The Russian Invasion of the Alps

Anybody skiing in the Alps in the last twenty years can’t but help notice the large number of Russian tourists. Whether it is hearing Russian spoken in the resorts or Cyrillic estate agent listings, the Russians had clearly taken to the Alps in a big way since the fall of the Iron Curtain. But this was a popular invasion.

The Russian influx was welcomed in particular by the ski resorts. Wealthy Russians weren’t shy about buying chalets and luxury items. Russians also filled the quieter ski period in January because it coincided with the Russian Orthodox Christmas vacation season. Courchevel in January, in particular, is usually awash with Russian billionaires, their entourages and their dosh.

Resorts saw a downturn in the number of middle-class Russians after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. However it did not affect the oligarchs who continued to flood in to the Alps, even though the resorts were sometimes less welcoming to the oligarchs than hitherto. In 2018 Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, applied for, but was denied, residency in Verbier. Swiss police arrested Russian businessman Vladislav Klyushin on his way to Zermatt in 2021, and extradited him to the USA on charges of commercial espionage.

None the less, in the winter season 2018/19 Russians spent 140,000 night stays in hotels in the French Three Valleys resorts alone. Switzerland had 195,000 Russian night stays in the same season, with the main destinations being Verbier, Zermatt, St Moritz and Davos. Resorts in the Tyrol such as St Anton and Ischgl were particularly popular with a segment of the Russian market who liked the extensive pistes and hard core apres ski. Despite a small dip in 2014/15, luxury chalets in the main ski resorts continue to be purchased by wealthy Russians, or on behalf of wealthy Russians.

And it is not only wealthy and middle class Russians who enjoy the Alps. Le Monde established that Russian spooks have long favoured the Haute Savoie as a base for targeted assassinations around Europe, including that by the agents who planned the UK poisoning of ex Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March 2018.

Outside the Alps the Bulgarian ski resorts, such as Borovets and Bansko, have always been popular winter destinations for Russians. Before the Iron Curtain came down, I met many Russians in my ski trips to the country. There is a strong cultural bond between the people of Russia and the people of Bulgaria, and skiing in Bulgaria is significantly cheaper than Alpine ski resorts. Consequently Russian tourists have continued to flock to Bulgaria for winter sports even after the Iron Curtain came down and opened up the Alps as a ski destination. In the 2021/22 season Russian tourists came in even larger numbers because Bulgaria recognises Russian-made COVID vaccines.

The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military in February 2022 has changed everything for Russian winter tourists. For the foreseeable future, it is going to be impractical for Russians to get to the Alps, and – in any case – not affordable for many of them as the rouble plunges against the Euro and the Russian economy goes into recession. For Russian tourists on holiday in Europe and caught unaware by the invasion, the sanctions from the EU and Switzerland have left tens of thousands stranded in European ski resorts. Middle class Russians face an expensive trip home since all flights out of the EU to Russia have been grounded. Additionally many ATMs and  establishments will no longer approve Russian debit and credit cards.

Switzerland has long been a popular destination for the wealthy, but their presence is no longer as welcome as it once was. The 2022 Verbier Festival has cancelled all Russian artists and the Music Director, Valery Gergiev, a prominent Putin apologist, has been asked to resign. Aligning with EU restrictions, eight Russian oligarchs resident in Switzerland with close ties to Putin have received travel bans. Many oligarchs will see their chalets sequestrated. At least a dozen private planes owned by wealthy Russians are stranded at Basel airport. Billions of dollars worth of assets managed or held by Swiss banks on behalf of wealthy Russians have been frozen.

Still, Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea remain friendly to the Russian regime and will no doubt welcome winter tourists from Russia – although the skiing options are limited. But there’s always Sochi, where the biggest ski resort, Krasnaya Polyana, has 102 km of piste and still serves Russian vodka.

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Zermatt and Verbier Compared

Verbier

Switzerland is fortunate to have some of the very best ski resorts in the world, and Zermatt and Verbier are amongst the very best. But how do they compare?

