His eyes bulge as he straight lines out the tightening funnel of La Grave, France’s Vallons de La Meije. The muscles in his thighs tear in ways you can’t train for. On his left, he passes a man sliding on an inner tube. On his right, a woman telemarking in a tutu. He’s locked in the world’s longest human slalom, down 6,000 vertical feet of refrozen knee-deep bumps, with no marked course, and nothing barring the public. It takes everything he has to bring his tips back down to earth multiple times per second. His knees, at points, jackhammer his chest. This is full throttle—full commitment.
It’s April 2018, and Charly Rolland is vying to be the fastest of 800 people dropping into the Derby de la Meije, a 30-year tradition of lunacy set in the French Alps’ wildest ski locale. Racers slide underneath sheets of ice clung precariously to the second-highest peak of the colossal Écrins range: 13,071-foot tall La Meije. Seven-thousand feet below its spiky summit, Rolland crosses the finish line through an impressive thread work of larch trees and collapses screaming in pain, part of a choir of a half dozen others moaning on the ground. With a time of six minutes and five seconds, he takes the win, arguably the most prestigious underground accolade there is for a French skier.
One year later, the 26-year-old is back in La Grave to defend his title. Only, the course has just changed for the first time in 31 years.
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To a North American, the Derby de La Meije doesn’t even sound possible. It is an 800-person, 6,000-vertical-foot Chinese downhill (if that term still passes) through some of the gnarliest lift-accessed terrain in the world. It screams liability in bold, fluorescent letters. But France, bless its socialist heart, remains relatively free of the litigious constraints that frame modern American resort skiing. And La Grave is no resort.
The Téléphériques des Glaciers de La Meije first crested 10,500 feet in 1977, ascending to the then-expansive Glacier de Girose as a tourist trap. The lift was originally conceived in the same spirit as Chamonix, France’s Aiguille du Midi and Grands Montets: for sightseers. Skiers were an afterthought. La Grave’s lift was a prototype that ran at a turtle’s pace in order to soak up the scenery. To this day, it remains unreproduced and unchanged—an antique fixture of Pantone yellow, red, and orange fiberglass “bins” in the skyline—transporting a meager 440 people per hour. Below it, there is no controlled terrain whatsoever: no run markers, no groomers, no piste; just an array of glaciers, couloirs, and moraines. Wedged into an agrarian valley of stone homes from the 17th century, La Grave is above all else, an anachronism.
In April 2018, three days before the Derby, the mountain looks vaguely like the surface of the moon, pockmarked by long chalky depressions between clusters of rock. Spring came early to the valley and not much snow remains at mid-elevations. But warm spells and giant storms are typical of this time of year. Things can change fast, and often do.
With a Poma lift above the Téléphériques that accesses an additional 1,300 vertical feet of glacier, skiing will run until May.
But, for now, the mountain’s midriff is in historically poor shape. The upper glacier has receded and narrowed in an inevitable choke point. There is also a giant serac (bulge of glacier ice) hanging by a thread above. Race organizers, in turn, have made the call to move the Derby from the Vallons to the Chancel: a shadier and broader amphitheater on the opposite side of the spine that splits the mountain. (As a side note, the permafrost that’s held the summit of La Meije together for climbers since 1877 has recently also melted, peppering the mountain with loose rock.)
Competitors scope lines in the daunting new venue while secouristes (French rescue professionals) and volunteer safety staff watch on, smoking profusely. It is a hand-rolled, nicotine-fueled procession of anxiety as decades-old go-to lines no longer offer advantage to the seasoned, and the nebulous new course hides quarries of sharp, black talus around every bend and under every blind roll. Among those looking for the fastest strip through the maze is Rolland and his friend Quentin Ruffier Des Aimes. Both are ski instructors from Champagny, France. They’re skeptical of the change in course, but do their best to stay positive.
“It will still be the same people in front,” Ruffier Des Aimes, who finished fifth last year, tells me. “Whoever wins in the Chancel would have won in the Vallons, too.”
“Locals might have an advantage,” Rolland interjects, pursing his lips to the left past his robust cheeks. “They know where the rocks are, the little sneaky lines. I’ve only known the Chancel for one week.”
