I recently revisited my Swiss Winter Resorts web site to update it with what I have learned skiing and talking to people these last two months. I also revamped one of the landing pages, largely because I have come up with a few recommendations framed in terms of the ‘best five’ for various criteria. What do you think?
Saas-Fee was the first ski resort I visited in Switzerland, way back in the early 1990s. Since then I have skied over 100 other ski resorts in Switzerland, some many times. I have also skied other resorts in the UK, mainland Europe and North America but Switzerland is my destination of choice for many reasons.
Not least amongst the reasons is that you can ski some decent slopes as early as November in Switzerland. I skied Zermatt last week, Verbier last weekend and Saas-Fee this week. I have written in previous blogs about my recent experiences in Zermatt and Verbier, but here I would like to concentrate on the relative merits of Zermatt and Saas-Fee for early season snow sports.
The routes to Zermatt and Saas-Fee diverge at the municipality of Stalden where the Matter Vispa and the Saaser Vispa rivers conjoin. Stalden is a dizzying community of homes on steep valley walls atop which are a number of small ski resorts such as Grächen, Törbel, Bürchen, Unterbäch and Visperterminen – of which Grächen is the largest and most charming. Stalden already has some spectacular bridges but a bypass planned to complete in 2023 will add to the spectacle with seven additional bridges, including the 270m long Chinegga Bridge.
Saas-Fee is the quicker to get to from anywhere you choose to come from, although the last leg from Visp is by bus rather than the train, as is the case for Zermatt. Neither resort allows cars, but the parking lot in Saas-Fee is actually in the village, unlike Zermatt where you have to take the train for the last leg from Täsch if you drive.
Saas-Fee is the highest and largest of four resorts in Saastal – the Saas valley – and the route to the resort passes through one of them, Saas-Grund. Saas-Grund has a creditable 35km of piste in the winter season up to a top station of 3200m. In terms of scale it is somewhat dwarfed by Saas-Fee with its 100km of piste up to 3600m, but it provides some variety if you come to Saastal for a week, often has untracked off-piste when Saas-Fee does not and is less crowded in peak season.
Saas-Fee is not as high or as extensive a resort as Zermatt which, fully open, has an incredible 360 km of piste between 1620 and 3899m. However in November, neither resort is fully open and – in the case of Zermatt – the runs over to Cervinia in Italy which would normally be open are closed because of Covid-19.
Saas-Fee and Zermatt have the highest ski runs in Europe and this is why anyone looking to ski outside the regular season should consider them. Zermatt is open all year round, but summer skiing there is very limited. By mid-November, Zermatt had open 26 km of piste and 10 lifts – limited by the lack of access to Cervinia – whereas Saas-Fee claims 43 km and 12 lifts. On the 28th November the lifts up to the Rothorn and Stockhorn are scheduled to begin operating in Zermatt, opening up at least 100 km of piste.
Both resorts have their upper runs on glaciers, which means off-piste is not an option in those areas, and – since glaciers move – the only lifts on the glaciers are surface lifts. However both resorts currently have chairlift-served runs lower down.
From earlier this month the Covid-19 precautions have resulted in all bars and restaurants being closed until at least the start of December in Valais, the canton where Zermatt, Saas-Fee and Verbier are located. This certainly puts a damper on the apres-ski and mountain restaurant scene, although even without Covid many restaurants and bars are not open in the resorts in November. But we’re here for the skiing and snowboarding, right? Right.
The limited skiing available in Zermatt is gentle reds and blues with a little off-piste whereas Saas-Fee has many more steeper sections. The open areas are reasonably well-connected. To get to the top at Saas-Fee you take two gondolas and an underground train, and the return journey is just the one train from Morenia. For Zermatt the trip up is three cable cars, but you have to take two back – from Trockener Steg and Furi. Since only the most southerly section of Zermatt is open it is also a longer transfer from the train station to the lifts than it is from the garages and bus station at Saas-Fee. In fact, at Zermatt, you might want to take the courtesy bus or a taxi to get to your hotel and to the slopes.
Switzerland has had clear unclouded skies since the start of November and this has worked worse for Saas-Fee than Zermatt. The snow is reasonably good at both, but fresh snow would be welcome and the pistes were icier in Saas-Fee. Both ski areas are north-facing, but Zermatt was bathed in sunshine nearly everywhere whilst the slopes were open, whereas many parts of Saas-Fee, with a low sun behind the Allalin, hardly moved out of shadow all day. I think Saas-Fee would have been a lot better with fresher snow, and I enjoyed my skiing more at Zermatt but I will look to visit again before the end of the month to see how the conditions are holding up.
I visited both on weekdays and would expect them to both be busier at the weekend. When I was at the resorts Saas-Fee had more ski racers in training, whereas Zermatt had more ski school instructors under instruction. The runs at Saas-Fee were generally much busier, but at both resorts it was possible to find runs where I was an almost solitary skier. Unfortunately the lifts up and down the mountain at both resorts were quite busy. Masks are compulsory on all lifts.