The Matterhorn, above Zermatt

Location
Both resorts are in the Pennine Alps in the Swiss canton of Valais, and both are high, particularly Zermatt. The most obvious difference between them is that Zermatt is in the part of Switzerland where a uniquely Swiss form of German is spoken, whereas Verbier is French-speaking. Verbier rests on a sunny plateau above the valley of Bagnes, whereas Zermatt lies right at the head of a long steep valley. The nearest international airport to Verbier is Geneva, whilst Zermatt is equally served by Geneva and Zurich airports.
Both relatively convenient for international visitors.

Pistes
Zermatt has 360km of piste spread over four highly integrated ski areas in Switzerland and two across the border in Italy. Although Verbier is part of the extensive Four Valleys, with 412km of piste, the valleys are less well connected than Zermatt, and you will probably not get round to visiting some of the more remote slopes beyond Siviez. Honours even.

Skiing under the Matterhorn

Season
Pretty much nowhere in the world can beat Zermatt for year-round skiing. Granted that summer skiing is something of a novelty, Zermatt nonetheless offers extensive glacier skiing from the beginning of November right through to the end of May, with the full extent of the resort available from the beginning of December until the end of April.
Verbier normally opens up one piste in November, and the resort progressively opens up in the following weeks. Normally the season finishes in mid-April.
For early and late season skiing, nothing beats Zermatt, but it can get very cold in the heart of the winter.
Zermatt for early and late season, Verbier edges it for mid-season.

Beginners
Neither resort is especially good for beginners, but Verbier does have a nursery area in the village. Unless you are coming with a mixed ability party which includes experts, or you just want to party, neither resort is recommended for beginners. You pay a premium in these resorts because of challenging slopes a beginner will never get to experience.
Beginners should look elsewhere but, if you had to choose, Verbier is better.

Intermediates
I think both resorts are excellent for intermediates. If you come for a week or two you will never want for more variety or challenge, or for nice cruisy runs when you have a hangover to shake off.
Even Stevens.

Expert
Both resorts have good skiing for experts, but if you want to stick to ungroomed trails and challenging lift-served off-piste, Verbier has more to offer. For back-country ski touring they both make excellent bases, and both lie on the famous Haute Route (Verbier only on a variation of the classic route).
Verbier is my recommendation.

Apres-ski
Apres-ski in Switzerland is generally more subdued than in other Alpine nations, but Verbier and Zermatt are exceptions to the rule. They both rock, but I prefer…
Zermatt.

Mountain Restaurants
Both resorts have a mix of cafeteria restaurants with sunny balconies and charming restaurants in the mountains. However Zermatt is something of an epicurean’s delight with some of the most outstanding mountain restaurants in the world. Not really a contest if you want haute cuisine for lunch. But it comes at a price. In the resorts themselves there is a wide range of options from street food to Michelin-starred restaurants.
The Blue Ribbon goes to Zermatt.

Lunch above Verbier
Lunch above Verbier

Resort Charm
Lying beneath the Matterhorn, nowhere quite matches Zermatt for chocolate box pretty. It is car-free, although not traffic-free as the electric taxis and service vehicles mean some streets are quite busy. It has a fabulous Alpine tradition stretching back many centuries, and was well-established as a tourist destination by the middle of the 19th Century. Verbier, conversely, is largely a post-war resort, but it’s ubiquitous chalet-style architecture is not without its charm.
Zermatt has it all.

Access – Car
You can’t drive to Zermatt, you have to pay to leave your car in a car park in a neighbouring town and take a train for the last section. Verbier does have full car access, but you generally need to pay for parking unless it comes with your chalet. There is free parking at the bottom station of the gondola that passes through Verbier at Le Châble .
Assuming you are driving from the Lake Geneva Region, it will take you about 3 hours to get to Täsch, the end of the road, and then 10 minutes by train to Zermatt.
Verbier is one of the easiest resorts to get to from Geneva, 2 hours of mainly motorway to Le Châble, and about another 10 minutes drive from there up to Verbier.
Verbier is the easier to get to from almost anywhere.

