Inghams recommend Switzerland for skiing

With covid in mind, Inghams, the leading ski holiday operator, have recommended Switzerland as a good choice for a ski holiday this season, singling out Davos, Grindelwald, Klosters, Murren, Saas Fee, St Moritz, Wengen and Zermatt.

Everyone should know that Switzerland is probably the best country in the world to visit for a ski holiday, but the strength of the Swiss Franc has put increasing numbers of cost-conscious tourists off in recent years. However Switzerland has uniquely been able to maintain ski facilities throughout the pandemic, and continue to look like the most likely destination to guarantee a great ski experience this winter.

Details of Ingham holidays are at Inghams web site. Additionally they have a really good Coronavirus hub, letting you know what coronavirus restrictions apply in all of the destinations they serve.

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Autumn Skiing

Nic Oatridge skiing Verbier and Zermatt

With Covid-19 rampant throughout the Alpine nations, the question many people have been asking is: “Will I be able to ski this season?”. The answer is yes – at this time at least – if you are not otherwise prevented from visiting the Alps by Covid restrictions.

I came out to Switzerland from London in October, before lockdown in the UK, and had 10 days of quarantine once I arrived. With online shopping for groceries and family and friends only a click away, isolation passed quickly. Furthermore my confinement was deep in the Swiss Alps, in Aigle in the upper Rhône valley , with the slopes of les Portes du Soleil, Leysin and Villars visible from my windows, and the peaks of les Dents du Midi towering over the valley.

View of les Dents du Midi from Aigle. Copyright Nic Oatridge.
les Dents du Midi, seen from Aigle

Sadly the season is too early for the most nearby resorts to be open, but there is always skiing on the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, so as soon as I exited quarantine, I was on my way to Zermatt.

Nic Oatridge in Zermatt

In a subsequent post I will focus on the impact of Covid-19, but for now I will concentrate on the skiing. Although there is skiing out of Zermatt all year round, summer skiing is limited and the slopes tend to turn to mush by lunchtime. November heralds the start of the winter season; however the snowline is still too high to allow for much of the resort to be open, with only the area above Trockener Steg at 2939m open on a pretty creditable 26km piste. Most years you would also be able to connect to the slopes in Cervinia, across in Italy, but the border is closed at this time due to Covid-19

Empty slopes above Trockener Steg in Zermatt

But the good news is that the snow above Zermatt is near perfect and the pistes are wonderfully quiet.

Skiing on the Theodulgletscher

Zermatt is an expensive resort, and you might well ask if it is worthwhile when so little is open. Furthermore there is limited off-piste and the available runs are all limited to cruisy reds and blues. I can only offer the opinion that this quality of lift-served skiing, in November, is not available anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere. Zermatt never rests on its laurels and every year there are lift improvements. Even though you need to take three cable cars to get to the highest point, at a dizzying 3883m, you can be skiing a little after 9am with an 8.30am start.

View over Cervinia towards Mont Blanc from Klein Matterhorn

A large proportion of the other skiers are ski instructors, in training for a new season – most of which seems to involve warming up and talking. As a result the slopes are delightfully uncrowded and you can do some runs without seeing another soul the whole way down.

I would have liked to stay in Zermatt longer, but with a lockdown imminent I decided to slip in a day’s skiing in Verbier before returning to Aigle. Verbier opened up for weekend skiing only and has, in effect, only one open run. Whether that was worth skiing, I was about to find out.

Attelas, Verbier

What are the ski resorts like at this time of year, before the season fully starts? Ignoring the impact of Covid-19, the resorts are still in effect in off-season mode and most hotels, bars and restaurants are still closed. Those that are open are quiet. Add to that the impact of Covid-19 and the whole experience of skiing in autumn is not what most skiers and snowboarders would recognise as a winter sports vacation. If you are coming primarily to ski and snowboard though, Zermatt definitely gets my vote. But what of Verbier?

Sadly, Verbier fell somewhat short of the experience in Zermatt. The only slope open is the run off Attelas at 2727m down to le Lac des Vaux. It’s a short blue run, with the dogtail of the red run off Chassoure providing a little variety. There’s a number of off-piste runs down to the lake too, but the snow cover is very thin and I wouldn’t recommend them.

Skiers on Lac des Vaux run off Attelas, Verbier

When I got to Attelas, having taken one of the first gondolas up, the run was busy but not too crowded. It got more crowded as the day went on and queues developed at the lift back up to Attelas, but the crowds and queues were acceptable. The ski and snowboard set were different from Zermatt, being mostly younger skiers and families on a day trip from nearby towns.

The snow deteriorated through the course of the day and was more like spring skiing than was the case in Zermatt where the base held up throughout the day. The volume of skiers also led to moguls forming on the steeper section of the run.

Fontanet, Verbier
The closed ski area between Fontanet and Attelas, above Les Ruinettes

It’s clearly very early in the season and the snow line is above 2500m on North-facing slopes. If the temperatures start to drop and there is more precipitation, the section above Les Ruinettes will also open, providing a reasonable variety of piste. However the prospect at this time is for warm, sunny days and it might not be before December when Verbier can offer more pistes. If, however, you are in the region and fancy getting a couple of turns in, Verbier is open for business.

A number of other resorts have limited skiing at this time, almost exclusively in Switzerland, including the glaciers on Titlis (Engelberg) and Diablerets (Glacier 3000). However there are only a few kilometres of piste open at these resorts, and the few others that I think will be open for weekend skiing will be very limited. More promising is Saas-Fee, which claims to have 53km open, and that will be my next port of call. I like Saas-Fee, having first visited the resort over a quarter of a century ago and been several times since. I did ski there early in the season one year before, and found the ski conditions pretty good.