In broad terms what you are getting in November in these resorts is a similar snow sport experience as you would get mid-week, peak season in a resort like Braunwald or Pizol, albeit at a significantly higher price.
I like Saas-Fee. It is pleasant car-free village, reasonably compact with an excellent lift system and a good range of snow-sure slopes. Zermatt has its downsides but there is probably not a better ski resort on the planet, in my very humble opinion. Both resorts are expensive. Even without the bars and restaurants, ahead of the full season opening, I would on balance choose Zermatt still, but it is a far closer call, especially with Cervinia closed.
The world’s first peak-to-peak suspension bridge opened in 2014 in Switzerland at the Glacier3000 ski area. The 107m long bridge, known as “Peak Walk by Tissot”, has been more than matched by a new suspension bridge in nearby Valais.
The 31km long Europaweg, a hiking trail between Zermatt and Grächen, lies along a route prone to rockfalls. A bridge was built along a section of the route in 2010, crossing the Dorfbach river, but was swept away in a rock avalanche two months later. The determined Swiss went about building a replacement, high enough to avoid the fate of its predecessor. The resulting Charles Kuonen Hängebrücke, or Europe Bridge, opened on 29th July 2017, and is 494 metres long, making it the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world. At its highest it is 84 metres above the valley.
The bridge has around 8 tons of cable, and employs a system that prevents it from swinging. It is named after the principal sponsor behinds its construction and is located just east of Randa at map co-ordinates 46° 6′ 6.5″, 7° 48′ 4.7″.
To walk the Europaweg usually takes two days, with an overnight stop in the Europahütte. It is rated T3, i.e. a challenging hike that requires good footwear, orientation skills and some basic Alpine experience (the rating associated with the most difficult hikes is T6). However it is possible to visit the bridge without taking the entire hike by taking the train to Randa – 2 stations from Zermatt – and hiking up from there. It is a steep 650m ascent, and takes around 2 hours each way.
The Snow’n’Rail schedule for the Winter Sports season 2015-2016 is now available. This is the wonderful scheme run by Swiss Railways that provides a 20% discount on the combined lift pass and public transport connections for most of the leading resorts in Switzerland. This is a unique offering – the Austrian Railways run a similar scheme, although nowhere near as extensive.
The offers are now available online (in English, French, German and Italian), and in a brochure available free from the booking offices of most Swiss Railway Stations. The brochures are available in German, French and Italian depending on the language of the locality in which the stations are situated, but only the German version comprehensively covers all the resorts in the scheme.
There is not much change from last year. Most prices have stayed the same. For example an adult day trip to Zermatt from Basel if you are in possession of a Half-Tax Card is still SFr 166.40. A comparable offering is SFr 75.40 for Klewenalp, again the same as last season.
The resort coverage has changed slightly – Vals is now included.
However the most glaring omission is the Portes du Soleil. This massive ski area was one of the most impressive destinations under the Snow’n’Rail scheme, but it looks like they couldn’t come to an agreement with Swiss Railways for this season. Hopefully they will be back for the next one.
What looks like a new resort on the list, Chäserrugg, is simply a rebranded name for what has been referred to in previous years as Toggenburg or Obertoggenburg and covers the charming, linked resorts of Alt St. Johann and Underwasser. Included in the lift pass are the slopes around Wildhaus, but it appears that the routing of the offer to Wildhaus via Buchs is no longer available at a discount.
Some resorts can be accessed by train alone, others you need either a scheduled bus service or use of a linked ski bus. Details are all listed at the resort reports at the Swiss Winter Sports web site, and I can vouch for the rourting information as I have used the scheme for every resort myself!
Resorts covered by the scheme are as follows:
In Northern Switzerland: Braunwald, Chäserrugg and Pizol.
In Graubünden: Arosa Lenzerheide, Brigels, Davos Klosters, Disentis 3000, Engadin St. Moritz, Flims Laax Falera, Motta Naluns (Scuol), Splügen and Vals 3000.
In the Bernese Oberland: Adelboden-Lenk, Gstaad Mountain Rides, Jungfrau Ski Region and Meiringen-Hasliberg.
In Ticino only Airolo.
Several resorts are included in the category Alpes Vaudoises, including Villars, Les Diablerets and Leysin.
In Valais: 4 Vallées/Mt-Fort, Aletsch Arena, Blatten-Belalp, Crans-Montana, Grächen, Lauchernalp/Lötschental, Leukerbad, Visp Area, Saas-Fee/Saastal and Zermatt & Cervinia.
In Central Switzerland: Engelberg-Titlis, Klewenalp-Stockhütte, Melchsee-Frutt, Andermatt-Sedrun, Sörenberg, Sattel-Hochstuckli and Stoos.