Cross-country Downhill – crossing borders

I’m not talking here about Nordic or back-country skiing, but downhill skiing between two countries. In other words take a lift in the morning in one country, and have lunch in another.
Rougemont
There are a number of resorts where you can ski from one country to another (and back), but not surprisingly they are all in Europe.

Perhaps the most famous is the Matterhorn Ski Paradise which links Switzerland and Italy. Zermatt lies at the foot of the ski area on the Swiss side and Breuil Cervinia lies across the Italian border, with the majestic Matterhorn standing over both of them. Cervinia is cheap and cheerful, Zermatt not only provides the best views of the Matterhorn it is possibly the most complete ski resort in the world (and one of the more expensive).

The Silvretta Ski Arena bridges Switzerland & Austria, and there are even border control posts on the piste – although I have never seen them manned. Duty-free Samnaun lies on the Swiss side whilst the party town of Ischgl is in Austria.
Ischgl
Les Portes du Soleil is a huge sprawling resort between France & Switzerland, with o650km of piste. There are a whole bunch of ski resorts in the circuit, with Avoriaz and Morzine in France and Champéry in Switzerland amongst the more notable.

The Milky Way between France & Italy is not quite as big, but with 410km of piste is still one of the largest ski areas in the world. Montgenèvre lies in France, whilst across the border in Italy are Clavière, Cesana, Torinese, Sestrière, Pragelato, San Sicario and Sauze d’Oulx.

Espace San Bernardo links La Rosière in France with La Thuile in Italy.

Kanin-Bovec-Sella Nevea is one of the newer cross border resorts, linking Italy and Slovenia.

Nassfeld-Lake Pressegger is a little known resort in Carinthia, but it has 100km of piste and has runs that cross the Austrian border into Italy, and it is possible to have lunch on the Italian side of the border.

Not strictly speaking a cross-border resort but a section of Gstaad Mountain Rides links the Swiss German part of Switzerland with the French-speaking part, crossing the Röstigraben. So it is possible to take up a lift from Rougemont to the La Videmanette ski area from where you ski or snowboard down to Chalberhöni and Gstaad.

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Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 2018

If Socchi left a bitter aftertaste, the Pyeongchang winter Olympics represents a wholly different games. Pyeongchang beat Munich, Germany, and Annecy, France, to host the games, and it promises a lot. With the $2.4 billion budget, rivalry with the North (who will be competing) and the first Olympics on the Korean Peninsula this will surely be a successful event, at least from a news media perspective.

The games run from the opening ceremony on the 9th February through to the close on the 25th, with fifteen sports on display. The sports are (with medal races in brackets): Alpine skiing (11), biathlon (11), bobsleigh (3), cross-country skiing (12), curling (3), figure skating (5), freestyle skiing (10), ice hockey (2), luge (4), Nordic combined (3), short track speed skating (8), skeleton (2), ski jumping (4), snowboarding (10), speed skating (14). Four new disciplines in existing sports will be introduced this year, namely big air snowboarding, mixed doubles curling, mass start speed skating, and mixed team alpine skiing.

The Paralymics follow from 9th to 18th March, with six sports in competition.

Korea is nine hours ahead of the UK, so a lot of the action will happen overnight or in the mornings, UK time. Eurosport and the BBC have got the rights to broadcast the games, so Ski Sunday should be well worth catching both on live TV and the red button, and hopefully there will be good coverage on the BBC’s Breakfast TV. Expect blanket coverage on Eurosport.

From a UK perspective there are a few competitors to watch out for. This will be the largest British winter Olympics team ever, and expectations are high. In Slalom, Dave Rydling must fancy his chances, whilst in the female slalom both Alex Tilley and Charlie Guest should put in a respectable run or two. In the Freestyle Ski competitions Lloyd Wallace competes in the Aerials and Emily Sarsfield in Ski Cross. James Woods, Katie Summerhayes, James Machon, Rowan Cheshire and Izzy Atkins compete in the Park and Pipe, with Woodsy looking the best bet for a medal. In the snowboard Park and Pipe Katie Omerod is the best medal prospect, but also competing will be Jamie Nicholls, Billy Morgan and Aimee Fuller. In Cross-country the Scots Andrew Musgrave and Andrew Young will be representing Team GB. The speed skater Elise Christie and the reigning Olympic skeleton champion Lizzy Yarnold will be looking for medal positions. And, of course, there is the wonderful women’s curling team!

