January Offers from Swiss Railways

The Snow’n’Rail scheme from Swiss Railways provides a 20% discount on the combined public transport and lift passes for a whole host of resorts in Switzerland. Additionally there are often even better offers available, and January sees some really brilliant ones.
Ski Airolo
Airolo is a pretty little village, famous as the home resort of Lara Gut, with enough slopes to keep most skiers and snowboarders happy for a day trip. They will be particularly happy with the massive 50% discount offered in January. You can get to Airolo from many locations, including Basel and Zurich, without changing trains – and there are not many resorts you can say that of. Plus it is the largest Italian-speaking resort in Switzerland.

If you do take the train to Airolo you can either take the courtesy bus from the station or walk to the bottom station – head left out of the station.

Other noteworthy deals are the 30% discount for Distentis (here), a favourite for freeriders, Meiringen-Hasliberg (here), convenient for Basel and Berne, Sattel (here), convenient for Zug and Lucerne, and Braunwald (here), a direct train trip from Zurich.

Share Button

The Ski Helmet debate

In the wake of the sad news about Michael Schumacher, inevitably a debate is being sparked off (again) about the pros and cons of wearing ski helmets whilst skiing or snowboarding.

Or, as one famous boxer put it, “There are pros and cons for, and pros and cons against”.

Let’s recap on what happened. Michael Schumacher was skiing in Meribel on the area between two pistes, somwhere between the red La Biche, the red Chamois and the blue Mauduit runs, below Saulire.

Meribel piste map
Piste Map of Meribel – click to enlarge
Apparently he slipped and hit his head on some rocks hidden in the snow.

I am going to conjecture that he was skiing relatively fast – he has a reputation as an adrenalin junkie, and a smack as hard as he got suggests some speed of impact. It broke his helmet in two after all. Although he was off-piste, the area is probably more accurately referred to as “between pistes”, those areas that are unprepared but within the bounds of the ski area, and are usually well tracked out by a multitude of skiers and snowboarders wanting unprepared, lift-served snow. If you hit these areas after fresh snow you can make fresh tracks, and it sounds like that is what Michael had in mind. These areas are normally within sight of the pistes, so if anything untoward happens there is usually help on hand very soon, as was the case for Michael. Only yesterday I saw a helicopter airlift someone off the slopes at Engelberg – technically it was off-piste, but within easy sight of the surrounding pistes.

Now we are not having a great ski season so far in terms of snowfall. The lower runs of most resorts are short of good snow and the pistes are thin and icy. Further up the runs are generally fairly good, but only because they have been prepared. Off-piste, however, the conditions are poor. Even where fresh snow falls, it has not yet established a decent base for you to be confident that there aren’t hidden rocks that can make you throw a ski or worse. And of course, fresh snow on a hard base is a recipe for avalanches. Early season off-piste is inherently risky and, unless you wish to court disaster, requires some caution.

In Engelberg yesterday many of the off-piste areas around the main slopes were extremely patchy, with exposed rock at various places. You could see people gingerly navigating around the exposed rock, which is of course what you should do, and some going faster than I thought safe given the risk of hidden rocks. Me and my companion decided not to venture far off-piste, the only ungroomed run we tried was the yellow trail off Titlis down to Stand, and there were plenty of exposed rocks round the edge. I saw a number of competent skiers and snowboarders slip and fall, but in all cases their speed was controlled and the falls were light, with no one needing to take advantage of the protection of a ski helmet – although most people had them.

So the question is, was Michael Schumacher unlucky or was he skiing recklessly? I don’t know, but I do know that a lot of skiers and snowboarders at Engelberg yesterday were going too fast for the conditions. I even found myself narrowing my line of descent because I knew people overtaking me would not be able to adjust their line if I skied in their way – remember the uphill skier must always give way to the downhill skier. From time to time I would also stop on the side of the piste to allow a knot of skiers or snowboarders pass before me, so I could feel comfortable about the area uphill of where I was turning.

The valley run was mayhem at the end of the day. Tired skiers and snowboarders, large areas of ice, lots of people and far too many going too fast. Inevitably there were falls and crashes.
Engelberg slopes
So what has this to do with helmets? Michael Schumacher was wearing one, and reports are that he would have probably been killed if he had not been wearing one. It sounds like wearing one didn’t help him as much as one might expect, but perhaps if his behaviour on the slopes was different he would not have needed to put his helmet to the test.

