Aigle to have a direct train to the Leysin ski lifts

TPC Mountain railways out of Aigle.

Aigle is a small town at the heart of the Chablais, dominated by the towering Dentes du Midi. From the historic town centre you can see the Chablais Alps, the Mont-Blanc massif, the Pennine Alps and the Alpes Vaudois. From the vineyards around the castle you can also see Lake Geneva, Montreux, Vevey and the distant Jura. Above you, you can just make out the ski slopes of les Portes du Soleil, Villars-Gryon and Leysin.

I’m rather fond of Aigle, and it is a town I currently call home. It is easy to get to, with a frequent, direct train right from Geneva Airport. It is also possible, with only one connection, to ski Zermatt, Crans-Montana, Verbier and a host of other resorts.

However, even more conveniently, there is a network of narrow gauge railways operated by TPC (Transports Publics du Chablais) that fan out from the station at Aigle, trundling through the town and up the mountains to provide direct connections to the resorts of Champéry, Les Diablerets and Leysin. There is also a direct bus to Villars (or a train from nearby Bex, also operated by TPC – and of course you can always ski across from Les Diablerets).

These are the easiest substantial resorts to get to from Geneva and Lausanne by public transport or car. For all but the public transport connection at Leysin, the transfer is a doddle – more of that anon.

I have mixed feelings about Leysin. The village itself is charming, lying on a sunny plateau under the Tour d’Aï . Although the resort claims 100km of piste, that includes the low-lying, surface lift served section at les Mosses which is connected to the Leysin section by a navette – a courtesy bus. Still, from the excellent revolving restaurant at la Berneuse with its amazing views over Lake Geneva and across the Rhône valley there are a number of good, varied runs.

However the main reason for my mixed feelings about Leysin is the distance from the train stations in the village to the lifts that provide the only access to the ski area. There is a navette in Leysin, but the bus timetable isn’t co-ordinated with the train times – unusually for Switzerland – and the buses are too infrequent. Rather than wait, I have walked to and from the gondola many times from one or other station in Leysin, and it is long, hilly walk. The alternative is to drive up.

You may well ask why the good folk at TPC didn’t build the railway to connect to the gondola station, and the reason is that there was no skiing in this part of Switzerland when the railway was built in 1900. And there is a good reason why the railway takes the course it does.

In the 18th Century the people of Leysin had an unusually long life expectancy for the time. Swiss commentators attribute this observation to Thomas Malthus in an essay of 1789. However this is not exactly true, but is oft repeated. The reference exists in a subsequent edition of the essay, and it is with regard to the observations of Jean-Louis Muret in his 1766 “Le mémoire sur l’état de la population dans le Pays de Vaud“. This what Malthus wrote in 1826:

In the parish of Leyzin (sic), noticed by M. Muret, all these circumstances appear to have been combined in an unusual degree. Its situation in the Alps, but yet not too high, gave it probably the most pure and salubrious air; and the employment of the people, being all pastoral, were consequently of the most healthy nature. From the calculations of M. Muret, the accuracy of which there is no reason to doubt, the probability of life in this parish appeared to be so extraordinarily high as 61 years.

Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of
Population, vol. 1 [1826, 6th ed.]

Whether because of Malthus, or as a result of the emerging view that mountain air and sunshine had restorative properties for various maladies, Leysin soon became a destination for the sick. Numerous clinics and sanatoriums were built, largely on the most sunny terraces to the South-West of the village. In 1875 the first road from the valley of the Grande Eau was extended to Leysin, followed by a cog railway in 1900. The terminus of the railway was the Grand-Hôtel, a sanatorium built in 1892.

Leysin-Village - one of the narrow gauge cog railway stations in Leysin.
Leysin-Village Station.

Through the renowned Dr Auguste Rollier and his Institute of Heliotherapy (light therapy) Leysin became particularly famous in the treatment of lung diseases. Dr Rollier believed that exposure to the sun in fresh mountain air could restore a patient’s health – and he enjoyed a remarkably good recovery rate for tuberculosis patients at the time. The healthcare industry in Leysin boomed, and by the 1930s Leysin had as many as 80 sanatoriums with 3000 patients. Famous visitors included the Russian Czar, Igor Stravinsky and Mahatma Gandhi.

Then penicillin was invented and by the mid-1950s all the sanatoria were closed. Leysin promptly re-invented itself as a holiday resort, with the first gondolas running in 1956. Unfortunately, for reasons probably related to engineering and cost considerations as well as access to sheltered slopes, the gondolas ran from the North-East end of the village, nowhere near the four railways stations in Leysin.

