Phew! What a season it has been for skiing and snowboarding. I was fortunate to get some good skiing in before Christmas, but in general it has been a dismal season for everyone.
The Swiss lift operators association (Seilbahnen Schweiz/Remontées Mécaniques Suisses) has published its analysis of the season up until the end of March – which for all but a handful of resorts is end of season.
The lift operators report a grim picture. By the end of March, lift usage and turnover in Switzerland had fallen by 24% in total, compared to the 2018/19 winter season. Large resorts, dependent on international visitors, have suffered most, but the closure of bars and restaurants has also deterred local winter sports enthusiasts. Additionally, ski camps and club and business trips have not taken place. Ski lifts in the Prealps and in areas close to towns, which cater more for day tourists, have not done quite as badly. Ticino has actually done quite well compared to 2018/19, but that was a season where the canton suffered from a lack of adequate snow – something that cannot be said of this season, where the snow conditions remain very good in those resorts still open.
On the whole comparison with the 2018/19 season is more meaningful than for 2019/20, because Covid-19 had an impact on the latter part of the 2019/20 season. It was hard to forecast a year ago we would be where we are now, and it is only with some optimism that we can look forward to next year being without some restrictions. None the less, overseas visitors are booking in advance for next season like never before, with many winter tour operators reporting bumper bookings.
The long-term impact on the lift operators is hard to gauge. Despite running at a considerable loss this season, lift operators have seen themselves as providing a public service and largely remained open. If the ski lifts had closed, mountain regions would have faced a shutdown of even more tourist activities, resulting in greater economic damage than has anyway been inflicted. Government support, the lift operators association says, is needed to avoid systemic damage to tourism.
The impact on the whole winter sports infrastructure is devastating. Some businesses will not return, others will cancel plans for expansion or investment. Many resorts were already worried about the long-term impact of climate change, and Covid-19 is hardly likely to positively impact their thinking. Additionally, with ski resorts being amongst the Covid-19 hotspots at the start of the pandemic, the image of winter sports has suffered.
I think the ski industry will recover strongly, although the level of growth will likely be lower than in previous years. From a sustainability perspective and in light of the impact of climate change, that is probably not a bad thing.
The Swiss federal authorities today imposed a new set of restrictions on the country, to run from Tuesday 22nd December for a month. The increasing pressure on hospitals and the unwillingness of some cantons to implement federal recommendations has resulted in the new lockdown, with restaurants and sport facilities due to close. However ski resorts will remain open, uniquely in Europe. The official wording from the federal communique today, 18th December, is as follows:
The cantons remain responsible for ski areas. Strict requirements must be met for ski areas to operate. Ski areas can only remain open if the epidemiological situation allows and there are sufficient capacities in hospitals and for contact tracing and testing. Strict precautionary measures must also be in place and their implementation must be guaranteed. If these requirements are not met, ski areas will not be granted an operating permit.
Zurich had argued for ski resorts to close down, on the basis that injured skiers returning to their home cantons could put an unacceptable pressure on hospitals. Although they didn’t get their way, the federal authorities are clearly signalling that cantons with ski resorts have to have the local capacity to manage ski casualties.
Valais and Vaud notably introduced a lockdown in November and, as a result, seem to have kept the R rate below 1 – unlike many cantons in Schweizerdeutsch-speaking Switzerland. Despite some teething problems, the controls introduced in ski resorts to restrict Covid seem to be working. However I have some reservations as to whether the capacity restrictions are sufficient. I guess it is a trade-off of having longer queues or increased lift capacity. I believe some resorts are planning to restrict the number of ski passes they issue to help control the situation.
The Swiss approach represents a risk especially with high rates of infection in the community. The other Alpine nations are keeping their resorts closed and their governments probably hope the Swiss experiment fails. There has been a lot of opposition to the closures in the annual 34 billion euro winter sports industry, and some businesses may never recover.
However we are still learning about this disease. That ski resorts were epicentres of disease last season is well known – and I have reported on this extensively – but the finger of blame largely pointed towards apres ski activities. It will take a little of the shine off ski and snowboard holidays if you can only eat in your hotel or takeaway and all the bars and clubs are shut, but at least you can still ski and snowboard. And I have had some excellent winter sports holidays where the apres activities were conducted in a family or social unit setting.
I know some people would say I am stretching it, but isn’t there a possibility that winter sports reduce the risk of Covid? I spend a lot more time in the sun when I am skiing, and one of the early indications is that Vitamin D, generated by being in sunlight, protects against the disease.
