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BD athlete Johnny Collinson reports from La Grave

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Black Diamond athlete Johnny Collinson heads to La Grave, France and samples the big, steep, complicated mountains with the crew from Teton Gravity Research.

Staring dumbly down at a printed version of Google Maps, rain pounding on the windshield of our freshly rented VW diesel van, I had to admit it. “Dude we’re lost.” Ian McIntosh was behind the wheel getting tangled amongst the miniature cars of Europe. We were driving aimlessly around downtown Geneva, desperately trying to escape the city into our beloved mountain terrain. Finally a random street sign became our savior. Chamonix   

Rewind one month earlier, to mid January. I was skiing hardpack moguls at home, having to resort to tele skiing for a change of pace. Then, nearly out of the blue, I got the phone call every ski athlete dreams of, the invite to film with Teton Gravity Research. I was on the road to Jackson the next day to begin filming, and spent a few weeks in Wyoming. During my time there, when it seemed we were in the only storm system on the planet, Ian called me to make sure I could join him in France the next week. I was booking tickets before he finished his sentence.

Fast forward through countless hours of travel time and airport cocktails, and there’s Ian and I again, winding our way through the Alps to the tiny village of La Grave. Once we hit the highway Ian knew just where to go. He had been in the area earlier on a trip that inspired this one. Our mission was to get a crew of big mountain chargers; Ian, myself and Todd Ligare, and push comfort zones—using two ice axes and crampons to get on top of lines instead of a heli, and changing airtime from cliff hucks to rappels. During the whole trip I felt like I was back in time—from the old school lift, to the legends that surround the mountains there. We were staying with Joey Vallone, a mountain guide and fellow charger who lives in the famous “P-tex, Lies and Duct Tape” house. This area was where Doug Coombs choose to spend his time, and it was easy to see why. Steep gnarly lines were hidden behind every fold in the endless cliff walls.

Hungry to explore, Ian and I showed up a few days ahead of the crew and got lucky, hitting the resort right after a storm. 3-4,000 foot pow runs trashed our legs before we even hit the lower section of the mountain, an area where expertise and terrain knowledge were mandatory. Couloirs dropped everywhere to the valley floor, but only some go cleanly. It’s a good thing to have buddies willing to lead you around in places like that. After a few days the rest of the crew arrived and we got to work, hitting mandatory rappel lines on day one. It’s definitely different than jump laps at Alta. Its always fun to get into situations where everyone is a little bit nervous, hanging above big exposure, trusting buried anchors, and the usual- watching skiers walk in crampons. Throughout the next three weeks we barely scratched the surface of the terrain surrounding La Grave. We were working every day, spending long days skinning around to access long couloirs and complicated glacier runs. We learned quickly that filming would be difficult. The “barbeque” angle that is usually so prime, made us look like flies on the wall, even using the longest lenses. But that’s what made this trip so unique, instead of chasing the action-banger-Alaska-heli-gnar segment, we were searching for moments. That one second in the steep icy cooley, or the moment you decide to point it through the serac fall debris. The tiny glimpses into what its really like to ski without perfect conditions. But hey, we’re still supposed to make it look good right?  

I’d be proud of myself if I could remember the names of the runs I skied, but instead of trying to describe them all, (which could potentially get really boring) I’ll just say I look forward to going back. Soon. One three-day hut trip into Ecrin Nat’l Park wasn’t enough, especially because I got food poisoning and was busy barfing while I tried to watch Ian ski a gnarly 2,500-foot couloir in about 30 seconds. Inspiring to say the least. But, amongst all the fun and inspiration, the dangers of these mountains were continually poking us with reminders. On the West face of the Rateau, after a shallow boot pack, all of us three athletes came up with a “game plan” of how to ski it safely. Todd dropped first and was instantly taken down by sharks- super scary when ripping above 900 feet of exposure. He tumbled over rocks but self arrested before gaining too much momentum. After that all three of us skied it ski mountaineer style, light hop turn to light hop turn. A few days later Ian and I spent all day hiking up to and skiing the Passage de Serret du Savon, into a long serac fall run cleverly dubbed “the Ice S”. It’s a line that rarely gets skied, and a week after we did it, the huge hanging ice fields we were worried about collapsed and created two dizzyingly large avalanches that filled the valley with dust. Local patrollers said it was the largest they had seen in a long, long time. After everything was said and done, we were glad to be boarding a plane out of there in one piece.

So, if you every go to La Grave, don’t forget your ice axes, harness, camera, balls and respect. When you got all those packed up tight, look up a local and have them show you the zones, and then you will see why so many legendary skiers from across the world have chosen to call the tiny village of La Grave home.