The village of La Grave sits low in the Romanche valley, the winter sun not hitting the old buildings or empty streets. Situated in a quiet spot on the road from Grenoble to Briancon, you could be forgiven for driving straight through. The population has never climbed above 500 residents and it is second only to Chamonix in the number of mountain guides who call it home.
La Meije dominates the view from La Grave. The last among the great peaks of the French Alps to be climbed, La Meije was summited via the south face in August 1877 by guide Pierre Gaspard with his son and Emmanuel Boileau de Castelnau.
The iconic cable cars climb to Col des Ruillans at 3211m - the original plan was for it to go to the top of La Meije but thankfully that idea was abandoned. The cable car was originally designed for summer tourism and for mountaineers and hikers to get closer to the peaks and glaciers. Opened in 1976 it gave access to the wild, natural terrain around La Meije. A couple of years later it opened for skiing and since then has been recognised for its untamed runs and unsecured skiing, becoming a Sauvage mecca after a series of articles bought famed skiers and snowboarders to test their metal in these mountains.
The lift system had a difficult time under the management of the town, including being closed for 18 months when they ran out of money. In 1987 the Téléphérique des Glaciers de la Meije was formed by the man who designed the iconic cabins to run it, but in 2017 the lease ran out, and its future once again seemed unsure.
The ski company that runs the lifts at nearby Alpe d'Huez and Les Deux Alpes stepped in with a 30-year deal to seal its future. Part of the lease was that La Grave's high-altitude nature and unsecured skiing must be retained. Liability for accidents remains with the mayor, protecting the company from the claims that usually necessitate the endless signs, fencing and restrictions of other resorts. La Grave has its fair share of accidents, but the difficulty of the terrain keeps the less experienced people off the mountain.
Today La Grave remains Sauvage, a needle amongst the darn of ski resorts, even with the odd new building or modernisation creeping in, the village seeks to become carbon neutral. The updated ski lifts are designed for low impact on the glacier and environment - La Grave shows no sign of changing.