I’m going to tell you how to take a ski break for a day. You can literally check out the snow reports one day, be skiing or snowboarding the next, and be back in the office the following day. In other words, you can take one day off work and ski the Swiss Alps for a full day in the mountains. How’s that for a day out the office!
Why Switzerland? Well it has fabulous resorts within easy reach of Geneva Airport; you can use public transport to get to the slopes; and accommodation at short notice is widely available if you stay in the valleys rather than the mountains. And it is no more expensive than France for a quick break and much more convenient than Italy or Austria. Although Innsbruck in Austria is quite convenient for a number of resorts, there are fewer flights.
I’m not going to push Easyjet, but it is a good choice for getting to Geneva from the UK, with several flights a year from Gatwick and regional airports. BA is also a good choice if you have lots of Avios points. And if you want to take your skis with you, Swiss will carry them for free. Typically Easyjet flights start from about £26, but get pricey at weekends. At a day’s notice it can cost less than £100 pounds return for an evening flight out, and either an evening flight back the next day or an early morning flight the following day – both of which will get you back in the office the next day with a full day’s skiing.
Geneva Airport has a station in the airport itself with direct trains running to hub towns from where you can get to the slopes, either by a single train journey or a very reliable bus service.
You can stay in a resort, but with a late flight and an hour time difference it is a push if you leave the office to take an evening flight. I would recommend you stay in one of those “hub” towns, somewhere like Lausanne, Vevey, Montreux, Aigle, Martigny, Sion, Sierre or Visp. It all depends on how much travel time you are prepared to put in to and from respectively the airport and your preferred ski resort. Some towns on the main line service to Brig from Geneva Airport are particularly convenient for specific resorts, e.g. Aigle for Portes du Soleil (Champéry), Villars, Les Diablerets and Leysin; Martigny for Verbier and Les Marécottes; Sion for the central section of the 4 Valleys (Nendaz, Veysonnaz or Siviez) and Anzère; Sierre for Crans-Montana; and Visp for Saas-Fee or Zermatt. I could mention other resorts, but on the whole they require longer transfers or are much smaller.
Most towns have convenient and reasonably priced accommodation near the main railway station that can be booked at short notice, typically via Bookings.com.
You are spoilt for choice about which resort to go to. Saas-Fee and Zermatt are open for longer seasons than the rest, and mid-week skiing is usually only available at the others from the start of December. During peak season Leysin, Villars, Les Diablerets and the Portes du Soleil are the nearest significant resorts to Geneva.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Flying out of Gatwick on a Wednesday at 6.20pm, arriving at Geneva at 8.55pm, book into the Lausanne Youth Hostel or Hotel AlaGare both walking district from Lausanne station. Get up early and get a full day skiing in Verbier, leaving your stuff in a locker at the base station for Verbier. Return to Lausanne in the evening and take the 7.00am Easy jet flight getting you into Gatwick at 7.35am.
Another example: Take the same evening flight and book into a hotel in Aigle. Ski Leysin the next day, then take the 9.35pm flight back getting you into Gatwick at 10.05pm.
The costs depend on a number of factors. Costing out the first option, you might spend £100 on flights, plus transit costs to a UK airport. You can bring your skis on Easyjet for £39 or hire in resort for about the same if you book in advance. With Avios points I’ve done a return BA flight for £60. The return train fare on Swiss Railways from Geneva Airport to Lausanne is about £40 and the cost of a combined ski and travel pass (the Snow’n’rail scheme) for Verbier will be about £100. Lausanne is about 50 minutes from Geneva Airport and just over 2 hours from the gondola station serving Verbier. Accommodation near the station will cost you about £80 for a night. Food and drink are best bought from supermarkets and it is totally acceptable to drink alcohol on the trains.
On my trip to Saas-Fee last week I took advantage of an all-season ski pass I bought for under £200. I also have a half-fare card which halves the cost of rail transfer in Switzerland and I have Easyjet+ which gives some perks flying Easyjet. I am over 60 so travel in the UK is free or heavily discounted. And I have a pad in Switzerland about 1 hour 30 minutes from Geneva Airport and half an hour from the nearest ski resort.
I also have a pass for 25 other leading Swiss resorts that cost me around £200 for the whole season. The benefit of also having the Saas-Fee pass is it gives me good skiing early and late in the season.
The mystery of a missing Swiss couple seems to have been solved. Or has it? The Guardian reported it as follows:
The frozen bodies of a Swiss couple who went missing 75 years ago in the Alps have been found on a shrinking glacier, Swiss media said.
Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin, the parents of seven children, had gone to milk their cows in a meadow above Chandolin in the Valais canton on 15 August 1942.
“We spent our whole lives looking for them, without stopping. We thought that we could give them the funeral they deserved one day,” their youngest daughter, Marceline Udry-Dumoulin, 75, told the Lausanne daily Le Matin.
“I can say that after 75 years of waiting this news gives me a deep sense of calm.”
Valais cantonal police said two bodies bearing identity papers had been discovered last week by a worker on Tsanfleuron glacier near a ski lift above Les Diablerets resort at an altitude of 2,615 metres (8,600ft).
The Guardian conveniently posts a picture of the Swiss ski resort, Chandolin:
A truly tragic mystery finally solved. But wait a minute…
Apparently they went for a walk from the ski resort Chandolin in Valais and were found above Les Diablerets near the Glacier3000 ski resort. Now Wikipedia tells me that is a 25 hour hike, mostly along the Rhone valley (which would need to be crossed). Why would the couple have walked so far?
