Aigle to have a direct train to the Leysin ski lifts

TPC Mountain railways out of Aigle.

Aigle is a small town at the heart of the Chablais, dominated by the towering Dentes du Midi. From the historic town centre you can see the Chablais Alps, the Mont-Blanc massif, the Pennine Alps and the Alpes Vaudois. From the vineyards around the castle you can also see Lake Geneva, Montreux, Vevey and the distant Jura. Above you, you can just make out the ski slopes of les Portes du Soleil, Villars-Gryon and Leysin.

I’m rather fond of Aigle, and it is a town I currently call home. It is easy to get to, with a frequent, direct train right from Geneva Airport. It is also possible, with only one connection, to ski Zermatt, Crans-Montana, Verbier and a host of other resorts.

However, even more conveniently, there is a network of narrow gauge railways operated by TPC (Transports Publics du Chablais) that fan out from the station at Aigle, trundling through the town and up the mountains to provide direct connections to the resorts of Champéry, Les Diablerets and Leysin. There is also a direct bus to Villars (or a train from nearby Bex, also operated by TPC – and of course you can always ski across from Les Diablerets).

These are the easiest substantial resorts to get to from Geneva and Lausanne by public transport or car. For all but the public transport connection at Leysin, the transfer is a doddle – more of that anon.

I have mixed feelings about Leysin. The village itself is charming, lying on a sunny plateau under the Tour d’Aï . Although the resort claims 100km of piste, that includes the low-lying, surface lift served section at les Mosses which is connected to the Leysin section by a navette – a courtesy bus. Still, from the excellent revolving restaurant at la Berneuse with its amazing views over Lake Geneva and across the Rhône valley there are a number of good, varied runs.

However the main reason for my mixed feelings about Leysin is the distance from the train stations in the village to the lifts that provide the only access to the ski area. There is a navette in Leysin, but the bus timetable isn’t co-ordinated with the train times – unusually for Switzerland – and the buses are too infrequent. Rather than wait, I have walked to and from the gondola many times from one or other station in Leysin, and it is long, hilly walk. The alternative is to drive up.

You may well ask why the good folk at TPC didn’t build the railway to connect to the gondola station, and the reason is that there was no skiing in this part of Switzerland when the railway was built in 1900. And there is a good reason why the railway takes the course it does.

In the 18th Century the people of Leysin had an unusually long life expectancy for the time. Swiss commentators attribute this observation to Thomas Malthus in an essay of 1789. However this is not exactly true, but is oft repeated. The reference exists in a subsequent edition of the essay, and it is with regard to the observations of Jean-Louis Muret in his 1766 “Le mémoire sur l’état de la population dans le Pays de Vaud“. This what Malthus wrote in 1826:

In the parish of Leyzin (sic), noticed by M. Muret, all these circumstances appear to have been combined in an unusual degree. Its situation in the Alps, but yet not too high, gave it probably the most pure and salubrious air; and the employment of the people, being all pastoral, were consequently of the most healthy nature. From the calculations of M. Muret, the accuracy of which there is no reason to doubt, the probability of life in this parish appeared to be so extraordinarily high as 61 years.

Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of
Population, vol. 1 [1826, 6th ed.]

Whether because of Malthus, or as a result of the emerging view that mountain air and sunshine had restorative properties for various maladies, Leysin soon became a destination for the sick. Numerous clinics and sanatoriums were built, largely on the most sunny terraces to the South-West of the village. In 1875 the first road from the valley of the Grande Eau was extended to Leysin, followed by a cog railway in 1900. The terminus of the railway was the Grand-Hôtel, a sanatorium built in 1892.

Leysin-Village - one of the narrow gauge cog railway stations in Leysin.
Leysin-Village Station.

Through the renowned Dr Auguste Rollier and his Institute of Heliotherapy (light therapy) Leysin became particularly famous in the treatment of lung diseases. Dr Rollier believed that exposure to the sun in fresh mountain air could restore a patient’s health – and he enjoyed a remarkably good recovery rate for tuberculosis patients at the time. The healthcare industry in Leysin boomed, and by the 1930s Leysin had as many as 80 sanatoriums with 3000 patients. Famous visitors included the Russian Czar, Igor Stravinsky and Mahatma Gandhi.

