The Fast Track to Dharma: 60 Degrees Straight Down, Mind the Boulders and Avalanches

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1996

The Fast Track to Dharma: 60 Degrees Straight Down, Mind the Boulders and Avalanches

A postcard from La Grave, France--alpinism's new lost horizon
By Michael Paterniti

The journey starts at a car rental agency in Grenoble. When I ask directions to the village of La Grave, a diminutive Frenchman with a standard-issue pencil mustache thumps my chest, fromage under his fingernails. "There's nowhere to go but up, eh?" he says, gesturing east toward the Alps. "Past the clouds." To punctuate, he blows stale Gauloises smoke in my face and grins. So I go, like hundreds of international ski-bum pilgrims before me, up the holy road rising near L'Alpe-d'Huez and Les Deux-Alpes. The route, N 91, is so surly with switchbacks, black ice, and shotgun tunnels that I'm reduced to driving in a focused hunch, like a slow-trolling Quasimodo. In a country that treats grocery shopping as an extreme sport, I'm passed on the shoulder, blithely hunted down on hairpins, and greeted with that most time-honored Gallic salute, the raised middle finger.

What's brought me here is the underground buzz about an ancient alpine farming village where a kind of madness reigns. Where the steeps are supposedly steeper and the weather wilder, where speed tribes of Kurtzian ski bums live and die in odd, fevered isolation. One hears whispers about La Grave as a kingdom of avalanches and vanishing bodies, bacchanalian melees, and unbelievable descents down mysto couloirs. It's said that the La Grave bums have created a new Day-Glo religion fueled by a pure lysergic dose of extremism. And if the rest of the planet hasn't heard of the place, good, that's exactly how they want it. In fact, to ward off poseurs, tourists, maniacs, and schmucks, some insiders have given it a Maxwell Smart code name, Vallée X.

In Vallée X, it's not enough just to downhill ski. The bums climb ice, telemark, snowboard, parapente, and rappel into the darkest folds on the mountain. Many of them have recently fled Chamonix, France's more famous hibernal mecca and the birthplace of extreme alpinism, 75 miles to the northeast. Of the many differences between the two spots, the biggest is an issue of style. Some La Gravers say they came here to escape Chamonix's crowds and disco-ball distractions. Others got fed up with the overwrought Kabuki stunts and gusts of self-promoting hype that are a way of life in Cham (pronounced by some La Gravers as "sham"). In La Grave, most of the bums seem united by a desire to return extreme alpinism to its pristine origins, in solitude. Prominent for years as a summer climbing destination, La Grave has had its winter anonymity preserved, in part, by the same conditions that combine to make it so daunting: its glacial setting and relative isolation, and the storms that regularly hurtle up the Romanche Valley to the village and detonate with fantastic piles of snow. Indeed, there are days when N 91--which today is relatively clear, though hectic--is impassable because of snow, rockfalls, and avalanches. It's at such times that the bums lay sole claim to a mesmerizing 13,081-foot spire of the Alps known as La Meije. They go to it to worship. To play. To find a way down the mountain where no way exists. And on grim occasion, to die. In the Trifide Couloir alone, a chute near La Meije, 25 people have perished.

Now, after I've eked my way through a dozen narrow passes, the pavement wiggles a few more times, the car shudders up one last incline, and Vallée X magically appears in the last blink of sun. The valley feels like a cupped hand, five glaciers slipping and sliding down to the Romanche River. Soaring into a blindingly blue sky, looming over everything, is La Meije. In the failing light, it shines like the white tooth of a shark.

