Verbier in renewed Covid scare

Verbier seen from the gondola to Les Ruinettes 8th December 2020.
Verbier today.

Verbier, along with Ischgl, is widely cited as one of the super-spreader centres from the early stages of the Covid pandemic. And it is getting bad press again. Tages Anzeiger published this picture of a melee at the Le Châble valley station on Saturday.

Pandemonium at Le Châble, 5th December 2020.
Melee on Saturday. Photo: Twitter

Verbier has been open at the weekend for most of November but with very limited skiing. Half of the town was still closed when I visited a few weeks ago. Moving into December, a lot of terrain was opened up for the first weekend of the month, and the resort kept open 30km of piste on weekdays ahead of the full opening of the resort next weekend. I think the resort was simply unprepared for the demand, and I’m pleased to say that on my visit today, there was an orderly, fast-moving and relatively well social-distanced queue.

Much improved Covid control at Le Châble, 8th December 2020.
More orderly queues today with stewards reminding people of the 1.5m distance rule.

Normally I would expect mid-week skiing this time of the year to be relatively light, but I think two things are contributing to the high volumes, based on conversations I have had in the queues and on the lifts.

Firstly, French and Italian visitors are significantly up. There are a number of high altitude French and Italian resorts that would normally be open, so I guess that is part of why there is this increase. All trains between Italy and Switzerland are due to be cancelled indefinitely, but the people I spoke to had all driven.

The Tages Anzeiger article is in German and behind a paywall, but it says that there were over 20,000 tourists in town at the weekend with traffic jams normally only associated with high season. As many as half of the total of 50,000 guest beds in town are likely to have been occupied, an unheard of situation at this time of the year. The paper quotes Ami Oreiller from Hotel Les Chamois who says: “Last Thursday our hotel was still half empty, on Friday the phone rang non-stop , and on Saturday the house was full. It is mainly French who come.”

The second major reason for the uptick is that there is a fear that resorts will get closed down sooner or later, and some people are making the most of the opportunity to ski while they can. This is true of both locals from the Lake Geneva and Rhone valley regions, and foreigners, particularly those with chalets in Verbier.

The British make up a large proportion of the tourist trade in Verbier – at least one in five skiers is likely to be British in peak season. Tages Anzeiger estimates that the resident Brits have virtually doubled from the 8,000 who would normally be in Verbier at this time of year. Christmas and New Year bookings are as vibrant as ever. I spoke to some Brits over for a ski instructor training course and they were keen to get the training in while they could.

What hangs over everything is the uncertainty around how the season will develop. Germany, Italy and France had hoped Switzerland would fall in line with their approach and close their resorts until next year, but the Swiss resisted. In theory, the Swiss resorts are supposed to be open only to Swiss residents over the holiday season, but that is unlikely to be policed. Switzerland is also a federal republic and cantons are following different rules. Although Valais and Vaud have closed restaurants, the Bernese Oberland hasn’t. Graubünden is planning to perform mass testing of its residents to protect the ski industry in places like St Moritz and Davos, but to date other cantons only test people who show Covid symptoms.

The run from Attelas down to Les Ruinettes.
The run from Attelas down to Les Ruinettes.

As for the skiing at this time, it is pretty good. On the slopes there are no appreciable queues and the slopes are busy but not excessively so. Today is Immaculate Conception Day in Valais, a public holiday, so that certainly made it busier than it will be tomorrow. Runs were open below Chassure, Attelas and Fontalet down to Les Ruinettes, and although runs below Les Ruinettes to Verbier weren’t technically open, there was sufficient snow cover for people to ski back down to Verbier. The snow depth was good on piste and, following recent snowfall, off-piste wasn’t too tracked out. The Lac des Vaux runs are a lot nicer than they were when they were the only runs open a month ago. Being December, much of the skiing is in shadow. Some mountain restaurants and bars are open for take-away, including alcoholic beverages, but there is no seating. That is due to change next week when Valais relaxes its rules for bars and restaurants.

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Glacier3000

Walkers Glacier3000

I checked out Glacier3000 at the weekend. It was not the best time to go, as it was busy. Not in a covid sense so much as in terms of queues for the two T-bars which service most of the open terrain on the glacier. From a covid perspective the situation was the same as in most resorts I’ve visited this season – restaurants closed; seating removed; masks inside, in queues and on all lifts.

