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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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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Covid-19 impact on Skiing and Snowboarding

Verbier has one run open.

Most Alpine resorts are holding fire on when, and whether, to begin the 2020/21 ski season. Currently the only ski resorts with unrestricted public access are in Switzerland, but most resorts still seem to be planning to open in December.

Ski instructor at Zermatt

There is no consensus on which measures ski resorts should take to avoid the outbreaks that occurred last season, but it is likely that it will be local Covid-19 regulations that dictate the viability of ski resort openings and operation and – critically – the ability of people from outside the area to be allowed to visit. Unfortunately the promising trials of vaccines to prevent Covid-19 look to arrive too late to impact on the 2020/21 season – indeed they might embolden some authorities to increase restrictions in the short-term. At this time it is not altogether certain that the authorities won’t order ski resorts to close if they are seen to be responsible again for spreading the virus.

So what is the situation in Switzerland? I have been in the country for some weeks now, and have visited Zermatt both before and after a local lockdown was introduced, and Verbier afterwards. This what I learned.

Covid-19 safeguards in Verbier

The rate of infection with Covid-19 in Switzerland is the highest of the Alpine nations, and higher than that of most countries where visitors to Switzerland come from. As a result Switzerland decided to dump their quarantine requirements for visitors from most countries, including the UK. Most cantons had not previously imposed stringent lockdowns, but that has since changed.

The canton of Valais in Switzerland is home to some of the world’s leading ski resorts, including Saas-Fee, Zermatt and Verbier. These resorts, alongside Engelberg and Glacier3000, have begun their winter season, albeit only for selected runs above the snowline.

The recent good weather means the snowline may recede in the next week or so, which could jeopardise Verbier’s limited opening – less so those resorts with runs on the glaciers. However the resorts suffered a bigger blow when the Valais cantonal authorities declared – in the face of accelerating Covid-19 infections – that all restaurants and bars, including those in the mountains, must shut from 10pm on 6th November. Hotels, however, may remain open for business.

Cable Car Station in Zermatt
Cable car to Furi from Zermatt

Before the lockdown Zermatt had already required customers to wear a mask on all lifts, including T-bars, and inside all facilities except when sitting down to eat or drink. It seemed to be working and was enforced, although some people seemed to think that as long as the mask covered their mouth, they were adhering to the requirements. Social distancing was not followed in settings where people were wearing a mask, and the lifts were all working with pre-Covid capacities in place. in the summer I had seen that some resorts, such as Champéry, restricted numbers on lifts – but this does not seem to be the case for the winter season.

Lift queue at Verbier
Lac des Vaux chairlift, Verbier

Verbier seemed to be operating along broadly similar lines. On the Lac des Vaux chairlift the staff were insisting suitable face coverings were used, handing out disposable masks to people who were deemed to be wearing unsuitable coverings, such as a scarf. There was no attempt to apply social distancing on the lifts, although the 1.5m rule seemed to apply in other indoor settings.

Eating at Trockener Steg under the Matterhorn

Mountain restaurants on the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise ( 3883m ) and at Trockener Steg ( 2939m ) were open until the lockdown and following reasonably effective-looking controls. The border with Italy was closed so it was not possible to visit the wonderful Chalet Etoile, and it will be a concern for many visitors to Zermatt if the world-famous mountain restaurants are not open in peak season.

Mountain restaurant at Attelas following contanonal covid restrictions

By the time I got to Verbier (where I stayed at the excellent Hotel Bristol), lockdown was in effect and the mountain restaurants only provided a fairly basic take-away menu. They had also removed all of the access to seating inside or outside. With the fine weather that wasn’t too much of a problem.

Lunch break at Attelas, Verbier

Being early season most bars and restaurants are not yet ordinarily open in either Zermatt or Verbier. Some hotels and restaurants that have opened early are providing take-away menus, and can still provide restaurant facilities to residents if they have a restaurant on site. There is a kebab takeaway in Zermatt, which when I visited had run out of kebab, and a good takeaway just off the roundabout in Verbier, which also serves beer.

One of the most popular bars in Zermatt is Papperla, and it was open for business when I was there, albeit with severe restrictions on numbers. At 10pm it was due to close for the duration of the lockdown. I turned up at 9pm but wasn’t allowed in because of restrictions on numbers. However Yves, a genial skier from Lausanne on an outing with his football team, invited me to join his party on the deck. As we all downed Jager bombs, I asked him what he would be doing for après ski now. “We have some beers from the Spar and will party in our hotel rooms”, he said, “Do you want to come?”. I declined.

Papperla bar, Zermatt

As Yves and his friends were shooed from the bar I asked Charlotte, who works as a barmaid at Papperla, what would happen to her now. She shrugged. “I guess I get to ski more”.

Less sanguine was Isabelle from the Hotel Adonis where I was staying in Zermatt. She glumly told me that 80% of the guests due to stay for the weekend had cancelled once the new Valais restrictions were announced. “Do you think everything will be back to normal by next summer?”, she asked, hopefully.

It strikes me that the Swiss resorts are gambling that the measures that the authorities have taken will allow them to exit lockdown before the ski season gets going in earnest, and that the measures they have taken within the resorts will avoid them from once again being centres of the spread of infection. Only time will tell.

La Tzoumaz
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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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