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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The mystery of the missing Swiss couple




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.

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Snow’n’Rail Prices Published


Snow’n’Rail is the popular scheme organised every year by the Swiss Railways which provides a significant discount on the combined lift and public transport ticket prices for over 40 resorts. The booklets listing the offers are available from stations in local language versions, and the online brochure also provides details in English.

There are no new resorts for 2016/7 although les Portes du Soleil is back after a one year absence. Toggenburg, Hoch-Ybrig and Val D’Anniviers have fallen off the scheme, sadly, and a couple of minor resorts are now only listed online.

After modest increases last year, it is perhaps not surprising to see significant increases in some of the offers. Adelboden, the 4 Vallées, Saas-Fee and many Graubünden resorts have seen hikes around 10%. However Zermatt has kept prices flat, as have a number of other resorts, including Les Diablerets, Leysin, Villars, Grindelwald, Wengen, Mürren, Gstaad, Meiringen, Sörenberg, Melchsee-Frutt, Klewenalp, Airolo and Stoos – some routes from Luzern have even fallen slightly.

Tickets can still get pricey, even with the discounts, especially if you do not have a half-price rail card. Without the additional discount, a full day skiing or snowboarding in Zermatt from Basel or Zurich will set you back around 270 SFr. Conversely, with a half-price card, a day in Engelberg will give you change from a 100 Sfr note. Meiringen, Sörenberg and Klewenalp, in particular, provide very good value for the extent of piste available.

For more details of the new season prices visit the resort pages at SwissWinterSports.

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Skiing out of Sion


Sion - Castle of Valère
I have always liked Sion, but one of its main attractions in the winter is how convenient it is for hitting the slopes – you can even see pistes from the city centre. The city is on the main line between Geneva and Milan and, reputedly, has the largest bus station in Switzerland in terms of destinations served (23 in total). From the bus station you can get direct services to Anzère, Veysonnaz and Nendaz (both in the Four Vallées), the resorts of Val d’Herens, including Arolla and even the lifts serving Vercorin (in the amazing Val D’Anniviers). By train, with just one change, you can get to Zermatt, Verbier, Crans-Montana and a bunch of other resorts. Incidentally, my tip for getting quickly to the best of the pistes is to go to Haut-Nendaz Télécabine and jump on the free shuttle bus to Siviez, where you are right at the heart of 412km of piste.

One other useful thing about Sion is that it has a youth hostel right next to the station, although unfortunately it does not open until late March. However, with so many high altitude resorts in the area it still works well for late season skiing. I recently stayed there and, as a result, got to refresh a lot of content at the Swiss Winter Sports web site. Even though it was April, I found some amazing lift-served powder in Les Marrécottes and a resort run in reasonable condition at Grächen.

There is surprisingly little variety of accommodation along the Rhône valley, with most of the beds in the ski resorts themselves. Sion does have a few hotels, though, and also a good variety of bars and restaurants in the old town.

Perhaps I will get one ski weekend in before the season finally closes, presumably in Valais. It has been a strange winter season. Much heralded as being the 150th anniversary of winter holidays, there was little snow before the New Year and lower resorts will have definitely suffered from lower visitor numbers.

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