So it is with great excitement that I discovered TPC are going to build a tunnel so that the train now connects to the gondola bottom station. The new underground rail route, from the bottom of the village to the gondola station, will include three new stops. The line will no longer run to the Grand-Hôtel (which since 2010 has been the Belle Époque Campus of Leysin American School). However a funicular project is being studied which would connect the Grand-Hôtel with the Feydey station and the village sports centre. The expectation is that the developments will take traffic off the roads and enhance Leysin’s reputation as an all-year destination.

The downside? Apart from the eye-watering cost, commissioning is not expected until 2030. If I’m still skiing, I will be 75 so I’ll probably enjoy the convenience of jumping off a train onto a gondola all the more.

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Early Season Skiing at Verbier and Crans-Montana

Plaine Morte Skiing at Crans-Montana.

November skiing in the Alps is inevitably limited to some of the highest slopes. Few resorts open before the end of November but I’ve been lucky enough to check out four so far: Zermatt, Verbier, Saas-Fee and, most recently, Crans-Montana.

One shouldn’t expect too much of early season skiing, but I was impressed with the amount of terrain open at Saas-Fee and Zermatt, certainly enough for a day trip. They are also open throughout the week whereas Verbier and Crans-Montana are only open at the weekend. The bigger disappointment was that the most recent Covid-19 lockdown has resulted in the closure of the mountain restaurants (fair enough) and the removal of all the terrace seating (which seems a bit extreme). This is tolerable for a day trip, but would put me off a longer stay ahead of the planned re-opening of the mountain restaurants in Valais in December.

In November Verbier and Crans-Montana offer much more limited skiing opportunities than either Zermatt or Saas-Fee – in effect just two short runs. Crans-Montana was more limited than Verbier, but not by much. In this photograph you can see both the beginning and the end of the runs – really two legs of a single red run – at the start of the notorious black Kandahar (which had a fatality last year when an avalanche swept across the piste):

The only area open for off-piste skiing in Crans-Montana in November.

On a positive note, however, the lift system operated convincing Covid-19 safety provisions. This is largely a feature of the fact that you need only two gondolas to get to Plaine Morte from Barzettes via les Violettes, the first of which you can realistically use as your personal carriage, the second of which allowed for a degree of social distancing because of the relatively small number of skiers using it.

Whereas Verbier offers a longer run and a chairlift to use it, there were no queues for the t-bar on Plaine Morte and the piste was sunnier and less crowded. Unfortunately the lift stops operating at 1pm, so you need to get to the resort early if you want to get in a couple of dozen runs. The shorter day is reflected in the lower price of the lift pass, SFr 22 – Verbier, Zermatt and Saas-Fee were charging significantly more. Incidentally both Saas-Fee and Crans-Montana are part of the amazing Magic Pass system.

View of the Pennine Alps from near the summit of pointe de la Plaine Morte.

Although I refer to the Crans-Montana ski area as Plaine Morte (literally ‘dead plain’, read it how you like), the glacier de la Plaine Morte is actually below the pistes, which run down from the top station at pointe de la Plaine Morte. The glacier area itself is very popular with cross-country skiers and a fair number of people coming up to ski were cross-country skiers.

ski run above the Plaine Morte glacier.

Many lower pistes were being prepared ahead of the full opening of the resort. Sadly the resort has opted to use snow cannon to build up a base, not the best environmental choice. More snow is needed for the runs without cannons, but it is forecast to snow in the first week of December.

Piste area above les Violettes.

With it south facing views across the Pennine Alps, excellent mountain restaurants (when they re-open) and its lovely cruisy runs, French-speaking Crans-Montana is a really great snowsports resort. It has a good range of amenities and distractions throughout the year and the Sierre locality of Valais has the reputation of being the sunniest part of Switzerland, with 300 days of sunshine annually. The main complaint, as is even more true of the beautiful, remote Val d’Anniviers the other side of Sierre across the Rhône valley, is that the public transport is limited and the roads can get busy. There is a direct bus, the 421, from Sierre/Siders railway station which snakes around the resorts about once per hour, taking about 40 minutes to get to the “Crans-sur-Sierre, téléphérique” stop and just under an hour to get to the higher base station at “Montana, Barzettes”. There is also a more frequent and faster funicular from elegant Sierre, but sadly the terminus is not convenient for any base stations so you need to take the 421 or the seasonal, free Navette to get to the slopes.

