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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Recent Ski Fatalities

A Copper Mountain Ski Patrolman, right, along with an unidentified skier, pull an injured skier up a small hill on a patrol sled on the ride down to the St. Anthony Copper Mountain Clinic at the base of the mountain Friday, March 1st, 2013.

Young ski instructors drinking outside Le White Pub as snow fell at the upmarket resort of Flaine this week were united in the condemnation of the “cult of speed”.

So reports the Times, from behind a paywall, on the reaction to recent deaths resulting from ski collisions.

Already this month there have been two high profile fatalities in the French Alps. A five-year-old British girl was killed in a what an eye witness described as a ‘high-speed’ collision whilst in ski school on a blue run above Flaine. And a famous French actor, Gaspard Ulliel, died when he collided with another skier at La Rosière.

So is skiing an inherently dangerous sport?

For many people, a lot of the pleasure of snow sports is pushing personal limits. However, this is not a solo sport. There is a duty of care to other people. I have too often seen people on the slopes who do not seem to moderate their speed sufficiently on crowded slopes. What are the guidelines?

The FIS has set explicit rules on ski slope behaviour.

They begin by stating that “a ski­er or snow­board­er must be­have in such a way that he or she does not en­dan­ger or prej­u­dice others”. The rules go on to say that ev­ery ski­er or snow­board­er must be in con­trol. “He or she must adapt the speed and man­n­er of ski­ing or snow­board­ing to his or her per­so­n­al abil­i­ty and to the pre­vail­ing con­di­tions of ter­rain, snow and weather as well as to the den­si­ty of traff­ic. ” Pretty explicit.

However I’ve had people tell me that ski accidents “just happen”, that they are a part of the sport. I disagree. I think a lot of skiers and snowboarders go as fast as the best conditions they can expect allow. And then the unexpected happens. There’s an icy patch. A skier ahead takes an unexpected line. A misjudged manoeuvre is taken at the limit of the skier’s competence. The decision to push your limits is a choice you can make, but not if you are sucking a stranger into sharing the consequences.

And the more people on the slopes, the higher the likelihood of a misjudgement impacting other people. I often ski at off-peak times. There is nothing more enjoyable than hurtling down a pristine slope as soon as the lifts open, with an empty piste ahead of you. But on a busy spring afternoon, I am often aghast as I see someone weave through a crowded throng of mixed ability adults and children as if there was nobody else about.

The FIS rules make clear the responsibility of the uphill skier or snowboarder to people downhill of them. “A ski­er or snow­board­er may over­take another ski­er or snow­board­er above or be­low and to the right or to the left pro­vid­ed that he or she leaves enough space for the over­tak­en ski­er or snow­board­er to make any vol­un­tary or in­vol­un­tary move­ment. ” An overtaking skier should always allow for the downhill skier to do the unexpected.

To be able to ski fast on crowded slopes, some skiers choose a narrow line along the edge of the piste. I wonder if that was the circumstances of the little girl’s death? By all accounts the skier was very experienced, a local volunteer fireman. The little girl was possibly nervous about making a turn and the uphill skier may have already anticipated where he expected her to turn. I can only conjecture. But I have no doubt it was completely avoidable.

The importance of personal responsibility towards downhill skiers and snowboarders is emphasised by the FIS: ” A ski­er or snow­board­er com­ing from be­hind must choose his or her route in such a way not to en­dan­ger skiers or snow­board­ers ahead “. In other words, when you overtake you need to have evaluated the situation such that you can eliminate the likelihood of collision and are sufficiently in control to complete the manoeuvre safely.

I can’t count the number of times I have seen people approach lift queues too fast and crash into the queue. Why does it happen? Usually from a failure to appreciate that the snow conditions near a lift may be different from the snow conditions on the slope above. And approaching a bunch of people far too fast.

Other FIS rules requires skiers and snow­board­ers to re­spect all signs and mark­ings, en­ter­ or cross a marked run carefully, look behind before setting off and avoid stopping on narrow places or where there is restricted visibility. I see these rules broken all the time. I remember well my four year old daughter getting wiped out, fortunately without harm, by a skier who thought a no entry sign didn’t apply to him.

Because skiing is a sport that only requires an investment of money to participate in it, there is little opportunity to ensure there is a common understanding of the “rules of the game” or how they should be interpreted. Should they be better publicised and policed. I like that rules are not enforced in a heavy-handed way, but don’t the resorts carry a responsibility to ensure their patrons ski safely?

The Times makes some observations on addressing the dangers of the ski slopes:

There are now calls for more speed cameras and “traffic lights” to be installed on busy slopes, with complaints that high-capacity ski lifts and the construction of holiday accommodation has led to dangerous overcrowding on some pistes.

Should there be speed cameras and traffic lights? I am not so sure about speed cameras. My preference would be to have more “slow slopes” and informal controls, such as have ski instructors remind speed merchants to moderate their speed. I remember when I skied in Vail they had barriers with a spotter behind them encouraging people to slow down. That seemed to strike a reasonable balance.

Traffic lights could either be at the top of a slope or at the lifts, the latter being the most practical, even if it is somewhat of a blunt instrument. Limiting the number of ski passes issued at times of high demand would be unpopular, but effective at reducing crowds on the slopes.