Access – Train
Zermatt is very easy to get to from either Zurich or Geneva airport by train – both airports actually have railway stations in the airports themselves and you can get to the resort with as few as one change (in Visp). Journey time from Zurich Airport is just under 4 hours, from Geneva Airport just over 4 hours.
For Verbier, Le Châble is just over 2 hours from Geneva Airport with a change at Martigny. From Le Châble you can either take the gondola or the local bus service into Verbier.
The train to Zermatt is a joy even if the journey time is longer.

Verbier

Cost
You would struggle to find two more expensive resorts in the Alps than Zermatt and Verbier, but it is possible to enjoy them both on a budget. First of all the lift passes are probably cheaper than in comparable French and Austrian resorts – a typical day pass for Verbier is SFr 71, and SFr 92 for Zermatt, and longer stays are substantially cheper per diem. For accommodation, there are affordable hostels and basic accommodation in Zermatt itself and in Le Châble for Verbier. You can also ski the slopes of Zermatt from Cervinia in Italy. Although eating and drinking out is expensive in Switzerland, supermarket prices for alcohol and, to a lesser extent, food staples are not expensive by European standards so self-catering will certainly make your francs go further.
Neither resort is cheap, but there aren’t many resorts that come close to being this good.

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Swiss Winter Sports in 1925

Skijoring on the lake at St Moritz 1925

Although I have been skiing for over 50 years, I don’t have a great sense of it changing much since I first tumbled down a Scottish mountain. OK, we did wear some uncool ski outfits back then, nobody snowboarded and there were a higher proportion of surface lifts. But I don’t remember it being so different. Largely the same resorts and the same vibe in them.

Track back another 50 years, and what was often called ski running involved very long wooden skis, one stick and a pair of stout leather ski boots. And it was by no means the major attraction for people visiting the Alps in winter.

I’ve been reading “Things Seen in Switzerland in Winter”, written by Charles Domville-Fife in 1925. He writes that interest in visiting Switzerland was divided between those for whom it was termed “The Playground of Europe”, and those who went hoping to recover from tubercolosis.

Until 1946 there was no effective medication to treat tubercolosis, a disease that killed as many as one in four people in England in the 19th Century. Swiss mountain air and sunshine achieved a remarkable recovery rate in the clinics that sprung up in hitherto sleepy hamlets like Davos and Arosa in the late nineteenth century. And the therapeutic benefits were enjoyed as much, or even more, in the winter.

St Moritz had also become a popular destination for its winter sun and the many diversions organised in the sophisticated hotels there – the hotelier Badrutt taking a lot of credit for popularising winter holidays in the Engadine. In 1873 for the first time St Moritz recorded more winter visitors than summer ones.

One English visitor to Switzerland in the late nineteenth century was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who stayed in Davos where his wife was recuperating from tuberculosis. Ever impatient to be doing something, he imported some skis from Norway (where skiing had long been a practical means of transport) and became the first person to ski from Davos to Arosa – still a popular back country route. In 1893 he wrote an article in the English press of his experiences and helped popularise what was to diverge from Norwegian ski techniques to become what we now know as the sport of downhill skiing.

Skiing was by no means the only winter sport that became popular in Switzerland. Domville-Fife records that skating was introduced as a winter sport in 1876 (from England), curling (from Scotland) in 1882, tobogganing (from Canada) in 1884, ice hockey (also from Canada) in 1992 and the quaint sport of skijoring (from Scandinavia) in 1906.

In the second half of the nineteenth century Switzerland benefitted from a growing electrified rail system, opening up destinations such as the new sanatoria in Montana and Leysin, and new winter sports destinations like Klosters, Celerina, Grindelwald, Wengen, Murren, Gstaad, Villars, Engelberg and Andermatt. Adelboden later emerged as both a health centre and a ski destination, with the world’s first winter sports holiday package organised by Sir Henry Lunn in 1903. Outside of Switzerland, Chamonix and St Anton – both with rail links – were early adopters of sport skiing, St Anton claiming to have founded the first ski club in 1901.