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Less than 14 days to go

Yes, less than 14 days to go before the Magic Pass becomes available to buy for 2019-2020. Like me, many of us are still enjoying riding on our 2018-2019 Magic Pass, so why the excitement?

Well, if the first two seasons of the Magic Pass are anything to go by, there will be huge discounts when the offer is first made available. So much so that the pass costs rather less than a weeks pass for one resort. Except the Magic Pass lasts all season, and now includes summer attractions. And it is not for just one resort, but over 30.

That’s not too shabby, and there are some internationally renowned resorts such as Villars-Gryon and Crans-Montana amongst the resorts covered plus some wonderful little-known gems. For residents or frequent visitors to Romande, it is an amazing offer, and not surprisingly has been extremely popular.

One criticism has been the lack of high-altitude resorts. Crans-Montana is high and, despite being South-facing, has a long season and good snow conditions late in the season. This has led the operator of Crans-Montana – always known for brinkmanship – to threaten to pull out of the scheme. St-Luc/Chandolin is also high, but rather difficult to get to (but well worth the effort, one of my favourite ski areas). Glacier3000 is also high, but adds a premium to the Magic Pass price, which I find hard to justify.

However for 2019/20 Saas-Fee will be joining the scheme. It already had a pretty good scheme covering just Saastal if you skiied there a lot. I had it for one season and it paid for itself in four days, but I did not renew as I only ended up using it for four days when I did have it. But it is a fabulous resort with a really good long season.

Also new for 2019/20 is Leukerbad, one of the best resorts around for families or for groups which include non-skiers owing to the extensive thermal baths in the resort and some very family-friendly restaurants. There is also a great area for beginners in the village and the very pleasant Torrent ski area above the village. The Swiss Pass will also apply to many summer activities in the resort.

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End of Season Ski Report – Switzerland

I haven’t seen any figures yet, but I imagine this winter season will be one of the better ones for winter sports participation in Switzerland.

Nicholas Oatridge in Villars

And it’s not over yet! Although many resorts closed after the Easter weekend, the snow is better than I can recall it this late in the season. I am currently skiing Villars-Gryon and the depth of snow is staggering. No bare patches to speak of – even the resort run into Villars is pleasantly skiable at the end of the day. Although there are Spring ski conditions the pistes have been excellently groomed and, without the Easter crowds, the pistes are staying in good condition throughout the day.

Many resorts have held their end-of-season bashes in the assumption the snow would have gone. Villars held theirs over Easter, but plan to stay open until 15th April. My sense is that they could well stay open longer, but with so many skiers calling time on the season it is probably uneconomical.

Crans-Montana

Indeed one resort I was hoping to get to before the end of the season, Crans-Montana, unexpectedly closed all the lifts on 2nd April. With a glacier and some seriously high runs, Crans-Montana is often one of the last resorts to close, despite its largely South-facing slopes. It had over 4 metres of snow at the top and all runs open when, in what can only be described as as a fit of pique, the lift operators closed all lifts because of a dispute with local municipalities.

In an open letter , Philippe Magistretti, chairman of the ski lifts, announced the immediate closure of the Crans-Montana Aminona ski area, citing a failure of the municipalities to honour an 800,000 Franc deal.

In response, the municipalities say that the breach of which they are accused is part of an agreement “still under negotiation between all the parties involved” and “vehemently reject” Mr Magistretti’s remarks.

They go on to say that “the priority of the Communities is to minimize the negative consequences of this decision on tourists,” and are providing a free bus service to nearby Anzère. Now I like Anzère a lot, but it is a more modest, and lower, resort.

Needless to say local businesses feel they have been let down so a lot of bad blood is likely to ensue.

And I won’t be going to Crans-Montana this season.

Regrettably Saas-Fee is only planning to stay open 15th April, despite it’s altitude. Verbier and Samnaun/Ischgl, however, will be open until the end of the month, and Glacier3000, St Moritz, Engelberg and Andermatt plan to stay open into May. Zermatt is theoretically an all-year resort but has already started closing some lifts, but I’ve known the valley run from Furi open well into May so I am optimistic it will be for some weeks yet.

STOP PRESS: Crans Montana has re-opened as of 6th April – although only until the official end of season on 17th April. Wouldn’t it be nice if they extended it a few days to make up for the closure?

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