Early Season Skiing at Verbier and Crans-Montana

Plaine Morte Skiing at Crans-Montana.

November skiing in the Alps is inevitably limited to some of the highest slopes. Few resorts open before the end of November but I’ve been lucky enough to check out four so far: Zermatt, Verbier, Saas-Fee and, most recently, Crans-Montana.

One shouldn’t expect too much of early season skiing, but I was impressed with the amount of terrain open at Saas-Fee and Zermatt, certainly enough for a day trip. They are also open throughout the week whereas Verbier and Crans-Montana are only open at the weekend. The bigger disappointment was that the most recent Covid-19 lockdown has resulted in the closure of the mountain restaurants (fair enough) and the removal of all the terrace seating (which seems a bit extreme). This is tolerable for a day trip, but would put me off a longer stay ahead of the planned re-opening of the mountain restaurants in Valais in December.

In November Verbier and Crans-Montana offer much more limited skiing opportunities than either Zermatt or Saas-Fee – in effect just two short runs. Crans-Montana was more limited than Verbier, but not by much. In this photograph you can see both the beginning and the end of the runs – really two legs of a single red run – at the start of the notorious black Kandahar (which had a fatality last year when an avalanche swept across the piste):

The only area open for off-piste skiing in Crans-Montana in November.

On a positive note, however, the lift system operated convincing Covid-19 safety provisions. This is largely a feature of the fact that you need only two gondolas to get to Plaine Morte from Barzettes via les Violettes, the first of which you can realistically use as your personal carriage, the second of which allowed for a degree of social distancing because of the relatively small number of skiers using it.

Whereas Verbier offers a longer run and a chairlift to use it, there were no queues for the t-bar on Plaine Morte and the piste was sunnier and less crowded. Unfortunately the lift stops operating at 1pm, so you need to get to the resort early if you want to get in a couple of dozen runs. The shorter day is reflected in the lower price of the lift pass, SFr 22 – Verbier, Zermatt and Saas-Fee were charging significantly more. Incidentally both Saas-Fee and Crans-Montana are part of the amazing Magic Pass system.

View of the Pennine Alps from near the summit of pointe de la Plaine Morte.

Although I refer to the Crans-Montana ski area as Plaine Morte (literally ‘dead plain’, read it how you like), the glacier de la Plaine Morte is actually below the pistes, which run down from the top station at pointe de la Plaine Morte. The glacier area itself is very popular with cross-country skiers and a fair number of people coming up to ski were cross-country skiers.

ski run above the Plaine Morte glacier.

Many lower pistes were being prepared ahead of the full opening of the resort. Sadly the resort has opted to use snow cannon to build up a base, not the best environmental choice. More snow is needed for the runs without cannons, but it is forecast to snow in the first week of December.

Piste area above les Violettes.

With it south facing views across the Pennine Alps, excellent mountain restaurants (when they re-open) and its lovely cruisy runs, French-speaking Crans-Montana is a really great snowsports resort. It has a good range of amenities and distractions throughout the year and the Sierre locality of Valais has the reputation of being the sunniest part of Switzerland, with 300 days of sunshine annually. The main complaint, as is even more true of the beautiful, remote Val d’Anniviers the other side of Sierre across the Rhône valley, is that the public transport is limited and the roads can get busy. There is a direct bus, the 421, from Sierre/Siders railway station which snakes around the resorts about once per hour, taking about 40 minutes to get to the “Crans-sur-Sierre, téléphérique” stop and just under an hour to get to the higher base station at “Montana, Barzettes”. There is also a more frequent and faster funicular from elegant Sierre, but sadly the terminus is not convenient for any base stations so you need to take the 421 or the seasonal, free Navette to get to the slopes.

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Saas-Fee compared to Zermatt

Nicholas Oatridge at Saas-Fee
Nic Oatridge skiing Saas-Fee.

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.

Skiers above the Morenia middle station

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.

Looking down in November on the ski resort of Saas-Fee

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 slopes below the Allalin top station in Saastal.

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.

Skiers and snowboarders exit the undeground train at Allalin.

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.

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Autumn Skiing

Nic Oatridge skiing Verbier and Zermatt

With Covid-19 rampant throughout the Alpine nations, the question many people have been asking is: “Will I be able to ski this season?”. The answer is yes – at this time at least – if you are not otherwise prevented from visiting the Alps by Covid restrictions.

I came out to Switzerland from London in October, before lockdown in the UK, and had 10 days of quarantine once I arrived. With online shopping for groceries and family and friends only a click away, isolation passed quickly. Furthermore my confinement was deep in the Swiss Alps, in Aigle in the upper Rhône valley , with the slopes of les Portes du Soleil, Leysin and Villars visible from my windows, and the peaks of les Dents du Midi towering over the valley.