The hamlet of La Grave is a collection of slate-roofed homes that stagger up a hill to a domed church built in the twelfth century. In the church cemetery, the graves of five generations of climbing and skiing guides are marked by wooden crosses, each bearing an oval sepia photograph of the deceased. La Grave's main street is nothing more than a cheese shop, a boulangerie, and a bar called Marcel's. Above the gray cubism of the town, in a satellite village known as Ventelon, sits a larch-paneled, three-story farmhouse; this is La Chaumine, a ski lodge in the shadow of La Meije where the bums congregate after a hard day on the mountain. When I arrive at La Chaumine, a few last minnows of light flicker in the sky. Dark figures stoop on a terraced hill, picking morels and dandelion leaves for soup. Sled dogs yowl, 16 of them chained to a post, with names like Globo, Jinsky, and Impulse. Inside the lodge I'm led to a long wooden table in a room crowded with hungry bums, a few of the lodge's guests, and the F2 snowboarding team, a squad of European thrashers who are here for a photo shoot. One F2 snowboarder, a hirsute Pole named Lech, plays a Warsaw-issue acoustic guitar and sings Woody Guthrie tunes, occasionally growling loudly when he senses that no one is listening.

At my table, one of the lodge's owners, Pele Lång, pours wine from a brimming pitcher; each time a glass touches down empty, it comes up full. Lång, a ponytailed, laconic 36-year-old, is a national hero in his native Sweden, a former freestyle skiing champion whose reputation in La Grave was cemented by his 1991 first descent of the Pan de Rideau Igrec, a 52-degree cliff face. When asked how he's doing, he answers "good-bad" between bites of salmon, and smiles vaguely. If he spoke any slower, he'd sound like an album of Gregorian chants spun backward.

"They call it le bête," he says, jabbing a thumb toward the window. "The beast. Six people so far this year."

I apparently look confused. "Snuffed," he explains. "Finis."

Describing what drove him away from Chamonix, Lång cites the familiar reasons: mobs, glitz, a pervasive attitude of me-firstism. In this quiet village, he says, it's easier to focus on the mountain, to develop a sixth sense for skiing or boarding all kinds of snow on all kinds of terrain and, most of all, for anticipating avalanches--what Lång calls "getting caught in the throat of the mountain." While he didn't discover La Grave--locals and a handful of others have skied on the glaciers beneath La Meije for years--his departure from Chamonix in 1988 persuaded a battalion of hard-core alpinists to follow him here.

Also at our table is Lång's partner, Les Harlow, a friendly Englishman with Ross Perot ears and a raspy accent. He's describing his and Lång's first visit to La Grave, a decade ago, remembering the sight of the village under three feet of fresh powder and the crude map, drawn by a local, which showed the dangerous cliffs and couloirs. They got to the top of the mountain on the téléphérique, a tram that was originally designed only to transport summer hikers and climbers. Swabbing the last of his béarnaise sauce with a bit of baguette, he squints at me.

"You know, this place was never meant for skiing at all," he says. "There are no bloody rules. There's no ski patrol, no trails to speak of. Up in Chamonix, they groom; here you ski what's in front of you, au naturel, and you like it. We're through the looking glass: You can get as radical as you want in La Grave. You also may die on the first run." The dinner crowd eventually spills into the bar. Among the group of lodge guests--European doctors, lawyers, executives, and the image-conscious F2 team--the bums are easily identifiable by their well-worn fleece, wind-shot eyes, bright red blooms on either cheek, and wild hair formations, some matted, some standing at Alfalfalike attention.

Mostly male and mostly disaffected middle-class refugees, the bums range in age from 18 to 60 and may ski up to 200 days a year. A few were once investment bankers and lawyers themselves; others never finished high school. Some are making a living in these mountains. Others exist mainly to wake up late, smoke dope, and ski the warm part of the day. If you were to empty a Steamboat Springs bar, you'd find similar demographics, though most of those skiers and snowboarders would flail in La Grave. Bums they may be, but the expatriates here are elite alpinists who head for La Meije each day with shovels, ropes, harnesses, and avalanche transceivers, anticipating the worst.

