantial investments. In an increasingly risk averse operating environment there is a long running dispute between Creissels and the town council who are responsible for security in the domain. Despite the development in off piste skiing the area also has trouble in attracting sufficient skiers outside of weekends.

Posted by davidof on Wednesday, 26 March, 2008 at 04:15 PM

Nice history lesson. Who bombed the bottom station and what was the reason? Were they caught?

Posted by Jay on  Tuesday, 01 April, 2008  at 03:46 PM

The bombing was a bit bizarre. I’ve not been able to find out much but no-one was ever arrested and no reason was ever communicated for why the bottom station was bombed.

Apparently the lift was only used by climbers initially. I find that hard to believe though. I first passed by la Gr* in 1991 so well into the Creissels/Vallon era.

Posted by davidof on  Tuesday, 22 April, 2008  at 01:54 PM
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