Covid-19 impact on Skiing and Snowboarding

Verbier has one run open.

Most Alpine resorts are holding fire on when, and whether, to begin the 2020/21 ski season. Currently the only ski resorts with unrestricted public access are in Switzerland, but most resorts still seem to be planning to open in December.

Ski instructor at Zermatt

There is no consensus on which measures ski resorts should take to avoid the outbreaks that occurred last season, but it is likely that it will be local Covid-19 regulations that dictate the viability of ski resort openings and operation and – critically – the ability of people from outside the area to be allowed to visit. Unfortunately the promising trials of vaccines to prevent Covid-19 look to arrive too late to impact on the 2020/21 season – indeed they might embolden some authorities to increase restrictions in the short-term. At this time it is not altogether certain that the authorities won’t order ski resorts to close if they are seen to be responsible again for spreading the virus.

So what is the situation in Switzerland? I have been in the country for some weeks now, and have visited Zermatt both before and after a local lockdown was introduced, and Verbier afterwards. This what I learned.

Covid-19 safeguards in Verbier

The rate of infection with Covid-19 in Switzerland is the highest of the Alpine nations, and higher than that of most countries where visitors to Switzerland come from. As a result Switzerland decided to dump their quarantine requirements for visitors from most countries, including the UK. Most cantons had not previously imposed stringent lockdowns, but that has since changed.

The canton of Valais in Switzerland is home to some of the world’s leading ski resorts, including Saas-Fee, Zermatt and Verbier. These resorts, alongside Engelberg and Glacier3000, have begun their winter season, albeit only for selected runs above the snowline.

The recent good weather means the snowline may recede in the next week or so, which could jeopardise Verbier’s limited opening – less so those resorts with runs on the glaciers. However the resorts suffered a bigger blow when the Valais cantonal authorities declared – in the face of accelerating Covid-19 infections – that all restaurants and bars, including those in the mountains, must shut from 10pm on 6th November. Hotels, however, may remain open for business.

Cable Car Station in Zermatt
Cable car to Furi from Zermatt

Before the lockdown Zermatt had already required customers to wear a mask on all lifts, including T-bars, and inside all facilities except when sitting down to eat or drink. It seemed to be working and was enforced, although some people seemed to think that as long as the mask covered their mouth, they were adhering to the requirements. Social distancing was not followed in settings where people were wearing a mask, and the lifts were all working with pre-Covid capacities in place. in the summer I had seen that some resorts, such as Champéry, restricted numbers on lifts – but this does not seem to be the case for the winter season.

Lift queue at Verbier
Lac des Vaux chairlift, Verbier

Verbier seemed to be operating along broadly similar lines. On the Lac des Vaux chairlift the staff were insisting suitable face coverings were used, handing out disposable masks to people who were deemed to be wearing unsuitable coverings, such as a scarf. There was no attempt to apply social distancing on the lifts, although the 1.5m rule seemed to apply in other indoor settings.

Eating at Trockener Steg under the Matterhorn

Mountain restaurants on the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise ( 3883m ) and at Trockener Steg ( 2939m ) were open until the lockdown and following reasonably effective-looking controls. The border with Italy was closed so it was not possible to visit the wonderful Chalet Etoile, and it will be a concern for many visitors to Zermatt if the world-famous mountain restaurants are not open in peak season.

Mountain restaurant at Attelas following contanonal covid restrictions

By the time I got to Verbier (where I stayed at the excellent Hotel Bristol), lockdown was in effect and the mountain restaurants only provided a fairly basic take-away menu. They had also removed all of the access to seating inside or outside. With the fine weather that wasn’t too much of a problem.

Lunch break at Attelas, Verbier

Being early season most bars and restaurants are not yet ordinarily open in either Zermatt or Verbier. Some hotels and restaurants that have opened early are providing take-away menus, and can still provide restaurant facilities to residents if they have a restaurant on site. There is a kebab takeaway in Zermatt, which when I visited had run out of kebab, and a good takeaway just off the roundabout in Verbier, which also serves beer.

One of the most popular bars in Zermatt is Papperla, and it was open for business when I was there, albeit with severe restrictions on numbers. At 10pm it was due to close for the duration of the lockdown. I turned up at 9pm but wasn’t allowed in because of restrictions on numbers. However Yves, a genial skier from Lausanne on an outing with his football team, invited me to join his party on the deck. As we all downed Jager bombs, I asked him what he would be doing for après ski now. “We have some beers from the Spar and will party in our hotel rooms”, he said, “Do you want to come?”. I declined.

Papperla bar, Zermatt

As Yves and his friends were shooed from the bar I asked Charlotte, who works as a barmaid at Papperla, what would happen to her now. She shrugged. “I guess I get to ski more”.

Less sanguine was Isabelle from the Hotel Adonis where I was staying in Zermatt. She glumly told me that 80% of the guests due to stay for the weekend had cancelled once the new Valais restrictions were announced. “Do you think everything will be back to normal by next summer?”, she asked, hopefully.

It strikes me that the Swiss resorts are gambling that the measures that the authorities have taken will allow them to exit lockdown before the ski season gets going in earnest, and that the measures they have taken within the resorts will avoid them from once again being centres of the spread of infection. Only time will tell.

La Tzoumaz
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Ski Season 2020/21 begins

Glacier 3000 looking towards Valais

The 2020/21 ski season has begun! The Glacier 3000 ski area between Les Diablerets and Gstaad opened Monday 28th September, over a month before its scheduled 4th November opening, after it received 70cm of snowfall. Early snow has blanketed the Alps.

Saas Fee and Zermatt are also open, but with their summer schedules and reduced ski areas. Glacier 3000 will also be only opening a limited ski area, namely the Scex Rouge piste and lift.

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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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