Lenzerheide and Arosa link up

It has been mooted for some years. What has been a famous off-piste tour has finally become something for everyone. From December what some claim is the largest linked ski resort in Graubünden will open with a gondola running between Arosa and Lenzerheide. The only real downside is that you have to take the gondola in both directions – you cannot ski on piste between the two resorts, although there is an off-piste itinerary you can take. Maybe one of these days it will be marked and patrolled.

The combined area will have 225 km of groomed pistes, a 50 km freeride area, a snow park and 42 lifts up to altitudes of 2865 metres.
New Arosa Lenzerheide Ski Area

You can click on the map to get a better idea of the terrain, with a full-size piste map available from either the Lenzerheide or Arosa pages at SwissWinterSports.co.uk.

I’ve always loved Lenzerheide, but by public transport you need to take a bus – not the end of the world, but it is always nice to let the train take the strain. Conversely, much though I like Arosa with its spectacular railway link, the ski area itself has always felt a little limited. For some time the gemeinde in Lenzerheide had opposed the link but they have recanted and now this new super-resort is a reality.

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Easter Skiing in Surselva

Nic eating lunch in Vella, Obersaxen
Easter is early this year, and we are seeing one of the colder starts to Spring for some time, so winter sports buffs are in for a treat these next few weeks. Huge dumps of snow fell over the Alps in mid-March, so many resorts still have as much as half a metre of snow on the lower runs and three or more metres at the top.

There are exceptions, though, and South-facing resorts this time of year don’t really stand a chance. Skilful management of the pistes at the lower, South-facing resorts that want to catch the Easter business means you see those ribbons of snow passing through meadows that are starting to come alive, and lower runs that can be icy in the morning, heavy in the afternoon and with large bare patches everywhere. In warmer springs this is also true of the North-facing slopes even in the middling height resorts, leaving only a handful of high resorts able to deliver good general conditions. Not this year though!
Lunch in Val Lumnezia

The collection of villages known as Obersaxen on a plateau above the upper Rhine in Graubünden was my destination of choice for Easter. This little-known ski area is one of the best small resorts in the Alps. And by small, I mean little-known and with relatively few amenities, because the resort claims an impressive 120km of piste making it larger than many better known resorts. The runs are mostly above 1600m and North-facing, so even for a late Easter this area should have plenty to offer, but with current conditions, it is near perfect.

Getting to Obersaxen is relatively easy. A train runs from Chur to Disentis through the Rhine Gorge and stops at Ilanz, reputedly the first city on the Rhine and located in the heart of mainly Romansh-speaking Surselva. In fairness Ilanz is really a small, sleepy town, but is in the heart of a wonderful winter sports area with the slopes of Obersaxen, Brigels, Flims and Laax and the ski’n’spa town of Vals served by direct Postbuses. There are also plenty of opportunities for winter walks around Ilanz itself and numerous Nordic ski areas on the surrounding plateaux.
The bus to Obersaxen starts right outside Ilanz station. Like all the rest of the buses, they are timed to fit in with the train timetable, so you shouldn’t hang around unless you want to wait another hour. The road up to Obersaxen has impressive views and awesome hairpin corners with nothing but snow posts separating the road from huge drop-offs. I always remind myself at this point that there has never been a fatality on a Postbus – or is this an urban myth? The best bus stop for Obersaxen’s lift system is Meierhof Talstation, but not all buses stop there. Returning back to Ilanz, the last one this season was at 3.42pm, although it is only a 3 minute walk into Meierhof village to pick up the more regular buses at the Post stop. Many skiers choose to get off at Surcuolm and ski down to the Valata chairlift and at the end of the day walk down from the bottom run at Valata to the Valata bus stop.

