I recently revisited my Swiss Winter Resorts web site to update it with what I have learned skiing and talking to people these last two months. I also revamped one of the landing pages, largely because I have come up with a few recommendations framed in terms of the ‘best five’ for various criteria. What do you think?
I think most skiers know global warming is happening, whatever the reasons for it. The most ominous indication is the retreat of glaciers. Over successive seasons it is easy to see how much glaciers have shrunk at many ski resorts.
In addition something has been going on in recent seasons with early season snow conditions. Whether that is down to factors other than global warming is debatable – it may just be a cyclical thing that will fix itself, but that seems unduly optimistic. Lower resorts must be particularly concerned, especially as they consider the long-term investments they may need to remain competitive with other resorts.
So will 2017 kick off a great early season and buck the trend of recent seasons?
It doesn’t look good. For the first time in 40 years Les Deux Alpes will not open for autumn skiing on its glacier.
The London Times quotes Thierry Hugues, the head of the resort’s piste management team, to explain why. “The situation is exceptional,” he is quoted as saying. “Given the low rainfall that we had throughout the year, a very hot summer and a very dry autumn, the glacier does not have enough snow cover to welcome our customers safely.”
Are you in Davos this week for the annual World Economic Forum (WEF)? Chances are, if you are, you are one of the thousands of extra staff brought in to look after the rich and famous. Or perhaps you are one of the rich and famous?
In what is a relatively expensive country to visit, the WEF really is about the privileged few. They are in town to put the world to rights, and most have come in on private jets.
With basic membership at a cost of 68,000 Swiss francs (£55,400), you get access to general sessions of the WEF. For just under SFr 700,000 for five people you get full access – provided your number includes a token woman.
But of course most people are not in town to hear what they could read in the papers. They are here to mingle, network or to party. Or all three.
Apparently you know you are part of the in crowd if you get invited to the party thrown by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska at his palatial chalet up the mountain from Davos. Regulars include people like Tony Blair, and you can guarantee the opportunity to hear the great and the not so good bend your ear about how issues such as inequality and the environment can get fixed. I kid you not, these are the two hottest topics at Davos.
And all this before everyone gets to go home on their private jets at nearby Dübendorf military airfield, escaping the traffic jams of chauffeur driven cars or the inconvenience of mixing with the hoi polloi on Switzerland’s immaculate railway system, burning as much fuel in one hour as a typical car does in a year.
Amongst those jetting in will be London’s mayor, a champion of public transport, who may be interested to hear that he could have got from his home in London to Davos and back entirely by train.
So what else can you do in Davos apart from put the world to rights over a glass of Dom Perignon? Well, how about ski or snowboard!
Davos is one of the very best places in the world to hit the slopes. As the Swiss Winter Sports web site puts it “Really very extensive slopes and bags of off-piste options – probably stands alongside the Engadin and the 4 Vallées as somewhere you could easily spend a whole season. Davos Dorf has access to the fabulous snow-sure Parsenn it shares with Klosters, but there is also good on and off-piste on other mountains served by the lifts from the town, for example the Jakobshorn from Davos Platz and the Rinerhorn from Glaris. In addition you can access the small areas at Pischa and Schatzalp or, from Klosters, access the Madrisa.”
After a slow start to the winter sports season, Davos has had a lot of snow in recent days, with around a metre in the town, temperatures below freezing and perfect conditions on the slopes. Expect clear, sunny skies for the forseaable future.
If you choose to visit once the problems of the world have been debated, Davos is only an hour and a quarter by train from Zurich.
Another ski season is not far away, and many Swiss resorts have been busy upgrading their facilities ready for season 2016/17.
In Zermatt the ancient gondola below the Rothorn from Gant to Blauherd is being replaced by a six-seat chairlift.
In Saas-Fee the equally ancient gondola in the Spielboden sector is being replaced by a faster 10-seater gondola.
Andermatt continues its aggressive program of expansion. This season two T-bars will be replaced by six-seater chairlifts. In the following two seasons an additional two six-seater chairlifts and an eight-seater gondola will link the Nätschen area of Andermatt to Sedrun and open up 26km of new piste. Sedrun itself replaces a t-bar with a chairlift, a trend across many Alpine resorts.
Most people know Klosters for the Parsenn area, but the seperate Madrisa area is popular with families. Here an innovative six-seater chairlift, “Schaffürggli”, is being installed, the first of its kind in Switzerland. It features a laser scanner that uses hydraulics to adjust the height of the seat, making it much easier for children to get on and off. The chairlift will also have heated seats and can take wheelchair users up the mountain.
I’ve often thought it would be fun to have a drone film my descent. It would also be useful to give visitors to swisswintersports.co.uk an idea of what to expect. Well Verbier got there first and is offering Europe’s first self-tracking drones. The drones follow you on the slopes using Bluetooth and a GPS-enabled Smartphone App and Téléverbier rents them out the Hexo+ drones for CHF400 per day or CHF250 for a half day, providing assistance and a video at the end of the day.
All of the major airports in Switzerland lie just outside the Alps, but Swiss International Airlines now plan to provide a scheduled service between Sion and London, subject to a number of test flights. Sion Airport is in the heart of the Swiss Alps, and so close to the slopes you can actually see planes take off and landing from the pistes of several nearby resorts, including Verbier and Nendaz. Sion has been used for civilian flights for some time, but the last scheduled service from the UK was withdrawn a few years ago and the military will be withdrawing from using it from next year. The director of Sion airport, Aline Bovier-Gantzer says that “The initiative for the new flight is due to a collaboration with the Swiss tourism industry: Valais is already a favourite destination of British tourists during the winter months thanks to its proximity to some of Switzerland’s most popular ski resorts.”
Of course, if you fly to Switzerland, independent travellers can easily get to their resorts using the fabulous transport infrastructure available without having to resort to lengthy, uncomfortable coach transfers. You can also make the entire trip from many European cities directly by train, including London with the Eurostar ski train, booking for which is now open.
Just outside Switzerland’s borders but very popular with Swiss skiers is the Arlberg area in Austria. I remember that once you could get round the circuit that includes St Anton, Lech and Zürs, but for some years this has not been the case. Now a new gondola is scheduled to open that will link Zürs and Stuben to create the largest ski area in Austria, one of four new lifts that will be built in Ski Alberg over the summer. For the 2016/17 season this means Ski Arlberg will total 305km piste served by 87 lifts, fully linking St Anton, Stuben, St Christoph, Lech, Zürs, Schröcken and Warth.