A couloir is a steep gorge or gully. With enough snowcoverage it can be very exciting to ski one. Once you enter a couloir, there is no way out and because you’re in a big terrain trap, you have to either ski from one safe spot to the next or ski in one go in order not to get caught in an avalanche. If you like skiing couloirs like I do, there is a hidden gem in the French Alps; la Grave…
La Grave has over a dozen of couloirs, most of them easily accessible. I arrived late in the season, around April 20. The lower terrain had run out of snow by that time but the high alpine still had a great coverage including some fresh snow. When you take one of the little gondolas in la Grave you’ll see a bunch of couloirs on your left-hand side once you reach the top station. These couloirs are called “Couloirs de la Pointe Trifide” and are true classics of la Grave.
In the picture all the couloirs run from right to left. Trifide 0 starts on the huge rocky area and joins the bigger Trifide 1 at the bottom. Trifide 2 starts on an exposed section before you turn into a more narrow gully surrounded by rocks. The start of Trifide 3 can be seen at the far left in the picture and normally requires a rappel (or big jump…) in order to exit. During my visit to la Grave I skied Trifide 0, 1 and 2.
Together with Bart and Marius, two guys I met through the WePowder forum, I hired a guide for one and a half day. In the first lift up Jonathan asked us if we were good skiing 35 to 40 degrees couloirs straight away or if we’d prefer to ski a warm up run first. We decided to head directly to the Trifides. Once you leave the gondola you walk passed the “out-of-bounds” sign and ski down a little bit towards the entrance of the couloirs. We started with Trifide 1, the easiest of them all. The entrance is interesting though with some navigating through and over rocks. People from nearby resort Les deux Alpes sometimes end up in la Grave thinking there are a couple of nice pistes and eventually end up in the easily accessible couloirs with all thinkable consequences. Luckily for us, we knew what we were doing. Trifide 1 turned out to be a nice ski but I’d liked to ski something steeper…
We took the gondola back up from the mid station. This time we went skier’s right to Trifide 2. More navigating through rocks took us to an exposed section which was the start of the couloir. We were all aware of the increased risk and made some conservative turns. A fall would not necessarily result in death but it definitely wouldn’t be fun!
At the bottom of the exposed face we went skier’s left into a more narrow corridor, great skiing. Marius climbed on top of a big rock so he could take some photos of Bart and myself skiing down. Always nice to have some photos from a slightly different perspective. Thanks Marius! Once we left the corridor, the run opened up a bit and the skiing became easier. Trifide 2 is a great run. It involves both a bit of mental – and of course skiing ability. Nothing too crazy but definitely a great adventure!
Jonathan didn’t recommend to ski Tridife 3 as it requires a rappel or a huge jump at the bottom in order to exit the couloir. We all agrees to skip it. Trifide 0 was still left to be skied and this became our next target. Trifide 0 is not visible from the gondola and the entrance is a bit hidden so it doesn’t get skied as often as the other Trifides. That means there are less tracks!
We skied a bit further down to find the entrance compared to the other Trifides and traversed skier’s right. Some sidestepping on a steep section and we were suddenly in the couloir. There were just a couple of tracks before Jonathan made his. We followed one by one and I enjoyed every single turn I made in my favourite couloir of the Trifide-family. It is nice and steep, consistent and a little bit hidden which makes you feel privileged to ski it. Now I knew how to find it, I returned in the afternoon to ski it again.
If you like to ski couloirs, la Grave simply has to visited. It is a classic ski area amongst advanced – and expert skiers. The first couple of times I definitely recommend to ski with a guide. Besides the risk of ending up in an avalanche the routefinding can be extremely difficult and dangerous; you can easily end up at a big cliff and the rescue helicopter is the only way out!
The Trifide couloirs are great but la Grave has so much more to offer. La Voute, Chirouze, Freaux and Rama are just a few examples of other challenging couloirs or “itinéraires” as they are referred to locally. Touring options are also abundant and finally there is the renowned “Pan de Rideau” where you have to cross a very exposed section where falling really is out of the question…