The Russian Invasion of the Alps

Anybody skiing in the Alps in the last twenty years can’t but help notice the large number of Russian tourists. Whether it is hearing Russian spoken in the resorts or Cyrillic estate agent listings, the Russians had clearly taken to the Alps in a big way since the fall of the Iron Curtain. But this was a popular invasion.

The Russian influx was welcomed in particular by the ski resorts. Wealthy Russians weren’t shy about buying chalets and luxury items. Russians also filled the quieter ski period in January because it coincided with the Russian Orthodox Christmas vacation season. Courchevel in January, in particular, is usually awash with Russian billionaires, their entourages and their dosh.

Resorts saw a downturn in the number of middle-class Russians after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. However it did not affect the oligarchs who continued to flood in to the Alps, even though the resorts were sometimes less welcoming to the oligarchs than hitherto. In 2018 Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, applied for, but was denied, residency in Verbier. Swiss police arrested Russian businessman Vladislav Klyushin on his way to Zermatt in 2021, and extradited him to the USA on charges of commercial espionage.

None the less, in the winter season 2018/19 Russians spent 140,000 night stays in hotels in the French Three Valleys resorts alone. Switzerland had 195,000 Russian night stays in the same season, with the main destinations being Verbier, Zermatt, St Moritz and Davos. Resorts in the Tyrol such as St Anton and Ischgl were particularly popular with a segment of the Russian market who liked the extensive pistes and hard core apres ski. Despite a small dip in 2014/15, luxury chalets in the main ski resorts continue to be purchased by wealthy Russians, or on behalf of wealthy Russians.

And it is not only wealthy and middle class Russians who enjoy the Alps. Le Monde established that Russian spooks have long favoured the Haute Savoie as a base for targeted assassinations around Europe, including that by the agents who planned the UK poisoning of ex Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March 2018.

Outside the Alps the Bulgarian ski resorts, such as Borovets and Bansko, have always been popular winter destinations for Russians. Before the Iron Curtain came down, I met many Russians in my ski trips to the country. There is a strong cultural bond between the people of Russia and the people of Bulgaria, and skiing in Bulgaria is significantly cheaper than Alpine ski resorts. Consequently Russian tourists have continued to flock to Bulgaria for winter sports even after the Iron Curtain came down and opened up the Alps as a ski destination. In the 2021/22 season Russian tourists came in even larger numbers because Bulgaria recognises Russian-made COVID vaccines.

The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military in February 2022 has changed everything for Russian winter tourists. For the foreseeable future, it is going to be impractical for Russians to get to the Alps, and – in any case – not affordable for many of them as the rouble plunges against the Euro and the Russian economy goes into recession. For Russian tourists on holiday in Europe and caught unaware by the invasion, the sanctions from the EU and Switzerland have left tens of thousands stranded in European ski resorts. Middle class Russians face an expensive trip home since all flights out of the EU to Russia have been grounded. Additionally many ATMs and  establishments will no longer approve Russian debit and credit cards.

Switzerland has long been a popular destination for the wealthy, but their presence is no longer as welcome as it once was. The 2022 Verbier Festival has cancelled all Russian artists and the Music Director, Valery Gergiev, a prominent Putin apologist, has been asked to resign. Aligning with EU restrictions, eight Russian oligarchs resident in Switzerland with close ties to Putin have received travel bans. Many oligarchs will see their chalets sequestrated. At least a dozen private planes owned by wealthy Russians are stranded at Basel airport. Billions of dollars worth of assets managed or held by Swiss banks on behalf of wealthy Russians have been frozen.

Still, Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea remain friendly to the Russian regime and will no doubt welcome winter tourists from Russia – although the skiing options are limited. But there’s always Sochi, where the biggest ski resort, Krasnaya Polyana, has 102 km of piste and still serves Russian vodka.

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Isenau Update 2022

The slopes at Les Diablerets above Les Mazots

The pre-eminent ski area in the Vaud Alps is the area that contains the runs above Villars, Gryon and Les Diablerets. The Les Diablerets section was much improved by the installation of a fast gondola in 2018, replacing the ricketty old chairlift up to Les Mazots. As well as enhancing the Le Meilleret ski area, it has made Les Diablerets something of a tobogganist’s paradise, providing access to a scenic 7km toboggan run. Les Mazots itself has a new cafe opposite the Les Mazots restaurant.