By the night The Hôtel Le Faranchin plays host to an impressively disparate group of racers, ranging from 23 to 80 years old. The Derby’s president, André Haase, 61, holds court amongst them. He sports a horseshoe of silver hair, perfect posture, and a permanent smile from skiing every day. Like all years, he’ll do the Derby this year, too. It is, after all, why he came to La Grave. Known locally as Didi, he first sponsored the event back in ’89 when he worked for a company called Tapi Roulant. By ’91, he’d moved to La Grave permanently and started a ski shop and guiding service called Snow Légende that he still runs today.
Derby contenders range in background from freeskiers on the Freeride World Tour, to ex and current racers, to skier-cross athletes. But Derby devotees come in a much wider and weirder array. The vast majority don’t care about winning, they’re here to wear bizarre costumes and compete in teams at their own pace. They will serve as a hallucinogenic set of moving gates for the fast skiers.
The most impressive in the mix, though, is a small man from Evian with well-kempt gray hair and a luminous energy. He looks an easy 20 years younger than his eighth decade would have me believe. Only six months ago, Lucien Vrecko had back surgery and wasn’t able to walk. Now he’s here for his 20th Derby de La Meije. Fifteen of his friends formed a team to support him, and Didi registered him for free. Vrecko’s best placement ever was 220th, but it’s not about that for him.
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He takes me aside, wipes a tear, and tells me it’s his son’s birthday—he’d be 54 today, but he died in an accident when he was 15. His other son drowned 19 years ago. Vrecko lived through World War II as a child, but lost his own kids to happenstance years later. Since then, his fight has never ended. “You see, I made a decision to give myself to nature,” he says, “to not be grounded in sadness. This is what the Derby represents for me.”
Back in the Chancel, the organizers are busy wrapping rock clusters in orange fencing—something they’ve never done before. Competitors, for their parts, straightline alleyways in test sections to figure out their lines, with their jackets flapping violently in the wind. On race day, many will actually wear skin suits. Rolland and Ruffier Des Aimes scoff at this, though, believing La Grave’s Derby should be done “in the freeride spirit.” A puritan’s debate, to be sure.
“I would say maybe 100 competitors are serious,” Per Pelle Lång tells me when I later meet up with him to glean some La Grave history. “You need to be a very technically good skier, in very good shape. You can be crazy and jump a cliff, and ski 700 feet out of control, but you’re not going to make it. It’s too long. Go on YouTube and see the winners of Derby de La Meije, it’s amazing, their skis are barely on the ground.”
No longer competing, Lång has been around since the second race. He’s done the Derby 10 times: winning once on a team, once on telemarks, then taking second and third places in years following that. A soft-spoken Swedish guide, Lång is one of the forebears of skiing in La Grave. He moved in 1989 following a derby that used to be held in Chamonix off the Grands Montets lift. That race got canceled because of a fatality. There were only two other places in France where you couldn’t sue the lift by law, because they are not resorts. Aiguille du Midi didn’t have conducive terrain, so the Derby des Grands Montets moved to La Grave, and with it Lång. He then started Skier’s Lodge, the business that spread the word internationally and broadcast the mountain to the masses. Years later, La Grave got huge, and with it the Derby.
“I think they had 1,200 competitors, I think it grew too big,” Lång says. “At one point it was more like a music festival and people came from Grenoble and it became more like a techno show.”
”Now, it’s found its roots again. Organizers cap it at 800 racers and the official categories are: ski, snowboard, telemark, monoski, and “engins de glisse,” which roughly translates to other engines. Some have taken that very literally in the past, Lång recalls.
“One year one guy put a rocket on his mono-ski to get across the glacier. It was on the poster in 2004.”
Part of the race’s lore is that lawlessness. Though, there are some rules. Couloirs like the Trifides—which are 1,300-vertical-feet long and have a 50-degree pitch, and some people used to straightline back in the day—are now banned, because someone died during training once. (Lång remembers a telemarker who also delaminated his skis from tip to tail from the violent throw of gravity at the bottom.) Otherwise, the entire mountain is yours to find the fastest way down. Racers drop in heats of 10, with 30 seconds between them. It will take about two hours for all competitors to leave the start gate. It will take longer than that for some to finish their runs. The fastest, though, will do it in about six minutes.
Rolland and Ruffier Des Aimes’s lines trace the far left of the Chancel, edging at top speed over a messy scratch of traverses below a set of 50-foot cliffs. After this section, they’ll then gap a 70-foot ravine to get a clear run at the finish. But for now, it’s all planning.
