The ski season in the Northern Hemisphere has well and truly started, but the snowline has retreated in recent days as warmer weather hit the Alps. Most of the resorts with skiing and snowboarding on glaciers have opened. Verbier, open at weekends to date will be fully open from this weekend.
The weather has caused havoc with the winter sports schedule, with a number of World Cup events re-scheduled. However the higher resorts are gradually opening, and colder conditions and snowfall are due this week. Les Diablerets, for example, is currently enjoying temperatures around 10 degrees Celcius, but will be below freezing by next Monday.
The World Meteorological Organisation says there is a 70% chance of El Niño developing for the ski season this year. If so, it will almost certainly bring colder temperatures and more snowfall than normal to the Alps.
For those looking ahead to Christmas, ski conditions look promising. Zermatt, for example, will see fresh snowfall most days ahead of the Christmas break.
Most Swiss ski resorts have a local language which, if you are conversant in it, is clearly going to get you around the slopes and hostelries. Other languages may also be catered for – Romansh ski communities tend to understand German and often Italian, Schweizerdeutsch-speaking areas also speak German and often French and English, and a lot of French-speaking resorts have many people who work in tourism able to speak English. Italian resorts in Switzerland are mainly small and you will usually need to speak Italian to make yourself understood.
However there are variations in the language spoken. Schweizerdeutsch, the dialect spoken in most of Switzerland, is very different from High German or Swiss Standard German, and even varies from community to community to the extent that a dialect in one area may be unintelligible in another. Furthermore Swiss Standard German is also distinct from High German in some key regards, and often spoken with additional variances by the Swiss in phrasing and words unfamiliar to a native German speaker.
Italian spoken in Switzerland is very similar to Italian spoken in Italy, with a few words (known as calques), mainly derived from French, that are different.
Swiss French is also close to the French spoken in France, but still has distinct words and phrases, particularly as you move further from the border. The most notable are that in Swiss French 70 is Septante, 80 is usually Huitante (but not in some areas), and 90 is Nonante.
Valais is the canton where Swiss French differs most from standard French, and some of the variances are carried over the French border into the Chamonix area and over into Italy, in Valle D’Aosta. At its most extreme, the French is so distinct from modern French that it represents a patois, with origins in Celtic and Latin languages as well as ancient French.
French patois, like Schweizerdeutsch, varies from community to community. However, unlike Schweizerdeutsch, it has been in decline for decades. One notable exception has been Evolène, in the Val d’Hérens, which has bucked the trend and seen an uptake in usage in recent years.
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.
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.
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?
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.