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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Saas-Fee compared to Zermatt

Nicholas Oatridge at Saas-Fee
Nic Oatridge skiing Saas-Fee.

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.

Skiers above the Morenia middle station

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.

Looking down in November on the ski resort of Saas-Fee

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 slopes below the Allalin top station in Saastal.

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.

Skiers and snowboarders exit the undeground train at Allalin.

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.

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Snow’n’Rail

SBB Train

The Swiss Railways provide an excellent discount deal for skiers, called Snow’n’Rail, which typically discounts the price of a rail ticket to a ski resort by 20% and the lift pass by 10%. it is available online or at Swiss Railway stations.

The new schedule for 2020/21 is out, and it is always interesting to see which new resorts have been added and which have fallen off the scheme. Sadly there have been some substantial losses this year – Zermatt, Saas-Fee, Gstaad Mountain Rides and the Vaud resorts (Leysin, les Diablerets and Villars-Gryon).

That still leaves a number of outstanding destinations such as Engelberg, Andermatt, Davos, St Moritz, Wengen, Portes du Soleil and Verbier, amongst others.

The brochure available at railway stations is thin on details this year, relying on you to see what is available at the Swiss Railways web site. Where routes include buses or cableways, these are also included in the offer. Swiss Railways also offer discounts on a number of other rail and winter sports combinations, such as tobogganing, snowshoe walking and cross-country skiing.

The Austrian Railways, ÖBB, offer a similar scheme which includes world class resorts like St Anton and Kitzbühel. They also run overnight services from Amsterdam, Hamburg and Düsseldorf to the ski resorts and a shuttle to Kitzbühel from Munich.

A full list of Alpine resorts which have a railway station is at the Snow and Rail web site. Daniel Elkan at SnowCarbon can assist people wanting to get to the Alps from the UK by train, offering a wider selection of resorts where the last leg might require a bus or taxi transfer.

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Covid-19 impact on Skiing and Snowboarding

Verbier has one run open.

Most Alpine resorts are holding fire on when, and whether, to begin the 2020/21 ski season. Currently the only ski resorts with unrestricted public access are in Switzerland, but most resorts still seem to be planning to open in December.

Ski instructor at Zermatt

There is no consensus on which measures ski resorts should take to avoid the outbreaks that occurred last season, but it is likely that it will be local Covid-19 regulations that dictate the viability of ski resort openings and operation and – critically – the ability of people from outside the area to be allowed to visit. Unfortunately the promising trials of vaccines to prevent Covid-19 look to arrive too late to impact on the 2020/21 season – indeed they might embolden some authorities to increase restrictions in the short-term. At this time it is not altogether certain that the authorities won’t order ski resorts to close if they are seen to be responsible again for spreading the virus.

So what is the situation in Switzerland? I have been in the country for some weeks now, and have visited Zermatt both before and after a local lockdown was introduced, and Verbier afterwards. This what I learned.

Covid-19 safeguards in Verbier

The rate of infection with Covid-19 in Switzerland is the highest of the Alpine nations, and higher than that of most countries where visitors to Switzerland come from. As a result Switzerland decided to dump their quarantine requirements for visitors from most countries, including the UK. Most cantons had not previously imposed stringent lockdowns, but that has since changed.

The canton of Valais in Switzerland is home to some of the world’s leading ski resorts, including Saas-Fee, Zermatt and Verbier. These resorts, alongside Engelberg and Glacier3000, have begun their winter season, albeit only for selected runs above the snowline.

The recent good weather means the snowline may recede in the next week or so, which could jeopardise Verbier’s limited opening – less so those resorts with runs on the glaciers. However the resorts suffered a bigger blow when the Valais cantonal authorities declared – in the face of accelerating Covid-19 infections – that all restaurants and bars, including those in the mountains, must shut from 10pm on 6th November. Hotels, however, may remain open for business.

Cable Car Station in Zermatt
Cable car to Furi from Zermatt

Before the lockdown Zermatt had already required customers to wear a mask on all lifts, including T-bars, and inside all facilities except when sitting down to eat or drink. It seemed to be working and was enforced, although some people seemed to think that as long as the mask covered their mouth, they were adhering to the requirements. Social distancing was not followed in settings where people were wearing a mask, and the lifts were all working with pre-Covid capacities in place. in the summer I had seen that some resorts, such as Champéry, restricted numbers on lifts – but this does not seem to be the case for the winter season.

Lift queue at Verbier
Lac des Vaux chairlift, Verbier

Verbier seemed to be operating along broadly similar lines. On the Lac des Vaux chairlift the staff were insisting suitable face coverings were used, handing out disposable masks to people who were deemed to be wearing unsuitable coverings, such as a scarf. There was no attempt to apply social distancing on the lifts, although the 1.5m rule seemed to apply in other indoor settings.

Eating at Trockener Steg under the Matterhorn

Mountain restaurants on the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise ( 3883m ) and at Trockener Steg ( 2939m ) were open until the lockdown and following reasonably effective-looking controls. The border with Italy was closed so it was not possible to visit the wonderful Chalet Etoile, and it will be a concern for many visitors to Zermatt if the world-famous mountain restaurants are not open in peak season.

Mountain restaurant at Attelas following contanonal covid restrictions

By the time I got to Verbier (where I stayed at the excellent Hotel Bristol), lockdown was in effect and the mountain restaurants only provided a fairly basic take-away menu. They had also removed all of the access to seating inside or outside. With the fine weather that wasn’t too much of a problem.

Lunch break at Attelas, Verbier

Being early season most bars and restaurants are not yet ordinarily open in either Zermatt or Verbier. Some hotels and restaurants that have opened early are providing take-away menus, and can still provide restaurant facilities to residents if they have a restaurant on site. There is a kebab takeaway in Zermatt, which when I visited had run out of kebab, and a good takeaway just off the roundabout in Verbier, which also serves beer.

One of the most popular bars in Zermatt is Papperla, and it was open for business when I was there, albeit with severe restrictions on numbers. At 10pm it was due to close for the duration of the lockdown. I turned up at 9pm but wasn’t allowed in because of restrictions on numbers. However Yves, a genial skier from Lausanne on an outing with his football team, invited me to join his party on the deck. As we all downed Jager bombs, I asked him what he would be doing for après ski now. “We have some beers from the Spar and will party in our hotel rooms”, he said, “Do you want to come?”. I declined.

Papperla bar, Zermatt

As Yves and his friends were shooed from the bar I asked Charlotte, who works as a barmaid at Papperla, what would happen to her now. She shrugged. “I guess I get to ski more”.

Less sanguine was Isabelle from the Hotel Adonis where I was staying in Zermatt. She glumly told me that 80% of the guests due to stay for the weekend had cancelled once the new Valais restrictions were announced. “Do you think everything will be back to normal by next summer?”, she asked, hopefully.

It strikes me that the Swiss resorts are gambling that the measures that the authorities have taken will allow them to exit lockdown before the ski season gets going in earnest, and that the measures they have taken within the resorts will avoid them from once again being centres of the spread of infection. Only time will tell.

La Tzoumaz
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