From Les Mazots you can easily see the cable car ascend up to the Glacier 3000 ski area on the Diablerets Glacier. However to get to the glacier you need to take the bus that runs from Les Diablerets to Gstaad and get off at the Col du Pillon stop.

It wasn’t always so. Until a few years ago there was a ski area in les Diablerets on the opposite side of the valley from Le Meilleret known as Isenau. Since 1953 it had been served by a wonderful little gondola, but the cost of maintenance proved too high and, without funding for a replacement, the ski area closed down a few years ago. As well as being a wonderful ski area, it also provided a ski connection to Col du Pillon and Glacier 3000. It was therefore possible to use a lift-served ski area that ran all the way from Villars-sur-Ollon to Reusch, near Gstaad.

Old Isenau Gondola

Ever since it closed there has been a campaign to build a new lift on the Isenau, but to date it has foundered on a number of issues, not least funding. However in December 2021, owners of the five lifts on the Isenau ski area, Télé Villars-Gryon-Diablerets SA, have transferred ownership to Diablerets-Isenau 360° Cooperative Society (SCOOP).

This takeover marks an important new step towards the rehabilitation of the area, after the acquisition by SCOOP of the buildings and land at the start and finish of the old gondola last November and the reopening of a refreshment bar at the summit of Isenau.

Plans are being developed to re-develop the lift system, but this a long-term project and the re-opening of Isenau as a ski area is still some years away. At least now it is looking like a concrete possibility.

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Recent Ski Fatalities

A Copper Mountain Ski Patrolman, right, along with an unidentified skier, pull an injured skier up a small hill on a patrol sled on the ride down to the St. Anthony Copper Mountain Clinic at the base of the mountain Friday, March 1st, 2013.

Young ski instructors drinking outside Le White Pub as snow fell at the upmarket resort of Flaine this week were united in the condemnation of the “cult of speed”.

So reports the Times, from behind a paywall, on the reaction to recent deaths resulting from ski collisions.

Already this month there have been two high profile fatalities in the French Alps. A five-year-old British girl was killed in a what an eye witness described as a ‘high-speed’ collision whilst in ski school on a blue run above Flaine. And a famous French actor, Gaspard Ulliel, died when he collided with another skier at La Rosière.

So is skiing an inherently dangerous sport?

For many people, a lot of the pleasure of snow sports is pushing personal limits. However, this is not a solo sport. There is a duty of care to other people. I have too often seen people on the slopes who do not seem to moderate their speed sufficiently on crowded slopes. What are the guidelines?

The FIS has set explicit rules on ski slope behaviour.

They begin by stating that “a ski­er or snow­board­er must be­have in such a way that he or she does not en­dan­ger or prej­u­dice others”. The rules go on to say that ev­ery ski­er or snow­board­er must be in con­trol. “He or she must adapt the speed and man­n­er of ski­ing or snow­board­ing to his or her per­so­n­al abil­i­ty and to the pre­vail­ing con­di­tions of ter­rain, snow and weather as well as to the den­si­ty of traff­ic. ” Pretty explicit.

However I’ve had people tell me that ski accidents “just happen”, that they are a part of the sport. I disagree. I think a lot of skiers and snowboarders go as fast as the best conditions they can expect allow. And then the unexpected happens. There’s an icy patch. A skier ahead takes an unexpected line. A misjudged manoeuvre is taken at the limit of the skier’s competence. The decision to push your limits is a choice you can make, but not if you are sucking a stranger into sharing the consequences.

And the more people on the slopes, the higher the likelihood of a misjudgement impacting other people. I often ski at off-peak times. There is nothing more enjoyable than hurtling down a pristine slope as soon as the lifts open, with an empty piste ahead of you. But on a busy spring afternoon, I am often aghast as I see someone weave through a crowded throng of mixed ability adults and children as if there was nobody else about.

The FIS rules make clear the responsibility of the uphill skier or snowboarder to people downhill of them. “A ski­er or snow­board­er may over­take another ski­er or snow­board­er above or be­low and to the right or to the left pro­vid­ed that he or she leaves enough space for the over­tak­en ski­er or snow­board­er to make any vol­un­tary or in­vol­un­tary move­ment. ” An overtaking skier should always allow for the downhill skier to do the unexpected.