Then penicillin was invented and by the mid-1950s all the sanatoria were closed. Leysin promptly re-invented itself as a holiday resort, with the first gondolas running in 1956. Unfortunately, for reasons probably related to engineering and cost considerations as well as access to sheltered slopes, the gondolas ran from the North-East end of the village, nowhere near the four railways stations in Leysin.

So it is with great excitement that I discovered TPC are going to build a tunnel so that the train now connects to the gondola bottom station. The new underground rail route, from the bottom of the village to the gondola station, will include three new stops. The line will no longer run to the Grand-Hôtel (which since 2010 has been the Belle Époque Campus of Leysin American School). However a funicular project is being studied which would connect the Grand-Hôtel with the Feydey station and the village sports centre. The expectation is that the developments will take traffic off the roads and enhance Leysin’s reputation as an all-year destination.

The downside? Apart from the eye-watering cost, commissioning is not expected until 2030. If I’m still skiing, I will be 75 so I’ll probably enjoy the convenience of jumping off a train onto a gondola all the more.

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Autumn Skiing

Nic Oatridge skiing Verbier and Zermatt

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.

View of les Dents du Midi from Aigle. Copyright Nic Oatridge.
les Dents du Midi, seen from Aigle

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.

Nic Oatridge in 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

Empty slopes above Trockener Steg in Zermatt

But the good news is that the snow above Zermatt is near perfect and the pistes are wonderfully quiet.

Skiing on the Theodulgletscher

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.

View over Cervinia towards Mont Blanc from Klein Matterhorn

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.

Attelas, Verbier

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.

Skiers on Lac des Vaux run off Attelas, Verbier

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.

Fontanet, Verbier
The closed ski area between Fontanet and Attelas, above Les Ruinettes

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.

Verbier Medran Gondola
Verbier

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.

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The Vaud Alps

My private paradise is in a little corner of Switzerland known as Chablais. It straddles the Swiss cantons of Vaud and Valais, and a part of France, at the point where the Alps meet Lake Geneva, a few miles from Montreux.

At the heart of this area is the sleepy town of Aigle, surrounded by vineyards that make some of the best wines in all of Switzerland. Aigle is also the home of the International Cycling Union (Union Cycliste Internationale), is a major stop on the trains that run from Geneva Airport to Brig and has a prominent castle, but for skiers and snowboarders Aigle is noteworthy because it lies at the nexus of a number of railways and roads that take you to some of the best winter sports resorts in the Alps and is the gateway to the Vaud Alps.

From Aigle direct trains run to the resorts of Leysin, Les Diablerets and Les Portes du Soleil. Villars and Torgon are only half an hour away by bus. With only one change of train, it is also an easy day trip to Verbier in the Four Valleys, Les Marécottes and several resorts in Gstaad Mountain Rides (including Rougemont and Château-d’Oex). From Les Diablerets a courtesy bus runs to Glacier 3000 (Glacier des Diablerets).

Les Diablerets was in the papers for all the wrong reasons this week, with news of a 21yo English skier dying when he hit a tree on the edge of the Vers-l’Eglise piste, a relatively straight-forward red run. I would count Les Diablerets and the connected resort of Villars as being amongst the safest resorts in the Alps, and I can only imagine that this was a freakish accident. It’s always tragic to hear of a skiing fatality, and this was a slope I was skiing on only last week when conditions seemed near perfect.

fanny smith racing skicross
Vilars was also in the news this week, when the Swiss skier, Fanny Smith, gained a bronze medal in Skicross. Fanny has won nearly everything there is to win in skicross, but an Olympic medal has eluded her until now. Despite her English-sounding name – she was born to an American father and English mother – Fanny skis for Switzerland, was born in Aigle and brought up in Villars where she no doubt honed her skicross skills.