There are at least half a dozen valley stations in the Obsersaxen ski area, but not all are served by bus – and two are only served by bus, with no lift back up. it sounds like a limitation, but it isn’t. I don’t see much purpose in skiing or snowboarding the long valley runs down to Lumbrein and Vignogn in Val Lumnezia, which don’t have lifts back up, unless you are staying there, when you have a comparable run to Vella, which is lift served (and has a bus stop on the route to Vrin).
Looking from Piz Sesner towards Val Lumnezia
Obersaxen’s main claim to fame is that this is where the Olympic champion skier Carlo Janka comes from and where he learnt to ski. He had a pretty impressive place to learn. Above Obersaxen the ski area is dominated by four peaks, with most runs on the North-facing Obersaxen side. There are also the long valley runs on the South side of Val Lumnezia, a beautiful valley where Romansh is still the first language. The resort has chairlifts to get you to most pistes, and you could avoid using surface lifts altogether without missing out on anything, although some of the runs linking different parts of the resort are a little flat in places.

There is a wonderful variety of runs in the resort and some outstanding off-piste, especially either side of the Piz Sezner chairlift. With most of the 120km of pistes above 1500m and North-facing, and the four top stations at Piz Mundaun (2064m), Hitzeggen (2112m), Stein (2170m) and Piz Sezner (2310m) all above 2000m, the snow record is good, but there are plenty of snow cannons too.
Above the Upper Rhine valley in Obersaxen
The claim of 120km of piste deserves some scrutiny. That makes this resort comparable in size, in theory, to St Anton, Wengen and Andermatt. I certainly think there is plenty to ski or snowboard for a day, a weekend or even a week, and the terrain is large and varied. Although some of the mileage is long valley runs and connecting trails between pistes, the claim does seem to stand up, especially when you consider the amount of lift-served off-piste and off-piste areas accessible with only a short walk from a lift station. There is a good balance of runs too, with some black runs, a good selection of reds and sufficient blues for this to fine for beginners and early intermediates.

And no queues! I was visiting over the Easter holiday, with some of the best ski conditions we have had over Easter for some years and beautiful blue skies to boot, but even at the Piz Sezner lift, with access to the best and highest pistes, there was never a wait to get on a lift.

Not a lot in the way of nightlife as far as I can tell, but the mountain bars and restaurants that I visited all impressed me.

All round, a very pleasant resort.

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Graubünden turns back on Olympics

Voters in Graubünden have vetoed bidding for the winter Olympics in 2022, due to have been centred on the towns of St Moritz and Davos. A slim majority of voters, 52.7 per cent, rejected a proposal to set aside CHF300 million for the organisation of the games, despite the two main towns coming out in favour.
Swiss Olympic Bid rejected
Switzerland has held the winter Olympics twice before, in St Moritz in 1928 and 1948.

Backers of the 2022 bid said it would be sustainable, lead to extra funding for the transport infrastructure, create jobs and boost tourism.

Opponents were largely worried about the cost and environmental concerns, and there was some suspicion of the IOC itself (based in Lausanne).

According to the budget forecast the operational costs for the games would have been CHF2.5 billion, while income would have been CHF1.5 billion, with the deficit covered by a government contribution.

However losses recorded by previous games clearly influenced voters. A study from the University of Oxford claimed that since 1960 the cost of hosting the Olympics was on average 179 per cent higher than the initial budget.

With Switzerland struggling to retain market share in the winter sports market, the decision not to host the games will do little to arrest the decline, but clearly local concerns in what is an intensely conservative canton were not adequately addressed by the organising Graubünden 2022 committee.

The committee said in a statement: “The association of Graubünden 2022 regrets this decision, which will finish the pioneering large-scale project for tourism, business and sports in Graubünden. For Graubünden 2022, the vote of the electorate is a great disappointment. The board of the association will soon decide on the way forward, but the project was stopped with today’s referendum in Graubünden.”

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Breil / Brigels

I decided to check out the skiing in Brigels in the Surselva region of Graubünden. It is not the easiest resort to get to from Basel for a day out and it is not covered by the Swiss Railways Snow’n’Rail scheme. However it looks good on paper, has 75 km of piste between 1100m and 2418m and seems to get good reports.

