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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New Lifts in Switzerland for 2019

The expansion of the Andermatt ski area continues apace with a new lift between Sedrun and Disentis, creating a network of 22 lifts connecting Andermatt, Sedrun and Disentis.

It is a spectacular transformation of what were once three sleepy, relatively isolated but beguiling resorts to create the largest ski resort in Central Switzerland.

Disentis is a fabulous resort in the Rhine valley, now linked to Sedrun.

I have often been frustrated by the difficulties in getting back from Avoriaz to the ChampéryLes Crosets section of the Portes du Soleil ski area. Getting from Switzerland to France has always been relatively easy, but getting back is often difficult because of lift closures or the closure of the notorious Swiss Wall at Chavanette. It should all be a lot easier from 2019 with two new linked 5-seater lifts running from below Avoriaz at Léchère via a new station at Vautna to Pointe de Moissette in Switzerland. There will also be a new red run from Vauntna.

A new 10 seater gondola has been installed in Savognin, taking skiers up to Tigignas in 37 cabins at 2000 people per hour. Season opening on 14th December will see the new lift in operation.

A new terminal opens in Grindelwald, also on 14th December, with a high speed gondola up to the Männlichen ski area.

A Porsche design 6-seat chairlift has been installed at Arosa up to the 2447m Brüggerhorn summit.

Another Porsche design 10-seat gondola will run from Gstaad to the top of the Eggli.

The new 6-seater chairlift at Engelberg linking Engstlenalp to Jochpass has protective hoods and seat heating. The lift carries 2000 people an hour a kilometre in around 4 minutes, with a vertical ascent of 260m.

Linked to the Swiss resort of Samnaun is Ischgl in Austria.

In Ischgl, the new high-speed Velilleck F1 six-seater hooded chairlift goes up the Pardatschgrat ridge, 1,353 m further than its predecessor.

Whilst in Samnaun itself the 8-seater Visnitz N2 is new for the 2019/20 season.

Chamonix has replaced the creaky old cable car from Les Praz to the Flégère ski area with a 10 seater gondola.

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End of Season Ski Report – Switzerland

I haven’t seen any figures yet, but I imagine this winter season will be one of the better ones for winter sports participation in Switzerland.

Nicholas Oatridge in Villars

And it’s not over yet! Although many resorts closed after the Easter weekend, the snow is better than I can recall it this late in the season. I am currently skiing Villars-Gryon and the depth of snow is staggering. No bare patches to speak of – even the resort run into Villars is pleasantly skiable at the end of the day. Although there are Spring ski conditions the pistes have been excellently groomed and, without the Easter crowds, the pistes are staying in good condition throughout the day.

Many resorts have held their end-of-season bashes in the assumption the snow would have gone. Villars held theirs over Easter, but plan to stay open until 15th April. My sense is that they could well stay open longer, but with so many skiers calling time on the season it is probably uneconomical.

Crans-Montana

Indeed one resort I was hoping to get to before the end of the season, Crans-Montana, unexpectedly closed all the lifts on 2nd April. With a glacier and some seriously high runs, Crans-Montana is often one of the last resorts to close, despite its largely South-facing slopes. It had over 4 metres of snow at the top and all runs open when, in what can only be described as as a fit of pique, the lift operators closed all lifts because of a dispute with local municipalities.

In an open letter , Philippe Magistretti, chairman of the ski lifts, announced the immediate closure of the Crans-Montana Aminona ski area, citing a failure of the municipalities to honour an 800,000 Franc deal.

In response, the municipalities say that the breach of which they are accused is part of an agreement “still under negotiation between all the parties involved” and “vehemently reject” Mr Magistretti’s remarks.

They go on to say that “the priority of the Communities is to minimize the negative consequences of this decision on tourists,” and are providing a free bus service to nearby Anzère. Now I like Anzère a lot, but it is a more modest, and lower, resort.

Needless to say local businesses feel they have been let down so a lot of bad blood is likely to ensue.

And I won’t be going to Crans-Montana this season.

Regrettably Saas-Fee is only planning to stay open 15th April, despite it’s altitude. Verbier and Samnaun/Ischgl, however, will be open until the end of the month, and Glacier3000, St Moritz, Engelberg and Andermatt plan to stay open into May. Zermatt is theoretically an all-year resort but has already started closing some lifts, but I’ve known the valley run from Furi open well into May so I am optimistic it will be for some weeks yet.

STOP PRESS: Crans Montana has re-opened as of 6th April – although only until the official end of season on 17th April. Wouldn’t it be nice if they extended it a few days to make up for the closure?

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Cross-country Downhill – crossing borders

I’m not talking here about Nordic or back-country skiing, but downhill skiing between two countries. In other words take a lift in the morning in one country, and have lunch in another.
Rougemont
There are a number of resorts where you can ski from one country to another (and back), but not surprisingly they are all in Europe.

Perhaps the most famous is the Matterhorn Ski Paradise which links Switzerland and Italy. Zermatt lies at the foot of the ski area on the Swiss side and Breuil Cervinia lies across the Italian border, with the majestic Matterhorn standing over both of them. Cervinia is cheap and cheerful, Zermatt not only provides the best views of the Matterhorn it is possibly the most complete ski resort in the world (and one of the more expensive).

The Silvretta Ski Arena bridges Switzerland & Austria, and there are even border control posts on the piste – although I have never seen them manned. Duty-free Samnaun lies on the Swiss side whilst the party town of Ischgl is in Austria.
Ischgl
Les Portes du Soleil is a huge sprawling resort between France & Switzerland, with o650km of piste. There are a whole bunch of ski resorts in the circuit, with Avoriaz and Morzine in France and Champéry in Switzerland amongst the more notable.

The Milky Way between France & Italy is not quite as big, but with 410km of piste is still one of the largest ski areas in the world. Montgenèvre lies in France, whilst across the border in Italy are Clavière, Cesana, Torinese, Sestrière, Pragelato, San Sicario and Sauze d’Oulx.

Espace San Bernardo links La Rosière in France with La Thuile in Italy.

Kanin-Bovec-Sella Nevea is one of the newer cross border resorts, linking Italy and Slovenia.

Nassfeld-Lake Pressegger is a little known resort in Carinthia, but it has 100km of piste and has runs that cross the Austrian border into Italy, and it is possible to have lunch on the Italian side of the border.

Not strictly speaking a cross-border resort but a section of Gstaad Mountain Rides links the Swiss German part of Switzerland with the French-speaking part, crossing the Röstigraben. So it is possible to take up a lift from Rougemont to the La Videmanette ski area from where you ski or snowboard down to Chalberhöni and Gstaad.

Equipment available right here on Tom Wohrman Sports.

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