The only place in Europe you can ski

The main Medran gondola station in Verbier today

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!

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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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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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Snow’n’Rail

SBB Train

The Swiss Railways provide an excellent discount deal for skiers, called Snow’n’Rail, which typically discounts the price of a rail ticket to a ski resort by 20% and the lift pass by 10%. it is available online or at Swiss Railway stations.

The new schedule for 2020/21 is out, and it is always interesting to see which new resorts have been added and which have fallen off the scheme. Sadly there have been some substantial losses this year – Zermatt, Saas-Fee, Gstaad Mountain Rides and the Vaud resorts (Leysin, les Diablerets and Villars-Gryon).

That still leaves a number of outstanding destinations such as Engelberg, Andermatt, Davos, St Moritz, Wengen, Portes du Soleil and Verbier, amongst others.

The brochure available at railway stations is thin on details this year, relying on you to see what is available at the Swiss Railways web site. Where routes include buses or cableways, these are also included in the offer. Swiss Railways also offer discounts on a number of other rail and winter sports combinations, such as tobogganing, snowshoe walking and cross-country skiing.

The Austrian Railways, ÖBB, offer a similar scheme which includes world class resorts like St Anton and Kitzbühel. They also run overnight services from Amsterdam, Hamburg and Düsseldorf to the ski resorts and a shuttle to Kitzbühel from Munich.

A full list of Alpine resorts which have a railway station is at the Snow and Rail web site. Daniel Elkan at SnowCarbon can assist people wanting to get to the Alps from the UK by train, offering a wider selection of resorts where the last leg might require a bus or taxi transfer.

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