Alp Dado, Brigels - Waltensburg - Andiast
Restaurant at Alp Dado

My first mistake was not to research my trip enough. There seemed to be base stations at Breil/Brigels, Waltensburg/Vuorz and Andiast. There were also stations along the route of the Rhine at the former two, and since Waltensburg/Vuorz was the first of these, that was my chosen destination. I had already read somewhere that there was a ski bus, so it all sounded a piece of cake.

The trip was beguilingly easy, and the trip up the Rhine valley was fascinating. At Ilanz, often called the first town on the Rhine, a lot of people got off, presumably for Obersaxen and Laax, and there was a bevy of buses waiting for them.

Anyway as I prepared to hear Waltensburg/Vuorz called as the next stop, I also heard it was a request stop, so I requested it. I should have been suspicious, and as I alighted and tried to take in stock of where I was, I both realised something was not right and saw the train was moving on.

Sure enough, the station is just a stop in the middle of nowhere. Nothing nearby at all, except a track, and along the track I came across the main road up the Rhine Valley and a sign pointing up a steep, narrow trail through the trees that informed me the nearest bus stop was in Waltensburg/Vuorz, 45 minutes walk away. Anyway suffice it to say the 400m ascent, 3km walk with skis was not a dirt track all the way, only the steepest first half. And the chairlift was right at the top of what was a long, sleepy village.
Skiers and Snowboarders in Brigels take in the view
Romansh is spoken in this part of the world, and all the signs are in Romansh. The language is lovely, and later on in the day I had a beer in a bar full of locals and was enchanted by their conversation in this ancient and sadly declining tongue. Once you get to the lifts though, the overwhelming speech is in Swiss German. This why all the villages seem to have two names – Waltensburg is German, Vuorz is Romansh; Breil is Romansh, Brigels is German.

Anyway, after my initial errors I was finally on the lifts and I rather liked this resort. The 75km of terrain might be a little of an exaggeration as many of the runs cover the same part of the same mountain and I wasn’t going to risk the run to Andiast seeing how infrequent the buses back to Vuorz were.

Basically the resort is one mountain with two base stations (Plaun Reuen at Brigels, and Curtiginet at Vuorz) with chairlifts bringing you up to two mid stations (the wonderfully named Cresta Falla and Alp Dado), then a further two chairlifts from these taking you up to the top stations (La Cauma and Fil). The higher topstation is augmented by a t-bar which gets you all the way up to 2415m. There is another t-bat at Alp Dado, basically supporting the reasonable snow park.

Most of the runs are graded red, but they are light for reds. There are blues and blacks and off-piste. A lot of winter walkers around when I was there, plus people using a toboggan run. There’s a couple of mountain restaurants, bars at the bottom and top and amenities in Brigels.

Leaving the resort I took the courtesy bus to Brigels Post from the base station at Plaun Rueun, but I needn’t have bothered. It is about a 10 minute walk – head towards the church, following a path away from the road and in the village turn left. Simples. The bus is a little irregular, so I ended up in a bar chatting with the people there, German-speakers who very kindly picked up my bar bill, then took the bus when it arrived down to Tavanasa-Breil/Brigels. Brigels like Vuorz and many of the villages round there lie on high terraces above the Rhine. I don’t know that should be, but they are consequently sunny and have wonderful views. Tavanasa is a long way down from Brigels, so I am glad to have avoided that walk. Again, there was time to kill in Tavanasa so there I had another beer, and this bar was full of my Romansh speakers.

Spring skiing is back. In the glorious sunshine, the south facing slopes were started to suffer already, and in the afternoon the lower slopes had bare patches and heavy snow. Off-piste was generally not particularly enjoyable, as it has been the last few weeks. my next few trips will likely need to start hitting the higher resorts unless the cold weather comes back. The ice hockey season is running down and the end of the winter season has suddenly looked all too close.

More information on Brigels is at the Swiss Winter Sports web site in English and Dutch.

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