Feldberg in the Black Forest

Although some of the best skiing in the world is only a couple of hours away from Basel it is possible to ski and snowboard much closer. In the Jura, in Basel-land, there is a small ski area called Langenbruck, with a couple of surface lifts and some short, gentle runs. It is accessible by public transport, but is easier to reach by car. However it is low and currently closed because of the unseasonably warm winter. The nearest resort of any size still open is Feldberg in the Black Forest.

Feldberg )resort website is here) is comparable to many of the smaller Alpine resorts in scale, although with pistes between 1448 and 945m it is quite low. Despite the altitude, however, the pistes have held up better than many higher resorts this season. There are fourteen runs – 3 black, 7 red and 4 blue – comprising around 25km of piste spread over two sides of a valley. The runs on the North-facing side of the valley, off the Grafenmatt, are mostly through the trees and are largely suitable for intermediate skiers. The runs on the South-facing side of the valley, on Seebuck, only loosely connect to the runs across the road via a ski bridge, but the area is better for beginners with a wide, gentle blue run and red runs that really should be graded blue and a good funpark all accessible by an excellent six person chair lift. On Grafenmatt it is almost impossible to escape using surface lifts, of which there are nine in the resort, although there is a modern four-seater chairlift with over 400m vertical ascent providing access to some fine red and black runs, a free ride area and a 3km-long, very challenging blue run. The combined lift capacity of the resort is 24,000 people an hour, so queues are generally short even at busy periods. Around 5km of the pistes have snow cannon cover.

Needless to say, Feldberg is popular with weekend skiers and parking can be challenging unless you arrive early. Interestingly enough Feldberg is also popular with many skiers and snowboarders from Belgium, Holland and North Germany, for whom it is an easier trip than the Alps.

The run from Basel by car is just over an hour, driving north on the B317 from Lörrach up through the delightful Wiesental, and from Freiburg it is three-quarters of an hour (via Titisee). By public transport the trip is under 2 hours from Basel (via Freiburg) and around an hour from Freiburg with regular buses on routes 9007 and 7300 from the nearby railway station at Feldberg-Bärental.

Although small, low, busy and with too many surface lifts, Feldberg is actually a delightful little resort, and highly affordable. A day pass is a reasonable 27 Euros and prices for kit hire, lessons, meals and refreshments are very competitive and there is plenty of choice. There are also number of smaller resorts in the area, including a pleasant area served by a surface lift at Altglashütten, and one served by a gondola at Belchen. All of the resort runs, public transport and a range of other amenities are available free with the “Hochschwarzwald-Card”, which is itself provided gratis for guests in local hotels (depending on length of stay). The area is good for walking and there are a number of cross-country ski circuits, an outstanding all-season water park at Titisee and various other off-piste diversions throughout the “Hochschwarzwald” area.

The standard of accommodation in the hotels and guesthouses in the Black Forest is consistently high. For families the Feldberger Hof  is supremely convenient for the slopes and has superb childcare facilities.  For the more budget-conscious I recommend the excellent family-run Landhotel Sonneck in nearby Altglashütten, a delightful village with rail connections to Titisee and a bus service to Feldberg, as well as having a small ski area in the village.

A full resort report is located at the Swiss Winter Sports web site, with a version in Dutch here.

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Winter Tourism in Switzerland

Tourism in Switzerland stretches back to the early 19th century, when the once forbidding mountains of the Alps became seen as embodiments of a natural order and attracted literary figures from Europe and the Americas. Byron, Shelley, Dickens, Conan Doyle, Twain and many others found beauty and majesty in the landscape, and after them came those who would conquer the mountains, enjoy the summer scenery or recuperate in one of the Alpine spa towns. One enterprising St Moritz hotelier wagered some English summer tourists that they would enjoy the winter too, and they did, and sparked an increasing interest in winter tourism amongst the well heeled English middle classes. In adapting Nordic ski techniques, organizing competitions and convincing the railway companies to keep their cog railways running through the winter months, the English laid the foundations of the modern winter sports industry, although the Swiss also proved to be enterprising and extremely capable hosts.  Davos, St Moritz, Arosa, Leysin, Adelboden and the Jungfrau region were by the turn of the twentieth century well-established destinations for winter tourists.

Switzerland has the longest established and one of the most successful winter tourism industries in the world. It is also meticulously documented, and in July the review of the 2009 year in tourism, “Schweizer Tourismus in Zahlen”, was published by the STV, Switzerland’s Tourism Federation.

Tourism accounts for around 5% of Swiss export revenue, around 15 billion Swiss Francs in 2009. During the 2008-9 winter season, of a total 15.8 million overnight stays in the country, roughly 6.9 million were by Swiss, 2.8 million were by Germans, 1 million by people from the UK, 0.7m by French and half a million each by Americans, Dutch and Italians. Belgians, Russians and Nordics also spend more than a quarter of a million nights in the country.