According to Jesper Millung, a lanky, disheveled, 28-year-old Dane who stands near the bar, the bums start surging into La Grave every winter around Christmas, coming from as far away as Australia, Sweden, England, Canada, and the United States. They sleep in basements, on floors or couches, in hovels or tents, in tiny chalets and tinier apartments. Wherever. Sure, they may go showerless for a week at a time, may live in the same Peruvian sweater and elf hat for months, but hygiene and fashion have never been the keys to dharma. "Not all of us smell like goats," Millung insists.

Loitering nearby are Jason Schutz and Jon Andrew. Both are snowboarders, and each has felt the sharper realities of La Grave's strange allure. Schutz, a perpetually grinning American who ditched a full-time U.S. endorsement contract to be here, embodies a combination of expertise and alpine libertarianism that is typical in La Grave. Lately he's been talking to Pierre Tardivel--the last survivor of the generation of world-class extreme skiers who emerged in Chamonix in the eighties--about a joint snowboard-ski descent of a couple of especially dicey couloirs. Schutz says he came to France because he got tired of American ski patrollers telling him where he could and couldn't go. "This place is wide-open," he says of La Grave. "Each day when we go up to the mountain, we're creating something new. It's like a drug."

Andrew agrees but quickly acknowledges that there can also be bad trips. A mop-headed, 20-year-old Englishman with mournful brown eyes, he's just returned to La Grave after a period of soul-searching. On New Year's Day 1995 he lost his older brother, Peter, to an avalanche that Schutz, Peter's best friend, watched from below. Andrew is here now to make some tentative peace with the mountain so that he can resume his life in the real world. When a full moon comes up over the Alps, I follow his eyes through the window where La Meije appears, swimming in the pale glow.

Outside, the bums have built a bonfire, jump-starting an impromptu bash. Harlow orders the troops to find more wood. A female bum, Dawn Hanson, a spark plug with short, dark hair and party-animal proclivities, wears a hat emblazoned with the word PENIS. Around the fire, a couple of bums are plucking guitars. Apparently no shindig is official until Vermy Bill, an American who's Hanson's boyfriend, picks the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies on his banjo, which he's doing now for the second time tonight. Competing for the audience, Lech sings a melancholy folk tune, blowing on a harmonica taped directly to his guitar. The two do battle until the bums vote with their voices, bellowing the lyrics loudly: "Up through the ground come a-bubblin' crude." From then on, it's all Vermy Bill.

The party goes late into the night. Millung does his Billy Idol impression, his hair spiked, his lip curling for effect. Harlow chatters about his sled dogs' appetite for salmon. Only Jon Andrew seems distant, and when I sit next to him at the fire, he recounts how his brother was killed on a clear day after high winds loaded the slopes with heavy snows.

That day, both Schutz and Peter Andrew came down the glacier together, but Schutz chose a different route to Col du Lac, a kettle lake at 9,730 feet. Peter shot into a steep couloir at the base of a large cirque, and when he did, an avalanche was triggered, sweeping him down the couloir in a massive wave of snow, ice, and rock. When he slammed onto the lake the ice broke, and he was gone. It was all over in five seconds.

"We sprinkled his ashes up there, on the glacier," Andrew says, shadows swirling over his face. "I like to think of him as a part of the mountain, always moving." He stares into the flames. Then he stands and floats out of the fire's ring of light, into the star-shot night, swallowed by the howling plainsong of the sled dogs.

The next morning, Easter Sunday, I ride to the top of the glacier on the téléphérique with two Germans, both in their twenties, both garbed in tangerine-colored action suits--twenty-first-century versions of Tweedledee and Tweedledum. They tell me that they came here from Chamonix three months ago, tired finally of the après-ski jawing over pints in a bar about who got first tracks down the north face of the Aiguille du Midi. And now here they are in a place with the best ice climbing in Europe, some of the most radical couloirs in the world, and one-for-all bum spirit, hoping out loud that the rest of the madding crowd doesn't follow. "I think all the bums in La Grave are tiptoeing very softly," says Dee.

