Phew! What a season it has been for skiing and snowboarding. I was fortunate to get some good skiing in before Christmas, but in general it has been a dismal season for everyone.
The Swiss lift operators association (Seilbahnen Schweiz/Remontées Mécaniques Suisses) has published its analysis of the season up until the end of March – which for all but a handful of resorts is end of season.
The lift operators report a grim picture. By the end of March, lift usage and turnover in Switzerland had fallen by 24% in total, compared to the 2018/19 winter season. Large resorts, dependent on international visitors, have suffered most, but the closure of bars and restaurants has also deterred local winter sports enthusiasts. Additionally, ski camps and club and business trips have not taken place. Ski lifts in the Prealps and in areas close to towns, which cater more for day tourists, have not done quite as badly. Ticino has actually done quite well compared to 2018/19, but that was a season where the canton suffered from a lack of adequate snow – something that cannot be said of this season, where the snow conditions remain very good in those resorts still open.
On the whole comparison with the 2018/19 season is more meaningful than for 2019/20, because Covid-19 had an impact on the latter part of the 2019/20 season. It was hard to forecast a year ago we would be where we are now, and it is only with some optimism that we can look forward to next year being without some restrictions. None the less, overseas visitors are booking in advance for next season like never before, with many winter tour operators reporting bumper bookings.
The long-term impact on the lift operators is hard to gauge. Despite running at a considerable loss this season, lift operators have seen themselves as providing a public service and largely remained open. If the ski lifts had closed, mountain regions would have faced a shutdown of even more tourist activities, resulting in greater economic damage than has anyway been inflicted. Government support, the lift operators association says, is needed to avoid systemic damage to tourism.
The impact on the whole winter sports infrastructure is devastating. Some businesses will not return, others will cancel plans for expansion or investment. Many resorts were already worried about the long-term impact of climate change, and Covid-19 is hardly likely to positively impact their thinking. Additionally, with ski resorts being amongst the Covid-19 hotspots at the start of the pandemic, the image of winter sports has suffered.
I think the ski industry will recover strongly, although the level of growth will likely be lower than in previous years. From a sustainability perspective and in light of the impact of climate change, that is probably not a bad thing.
The Swiss National Accident Insurance Fund (Suva) has recently provided an analysis of the extent and costs of winter sports accidents from an insurers perspective.
Typically around 90,000 winter sports accidents are reported every year in Switzerland. For the last full year for which there is data, unsurprisingly downhill skiing comes top of the list of incidents with a total of 52,320. For other winter sports the figures are: snowboarding: 11,060, tobogganing: 6460, cross-country skiing : 5440, ice hockey: 5010, skating and figure skating: 3780, and ski touring: 970.
The cost of these accidents in terms of insurance payments for skiing alone comes out at 610 million Swiss francs (snowboarding: SFr 74 million). The breakdown for skiers by seriousness of injury is: light injuries: SFr 100 million, moderately serious injuries: SFr 182 million, serious injuries: SFr 235 million, disability: SFr 49 million and death: SFr 44 million.
The sums are some 70% higher than they were fifteen years. The increase is reckoned by Suva to be caused by higher performance equipment, the advent of ski carving, the preparation of slopes, artificial snow, and the increasing average age of skiers – with the most affected category being that of 40-59 years old.
For alpine skiing, the most commonly affected body parts are the knee: 30.9% (snowboarding: 15.2%), shoulder and upper arm: 24.1% (snowboarding: 23.4%), lower legs and ankles: 13.8% (snowboarding: 13.1%), trunk: 13.7% (snowboarding: 19%), wrist, hand, fingers: 11.8 % (snowboarding: 13, 1%). Suva estimates the average cost of a broken leg at SFr 22,500 in total.
I checked out Glacier3000 at the weekend. It was not the best time to go, as it was busy. Not in a covid sense so much as in terms of queues for the two T-bars which service most of the open terrain on the glacier. From a covid perspective the situation was the same as in most resorts I’ve visited this season – restaurants closed; seating removed; masks inside, in queues and on all lifts.
It wasn’t only skiers that made it busy. There were quite a few cross-country skiers, winter walkers and day-trippers who had taken the cable cars upto Cabane and then Scex Rouge at 2971m. For the day trippers the highlight is the peak walk, a walk between two peaks on a suspension bridge to take in a quite stunning view north of Vaud, Valais, Fribourg and the Bernese Oberland as far as the Jungfrau. There are quite awesome views all over the glacier, with Mont Blanc, Matterhorn and other notable peaks on the southern skyline.
Only the higher runs at the ski area are open, which means mostly cruisy blues served by T-bars and accessed by a long schuss which crosses – to my mind quite dangerously – a section which you have to schuss across to get back to the chairlift to Scex Rouge. In practice you normally end up having to walk across the intersection going to the chairlift, unless you have really gone for it in a big way.
When Glacier3000 is fully open there are 28km of piste down as far as Reusch and, if the snow is good, there is a flattish off piste run which can take you as far as Gstaad. I don’t generally like the lower pistes which are steep and often icy and in shadow. Beginners looking to stick to the blue runs might be put off by the steepish section at the start of the schuss over to the pistes on le Glacier des Diablerets, but the runs there are delightful and you can ski all day on about 14km of piste, a good amount of skiable, ungroomed snow, a great snow park and 9km of cross-country (classic and skating). Glacier3000 has some off-piste runs from Scex Rouge down to the valley, although I’ve never had the nerve to try them as it looks like there are some steep sections where, if you made a mistake, it could end up going pretty badly. As in brown bread.
There’s probably a good reason for this, but one of the three surface lifts on the glacier is not operating currently, which means that the wonderful view and runs off Quille du Diable are not open. It’s a shame, and it would reduce the queues at the bottom of the two lifts off Dôme if it were open.
Glacier 3000 is situated on the 3209m Les Diablerets mountain, although the name is more often associated with the Les Diablerets ski runs across the valley which links to the connected runs at Villars-sur-Ollon. There used to be a gondola, Isenau, that meant you could ski across from the village of Les Diablerets to Col du Pillon, the main valley station for Glacier3000. Sadly the lift was obsolete and is now retired, and along with it the Isenau ski area has been closed – although there are plans to redevelop the area and replace the gondola. The old cranky chairlift at Les Diablerets up to Les Mazots has, however, now been replaced by a gondola as of last season.
The starting point for getting to Glacier3000, Col du Pillon, is a mountain pass linking Aigle with Gstaad and, apart from the cable car and a huge (free) car park there is not much there. By road, it is about 15 minutes from Les Diablerets and 40 minutes from Montreux. Using public transport you can get to the cable car quite easily from Aigle by taking the narrow gauge railway to Les Diablerets and then taking the waiting bus, B180, which goes on to Gstaad. Gstaad is about 40 minutes by bus from Col du Pillon and about 30 minutes from Reusch, the other valley station that only operates in the main winter season. The buses are more frequent during the main winter season than at this time of the year and there is also a courtesy bus between Col du Pillon and the valley station for Les Diablerets once that resort opens.
I think the lift pass for Glacier3000 is quite pricey, but the glacier runs are open from September through May. It is part of the MagicPass scheme, albeit with a supplementary charge unique to the resorts in the scheme. It is also one of the options on the Gstaad Mountain Rides lift pass. One benefit, at least for me, is you get a small discount if you are a senior! Incidentally, if you have a SwissPass you can buy your lift pass online and use your SwissPass to give you access to the lifts.
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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.