I'd heard he was back from Kashmir. The rumour was that Ptor was living in the village of Ventelon, just above La Grave, and was getting ready for a big spring of mountain touring. I hadn't seen the legendary adventurer in years. I'd heard he'd gotten married to a woman of Austro-Belgian roots; heard he was even speaking passable French now. So I decided to seek him out.
For those who've never been to France's La Grave, it's a hard place to describe. Think of a 16 th century mountain village dwarfed by a glacier-draped peak jutting 3,900 vertiginous metres straight up from the narrow valley floor. That's La Meije, a gnarly massif of ice and snow crowned by a nearly perfect pyramid of summit rock.
Maybe that's why La Grave never became a conventional resort town. The lifts (if you can call the antique multi-linked gondolas a lift) were built in the mid 1970s to service a growing summer touring and hiking business. For the hardy adventurers willing to brave the nasty, stomach-twisting road south from Grenoble, the new facilities offered 2,000 vertical metres of seriously steep alpine terrain to play in. Ski mountaineers were soon raving about the tantalizing lines accessed from the top lift-station. And slowly but surely the hardcore began trickling into the village.
Nothing much has changed in La Grave since the 1970s. People have come and gone - and come again. There are no cut trails anywhere, no snowmaking, no fancy PistenBullys to groom the slopes, and no avalanche control whatsoever. In many ways, La Grave is everything the modern mountain resort professional fears. What you see is what you get, baby. And what you get if you're not careful is big trouble. Avalanche transceiver, shovel, probe, climbing harness, carabineers, belay tool, rope, crampons - these are everyday tools if you're serious about skiing La Meije.
As for Ptor Spricenieks, he fits into the La Grave environment like a chamois does a high-mountain slope. "It's one of the only places in the world where I can live my philosophy to its fullest," he says with a nearly straight face. "This is a magical place, man. It's a truly powerful spot."
We're sitting outside Le Castillan sharing a morning coffee. The usual suspects are about and everyone, it seems, has a "bonjour" for the big Canadian. It's understandable. He's only been back a week and people are truly happy to seem him. "I couldn't wait to get back from India," he admits. "It's funny, but I really miss this place when I'm away."
Although Ptor left an indelible mark on Whistler during the nearly two decades he spent trying to figure out whether or not he wanted to live here, current residents may be more familiar with his eightysomething mom, Astrid Spriecenieks who retired to the valley several years ago.