My only gripe about the new arrangements is that the closure of restaurants last month meant that all the outdoor searing was removed. I hope this will not be the case this time round. People who order take-out pose little risk of spreading the virus if they are allowed to sit down outside to eat. In practice people have found a convenient rock or step or sunny spot to eat their picnic or take-out, but these old bones really appreciate a seat!
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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
With Covid-19 rampant throughout the Alpine nations, the question many people have been asking is: “Will I be able to ski this season?”. The answer is yes – at this time at least – if you are not otherwise prevented from visiting the Alps by Covid restrictions.
I came out to Switzerland from London in October, before lockdown in the UK, and had 10 days of quarantine once I arrived. With online shopping for groceries and family and friends only a click away, isolation passed quickly. Furthermore my confinement was deep in the Swiss Alps, in Aigle in the upper Rhône valley , with the slopes of les Portes du Soleil, Leysin and Villars visible from my windows, and the peaks of les Dents du Midi towering over the valley.
Sadly the season is too early for the most nearby resorts to be open, but there is always skiing on the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, so as soon as I exited quarantine, I was on my way to Zermatt.
In a subsequent post I will focus on the impact of Covid-19, but for now I will concentrate on the skiing. Although there is skiing out of Zermatt all year round, summer skiing is limited and the slopes tend to turn to mush by lunchtime. November heralds the start of the winter season; however the snowline is still too high to allow for much of the resort to be open, with only the area above Trockener Steg at 2939m open on a pretty creditable 26km piste. Most years you would also be able to connect to the slopes in Cervinia, across in Italy, but the border is closed at this time due to Covid-19
But the good news is that the snow above Zermatt is near perfect and the pistes are wonderfully quiet.
Zermatt is an expensive resort, and you might well ask if it is worthwhile when so little is open. Furthermore there is limited off-piste and the available runs are all limited to cruisy reds and blues. I can only offer the opinion that this quality of lift-served skiing, in November, is not available anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere. Zermatt never rests on its laurels and every year there are lift improvements. Even though you need to take three cable cars to get to the highest point, at a dizzying 3883m, you can be skiing a little after 9am with an 8.30am start.
A large proportion of the other skiers are ski instructors, in training for a new season – most of which seems to involve warming up and talking. As a result the slopes are delightfully uncrowded and you can do some runs without seeing another soul the whole way down.
I would have liked to stay in Zermatt longer, but with a lockdown imminent I decided to slip in a day’s skiing in Verbier before returning to Aigle. Verbier opened up for weekend skiing only and has, in effect, only one open run. Whether that was worth skiing, I was about to find out.
What are the ski resorts like at this time of year, before the season fully starts? Ignoring the impact of Covid-19, the resorts are still in effect in off-season mode and most hotels, bars and restaurants are still closed. Those that are open are quiet. Add to that the impact of Covid-19 and the whole experience of skiing in autumn is not what most skiers and snowboarders would recognise as a winter sports vacation. If you are coming primarily to ski and snowboard though, Zermatt definitely gets my vote. But what of Verbier?
Sadly, Verbier fell somewhat short of the experience in Zermatt. The only slope open is the run off Attelas at 2727m down to le Lac des Vaux. It’s a short blue run, with the dogtail of the red run off Chassoure providing a little variety. There’s a number of off-piste runs down to the lake too, but the snow cover is very thin and I wouldn’t recommend them.
When I got to Attelas, having taken one of the first gondolas up, the run was busy but not too crowded. It got more crowded as the day went on and queues developed at the lift back up to Attelas, but the crowds and queues were acceptable. The ski and snowboard set were different from Zermatt, being mostly younger skiers and families on a day trip from nearby towns.
The snow deteriorated through the course of the day and was more like spring skiing than was the case in Zermatt where the base held up throughout the day. The volume of skiers also led to moguls forming on the steeper section of the run.
It’s clearly very early in the season and the snow line is above 2500m on North-facing slopes. If the temperatures start to drop and there is more precipitation, the section above Les Ruinettes will also open, providing a reasonable variety of piste. However the prospect at this time is for warm, sunny days and it might not be before December when Verbier can offer more pistes. If, however, you are in the region and fancy getting a couple of turns in, Verbier is open for business.
A number of other resorts have limited skiing at this time, almost exclusively in Switzerland, including the glaciers on Titlis (Engelberg) and Diablerets (Glacier 3000). However there are only a few kilometres of piste open at these resorts, and the few others that I think will be open for weekend skiing will be very limited. More promising is Saas-Fee, which claims to have 53km open, and that will be my next port of call. I like Saas-Fee, having first visited the resort over a quarter of a century ago and been several times since. I did ski there early in the season one year before, and found the ski conditions pretty good.
Of course, snow conditions are not the only consideration when going skiing or snowboarding in these Covid times. I’ll cover that in my next blog article.