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.
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.
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.
For a lot of people winter is something to be endured, a long season of cold, short days and stark skylines. The only escape seems to be a long haul flight to somewhere sunny and warm.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
In 1864 four English visitors to the Swiss Alps were due to return home for the winter. Their hotelier, Johannes Badrutt, said that they should come back at Christmas and stay until Easter, and if they didn’t find St Moritz as sunny in winter as it was in summer, he would pay their fares and hotel bills.
Badrutt won the bet, and winter tourism was born.
But what was there to do? Alpine skiing was yet to take off – Conan Doyle in nearby Davos was to have a large part to play in that story. With a well-developed summer tourist industry, St Moritz, Davos and many other resorts quickly developed a significant infrastructure to enable winter visitors to while away their days, and nights, and the longest established resorts still have a huge variety of non-Downhill activities on offer.
A recent article I read in the BA Leisure magazine, recommended a handful of resorts that suited both skiers and non-skiers. Megève, St Christoph, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Zermatt and Lake Tahoe make their shortlist, and it’s a good list. For the Americas, however, there are a number of resorts I would add to the list (see my ski USA page), and I think there are at least a couple of dozen other Alpine resorts as good for skiers as for non-skiers, particularly in Switzerland.
But what to actually do? Innsbruck, Montreux and Basel have wonderful winter markets, although they close before Christmas. Many resorts and Alpine towns have wonderful outdoor and indoor ice rinks, and professional ice hockey teams play throughout the Alpine nations, with a major hockey festival in Davos known as the Spengler Cup. Bob sleigh also features at a few resorts, and at Celerina adrenalin junkies can actually take part in a four man bob team!
More sedate winter sports available in the Alpine resorts include snowshoe trekking, cross-country skiing, curling and tobogganing. A town called Bergün is a mecca for tobogganing, with people visiting from all over Europe to take advantage of the runs there (and enjoy the breathtaking UNESCO listed railway you need to take to get to the start of the runs). My Swiss Winter Sports web site covers other winter sports you can participate in Switzerland in addition to skiing and snowboarding.
There is a network of well maintained winter walks throughout the Alps, the reward mid-way along the walk often being a charming mountain restaurant. There are even Michelin listed resorts in the Alps! Zermatt is particularly renowned for its mountain restaurants.
We love visiting resorts with spas, the best of which is probably Leukerbad, but there is plenty of choice. Villars opened a new spa this year.
Switzerland and Austria have a highly reliable and extensive transport network which makes it very easy to choose a destination suited primarily to non-skiers, but which skiers can also use as a base for day trips to a variety of different destinations. Lucerne and Innsbruck are particularly good choices.
Often the best time to go is March. The days are getting longer and the days warmer, but the snow base is usually still good. If you are prepared to leave it late to see how the snow conditions are developing, a lot of resorts provide particularly good deals before Christmas.