The hugely successful US team also has its largest, and most diverse, contingent ever – indeed the largest from any nation ever with 135 men and 107 women. Alpine downhill stars Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin will be leading the medal charge. Teenage snowboarder Chloe Kim is one of team USA’s strongest medal contenders but will also attract attention as she is from a native Korean-speaking family.

Canada and Norway are likely to be competing with the USA to achieve the biggest medal haul. Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal and Henrik Kristoffersen will be amongst the favourites in the Blue Riband event, the men’s downhill. Traditionally Germany has done well across all disciplines and the Netherlands bags a few golds due to the nation’s strength in speed skating.

The Swiss and Austrians, perennial rivals, will be competing to get more medals than each other. They normally get around five Golds each. The Swiss will be looking to Beat Feuz in the downhill to continue his good form this season, and Lara Gut is looking like she could recover some of her best form. Medals for Switzerland are also likely in freestyle, snowboarding, cross-country and curling. Marcel Hirscher will lead Austria’s downhill charge.

Although clean Russian athletes will be allowed to compete as individuals, following the state-sponsored doping in Socchi, Russian government officials are banned from attending the Games, and neither the country’s flag nor its anthem will be allowed.

At the more esoteric end of the scale, Nigeria will be competing in bobsleigh and Jamaica in ice hockey.

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Winter holidays for non-skiers

For a lot of people winter is something to be endured, a long season of cold, short days and stark skylines. The only escape seems to be a long haul flight to somewhere sunny and warm.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

In 1864 four English visitors to the Swiss Alps were due to return home for the winter. Their hotelier, Johannes Badrutt, said that they should come back at Christmas and stay until Easter, and if they didn’t find St Moritz as sunny in winter as it was in summer, he would pay their fares and hotel bills.

Badrutt won the bet, and winter tourism was born.

But what was there to do? Alpine skiing was yet to take off – Conan Doyle in nearby Davos was to have a large part to play in that story. With a well-developed summer tourist industry, St Moritz, Davos and many other resorts quickly developed a significant infrastructure to enable winter visitors to while away their days, and nights, and the longest established resorts still have a huge variety of non-Downhill activities on offer.

A recent article I read in the BA Leisure magazine, recommended a handful of resorts that suited both skiers and non-skiers. Megève, St Christoph, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Zermatt and Lake Tahoe make their shortlist, and it’s a good list. For the Americas, however, there are a number of resorts I would add to the list (see my ski USA page), and I think there are at least a couple of dozen other Alpine resorts as good for skiers as for non-skiers, particularly in Switzerland.

But what to actually do? Innsbruck, Montreux and Basel have wonderful winter markets, although they close before Christmas. Many resorts and Alpine towns have wonderful outdoor and indoor ice rinks, and professional ice hockey teams play throughout the Alpine nations, with a major hockey festival in Davos known as the Spengler Cup. Bob sleigh also features at a few resorts, and at Celerina adrenalin junkies can actually take part in a four man bob team!

More sedate winter sports available in the Alpine resorts include snowshoe trekking, cross-country skiing, curling and tobogganing. A town called Bergün is a mecca for tobogganing, with people visiting from all over Europe to take advantage of the runs there (and enjoy the breathtaking UNESCO listed railway you need to take to get to the start of the runs). My Swiss Winter Sports web site covers other winter sports you can participate in Switzerland in addition to skiing and snowboarding.

There is a network of well maintained winter walks throughout the Alps, the reward mid-way along the walk often being a charming mountain restaurant. There are even Michelin listed resorts in the Alps! Zermatt is particularly renowned for its mountain restaurants.

We love visiting resorts with spas, the best of which is probably Leukerbad, but there is plenty of choice. Villars opened a new spa this year.

Switzerland and Austria have a highly reliable and extensive transport network which makes it very easy to choose a destination suited primarily to non-skiers, but which skiers can also use as a base for day trips to a variety of different destinations. Lucerne and Innsbruck are particularly good choices.