The Germans are heading out on a five-day randonnée tour, a camping, climbing, and skiing trip into the 360-square-mile Parc National des Ecrins, France's largest national park. They call it "hanging in space," their term for getting lost in the park's forbidding emptiness. At the moment they're busy inspecting their heavy packs, which are loaded with avalanche transceivers, climbing harnesses, carabiners, figure eights, pitons, slings, and dead-man anchors.

"Do you know Hasselhoff?" Dee asks suddenly. I nod. There's a momentary silence, the mountain sifting below us. "I'm sorry to say this to you," Dee continues solemnly, flaring an eyebrow for emphasis, "but La Grave would bury your David Hasselhoff."

"Ja," says his sidekick, rooting around in his pack, "and his euphorically blond Pamela Anderson."

They're right, of course. Out the window, a rescue helicopter wheels above La Meije and then slips down toward the glacier--perhaps en route to an injured skier. The mountain seems full of pent-up violence, welling up like a huge tidal wave, curling over the five glaciers that deep-freeze everything here: Râteau, Vallon, Girose, Tabuchet, and La Meije. On the peak itself, ice gives way to jagged granite, and everywhere below there are scarred crevasses, slide-prone cirques, and gouged, wind-cut horns. There are snarled cornices and ice bridges that can collapse and take a skier on a 300-foot free fall. Fiddling with rope, shucking and gulping bananas now, the Germans look up long enough to point out the infamous Trifide Couloir, where four people have died this season alone, including Lucy Dicker, a Frenchwoman who successfully completed a well-publicized bid to ski every day of 1994, and who later declared La Grave one of her favorite ski spots, only to perish there two weeks before my arrival. At first glance it looks like an easy, Cadillac-turn cruiser, until it suddenly funnels into a treacherous 45-degree couloir that doglegs right at a huge boulder. "That rock," says Dee, "that is how many people come to see God."

Like the prototypes of extremism who came before them--Frenchmen such as Patrick Vallençant, who was the first and only to ski the Couloir Gravelotte on the north face of La Meije, and Bruno Gouvy, who first snowboarded Mont Blanc--many of the bums in La Grave focus on first descents. And they understand the need to balance their amphetamine ambitions with all-mountain skills and a serious emphasis on safety. It becomes a question of respecting and deferring to the glaciers, so that your margin of survival increases. But as the saying goes, without great risk there's no great reward: Vallençant and Gouvy both died on a mountain before turning 40. Every day spent in the presence of La Meije is full of the same fatal risks.

Start with the steeps. Simply standing on a 45-degree slope--one onto which I, as an advanced skier, wouldn't venture--your elbow juts into the mountain and the slope itself runs on a straight line down your leg, leaving your downhill ski dangling. There are skiers and boarders in La Grave testing 60-degree steeps, and some have talked about future attempts down 70-degree descents, where a turn literally, insanely, becomes a 50/50 proposition.

Making matters trickier is the weather. In December and January a battery of storms barrels through Vallée X, atmospheric temper tantrums originating over the Mediterranean and sweeping north and west into the southern Alps. These storms can change a pleasant day into a blizzard within minutes, and they're often followed by relatively warm spells or days when scoring winds leave a stiff surface that glazes over bushels of soft snow. Hence those who dare La Grave's most infamous couloirs--like Trifide, Pan de Rideau, and the Banane--must be hypertuned to the possibility of avalanches. Many become self-made glaciologists. Still, even after calculating snow depth, wind direction, shear layers, and the rest, you take your chances.

"Occasionally someone comes up here straight out of Lake Tahoe or Taos wanting to shred it up," says Gary Ashurst, a top American guide who works for La Chaumine. "They're all go and no whoa. They've got no respect for the mountain, but this place spanks you hard. One close call and you change quickly. Or leave."

