The ski season in the Northern Hemisphere has well and truly started, but the snowline has retreated in recent days as warmer weather hit the Alps. Most of the resorts with skiing and snowboarding on glaciers have opened. Verbier, open at weekends to date will be fully open from this weekend.
The weather has caused havoc with the winter sports schedule, with a number of World Cup events re-scheduled. However the higher resorts are gradually opening, and colder conditions and snowfall are due this week. Les Diablerets, for example, is currently enjoying temperatures around 10 degrees Celcius, but will be below freezing by next Monday.
The World Meteorological Organisation says there is a 70% chance of El Niño developing for the ski season this year. If so, it will almost certainly bring colder temperatures and more snowfall than normal to the Alps.
For those looking ahead to Christmas, ski conditions look promising. Zermatt, for example, will see fresh snowfall most days ahead of the Christmas break.
I think most skiers know global warming is happening, whatever the reasons for it. The most ominous indication is the retreat of glaciers. Over successive seasons it is easy to see how much glaciers have shrunk at many ski resorts.
In addition something has been going on in recent seasons with early season snow conditions. Whether that is down to factors other than global warming is debatable – it may just be a cyclical thing that will fix itself, but that seems unduly optimistic. Lower resorts must be particularly concerned, especially as they consider the long-term investments they may need to remain competitive with other resorts.
So will 2017 kick off a great early season and buck the trend of recent seasons?
It doesn’t look good. For the first time in 40 years Les Deux Alpes will not open for autumn skiing on its glacier.
The London Times quotes Thierry Hugues, the head of the resort’s piste management team, to explain why. “The situation is exceptional,” he is quoted as saying. “Given the low rainfall that we had throughout the year, a very hot summer and a very dry autumn, the glacier does not have enough snow cover to welcome our customers safely.”
Other traditional season openers have, however, opened. In Switzerland Zermatt, Saas-Fee and Engelberg have glacier skiing, recently joined by Diavolezza and Glacier 3000. A number of other Swiss winter sports resorts will open at least some of their slopes in the next few weeks, Andermatt, Arosa-Lenzerheide, Davos-Klosters and Flims/Laax the first weekend of November, the 4 Vallees the following weekend and a whole clutch of other resorts before the end of the month.
Unless global warming or other weather-related conditions intervene.
With a late Easter many resorts are planning to stay open, but with clear blue skies and temperatures in the valleys well into double figures, conditions are poor in many lower lying resorts.
Some resorts have finished for the season, and it is hard to believe that anywhere below 1000m has resort runs open. Any runs below 2000m will be icy in the morning and porridge in the afternoon. There is unlikely to be any decent off-piste below 2500m – on most south-facing slopes the only snow left is on the carefully manicured pistes, cascading like ribbons down the mountains.
Despite a poor start to the season, snow did come, and some Swiss resorts still have plenty of snow on the upper runs and conditions for ski touring are generally good. Zermatt, Saas-Fee and Verbier, no surprises, have amongst the best conditions.
I visited the Portes du Soleil, on account of a claimed 526km of the total 650km of piste being open. Remarkably it did seem like the vast majority of runs were open, but this is not on the whole a particularly high ski area despite being the largest in the world, and some parts of the circuit, including Torgon, have closed already. It’s glorious being in the mountains this time of year, but you need to get used to skiing on icy pistes and wrapping up for the day around lunchtime unless you want to plough through the sticky stuff.
With a wealth of ski resorts to choose from, I chose to visit Verbier today. I will be checking out Zermatt next week, and had considered taking in Saas-Fee, but there are not many places that have any great extent of piste open.
There has been precious little snow since November, and with freezing levels rising above 2000m at times, resorts have struggled to keep a significant number of runs open. Snow machines have been judiciously deployed, meaning many upper runs with snow cannon are in good condition.Resort runs shielded by trees and some lower lying North-facing runs are also looking good, but even with cannon many South-facing runs are patchy, with exposed sections. Almost 50 Swiss resorts have not been able to open at all, and less than 40% of Swiss ski runs are open according to information published by the Swiss Tourist Board.
Unprepared runs are generally closed and off-piste skiing is all but non-existent. Despite the bravado of some resorts, I doubt if there is anywhere in Europe with decent skiing outside of prepared runs with snow cannon. Annoyingly this means a lot of useful cut-throughs and alternative routes are closed, funnelling skiers and snowboarders trying to get back to resorts to a limited number of routes (or even needing to take lifts down). There is also something dispiriting about vistas customarily snow-covered being brown and bare – just see how Verbier looks now:
as opposed to normally in the season:
However, all is not despondency and gloom. The sun is shining, slopes are open and – although the short-term prospects for new snow are poor – the season is still young.