To be able to ski fast on crowded slopes, some skiers choose a narrow line along the edge of the piste. I wonder if that was the circumstances of the little girl’s death? By all accounts the skier was very experienced, a local volunteer fireman. The little girl was possibly nervous about making a turn and the uphill skier may have already anticipated where he expected her to turn. I can only conjecture. But I have no doubt it was completely avoidable.

The importance of personal responsibility towards downhill skiers and snowboarders is emphasised by the FIS: ” A ski­er or snow­board­er com­ing from be­hind must choose his or her route in such a way not to en­dan­ger skiers or snow­board­ers ahead “. In other words, when you overtake you need to have evaluated the situation such that you can eliminate the likelihood of collision and are sufficiently in control to complete the manoeuvre safely.

I can’t count the number of times I have seen people approach lift queues too fast and crash into the queue. Why does it happen? Usually from a failure to appreciate that the snow conditions near a lift may be different from the snow conditions on the slope above. And approaching a bunch of people far too fast.

Other FIS rules requires skiers and snow­board­ers to re­spect all signs and mark­ings, en­ter­ or cross a marked run carefully, look behind before setting off and avoid stopping on narrow places or where there is restricted visibility. I see these rules broken all the time. I remember well my four year old daughter getting wiped out, fortunately without harm, by a skier who thought a no entry sign didn’t apply to him.

Because skiing is a sport that only requires an investment of money to participate in it, there is little opportunity to ensure there is a common understanding of the “rules of the game” or how they should be interpreted. Should they be better publicised and policed. I like that rules are not enforced in a heavy-handed way, but don’t the resorts carry a responsibility to ensure their patrons ski safely?

The Times makes some observations on addressing the dangers of the ski slopes:

There are now calls for more speed cameras and “traffic lights” to be installed on busy slopes, with complaints that high-capacity ski lifts and the construction of holiday accommodation has led to dangerous overcrowding on some pistes.

Should there be speed cameras and traffic lights? I am not so sure about speed cameras. My preference would be to have more “slow slopes” and informal controls, such as have ski instructors remind speed merchants to moderate their speed. I remember when I skied in Vail they had barriers with a spotter behind them encouraging people to slow down. That seemed to strike a reasonable balance.

Traffic lights could either be at the top of a slope or at the lifts, the latter being the most practical, even if it is somewhat of a blunt instrument. Limiting the number of ski passes issued at times of high demand would be unpopular, but effective at reducing crowds on the slopes.

There are times when some ski slopes are simply too busy to accommodate the volume of people on them, especially given the level of indiscipline and excessive speed of some skiers and snowboarders. If resorts choose to allow skiers and snowboarders to have passes issued in such number that the risk of injury in the prevailing conditions is greater, I think they carry responsibility for mitigating the consequences.

The skier who killed the little girl has now been charged with her manslaughter. I do ask myself whether the resort shares some culpability by not doing enough to create a safe environment. Is it to be considered part of the sport that excessive speed around children is acceptable?

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Zermatt and Verbier Compared

Verbier

Switzerland is fortunate to have some of the very best ski resorts in the world, and Zermatt and Verbier are amongst the very best. But how do they compare?

The Matterhorn, above Zermatt

Location
Both resorts are in the Pennine Alps in the Swiss canton of Valais, and both are high, particularly Zermatt. The most obvious difference between them is that Zermatt is in the part of Switzerland where a uniquely Swiss form of German is spoken, whereas Verbier is French-speaking. Verbier rests on a sunny plateau above the valley of Bagnes, whereas Zermatt lies right at the head of a long steep valley. The nearest international airport to Verbier is Geneva, whilst Zermatt is equally served by Geneva and Zurich airports.
Both relatively convenient for international visitors.

Pistes
Zermatt has 360km of piste spread over four highly integrated ski areas in Switzerland and two across the border in Italy. Although Verbier is part of the extensive Four Valleys, with 412km of piste, the valleys are less well connected than Zermatt, and you will probably not get round to visiting some of the more remote slopes beyond Siviez. Honours even.

