This is a preview of a feature that originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of SKI. To read the full story and get access to more premium content than your eyeballs can handle, join Outside+ today.
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.
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.