Often the best time to go is March. The days are getting longer and the days warmer, but the snow base is usually still good. If you are prepared to leave it late to see how the snow conditions are developing, a lot of resorts provide particularly good deals before Christmas.

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The World’s Most Popular Ski Resorts

Skiers in the AlpsA topic of conversation amongst most skiers and snowboarders at one time or another is which is the best ski resort in the world. Of course, there is no clear definition of what constitutes the best, but there is one man who has established which are the world’s most popular ski resorts.

Laurent Vanat publishes an epic “International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism” every year (see http://www.vanat.ch/). This comprehensively researched report is fascinating, not least for the ranking of ski resorts.

One of the more interesting conclusions he draws this year is that winter sports are in decline in the traditional markets. Switzerland has seen almost a 20% reduction in skier days since 2004, a figure perhaps not so surprising give the strength of the Swiss Franc. However even the USA, Canada and Italy have started to slump in the last few years. Austria and France have been the major beneficiaries of people choosing alternative destinations, but even these have seen a decline in the last couple of years and have grown barely 5% in the last ten years.

The situation is mitigated by the explosive growth of skiing in China and some other emerging markets. In a separate report Laurent reports that China now has over five hundred ski resorts from a base of only a dozen twenty years ago.

Laurent attributes the relative decline of interest in winter sports, at least in part, to the failure of teaching techniques to adapt. He may have a point. Traditionally most skiers tend to give up the sport by their 60s, but the replacement rate is dictated by a number of factors. If the first experience of winter sports is unsatisfactory, it is hard to get people to give up their valuable holiday time and money to do it again. When I came through Gatwick in the middle of the ski season earlier this year I was struck by the overwhelming number of flights to and from winter sun destinations compared to ski resorts, and the demographic of the passengers reflected that an aging population is not going to benefit the winter sports industry.

Laurent’s report goes on to state that there are now around 66 countries that can be said to provide at least basic opportunities for lift-assisted, outdoor downhill skiing, around 20 others that provide indoor skiing facilities and 15 that have some snow coverage for at least some of the year and which, technically, could be skiable. By his estimate there are around 2000 ski resorts worldwide, with 35% in the Alps, 12% elsewhere in Western Europe, 21% in America, 13% in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and 19% in East Asia. China’s rise as a skiing super-power is offset in Asia by Japan’s relative decline.

Laurent uses the number of days the slopes are visited as the basis for estimating skier numbers. Only 44 resorts receive more than one million skier visits in a typical winter season and top of the list as the world’s most popular ski resort is… La Plagne! The top ten reads like this:

  1. La Plagne (France)
  2. Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang (Austria)
  3. Skiwelt Wilder Kaiser-Brixental (Austria)
  4. Les Arcs (France)
  5. Ischgl/Samnaun Silvretta Arena (Austria/Switzerland)
  6. Whistler Blackcomb (Canada)
  7. Alta Badia (Italy)
  8. Val Thorens – Orelle (France)
  9. Vail (USA)

Somewhat surprising to me is how different this list is compared with a list of the ten most extensive ski resorts given that skiers in poll after poll rate the extent of the ski terrain as the most important single factor – see here for most extensive.

Interestingly, only 20% of resorts account for 80% of skier visits with the Alps taking in 43% of all skier visits – more than double the number of skier visits in North America.

Top world resorts in millions of skier visits
Top world resorts in millions of skier visits

Ski culture is clearly most marked in countries with extensive ski facilities, but Germany and the UK have limited ski facilities but a large ski culture. The desinations of choice for the Germans are respectively Austria, Italy and Switzerland, whilst the Brits prefer France, then Austria and Italy. The Dutch contribute about 1 million ski visits each year, and choose Austria and France as their preferred destinations.

Surprisingly, more Swiss takes their ski holidays in Austria than Brits take in Italy. It puts some perspective on how far the strong Swiss franc is hurting the domestic tourist industry. However Switzerland, along with Austria and Norway, has over a quarter of the population active in winter sports. Although it doesn’t have any resorts in the top 20 most visited, I would have little difficulty placing at least half a dozen Swiss resorts in the best 20 in the world.

Of the approximately 400 million skier visits undertaken each season, around 20 million are from visits to the 43 indoor snow centres, half of which are in Western Europe.

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