On the whole, I am a cautious skier. Falling over can happen, but if you are following the FIS rules and are skiing or snowboarding within your limits – adjusting for the conditions – it is unlikely. And certainly unlikely to result in serious injury. The likelihood of a head injury is remote, but personally I don’t want to break a leg or sustain any sort of injury.

And there is the rub. I believe wearing helmets can give you a false sense of security. It does not protect you from other serious injuries and may not even adequately protect you from a head injury. If people went on the slopes dressed like hockey players, I am sure there would be far more collisions – you need only compare the manner in which people play ice hockey in a scrimmage if they are fully kitted up compared to just having skates and gloves. In a perverse sort of way, helmets may even contribute to more accidents on the slopes. Now they are cool, boy racers on the slopes act like their helmets make them piste warriors.

No, for me the best way to be safe on the slopes is to be prepared for the conditions, navigate the slopes in a manner appropriate for your skill level and constantly be aware of your surroundings.

I am not arguing against helmets. For freeriders, beginners and children they should be considered essential, and I would have few issues with them being made compulsory for children. I don’t like compulsion though, for me it is an ugly concept and seems to be too easily abused. I find education is a far more attractive option – perhaps also there could be incentives. For example, if wearing a helmet had an appreciable impact on how much insurance companies fork out, then they should offer premiums to people who wear helmets (although I have to say, I doubt that is the case). Indeed, in my experience more people get injured slipping on the ice on the streets in the resorts than get injured on the slopes – the main difference to outcomes is that they are not going fast. Interestingly the Dutch almost never wear helmets on bicycles at any age – I wonder if they werar ski helmets less too?

Engelberg-TitlisI do think education has the most significant part to play, though. I saw most of the FIS rules flouted yesterday at various times of the day. Perhaps lift companies could offer discounts to people who passed a “ski and snowboard riding test”, and their piste patrols could be a little more pro-active in advising people who flout them of what the rules are.

And in the meantime I wish Michael the very best chances of recovery, and my thoughts are with his family.

Share Button

Kitting up kids for the new season

Ski season is just around the corner so it is time to start thinking about getting your family equipped for the season. Basic equipment includes clothing, goggles, gloves and sun protection. As for footwear, you always have shoe hero to go to. Additionally you will need a ski helmet, ski boots, skis and sticks. These can of course be bought or hired, but you may want to contemplate hiring the kit for the first year.
Ski Family
All ski resorts have at least one hire shop for rental equipment. If you hire skis, boots, helmet and sticks every trip it can become quite expensive as well as time-consuming, so you may prefer to hire for the season. Many of the sports shops in Switzerland – and even department stores – hire out kit. You can also hire your equipment from shops in neighbouring France or Germany, generally at a much cheaper price. A lot of skiers in North-West Switzerland also head for SportShop Karrer in Laufen (100 metres from the train station), which has very competitive pricing.
Child skiing in Feldberg
If you prefer to purchase your ski equipment, there are many sport stores that carry a wide selection, but these can be fiendishly expensive. Alternatively, you may consider buying equipment across the border in France (Décathlon, the French Intersport stores, or even Carrefour) or Germany. The Swiss flea markets often have good quality second hand ski clothing and equipment, and many churches and community centres organize “Sportbörse” (sports exchange) where people can bring their second hand sports equipment for sale or exchange. We have kept the kids in skis for several years now, picking up discarded skis people have left out for recycling after their own kids have outgrown them!
For clothing you can improvise to an extent rather than have specialist ski clothing, although Aldi and Schribo do some great deals on new kit – I just bought myself a new pair of ski pants in Aldi in Germany for less than 20 euro! If you don’t buy specialist gear, the trick is to ensure it is sufficiently warm and weather resistant. Typically we dress the kids in a pair of thick socks and full length thermal underwear, a T-shirt, a fleece, a tube scarf, a pair of waterproof, thermal mittens, ski goggles and a one-piece ski suit with a high collar. My preference for a one piece over a separate jacket and trousers or salopettes is that snow has a habit of getting up the back of the jacket if the kids fall over, go tobogganing or play in deep snow. Normally the nursery slopes are in less exposed areas, so the kids may not need quite so many layers, but it is always better to be prepared for the temperatures to be colder than expected rather than warmer. However, it can get very warm if the sun comes out, so you may want to reduce the layers accordingly once you are on the piste. Also make sure every potential bit of exposed skin is covered in factor 50 sun protection cream whether it is sunny or not. Learn how to treat skin problems at mum-writes.com.
Needless to say, with all the kids’ equipment, bottles of water, tissues, snacks, sunscreen and the like, you are advised to take a backpack with you. Often there are lockers where you can leave the gear in resorts if you do not want to take it with you if you go off skiing yourself, and in Switzerland it is generally reasonable to expect a bag left in a corner to still be there when you get back! Most railway stations and major lift stations provide lockers.
One final point – check that your insurance covers you for winter sports, specifically search and rescue, hospital costs and third party liability. You can get top up insurance from Snowcare or in resort and may be interested in joining Rega, who provide helicopter rescue to members.

