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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Ski for a day




ski-saas-fee
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.
Nic Oatridge at Saas-Fee
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.
Torgon
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.

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Winter holidays for non-skiers

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.

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Andermatt

An article in the UK Metro newspaper claims Andermatt in the Swiss Alps should be your next weekend break. I’m not going to disagree, it’s a beautiful little resort with some great off-piste on the Gemsstock, and it gets some of the largest dumps of snow anywhere in the Alps. You can also get there easily by train.

Andermatt Village

I’m not so sure it would be my first choice for a weekend break though. Flims/Laax and Engelberg are about the same distance from Zurich Airport. The Jungfrau is feasible for a weekend break via Basel’s Euroairport, and Chamonix, Verbier, Portes du Soleil, Leysin, Les Diablerets and Villars are about the same distance from Geneva Airport. Plus there are a handful of smaller resorts much closer to the airports – Feldberg from Basel or Flumserberg, Pizol, Hoch-Ybrig and Braunwald from Zurich.

Things might change, however. Andermatt is going through a massive expansion. The resort is currently in the midst of a huge redevelopment by Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris. Probably the most obvious sign is the new builds in the village, including the impressive 5-star Hotel Chedi. However a number of new and replacement lifts are in place as the Nätschen-Gütsch area gets upgraded in advance of being linked up with the resort of Sedrun, in the Rhine valley. Expansion and upgrades to the Gemsstock area are also planned. The “masterplan” is due to complete for the 2018/9 season.

Andermatt is also billing itself as a year-round resort with a number of scenic viewpoints, varied mountain walks and an 18 hole golf course to lure summer visitors. Hopefully all this development will not diminish the charm of the old village. The schedule of new lifts can be seen here.

Gemsstock Cable car in Andermatt

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