“Sometimes you don’t sleep well the night before,” Ruffier Des Aimes later says, while waxing his skis back at his hotel. “Because you know you’re going to have to go fast the next day. I mean, it’s risky.”
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Rolland, meanwhile, preps a 16-year-old pair of Rossignol GS skis he inherited from his uncle. I comment that they’re in impossibly good shape for their age.
“Yeah,” he answers proudly, “they won in 2003, and again in 2018. We’ve known the Derby de La Meije since we were 10 years old, it’s mythic.”
Raised by speed, Rolland and Ruffier Des Aimes now compete on a circuit called the Trophée des Derbys. But this year they’re only focusing on this race—the most prestigious one. Though they aren’t registered as a team, they still consider themselves one. Their preparation regime involves everything from freeskiing to bashing gates, as long as it’s together.
Going it alone, though, doesn’t deter many others, like American Sarah Johnson, who works as a server at Skier’s Lodge. Originally from Montana, she lives and telemarks in La Grave now. She did the Derby for the first time last year and came in second in her category. It looks like snow is coming, and Johnson is hoping to drop her knees on fat skis this year—which isn’t great for race conditions, but has her amped. “I think it’ll be a great Derby,” she says. “It should be in powder.”
That night, she gets her wish. Almost four feet of snow falls on the glacier.
Twenty-four hours later, a lone monoboarder rushes past me at breakneck speed, riding a wheelie through chop like he’s being dragged behind a boat. The dramatic cascade of new snow has somehow stabilized, and La Grave’s Voodoo is on full display: transforming from a desert landscape to a snow globe in incredibly short order. But all around me lies the wreckage of a hundred mangled bodies struggling in hot powder. The sun’s come out, and anyone who showed up with skinny, stiff race skis is screwed.
Snowboarders, monoboarders, and locals who switched to fat skis have a distinct advantage now. Hundreds of others face plant like they’re being individually taken out by a sniper. Meanwhile, a team of bumblebees passes a Mr. Potato Head without a care in the world, and a procession of tinsel wigs sparkle cosmically under the sun. It’s like a Dalí painting, or a Wes Anderson movie. One guy shuffles past me with only one ski. I ask what happened, and he says, “I looked for an hour and couldn’t find it,” then he spits in the snow, exhausted.
Down at the finish, the fastest skiers look like frogs hopping along, pushing off their tails and throwing themselves forward over giant clumps of snow. No one has the speed for the ravine gap, but a few manage to hold tight form and slide powerfully into the corral. One of them is Maya Bonsignore, a 23-year-old who grew up in La Grave and usually competes in freeski contests. This being her home court, she had the benefit of switching to fat skis. Her brother Tim, 20, comes in shortly behind her.
“We were skeptical at first,” Maya tells me, catching her breath at the end of her fourth Derby, “we’re not used to the Chancel, so we didn’t have derby lines, but we scoped it well. I thought with more snow it would be easier, but it wasn’t.”
A familiar opera of moaning dominates the finish, quads burning, feet on fire.
A guy with huge mutton chops and a cowboy hat wails on an electric guitar on stage, mangling English lyrics to an ecstatic crowd in a gigantic circus tent. The band behind him evokes Jamaica as the smell of cannabis, tobacco, and Chartreuse prevails. There’s as much jubilation for the fact the Derby happened at all as there is for the awards ceremony. In one corner, a bunch of dudes party in a hot tub built into a pink Cadillac with the words TURBO DANCING emblazoned on it. From the lofty peak of the tent, Didi’s 19-year-old daughter, Leeloo, descends harnessed like a Cirque du Soleil performer, dispensing glitter over the crowd.
Each winner of every category makes a lengthy speech—Rolland and Ruffier Des Aimes, victims of their skinny skis, are notably not amongst them. But when 80-year-old Vrecko takes the stage, the audience yells his nickname in unison, “LuLu! LuLu! LuLu!”
Through the haze, I can see Rolland and Ruffier Des Aimes dancing like fools and cheering him on. The party will last until the wee hours of the morning, a celebration of wildness in all its forms. This is the Derby de La Meije, this is La Grave.
Originally published in the December 2019 issue of SKI Magazine. For more great stories like this, SUBSCRIBE NOW and have the print edition delivered directly to your mailbox.