Skiers demonstrate Telemark, Jump Turn and Christiana in St Moritz 1925

Most of the new winter sports were introduced by the British, but soon became popular with the Swiss and visiting Germans. The opening of the cog railways in winter in Grindelwald, Wengen and Villars are attributed to British requests that they be available outside the summer timetable.

It’s noteworthy that, at this time, British tourists tended to come over only in December and January, and what we now largely associate with the peak winter sports period was left to the locals. Domville-Fife declares that “at nearly all the best known resorts the predominance of British people during Christmas and New Year festivities is usually so great that even the Swiss themselves are scarcely seen. It is during this period and for about five weeks afterwards that a sojourn at any of the winter sports centres becomes one of the most delightful experiences of life”.

Domville-Fife, writing in 1925, doesn’t mention a single ski destination in the canton of Valais, now probably the pre-eminent ski region in the world. Champéry, in the Portes du Soleil did not have its first lift access to the slopes until 1939, Verbier’s first lift arrived in 1946, Saas-Fee a popular summer spa destination did not have road access until 1950 and Zermatt, although it has had the Gornergrat cog railway since 1898, was primarily known as a summer destination for climbers, and did not open the railway to the summit during the winter season until 1941. Only Montana (later Crans-Montana), had adopted skiing by 1925, following the opening of the funicular railway in 1911. However the village was still mostly popular for its sanatoria and, from 1906, for golfing.

Skijoring, meanwhile, has its adherents but has achieved only a limited popularity. Although my Swiss mother-in-law recalls skiing to school on skis, I don’t think it looks anything like this today at Aiglon College!

Switzerland - school in the sun 1925.
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Avalanche Risk Mitigation

The Swiss Institute for Snow & Avalanche Research (SLF) recorded 27 deaths from Avalanches in the winter season 2021/22 up to the end of March, double the number for the previous year and the moving average over the last 20 years. All the victims were winter sports enthusiasts on unsecured terrain – 11 back country and 16 off-piste – and a quarter were in the Verbier area.

Why do skiers and snowboarders get killed by avalanches, I have often been asked. Can’t they just ski out of the path of the snow slide?

Simply put, it is almost impossible to out-run an avalanche. A skier normally travels around 30km/hr, whilst an avalanche can exceed 100km/hr, faster than all but the fastest skier can travel in perfect conditions. Additionally a skier may not be aware that an avalanche has formed until it is upon them, as they can begin with little warning and an almost imperceptible change in the condition of the snow. Then, very rapidly, the force of the product of the mass and acceleration of the slab of snow is capable of knocking over anything in its way.

Just like a flood of water, it is possible to “float” on an avalanche by wearing and deploying an avalanche airbag. Without one, however, you will almost certainly be swept under. It is sometimes possible to “swim” through an avalanche, but swimming in an avalanche is not a skill the average victim will have.

An avalanche typically contains many hundreds or thousands of cubic metres of snow, and the snow consistency is often heavy once it settles. One cubic metre can weigh 500kg, so if you are under an avalanche that has settled you cannot normally lift yourself out of the snow. You would need to dig your way out, and that could well be through a substantial layer of snow. It may not even be clear which way is up. Your best chance of survival is that someone else is able to dig you out – assuming they know where to dig.

Even if a skier is conscious and knows which way is up when they have found themselves under an avalanche, the snow will likely encase them such that they are unable to move. The air pocket around their face will be unable to sustain them for more than a short period, perhaps a few minutes. 85% of avalanche deaths are due to asphyxiation.

The impact of the avalanche may well have made the skier unconscious or caused serious injury. In 15% of avalanche fatalities trauma is a factor. Avalanches often include debris such as trees and rocks, and in turn may sweep a skier on to rocks or other hard objects.

If a victim of an avalanche is not killed by the impact and is dug out within 5 minutes there is a 90% chance of survival. If they have been able to create a large enough air pocket a survival time of an hour is possible but is rare.

I have talked in an earlier article about how important it is to have some form of beacon, such as a RECCO reflector, in ski gear to improve the chances of being found. If you do survive an avalanche, it is likely because of some one else’s preparedness.


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