Verbier Medran Gondola
Verbier

Of course, snow conditions are not the only consideration when going skiing or snowboarding in these Covid times. I’ll cover that in my next blog article.

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New Lifts in Switzerland for 2019

The expansion of the Andermatt ski area continues apace with a new lift between Sedrun and Disentis, creating a network of 22 lifts connecting Andermatt, Sedrun and Disentis.

It is a spectacular transformation of what were once three sleepy, relatively isolated but beguiling resorts to create the largest ski resort in Central Switzerland.

Disentis is a fabulous resort in the Rhine valley, now linked to Sedrun.

I have often been frustrated by the difficulties in getting back from Avoriaz to the ChampéryLes Crosets section of the Portes du Soleil ski area. Getting from Switzerland to France has always been relatively easy, but getting back is often difficult because of lift closures or the closure of the notorious Swiss Wall at Chavanette. It should all be a lot easier from 2019 with two new linked 5-seater lifts running from below Avoriaz at Léchère via a new station at Vautna to Pointe de Moissette in Switzerland. There will also be a new red run from Vauntna.

A new 10 seater gondola has been installed in Savognin, taking skiers up to Tigignas in 37 cabins at 2000 people per hour. Season opening on 14th December will see the new lift in operation.

A new terminal opens in Grindelwald, also on 14th December, with a high speed gondola up to the Männlichen ski area.

A Porsche design 6-seat chairlift has been installed at Arosa up to the 2447m Brüggerhorn summit.

Another Porsche design 10-seat gondola will run from Gstaad to the top of the Eggli.

The new 6-seater chairlift at Engelberg linking Engstlenalp to Jochpass has protective hoods and seat heating. The lift carries 2000 people an hour a kilometre in around 4 minutes, with a vertical ascent of 260m.

Linked to the Swiss resort of Samnaun is Ischgl in Austria.

In Ischgl, the new high-speed Velilleck F1 six-seater hooded chairlift goes up the Pardatschgrat ridge, 1,353 m further than its predecessor.

Whilst in Samnaun itself the 8-seater Visnitz N2 is new for the 2019/20 season.

Chamonix has replaced the creaky old cable car from Les Praz to the Flégère ski area with a 10 seater gondola.

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The mystery of the missing Swiss couple

The mystery of a missing Swiss couple seems to have been solved. Or has it? The Guardian reported it as follows:

The frozen bodies of a Swiss couple who went missing 75 years ago in the Alps have been found on a shrinking glacier, Swiss media said.

Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin, the parents of seven children, had gone to milk their cows in a meadow above Chandolin in the Valais canton on 15 August 1942.

“We spent our whole lives looking for them, without stopping. We thought that we could give them the funeral they deserved one day,” their youngest daughter, Marceline Udry-Dumoulin, 75, told the Lausanne daily Le Matin.

“I can say that after 75 years of waiting this news gives me a deep sense of calm.”

Valais cantonal police said two bodies bearing identity papers had been discovered last week by a worker on Tsanfleuron glacier near a ski lift above Les Diablerets resort at an altitude of 2,615 metres (8,600ft).

The Guardian conveniently posts a picture of the Swiss ski resort, Chandolin:

A truly tragic mystery finally solved. But wait a minute…

Apparently they went for a walk from the ski resort Chandolin in Valais and were found above Les Diablerets near the Glacier3000 ski resort. Now Wikipedia tells me that is a 25 hour hike, mostly along the Rhone valley (which would need to be crossed). Why would the couple have walked so far?

The answer is rather prosaic. They didn’t head out from the village of Chandolin in Val D’Anniviers, but the village of Chandolin-près-Savièse, just above Sion and opposite Nendaz. A minor oversight by all the English-speaking newspapers who either didn’t bother to check the location or didn’t care, but it would have confused anyone who knew the better known ski resort of Chandolin (together with St-Luc, making up one of my favourite ski areas).

Why would the couple, make the significant ascent to the glacier, some 2615m high? Many newspapers reported that Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin had vanished after going to milk their cows in a meadow above their home. Whilst the glacier lies in the same municipality, Savièse, it doesn’t explain how they ended up on the glacier. Cows don’t graze on or anywhere near glaciers.

The Local, an English-language Swiss-based news web site, offers an explanation:

Dumoulin, then 40, and his 37-year-old wife had left their home that morning hoping to check on their cattle, which were being kept in an alpine pasture in neighbouring Bern canton.

The fastest route at the time was via a glacier footpath. The sky was clear when the couple set out, but clouds later worsened visibility and the couple vanished, likely after falling into a crevasse, orphaning five sons and two daughters. Shrinking glaciers are slowly uncovering the bodies of several hundred people known to have disappeared on or near glaciers in the Alps, many after tumbling down a crevasse.

“I saw them leave that Saturday morning,” recalled Monique Gautschy, one of the surviving children who was 11 years old at the time. “They were supposed to spend the night in the alpine pasture at Grilden and come back on Sunday.”

After two months of fruitless searching for the couple, the seven children, then aged 2 to 13, were placed in foster care.

Apparently Madame Dumoulin was making the trip with her husband for the first time. She was reportedly almost always pregnant or nursing. With seven children at home, one assumes they got little privacy. Perhaps the explanation for their joint ascent and planned overnight stop was a romantic encounter under the stars?

We shall never know.

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