La Grave - trouble in paradise

La Grave is the stuff of legends. A cable car and 2000 meters of unpisted vertical. It is an entirely unique concept but are its days numbered? The area appears threatened by a mix of risk aversion and commercial impediments.

la grave

Les Vallons de la Meije, as the ski area is known, has had a troubled past. La Grave had long dreamed of building a cable car on the site. In the mid ‘70s the mayor asked ski lift engineer Denis Creissels to put together a design suited to the area. Creissels is best known for the Double Monocable (DMC) and Funitel systems used on high altitude cable cars that must withstand extreme conditions.

Creissels, now in his mid-70s, put up his own cash to fund the construction of the lift. Pylons were bolted to rock outcrops, safe from the avalanches that sweep down the high sided valleys. There is 1000 meters between each stage. The design uses the ‘pulse’ system instead of detachable cars. The speed is lower but it is much simpler with lower maintenance and permits skiers to get on at mid station, useful at either end of the season. The design costs a quarter of a conventional cable car for the same capacity. Due to its simplicity and low maintenance Creissels claims that the lift will still be running in 50 years time.

la grave

The first leg of the lift was opened in the summer of 1976 but the bottom station was dynamited in the autumn of that year. The perpertrators were never caught. Then in 1986 the company operating the lift went bust. It lacked the funds to bring the cable car up to current regulations. After 18 months shutdown Creissels rode to the rescue. His first improvement was to build a drag lift on the Girose glacier to link the area with les Deux Alpes.

The status of the ski area falls into a huge legal crevasse. In 1994 a government directive ordered the lifts to close if the avalanche risk reaches 3 (Considerable) except if la Grave were able to put into place its own system of risk assessment. This decision followed a death in an avalanche at risk 4 (High) in 1988. A subsequent court case decided that although la Grave wasn’t a ski area in the strict sense of the term the domain was under the control of the mayor who had obligations to clients of the lift. A further court case in 2004 found the area responsible for the death of a young snowboarder in 1996. The court decided that dangers must be clearly signposted in the area.

In order to comply with the 1994 directive the lift company established an “Evaluation Commission”, chaired by mountain guide Jean-Pierre Sevrez. Sevrez was fired in July 2006. Creissels claims that he had become “Mr Security at la Grave, I was worried that the lift company was becoming too involved”. Denis Creissels was concerned about his own legal liability in the event of another serious accident. He asserts that he simply operates the ski lift and that his liability stops the moment you step out of the terminus at 3190m meters high on the Girose glacier.

Bruno Gardent, responsible for security at the la Grave town hall complains that “Denis didn’t make any alternative plans… last winter we were able to run the commission, we found a guide but it cost us 20,000 euros. We were able to recover some of that money by organizing group trips down the Vallons.” The cost of running the commission is estimated at 30-40 thousand euros for this season, around 5% of la Grave’s budget. The town hall wants Creissels to pay 3% of turnover to finance security, something that is allowed for under French law relating to the mountains (for example Tignes piste security is financed this way).

Creissels is furious, stating that the 30 year contract he signed with the mayor in 1987 absolves him from this charge. He accuses the town hall of operating like a “banana republic” and says that Gardent and Sevrez are “playing politics”.

Following his sacking, Jean Pierre Sevrez took Denis Creissels to an industrial tribunal and being free from the TGM launched a political career. This culminated with him being elected mayor in last May’s local elections, taking over from Jean Pierre Durand who had thrown in the towel, no doubt tired of the bickering.

A further dispute separates the two men. In 2006 the General Council gave the region 6 million euros to restructure the canton’s ski areas. The lifts at the col du Lauteret, which lie in the Ecrins National Park, are to be removed. Creissels wanted to link le Chazelet with la Grave via a cable car and build a new ski resort on the Plateau d’Emparis with 700 beds. However the sector has been classed as a nature reserve since 1991 and has since achieved the status of special conservation area.

Xavier Cret, mayor of Villar d’Arene and general councilor for the canton since May 2008 says that the area needs to build on what it already has and to focus on quality. Sevrez wants to see the Emparis drag replaced with a chair that can also be used in the summer with a more limited expansion in the Plagnes sector and some limited snow making. However he doesn’t rule out higher altitude development in the future. Chazelet has replaced the old chair with a new four seater lift. At Villar d’Arene, a village that has grown fast over the last decade, the two drags and learner lift have been renovated with the installation of mobile snow making scheduled for next season.

The finances of the TGM are also worrying. After difficult years in the 1990s the ski lifts finally turned in a profit between 2000 and 2003. However over the last three years they have once again been making a loss. Creissels makes up the difference from his own pocket. Yearly turnover has dropped from 2 to to 1.6 million euros in 2007 while the price of a ski pass has risen. In 2007 the lifts made a 145,000 euro loss and the number of skiers dropped from 60 to 50,000. Creissels is disappointed “we are in a state of almost permanent under utilization, it is a terrible waste when you think of the skiers who could come here”. The problems were further compounded by the drag lift linking the area with les Deux Alpes being out of action most of the winter.

Is the image of la Grave too elitist? Too focused on Freeriders and Mountaineers? A vox-pop conducted by PisteHors revealed a number of complaints. The main vallons routes get skied out too quickly leaving a number of much harder and exposed variants. The links at the bottom of the vallons get rutted and icy. “Why can’t they at least run a piste basher up those bits”, complained one skier.

Further Information
Montagnes Magazine, guide d’hiver, November 2009
Ski Magazine, Hors Serie Freeride : Du rififi la la Grave

Posted by davidof on Wednesday, 18 March, 2009 at 11:00 PM

I had the opportunity and pleasure of skiing with Xavier Cret in 1998.  He knows these mountians well and I am sure he has a good vision of the future for the region.  Congratulations on his ascending to the post of Mayor and General Councilor.

Posted by  on  Thursday, 26 March, 2009  at 10:51 PM
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