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La capitale des Alpes | Erasmus in Grenoble

Savoir vivre c'est savoir skier

by Adrian Sauter • 12/30/2019
For many freeriders, Grenoble is still a blank spot on the map. Despite its high alpine backdrop, the capital of the Isère region with its 160,000 inhabitants is usually simply ignored and left by the highway. As part of Erasmus, I was able to put the freeride and ski touring opportunities through their paces alongside student life.

After a year with lots of vertical meters, fast descents and friendly French people, I can only recommend paying a visit to the "capital of the Alps".

It was just before Christmas when we were asked to inform the TU Munich of our preferred partner cities. For me, there was actually one main criterion: it had to be close to the mountains. Leafing through the foreign brochure, I noticed New Zealand, Chile and Canada as well as a place that I had already come across once before, in the big PowderGuide book about the best freeride spots in the Alps. My interest was piqued. I asked myself why I should travel far away if I didn't even know the mountains of our nearest neighbors.

In the end, I opted for a concrete-grey town that most of my fellow students had never heard of or assumed was in Switzerland. The ugly duckling of Erasmus destinations, so to speak, as it comes up empty-handed year after year in the allocation of remaining places. At first glance, the largest city in the Alps, located in the high mountains, does not seem to enjoy a good reputation. But why is that? To find out, I packed all the things I would need for a year abroad and headed west.

It was mid-August and I was using the time left until university was due to start for a road trip across the country: heavily loaded with winter and water sports equipment of all kinds, I drove along the Atlantic coast to the south of France and then along enchanted mountain roads towards the western Alps. I followed the Route Napoleon past ancient cork oaks and deep blue lakes and marveled at how the lovely Mediterranean landscape increasingly gave way to an alpine backdrop. I knew I was on the right track.

On arrival in Grenoble, I arrived just in time to move into my dormitory. It had been built as part of the 1968 Winter Olympics and was located slightly south of the city in a formerly notorious suburb. In the first few weeks, I discovered the old town with its many bars and cafés and was delighted to discover that I could see the mountains from almost every corner of the city.

The three distinctive mountain ranges that I could see from everywhere were the Vercors in the west, known for its limestone caves, the Chartreuse in the north, famous for its herbal schnapps, and the snow-covered Belledonne in the east. All three areas have their own unique character and offer everything a mountaineer could wish for in the immediate vicinity of the city.

All beginnings are snow

While waxing skis and searching for avalanche transceivers in the foliage, we could see the first snow-covered mountain peaks shining in the distance. A glance at the map reveals that there are a few high-altitude passes where you can go ski touring even in early November. One of these is the Col Lautaret at 2057 m, which is open all year round and is famous for the Tour de France. It can be reached in just over an hour and a half via the D1091 in the direction of Briançon.

The pass, which is also popular with snowkiters, is a great starting point for numerous short and sometimes challenging tours. I particularly like the Pics de Combeynot with its many north-facing slopes and shady gullies with some quite steep descents. But you can also tour south of the pass directly from the parking lot until late spring.

When winter really got going, I experienced what a real westerly stau looks like. While it rains in torrents in the city, the mountains are covered in huge amounts of fresh snow the next day. Only when the stau lasts for days and when dense snowfall, poor visibility and a high avalanche warning level reduce the possibilities is good advice expensive, as many of the well-known spots around Grenoble have their best terrain above the tree line. If the forest descents of Val d'Isère or Les Arcs are too crowded for you on such days, you will find excellent treeruns in small ski resorts such as la Norma, Arêche-Beaufort in the Haute-Maurienne or Puis-Saint-Vincent in the Hautes-Alpes. Even in the freeride mecca of la Grave, everything is usually limited to the lower Téléphérique on such cloudy powder days and apart from a few locals, there are few people out and about, especially during the week.

However, it never takes long in the south-west for the sun to break through the clouds again after a storm. On days like this, it's better to leave the lecture hall early and pay a visit to the local ski resorts of Chamrousse and Les Sept Laux. Both are located in the Belledonne massif and you can be on the slopes in just 40 minutes. Chamrousse is known for its snow park and beginner-friendly terrain. Les Sept Laux is known above all for its considerable freeride potential. Due to the short journey and ticket prices of between 12 and 16 euros, depending on the day, there is a lot going on here and it sometimes backs up almost into the valley. If you want to get hold of a parking space and first lines, you shouldn't be a late riser. In addition to the local mountains, the beautiful Vanoise National Park to the north-east and the neighboring Mont Blanc massif to the north are just over 2 hours away and well worth a visit. However, due to the good accessibility and well-equipped huts, you are rarely alone here either.

A night ski tour over the sea of lights

The Chartreuse mountains directly to the north of Genoble are also ideal for a quick night ski tour over the city's sea of lights due to their proximity. Peaks such as Chamechaude offer great views with unique rock formations and adventure tours, such as the winter ascent over the Breche de Arnaud.

There are also beautiful, moderately difficult ski tours in the Vercors, although these are often short and not always easy to reach due to the rugged rock faces, such as on Mont Aiguille. A curious classic here is the Chourum Olympique. Anyone who wants to ride steep walls in a cave should not miss out on this tour in the south of the Vercors.