Skiing under the Matterhorn

Season
Pretty much nowhere in the world can beat Zermatt for year-round skiing. Granted that summer skiing is something of a novelty, Zermatt nonetheless offers extensive glacier skiing from the beginning of November right through to the end of May, with the full extent of the resort available from the beginning of December until the end of April.
Verbier normally opens up one piste in November, and the resort progressively opens up in the following weeks. Normally the season finishes in mid-April.
For early and late season skiing, nothing beats Zermatt, but it can get very cold in the heart of the winter.
Zermatt for early and late season, Verbier edges it for mid-season.

Beginners
Neither resort is especially good for beginners, but Verbier does have a nursery area in the village. Unless you are coming with a mixed ability party which includes experts, or you just want to party, neither resort is recommended for beginners. You pay a premium in these resorts because of challenging slopes a beginner will never get to experience.
Beginners should look elsewhere but, if you had to choose, Verbier is better.

Intermediates
I think both resorts are excellent for intermediates. If you come for a week or two you will never want for more variety or challenge, or for nice cruisy runs when you have a hangover to shake off.
Even Stevens.

Expert
Both resorts have good skiing for experts, but if you want to stick to ungroomed trails and challenging lift-served off-piste, Verbier has more to offer. For back-country ski touring they both make excellent bases, and both lie on the famous Haute Route (Verbier only on a variation of the classic route).
Verbier is my recommendation.

Apres-ski
Apres-ski in Switzerland is generally more subdued than in other Alpine nations, but Verbier and Zermatt are exceptions to the rule. They both rock, but I prefer…
Zermatt.

Mountain Restaurants
Both resorts have a mix of cafeteria restaurants with sunny balconies and charming restaurants in the mountains. However Zermatt is something of an epicurean’s delight with some of the most outstanding mountain restaurants in the world. Not really a contest if you want haute cuisine for lunch. But it comes at a price. In the resorts themselves there is a wide range of options from street food to Michelin-starred restaurants.
The Blue Ribbon goes to Zermatt.

Lunch above Verbier
Lunch above Verbier

Resort Charm
Lying beneath the Matterhorn, nowhere quite matches Zermatt for chocolate box pretty. It is car-free, although not traffic-free as the electric taxis and service vehicles mean some streets are quite busy. It has a fabulous Alpine tradition stretching back many centuries, and was well-established as a tourist destination by the middle of the 19th Century. Verbier, conversely, is largely a post-war resort, but it’s ubiquitous chalet-style architecture is not without its charm.
Zermatt has it all.

Access – Car
You can’t drive to Zermatt, you have to pay to leave your car in a car park in a neighbouring town and take a train for the last section. Verbier does have full car access, but you generally need to pay for parking unless it comes with your chalet. There is free parking at the bottom station of the gondola that passes through Verbier at Le Châble .
Assuming you are driving from the Lake Geneva Region, it will take you about 3 hours to get to Täsch, the end of the road, and then 10 minutes by train to Zermatt.
Verbier is one of the easiest resorts to get to from Geneva, 2 hours of mainly motorway to Le Châble, and about another 10 minutes drive from there up to Verbier.
Verbier is the easier to get to from almost anywhere.

Access – Train
Zermatt is very easy to get to from either Zurich or Geneva airport by train – both airports actually have railway stations in the airports themselves and you can get to the resort with as few as one change (in Visp). Journey time from Zurich Airport is just under 4 hours, from Geneva Airport just over 4 hours.
For Verbier, Le Châble is just over 2 hours from Geneva Airport with a change at Martigny. From Le Châble you can either take the gondola or the local bus service into Verbier.
The train to Zermatt is a joy even if the journey time is longer.

Verbier

Cost
You would struggle to find two more expensive resorts in the Alps than Zermatt and Verbier, but it is possible to enjoy them both on a budget. First of all the lift passes are probably cheaper than in comparable French and Austrian resorts – a typical day pass for Verbier is SFr 71, and SFr 92 for Zermatt, and longer stays are substantially cheper per diem. For accommodation, there are affordable hostels and basic accommodation in Zermatt itself and in Le Châble for Verbier. You can also ski the slopes of Zermatt from Cervinia in Italy. Although eating and drinking out is expensive in Switzerland, supermarket prices for alcohol and, to a lesser extent, food staples are not expensive by European standards so self-catering will certainly make your francs go further.
Neither resort is cheap, but there aren’t many resorts that come close to being this good.

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