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Ski for a day

ski-saas-fee
I’m going to tell you how to take a ski break for a day. You can literally check out the snow reports one day, be skiing or snowboarding the next, and be back in the office the following day. In other words, you can take one day off work and ski the Swiss Alps for a full day in the mountains. How’s that for a day out the office!
Why Switzerland? Well it has fabulous resorts within easy reach of Geneva Airport; you can use public transport to get to the slopes; and accommodation at short notice is widely available if you stay in the valleys rather than the mountains. And it is no more expensive than France for a quick break and much more convenient than Italy or Austria. Although Innsbruck in Austria is quite convenient for a number of resorts, there are fewer flights.
Nic Oatridge at Saas-Fee
I’m not going to push Easyjet, but it is a good choice for getting to Geneva from the UK, with several flights a year from Gatwick and regional airports. BA is also a good choice if you have lots of Avios points. And if you want to take your skis with you, Swiss will carry them for free. Typically Easyjet flights start from about £26, but get pricey at weekends. At a day’s notice it can cost less than £100 pounds return for an evening flight out, and either an evening flight back the next day or an early morning flight the following day – both of which will get you back in the office the next day with a full day’s skiing.
Geneva Airport has a station in the airport itself with direct trains running to hub towns from where you can get to the slopes, either by a single train journey or a very reliable bus service.
You can stay in a resort, but with a late flight and an hour time difference it is a push if you leave the office to take an evening flight. I would recommend you stay in one of those “hub” towns, somewhere like Lausanne, Vevey, Montreux, Aigle, Martigny, Sion, Sierre or Visp. It all depends on how much travel time you are prepared to put in to and from respectively the airport and your preferred ski resort. Some towns on the main line service to Brig from Geneva Airport are particularly convenient for specific resorts, e.g. Aigle for Portes du Soleil (Champéry), Villars, Les Diablerets and Leysin; Martigny for Verbier and Les Marécottes; Sion for the central section of the 4 Valleys (Nendaz, Veysonnaz or Siviez) and Anzère; Sierre for Crans-Montana; and Visp for Saas-Fee or Zermatt. I could mention other resorts, but on the whole they require longer transfers or are much smaller.
Most towns have convenient and reasonably priced accommodation near the main railway station that can be booked at short notice, typically via Bookings.com.
You are spoilt for choice about which resort to go to. Saas-Fee and Zermatt are open for longer seasons than the rest, and mid-week skiing is usually only available at the others from the start of December. During peak season Leysin, Villars, Les Diablerets and the Portes du Soleil are the nearest significant resorts to Geneva.
Torgon
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Flying out of Gatwick on a Wednesday at 6.20pm, arriving at Geneva at 8.55pm, book into the Lausanne Youth Hostel or Hotel AlaGare both walking district from Lausanne station. Get up early and get a full day skiing in Verbier, leaving your stuff in a locker at the base station for Verbier. Return to Lausanne in the evening and take the 7.00am Easy jet flight getting you into Gatwick at 7.35am.
Another example: Take the same evening flight and book into a hotel in Aigle. Ski Leysin the next day, then take the 9.35pm flight back getting you into Gatwick at 10.05pm.
The costs depend on a number of factors. Costing out the first option, you might spend £100 on flights, plus transit costs to a UK airport. You can bring your skis on Easyjet for £39 or hire in resort for about the same if you book in advance. With Avios points I’ve done a return BA flight for £60. The return train fare on Swiss Railways from Geneva Airport to Lausanne is about £40 and the cost of a combined ski and travel pass (the Snow’n’rail scheme) for Verbier will be about £100. Lausanne is about 50 minutes from Geneva Airport and just over 2 hours from the gondola station serving Verbier. Accommodation near the station will cost you about £80 for a night. Food and drink are best bought from supermarkets and it is totally acceptable to drink alcohol on the trains.
On my trip to Saas-Fee last week I took advantage of an all-season ski pass I bought for under £200. I also have a half-fare card which halves the cost of rail transfer in Switzerland and I have Easyjet+ which gives some perks flying Easyjet. I am over 60 so travel in the UK is free or heavily discounted. And I have a pad in Switzerland about 1 hour 30 minutes from Geneva Airport and half an hour from the nearest ski resort.
I also have a pass for 25 other leading Swiss resorts that cost me around £200 for the whole season. The benefit of also having the Saas-Fee pass is it gives me good skiing early and late in the season.

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