As the Germans and I approach the tram's last station, which sits on the Col des Ruillans at 10,534 feet, they're arguing about whose ice ax is sharpest. When we disembark, we say our good-byes--"I hope we aren't found as icicles," proclaims a smiling Dee--and slip into a carnival of colors: people loitering, buckling their boots, consulting topo maps. I watch as other bums trudge off to try their luck against various cirques, headwalls, and couloirs. What seems impossible, on a bright day that reveals Mont Blanc and Val d'Isere in the distance, is that these electric brigades might somehow be rushing into the arms of a devouring angel. I last see the Germans shuffling through their packs, hotly debating something--perhaps a fine point of Baywatch--before they slip up and over the Dôme de la Lauze, out into space.

Even dressed in a neon-yellow jacket, Gary Ashurst is a hard man to follow. Our plan for today is simple. A gaggle of Ashurst's clients, mostly Swedish and Danish executives who are advanced intermediates or better, will ski behind him as he leads us on a relatively easy route down the Girose Glacier, a route that nonetheless might rank as an expert run at an American ski resort. Ashurst is a palm reader of sorts, judging the skill of his clients and the mountain each moment that he's on it--and guessing at what the mountain might become. "The key to being a good guide here is simple," he says. "Don't let anyone die in an avalanche."

Ashurst is so entirely implacable, his gaze so steady and his voice such an easygoing drone, that it's possible to overlook the fact that he's one of the best alpinists in La Grave. Three weeks before my arrival he skied to the far west side of the Girose Glacier with a friend, Andrew McClean. Dropping off its edge, they slammed down a 3,800-foot, 55-degree couloir that at one point narrowed to less than the length of a ski. They then rappelled about 100 feet into the second part of the couloir, skied at 55 degrees again, stopped, rappelled 225 more feet, and finally skied out--an act of prestidigitation. They named the couloir the Gargoyle, and rather than megaphone it to the world, they made a rough sketch of the route on a ripped piece of paper, and Ashurst pinned it to the wall of his chalet.

"When they hear about some of this stuff, my family wonders what I'm doing over here," says Ashurst. "It's hard to explain, really, but I never feel more safe than coming down a couloir. It's something you plan and prepare for, and if you take all the necessary precautions you never really feel at risk. It can be more dangerous crossing the street in Grenoble."

Still, Ashurst was lucky to survive a slide in 1992 that was nearly identical to the one that killed Peter Andrew at Col du Lac. Like Andrew, he started down the same chute above the lake, the snow suddenly gave way, and he was drowning in debris. "The only difference," says Ashurst, "was that when I hit the lake, I popped up, spit out a mouthful of snow, and was looking right down into the valley, buried up to my neck. It was the most humbling thing that's ever happened to me."

Our group today is full of aggressive Ashurst wannabes, all of whom carry avalanche transceivers. We're moving in single file, fanning out over the glacier in big, swoopy turns. Crystals of snow shoot up like cinders, and everything tastes metallic. We scoot through powder that quickly changes to corn and then to icy hard-pack. The exhilaration of skiing on a glacier is that the scale of your world is irrevocably altered. The visions of an immense kingdom that you carry off the mountain, that make you feel microscopic but very much alive, are ones you can return to in times of low-down, flatlander woe.

At about 11,500 feet, the Girose Glacier spills onto a little boulder field known as the Côte Fine, a roughly 30-degree pitch that today is exceptionally slick. When I make my first turn at the top, I suddenly find myself falling.

Very few bums, it must be said, have ever tumbled through the Côte Fine. Though I'd like to think differently, what I take to be my own near-death belly-whop is nothing more than a bunny-slope brush with extremism at La Grave. Sliding down the Côte Fine, I'm more concerned with not smacking several large boulders that are rapidly approaching in my path. Flat on my stomach, rocketing headfirst, my skis back up the hill, it suddenly occurs to me to start breaststroking to one side, and always the strong breaststroker, I miss two onrushing boulders. In the process, however, I'm somehow thrown over on my back. Sliding feet-first now, I make a bone-headed mistake: I lock the heels of my boots into the unforgiving steep, which suddenly sends me cartwheeling. I eventually come to a stop, about 100 yards down, sprawled among the group.