Although overall more visitors come to Switzerland in the summer than the winter, the British come more in the winter. The most popular destinations throughout the year were (in order of number of overnight stays in hotels):

  1. Zurich (11871 beds)
  2. Geneva (10230 beds)
  3. Zermatt (6040 beds)
  4. Lucerne (5577 beds)
  5. Basel (5662 beds)
  6. Davos (5334 beds)
  7. St. Moritz (4196 beds)
  8. Lausanne (3869 beds)
  9. Bern (3516 beds)
  10. Interlaken (3084 beds)
  11. Lugano (2889 beds)
  12. Grindelwald (2949 beds)
  13. Arosa (2867 beds)

It is indicative of how important the tourist industry is that Zermatt attracts more visitors than Basel, a major international centre for exhibitions and the pharmaceutical industry, and Davos and St Moritz more than the capital, Bern.

The destinations which achieved the Families Welcome designation for  2009–2012 were: Diemtigtal, Haslital with Hasliberg and Meiringen, Lenk Simmental, Arosa, Brigels, Davos Klosters, Flims, Laax, Falera, Trin, Sagogn, Lenzerheide, Maloja, Savognin, Schwarzsee, Braunwald-Klausenpass, Toggenburg, Triesenberg Malbun Steg, Villars with Gryon, Bex, Aletsch Arena with Bettmeralp, Fiesch, Eggishorn and Riederalp Mörel, Bellwald, Crans-Montana, Grächen, Leukerbad, Nendaz, Saas-Fee/Saastal and Engelberg-Titlis.

The corresponding award for wellness resorts went to Bad Zurzach, Charmey, Scuol, Gstaad Saanenland , Leukerbad, Baden, and Weggis Vitznau Rigi.

The proportion of pistes with snow-making in 2008-9 made up over a third of the total, a trebling in only 5 years and a demonstration of how much the Swiss are increasingly investing in their winter sports infrastructure. Total skier days for the season numbered almost 35 million.

Around 180 Swiss ski and snowboard schools provided over 2 million lessons over the course of the season, Graubünden and Valais making up roughly two thirds of this number.

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Freeriding Switzerland

Switzerland has some of the best back country skiing and snowboarding in the world. If you’re prepared to don skins or snowshoes and trek beyond the higher lift stations you can enjoy virgin powder snow and spectacular scenery. If you prefer to have your ascents covered by lifts, however, there are still plenty of places where you can make your own tracks and escape the hoi polloi.

Many resorts in Switzerland have unprepared marked trails (denoted in yellow on piste maps) which, whilst ungroomed and unpatrolled are generally safe to use when open. Many slopes, such as those off Mont Fort in the Four Vallées ski area, at Engstligenalp near Adelboden or at Belalp-Betten and are often not even marked but require only modest care to use. There are spectacular off-piste runs from many other resorts which safely weave across and between pistes, although it should not be assumed that because virgin snow is close to a run that it is invariably safe to go there.

Some of the very best, accessible freeriding can be found  off Titlis at Engelberg, off the Gemsstock in Andermatt, off the Wissmeilen from Flumserberg or Pizol, from lenzerheide down to Arosa, above Zermatt and Saas-Fee, Piz Bernina in the Engadin and all around Davos. It should go without saying that all off-piste skiing and snowboarding has risks, and that local knowledge should always be sought before embarking on freeriding.

There is a huge amount of literature in German, and to a lesser extent, French, on skiing and snowboarding backcountry in Switzerland. The only comprehensive text in English is the 1963 translation of Walter Pause’s “Salute the Skier – the hundred best ski runs in the Alps”. I hope to revisit many of the Swiss runs he identified and update the information he provided, but interestingly I have so far found the guide to have dated far less than the colourful prose it employs. The major change is that many runs which required skins at the time are now wholly or largely served by ski lifts.

Beyond simply going off-piste Switzerland provides some of the most spectacular ski mountaineering and ski touring supported by a network of 153 mountain huts managed by the Swiss Alpine Club which provides almost 10,000 high altitude beds throughout the year. Bill O’Connor has published a series of books entitled “Alpine Ski Mountaineering”, available from Amazon, which provide the most authoritative English-language guides on the subject.

An excellent series of Freeride maps, based on the maps of the Swiss Federal Office of Topography, are available from freeride-map.com. Not cheap, but useful since they are in English. Many books are available on freeriding Switzerland, but not in English.

But probably the best way to enjoy backcountry skiing and snowboarding in Switzerland is to do it with somebody who has done it before. The English Forum bulletin board is a good place to seek experienced English-speaking skiers and snowboarders who may be open to having you join them. Also www.pistehors.com. The Ski Club of Great Britain has representatives in eight resorts who will guide members on-piste, and sometimes off-piste for free. Ski guiding from experienced guides does not come cheap, but for a group it works out realtively affordable, and many ski guiding companies organise trips that are open to anyone with the required minimum technical skills. A good place to start is the Swiss Mountain Guide Association who have literally hundreds of members to choose from.  Some other organizations offering ski touring include:

Freeski Guide – West Switzerland

Snow & Rock – Valais

Alpine Ski Touring Holidays

Mountain Tracks

Saastal

Saas-Fee Guides

Mountain Guide Office Saas-Grund

Active Dreams Mountain Guides Weissmies

St Moritz

Suvretta Snowsports

Val D’Annivers

Mountain Reality Bergschule Uri

Verbier

La Fantastique Mountain Guide

Adrenaline

Verbier Sport

Zermatt

Zermatt Alpine Centre

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