There are times when some ski slopes are simply too busy to accommodate the volume of people on them, especially given the level of indiscipline and excessive speed of some skiers and snowboarders. If resorts choose to allow skiers and snowboarders to have passes issued in such number that the risk of injury in the prevailing conditions is greater, I think they carry responsibility for mitigating the consequences.

The skier who killed the little girl has now been charged with her manslaughter. I do ask myself whether the resort shares some culpability by not doing enough to create a safe environment. Is it to be considered part of the sport that excessive speed around children is acceptable?

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Val Müstair

(c) Aline Oertli

In the extreme East of Switzerland lies the astonishingly beautiful Romansch-speaking Müstair valley, and within it the Minschuns ski slopes. Although the area is small it has affordable lift passes, queue-free lifts, uncrowded runs, family-friendly facilities and good options for going off-piste and ski touring. The population of the valley is around 1600, with the most significant villages being Müstair, Tschierv and Santa Maria.

Winter Sports
Minschuns
The Minschuns ski area is about 5km outside Tschierv, and 16km from Müstair. The valley lift station is at Era Sot where there is also free parking and a bus stop, “Tschierv, Talstation Minschuns”.
The planned opening and closing dates for the ski area in 2021/22 are Saturday, December 18, 2021 and Sunday, March 20, 2022.
The heart of the ski area is Alp da Munt at 2150m where the surface lift from the valley station terminates and where there is a beginners area serviced by a short surface lift. A longer surface lift connects Alp da Munt to the summit of Minschuns, from where a blue run descends to the runs served by the surface lift at Fantauna da S-charf. In total there are 10 pistes totalling 25km between 1,670m and 2,700m. 3km are rated black, 5km are rated red and 17km are rated blue. Additionally there are off-piste opportunities, and a trail from Minschuns all the way to Tschierv, snow conditions permitting.
There are 4km of cross-country at 2,180m, a winter hiking trail and a toboggan run.
An avalanche training centre is located at Alp da Munt.
An 8 man gondola is currently proposed between Tschierv and Alp da Munt.

Müstair and Tschierv
There are rinks in both villages for ice skating and ice hockey. It is also possible to play curling on the rink in Tschierv.

Getting There
By car: Landquart – Klosters – Vereina car transport – Zernez – Ofenpass.

By Public Transport
There are SBB train connections to Landquart, from where you take a Rhaetian Railway train to Zernez and then a Postbus. The SBB operate a door-to-door luggage service.

Mobility in the Valley
From the winter season 2021/22, guests can now use all public transport in the Münstertal from Buffalora to Müstair free of charge.
There is an hourly Postbus with a route between Zernez, Tschierv, Sta. Maria and Müstair. Less frequently a Postbus runs between Fuldera and Lü.
A free ski bus runs through the valley to the Era Sot ski lift valley station.
New to the valley is a BMW i3 rental electric car in Tschierv. For electric vehicles there are 8 charging points in 3 locations.

Accommodation
In Müstair there are the some well-regarded hotels: the historic Chasa de Capol, Wellnesshotel Liun, Hotel Münsterhof and Hotel Helvetia. In Sta. Maria there is the three star Hotel Schweizerhof and a youth hostel, whilst in Tschierv there is the Hotel al Rom. There are also various bed & breakfast establishments, self-catering apartments, farms offering accommodation and bunk houses in the valley.

Activities
In the ski area, there are two mountain restaurants, Alp da Munt and Alp Champatsch, as well as the Aunta snow bar. Restaurants throughout the valley provide regional specialities.
The smallest whiskey bar in the world, with an associated museum, can be found at the High Glen Distillery in Sta. Maria. The Antica Distilleria Beretta in Tschierv is also open for tastings and visits.
A guided tour is available through the UNESCO World Heritage St. Johann Monastery, Müstair. There is also the 17th Century Muglin Mall Flour Mill, the Tessandra hand weaving mill and the Chasa Jaura Valley Museum in Sta. Maria. Factory tours can be made of the pine joinery at Fuldera. At Buffalora there is an ancient Ore Mine (only visitable with a guide during the summer months).
The regional nature park that was established in Val Müstair in 2011 together with the Swiss National Park and parts of the municipality of Scuol, forms the first high alpine UNESCO biosphere reserve in Switzerland. Certified organic products from the reserve can be purchased at the producers and in all village shops.

Events
The Epiphany race (Dreikönigsrennen) for snowshoe runners and touring skiers takes place on 5th January 2022.
The Ortler Alpine School runs six day ski tours in the valley throughout the season: www.alpinschule-ortler.com/en/winter-tours-courses/offer-weeks-ski-touring-weeks/

Further information
Tourist Office: www.val-muestair.ch
Operating times of the ski lifts, mountain restaurant and bar Aunta, webcams, weather and snow reports: www.minschuns.ch
Ski and snowboard school Val Müstair: www.minschuns.ch / email: sdsvm@bluewin.ch
High alpine ski tours: www.val-muestair.ch/skitouren
Avalanche Training Centre: www.val-muestair.ch/de/avalanche-training-center
Cross-country skiing center Fuldera & snowshoe tours: www.aventueras.ch


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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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