View of les Dents du Midi from Aigle. Copyright Nic Oatridge.
les Dents du Midi, seen from Aigle

Sadly the season is too early for the most nearby resorts to be open, but there is always skiing on the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, so as soon as I exited quarantine, I was on my way to Zermatt.

Nic Oatridge in Zermatt

In a subsequent post I will focus on the impact of Covid-19, but for now I will concentrate on the skiing. Although there is skiing out of Zermatt all year round, summer skiing is limited and the slopes tend to turn to mush by lunchtime. November heralds the start of the winter season; however the snowline is still too high to allow for much of the resort to be open, with only the area above Trockener Steg at 2939m open on a pretty creditable 26km piste. Most years you would also be able to connect to the slopes in Cervinia, across in Italy, but the border is closed at this time due to Covid-19

Empty slopes above Trockener Steg in Zermatt

But the good news is that the snow above Zermatt is near perfect and the pistes are wonderfully quiet.

Skiing on the Theodulgletscher

Zermatt is an expensive resort, and you might well ask if it is worthwhile when so little is open. Furthermore there is limited off-piste and the available runs are all limited to cruisy reds and blues. I can only offer the opinion that this quality of lift-served skiing, in November, is not available anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere. Zermatt never rests on its laurels and every year there are lift improvements. Even though you need to take three cable cars to get to the highest point, at a dizzying 3883m, you can be skiing a little after 9am with an 8.30am start.

View over Cervinia towards Mont Blanc from Klein Matterhorn

A large proportion of the other skiers are ski instructors, in training for a new season – most of which seems to involve warming up and talking. As a result the slopes are delightfully uncrowded and you can do some runs without seeing another soul the whole way down.

I would have liked to stay in Zermatt longer, but with a lockdown imminent I decided to slip in a day’s skiing in Verbier before returning to Aigle. Verbier opened up for weekend skiing only and has, in effect, only one open run. Whether that was worth skiing, I was about to find out.

Attelas, Verbier

What are the ski resorts like at this time of year, before the season fully starts? Ignoring the impact of Covid-19, the resorts are still in effect in off-season mode and most hotels, bars and restaurants are still closed. Those that are open are quiet. Add to that the impact of Covid-19 and the whole experience of skiing in autumn is not what most skiers and snowboarders would recognise as a winter sports vacation. If you are coming primarily to ski and snowboard though, Zermatt definitely gets my vote. But what of Verbier?

Sadly, Verbier fell somewhat short of the experience in Zermatt. The only slope open is the run off Attelas at 2727m down to le Lac des Vaux. It’s a short blue run, with the dogtail of the red run off Chassoure providing a little variety. There’s a number of off-piste runs down to the lake too, but the snow cover is very thin and I wouldn’t recommend them.

Skiers on Lac des Vaux run off Attelas, Verbier

When I got to Attelas, having taken one of the first gondolas up, the run was busy but not too crowded. It got more crowded as the day went on and queues developed at the lift back up to Attelas, but the crowds and queues were acceptable. The ski and snowboard set were different from Zermatt, being mostly younger skiers and families on a day trip from nearby towns.

The snow deteriorated through the course of the day and was more like spring skiing than was the case in Zermatt where the base held up throughout the day. The volume of skiers also led to moguls forming on the steeper section of the run.

Fontanet, Verbier
The closed ski area between Fontanet and Attelas, above Les Ruinettes

It’s clearly very early in the season and the snow line is above 2500m on North-facing slopes. If the temperatures start to drop and there is more precipitation, the section above Les Ruinettes will also open, providing a reasonable variety of piste. However the prospect at this time is for warm, sunny days and it might not be before December when Verbier can offer more pistes. If, however, you are in the region and fancy getting a couple of turns in, Verbier is open for business.

A number of other resorts have limited skiing at this time, almost exclusively in Switzerland, including the glaciers on Titlis (Engelberg) and Diablerets (Glacier 3000). However there are only a few kilometres of piste open at these resorts, and the few others that I think will be open for weekend skiing will be very limited. More promising is Saas-Fee, which claims to have 53km open, and that will be my next port of call. I like Saas-Fee, having first visited the resort over a quarter of a century ago and been several times since. I did ski there early in the season one year before, and found the ski conditions pretty good.

Verbier Medran Gondola
Verbier

Of course, snow conditions are not the only consideration when going skiing or snowboarding in these Covid times. I’ll cover that in my next blog article.

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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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