"Yow, yard sale, baby!" yells one of the Swedes good-naturedly.

"Monsieur Extreme," says another. Looking back up the slope, I see my skis and hat and sunglasses, a mitten, a rolling apple I'd had in one of my pockets, and my scarf--all scattered over the hill. Ashurst asks if I'm OK; with two ears full of snow, I have to read his lips. My limbs feel as if they've been wrenched from their sockets, and my head is pounding. And while I give the high sign, smile, and start back up to collect my things, I'm never the same at La Grave, mon ami. Castrato. Basket case.

Another midnight bonfire. This time the bums prostrate themselves at the very foot of La Meije, by the Romanche River, which is swollen with the first trickles of spring melt. Vermy Bill is in the groove, quick-picking his way through another round of the Hillbillies theme. There's a wooden table covered with bottles of red wine and raw wieners. The air smells of wood smoke and, for no apparent reason, Froot Loops.

All Easter Sunday long the mountain has put on a kaleidoscopic show: at noon, shining icy blue; at twilight, robed in purples; and in the first moments of nightfall, shrouded in deathly grays. Now the moon is up again, resurrected. The mountain is opalescent, almost dove-colored, and seems to breathe, wisps of snow blowing off its heights. There are twisted lines and snarls on La Meije that look, by turns, like a menacing face or a skeleton or the wings of an angel.

Jon Andrew is here, beaming, a paper cup of wine in his hand. He tells me that after having been away from this place for months, he had a wonderful day on the mountain, snowboarding the couloirs, and that he's feeling fine. Perhaps after such a dark time, this day has enabled him to believe that his brother died in some pure white flash, so lost in the moment that everything else, including terror, was probably obliterated.

Millung and Schutz are clowning around nearby, their sunburned faces reddened even more by the fireglow. The lifties from the tram, all locals, are here too, speaking broken English. Some days a bum may be short the cash needed to ride, and the lifties often look the other way. Now the bums push more wine on them.

What binds all of them is La Meije. And in this moment, by a quick trick of imagination, it's easy to see the mountain in the faces of each person; the horns and bergstroms and ice bridges all become a metaphor for the body, and the dramas of the mountain become the dramas of an individual life. "You can't read about La Grave in a magazine," Colin Samuels, a red-headed American, tells me. "You have to be here for your own reasons that have nothing to do with the hype." Suddenly giddy, the lifties are throwing branches, boxes, anything short of one another onto the fire. The moon zooms into full view, a perfect peach. And the bums start howling, inciting the lifties, scavenging the nearby larch forest for more wood until the fire leaps over everyone's head and its embers glow like molten jewelry.

On the far side of the fire, a liftie starts an Indian dance, but no one follows. Instead Dawn Hanson yells, "All the men take off their clothes!" Samuels moons the assembly, and then he and Hanson lift up their sweaters and rub their bare bellies, trying to encourage the masses. Embers shoot from the fire like a Roman candle, and one lands on Samuels's pants.

"Emergency! Emergency!" yells a liftie, trying to find the right words in English. "You have a small volcano in your pants." The bums howl again, doubled over in laughter, sprawled around the fire as Samuels slaps out the fire on his jeans, grinning wildly. Nearby, the river is rushing. La Meije is lit up like a ghost.

As I sit there, feeling the heat of the flames, none of it seems real. With the mountain at their backs, the bums all become shades, suspended in this bawdy, merry, flickering moment. The night seems full of some other presence. Even now, in the lonely churchyard, high above La Grave, there are mountain guides lying beneath the cool ground, their proud faces in sepia ovals on the cross beams, everything piling thick with snow.

Michael Paterniti is an executive editor of Outside.
His feature "Torched" appeared in the September 1995 issue.

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