The answer is rather prosaic. They didn’t head out from the village of Chandolin in Val D’Anniviers, but the village of Chandolin-près-Savièse, just above Sion and opposite Nendaz. A minor oversight by all the English-speaking newspapers who either didn’t bother to check the location or didn’t care, but it would have confused anyone who knew the better known ski resort of Chandolin (together with St-Luc, making up one of my favourite ski areas).
Why would the couple, make the significant ascent to the glacier, some 2615m high? Many newspapers reported that Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin had vanished after going to milk their cows in a meadow above their home. Whilst the glacier lies in the same municipality, Savièse, it doesn’t explain how they ended up on the glacier. Cows don’t graze on or anywhere near glaciers.
The Local, an English-language Swiss-based news web site, offers an explanation:
Dumoulin, then 40, and his 37-year-old wife had left their home that morning hoping to check on their cattle, which were being kept in an alpine pasture in neighbouring Bern canton.
The fastest route at the time was via a glacier footpath. The sky was clear when the couple set out, but clouds later worsened visibility and the couple vanished, likely after falling into a crevasse, orphaning five sons and two daughters. Shrinking glaciers are slowly uncovering the bodies of several hundred people known to have disappeared on or near glaciers in the Alps, many after tumbling down a crevasse.
“I saw them leave that Saturday morning,” recalled Monique Gautschy, one of the surviving children who was 11 years old at the time. “They were supposed to spend the night in the alpine pasture at Grilden and come back on Sunday.”
After two months of fruitless searching for the couple, the seven children, then aged 2 to 13, were placed in foster care.
Apparently Madame Dumoulin was making the trip with her husband for the first time. She was reportedly almost always pregnant or nursing. With seven children at home, one assumes they got little privacy. Perhaps the explanation for their joint ascent and planned overnight stop was a romantic encounter under the stars?
We shall never know.
March is probably my favourite month for skiing, the longer evenings and sunny skies heralding Spring. And, of course, you do tend to get Spring ski conditions – crusty off-piste, whilst the pistes are icy first thing and slushy at the end of the day. So a good tip is to look for resorts where most of the skiing is high.
No schools in Europe have half term during March this year, so there should be some good bargains for accommodation, particularly family-friendly resorts.
Some of the medium-sized resorts are perfect to visit since they have lower lift pass prices and should have the full extent of their ski area still open.
These, then, are my top tips for March skiing, all resorts with plenty of altitude:
Another ski season is not far away, and many Swiss resorts have been busy upgrading their facilities ready for season 2016/17.
In Zermatt the ancient gondola below the Rothorn from Gant to Blauherd is being replaced by a six-seat chairlift.
In Saas-Fee the equally ancient gondola in the Spielboden sector is being replaced by a faster 10-seater gondola.
Andermatt continues its aggressive program of expansion. This season two T-bars will be replaced by six-seater chairlifts. In the following two seasons an additional two six-seater chairlifts and an eight-seater gondola will link the Nätschen area of Andermatt to Sedrun and open up 26km of new piste. Sedrun itself replaces a t-bar with a chairlift, a trend across many Alpine resorts.
Most people know Klosters for the Parsenn area, but the seperate Madrisa area is popular with families. Here an innovative six-seater chairlift, “Schaffürggli”, is being installed, the first of its kind in Switzerland. It features a laser scanner that uses hydraulics to adjust the height of the seat, making it much easier for children to get on and off. The chairlift will also have heated seats and can take wheelchair users up the mountain.
New lifts and replacement lifts are planned for a number of other resorts including Flumserberg, The Four Valleys, Corvatsch, Crans-Montana, Pizol, Les Diablerets, Villars-Gryon, Grüsch-Danusa and Val Müstair.
I’ve often thought it would be fun to have a drone film my descent. It would also be useful to give visitors to swisswintersports.co.uk an idea of what to expect. Well Verbier got there first and is offering Europe’s first self-tracking drones. The drones follow you on the slopes using Bluetooth and a GPS-enabled Smartphone App and Téléverbier rents them out the Hexo+ drones for CHF400 per day or CHF250 for a half day, providing assistance and a video at the end of the day.
All of the major airports in Switzerland lie just outside the Alps, but Swiss International Airlines now plan to provide a scheduled service between Sion and London, subject to a number of test flights. Sion Airport is in the heart of the Swiss Alps, and so close to the slopes you can actually see planes take off and landing from the pistes of several nearby resorts, including Verbier and Nendaz. Sion has been used for civilian flights for some time, but the last scheduled service from the UK was withdrawn a few years ago and the military will be withdrawing from using it from next year. The director of Sion airport, Aline Bovier-Gantzer says that “The initiative for the new flight is due to a collaboration with the Swiss tourism industry: Valais is already a favourite destination of British tourists during the winter months thanks to its proximity to some of Switzerland’s most popular ski resorts.”
Of course, if you fly to Switzerland, independent travellers can easily get to their resorts using the fabulous transport infrastructure available without having to resort to lengthy, uncomfortable coach transfers. You can also make the entire trip from many European cities directly by train, including London with the Eurostar ski train, booking for which is now open.
Just outside Switzerland’s borders but very popular with Swiss skiers is the Arlberg area in Austria. I remember that once you could get round the circuit that includes St Anton, Lech and Zürs, but for some years this has not been the case. Now a new gondola is scheduled to open that will link Zürs and Stuben to create the largest ski area in Austria, one of four new lifts that will be built in Ski Alberg over the summer. For the 2016/17 season this means Ski Arlberg will total 305km piste served by 87 lifts, fully linking St Anton, Stuben, St Christoph, Lech, Zürs, Schröcken and Warth.