(This article is based on an upcoming article in the excellent Basel Family Magazine)

Share Button

Feldberg in the Black Forest

Although some of the best skiing in the world is only a couple of hours away from Basel it is possible to ski and snowboard much closer. In the Jura, in Basel-land, there is a small ski area called Langenbruck, with a couple of surface lifts and some short, gentle runs. It is accessible by public transport, but is easier to reach by car. However it is low and currently closed because of the unseasonably warm winter. The nearest resort of any size still open is Feldberg in the Black Forest.

Feldberg )resort website is here) is comparable to many of the smaller Alpine resorts in scale, although with pistes between 1448 and 945m it is quite low. Despite the altitude, however, the pistes have held up better than many higher resorts this season. There are fourteen runs – 3 black, 7 red and 4 blue – comprising around 25km of piste spread over two sides of a valley. The runs on the North-facing side of the valley, off the Grafenmatt, are mostly through the trees and are largely suitable for intermediate skiers. The runs on the South-facing side of the valley, on Seebuck, only loosely connect to the runs across the road via a ski bridge, but the area is better for beginners with a wide, gentle blue run and red runs that really should be graded blue and a good funpark all accessible by an excellent six person chair lift. On Grafenmatt it is almost impossible to escape using surface lifts, of which there are nine in the resort, although there is a modern four-seater chairlift with over 400m vertical ascent providing access to some fine red and black runs, a free ride area and a 3km-long, very challenging blue run. The combined lift capacity of the resort is 24,000 people an hour, so queues are generally short even at busy periods. Around 5km of the pistes have snow cannon cover.

Needless to say, Feldberg is popular with weekend skiers and parking can be challenging unless you arrive early. Interestingly enough Feldberg is also popular with many skiers and snowboarders from Belgium, Holland and North Germany, for whom it is an easier trip than the Alps.

The run from Basel by car is just over an hour, driving north on the B317 from Lörrach up through the delightful Wiesental, and from Freiburg it is three-quarters of an hour (via Titisee). By public transport the trip is under 2 hours from Basel (via Freiburg) and around an hour from Freiburg with regular buses on routes 9007 and 7300 from the nearby railway station at Feldberg-Bärental.

Although small, low, busy and with too many surface lifts, Feldberg is actually a delightful little resort, and highly affordable. A day pass is a reasonable 27 Euros and prices for kit hire, lessons, meals and refreshments are very competitive and there is plenty of choice. There are also number of smaller resorts in the area, including a pleasant area served by a surface lift at Altglashütten, and one served by a gondola at Belchen. All of the resort runs, public transport and a range of other amenities are available free with the “Hochschwarzwald-Card”, which is itself provided gratis for guests in local hotels (depending on length of stay). The area is good for walking and there are a number of cross-country ski circuits, an outstanding all-season water park at Titisee and various other off-piste diversions throughout the “Hochschwarzwald” area.

The standard of accommodation in the hotels and guesthouses in the Black Forest is consistently high. For families the Feldberger Hof  is supremely convenient for the slopes and has superb childcare facilities.  For the more budget-conscious I recommend the excellent family-run Landhotel Sonneck in nearby Altglashütten, a delightful village with rail connections to Titisee and a bus service to Feldberg, as well as having a small ski area in the village.

A full resort report is located at the Swiss Winter Sports web site, with a version in Dutch here.

Share Button