Queues for a T-bar below Dôme
Weekend queues – Glacier3000 is the nearest open resort to the Lake Geneva region

It wasn’t only skiers that made it busy. There were quite a few cross-country skiers, winter walkers and day-trippers who had taken the cable cars upto Cabane and then Scex Rouge at 2971m. For the day trippers the highlight is the peak walk, a walk between two peaks on a suspension bridge to take in a quite stunning view north of Vaud, Valais, Fribourg and the Bernese Oberland as far as the Jungfrau. There are quite awesome views all over the glacier, with Mont Blanc, Matterhorn and other notable peaks on the southern skyline.

Peak Walk at Glacier3000 with view over Vaud
Peak Walk

Only the higher runs at the ski area are open, which means mostly cruisy blues served by T-bars and accessed by a long schuss which crosses – to my mind quite dangerously – a section which you have to schuss across to get back to the chairlift to Scex Rouge. In practice you normally end up having to walk across the intersection going to the chairlift, unless you have really gone for it in a big way.

Snow Park at Glacier 3000
Snow Park at Glacier 3000

When Glacier3000 is fully open there are 28km of piste down as far as Reusch and, if the snow is good, there is a flattish off piste run which can take you as far as Gstaad. I don’t generally like the lower pistes which are steep and often icy and in shadow. Beginners looking to stick to the blue runs might be put off by the steepish section at the start of the schuss over to the pistes on le Glacier des Diablerets, but the runs there are delightful and you can ski all day on about 14km of piste, a good amount of skiable, ungroomed snow, a great snow park and 9km of cross-country (classic and skating). Glacier3000 has some off-piste runs from Scex Rouge down to the valley, although I’ve never had the nerve to try them as it looks like there are some steep sections where, if you made a mistake, it could end up going pretty badly. As in brown bread.

Ski runs and cross-country on the glacier at Glacier3000

There’s probably a good reason for this, but one of the three surface lifts on the glacier is not operating currently, which means that the wonderful view and runs off Quille du Diable are not open. It’s a shame, and it would reduce the queues at the bottom of the two lifts off Dôme if it were open.

Ski de fond at Glacier3000

Glacier 3000 is situated on the 3209m Les Diablerets mountain, although the name is more often associated with the Les Diablerets ski runs across the valley which links to the connected runs at Villars-sur-Ollon. There used to be a gondola,  Isenau, that meant you could ski across from the village of Les Diablerets to Col du Pillon, the main valley station for Glacier3000. Sadly the lift was obsolete and is now retired, and along with it the Isenau ski area has been closed – although there are plans to redevelop the area and replace the gondola. The old cranky chairlift at Les Diablerets up to Les Mazots has, however, now been replaced by a gondola as of last season.

The starting point for getting to Glacier3000, Col du Pillon, is a mountain pass linking Aigle with Gstaad and, apart from the cable car and a huge (free) car park there is not much there. By road, it is about 15 minutes from Les Diablerets and 40 minutes from Montreux. Using public transport you can get to the cable car quite easily from Aigle by taking the narrow gauge railway to Les Diablerets and then taking the waiting bus, B180, which goes on to Gstaad. Gstaad is about 40 minutes by bus from Col du Pillon and about 30 minutes from Reusch, the other valley station that only operates in the main winter season. The buses are more frequent during the main winter season than at this time of the year and there is also a courtesy bus between Col du Pillon and the valley station for Les Diablerets once that resort opens.

I think the lift pass for Glacier3000 is quite pricey, but the glacier runs are open from September through May. It is part of the MagicPass scheme, albeit with a supplementary charge unique to the resorts in the scheme. It is also one of the options on the Gstaad Mountain Rides lift pass. One benefit, at least for me, is you get a small discount if you are a senior! Incidentally, if you have a SwissPass you can buy your lift pass online and use your SwissPass to give you access to the lifts.

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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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Let it snow!

At last fresh snow is coming to the Alps! The temperatures will drop below zero in most resorts from tonight for at least the next ten days. Sunny skies are expected until Wednesday and Thursday when modest snowfall is expected. I say modest, but Zermatt is expecting about 78cm, Saas Fee about 35cm and St Moritz and Andermatt about 23cm. Resorts of Bernese Oberland and most of Valais should get at least 10cm of snow.

The sun will come back next Friday, but temperatures will remain low so I’m sure the snow cannons will be busy on lower slopes and patchy South-facing slopes to make sure there is good cover for Christmas. And as it stands, things are looking pretty promising for Christmas, especially Christmas Eve.

Weather Outlook in Switzerland Dec 2016

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