The best-known ski touring area around Grenoble is definitely the Belledonne massif. Whether with lift support from Les 7 Laux or more secluded from the east: You can find varied and sometimes long tours with an alpine character, steep couloirs and wide firn slopes right next to the ski resorts. In winters with little snow, the approaches on foot are quite long, but that doesn't stop the many French people from climbing their local mountains. The crowning glory is the varied ski tour to the Croix de Belledonne, which offers solitude and fantastic views of the mist-covered valleys of the Isère.

Here you can also see that Grenoble is one of the smoggiest cities in France due to its basin location. I know this inversion phenomenon well from my home near Stuttgart. All the more reason to make a pilgrimage to the higher altitudes and look down on the clouds of haze. If you don't want to contribute to this pollution, you can use public transport to explore some of the ski resorts and more remote areas around Grenoble. However, a car is an advantage, especially in the Écrins and on remote tours.

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The best ski resort in the world

Following the valleys towards Col Lautaret with its deserted villages and barrages, you will inevitably pass the freeride mecca of la Grave. The mountain village, which at first glance seems inconspicuous but is rustic, has a deserved reputation for being legendary, as it is unique with its spectacular and untameable descents. The best ski resort in the world not only often has the best powder, but also the best fans. Some of them stay in the small parking lot in front of the gondola for weeks on end, leaving fresh tracks in the snow and creating a great atmosphere in the surrounding bars. With the right equipment and experience, a completely new and high alpine world opens up to you here, which you should breathe in deeply. Nowhere else can you feel the freedom of the mountains, but also the danger they pose, as intensely as here.

In addition to la Grave, the numerous high-altitude tours in the Écrins are also worth a trip in their own right. There are almost exclusively difficult tours here and, in addition to the avalanche situation, the mountaineering skills should be suitable. Steep couloirs, hanging glaciers and wild seracs and ice formations characterize the high alpine glacier landscape. This part of the Western Alps still seems to have remained very pristine and you get the impression that the enchanted valleys of the Écrins National Park somehow belong to a different era. Unspoilt mountains as far as the eye can see and spectacularly situated and uncrowded mountain huts such as the Réfuge de l'Aigle round off this impression.

If you leave the Écrins via the Col de Lautaret in the direction of Briançon, you will quickly reach Serre Chevalier. A very extensive ski resort with sparse larch forests, old-fashioned lifts and southern Alpine flair. The sun often shines here when the sky is overcast in Grenoble.

If that's still not sunny enough, you should wait for spring, because Grenoble is as far south as Milan and Venice. When it's already summer in the streets, the real high and steep season is just beginning here. By August at the latest, however, it gets so hot and stuffy that the "Grenoblois" flee to the surrounding area. With an almost infinite choice of hikes, alpine climbing routes and canyons, one lifetime is not enough to explore everything. The Verdon Gorge or the Ardèche are popular excursion destinations for nature lovers. Culture lovers can stroll through towns such as Aix-en-Provence, Nîmes or Arles. If you want to dangle your legs in the sea, head to Nice or pay a visit to the Calanques near Marseille.

The storming of the Bastille

The best time to leave Grenoble is in the warm evening hours and head towards the historic old town. Here, one bar follows the next and there are many lively squares. A true "Grenoblois" would tell you that you can drink a beer in a different pub 365 days a year. You should treat yourself to a local beer and Grenoble's famous tacos on the way home, because here people still sit outside and gossip under sparkling radiant heaters even on freezing winter nights. The centrally located Parc Paul-Mistral became the epitome of the southern French way of life for me. After I moved into a shared flat next door with two glaciologists, we often met here to play boules, go slacklining or enjoy a beer after work. If that's too lazy for you, I recommend joining the sports-mad Grenoblians and sprinting up the Bastille. The local mountain is conquered with the help of many stairs and serpentines, but can also be reached directly from the city by cable car.

Another good way to meet like-minded people is to join one of the student mountaineering clubs ESMUG, GUCEM or CAF (similar to the DAV/ÖAV). Here you have the opportunity to take part in numerous excursions and courses or to use the climbing gyms. Ice climbing courses, canyoning or guided alpine tours are probably rarely as inexpensive as here. Membership of the École de Glisse is also recommended. Beginners will find free ski lessons here and with the membership card, professionals also get great discounts in the Les Sept Laux and Les Deux Alpes ski resorts as well as at some of the many sports stores.

Savoir vivre c'est savoir skier

It's a special place where so many mountain-loving people from all over France and the world come together. Grenoble is an ideal starting point for a variety of alpine adventures of all levels of difficulty. The combination of mountain sports to the max, urban student life and the sporty, friendly and almost Mediterranean lifestyle of the people of Grenoble makes the city truly unique. It has become a new home for me and I hope that next time you don't drive past carelessly, but get out and possibly stay forever, because beware: danger of addiction!

Practical links for tour planning:

Mountain weather and avalanche reports : ,

Tour planning: (reports, GPS tracks), (reports, topos, photos of descents)


Ipighénie maps for cell phones

GĂ©oportail good satellite images, IGN and historical maps. Levels for setting the slope gradient, elevation profile and waypoints

IGN maps in paper form detailed, robust

Freeride maps for ski resorts

Photo gallery

This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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