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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Autumn Skiing

Nic Oatridge skiing Verbier and Zermatt

With Covid-19 rampant throughout the Alpine nations, the question many people have been asking is: “Will I be able to ski this season?”. The answer is yes – at this time at least – if you are not otherwise prevented from visiting the Alps by Covid restrictions.

I came out to Switzerland from London in October, before lockdown in the UK, and had 10 days of quarantine once I arrived. With online shopping for groceries and family and friends only a click away, isolation passed quickly. Furthermore my confinement was deep in the Swiss Alps, in Aigle in the upper Rhône valley , with the slopes of les Portes du Soleil, Leysin and Villars visible from my windows, and the peaks of les Dents du Midi towering over the valley.

View of les Dents du Midi from Aigle. Copyright Nic Oatridge.
les Dents du Midi, seen from Aigle

Sadly the season is too early for the most nearby resorts to be open, but there is always skiing on the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, so as soon as I exited quarantine, I was on my way to Zermatt.

Nic Oatridge in Zermatt

In a subsequent post I will focus on the impact of Covid-19, but for now I will concentrate on the skiing. Although there is skiing out of Zermatt all year round, summer skiing is limited and the slopes tend to turn to mush by lunchtime. November heralds the start of the winter season; however the snowline is still too high to allow for much of the resort to be open, with only the area above Trockener Steg at 2939m open on a pretty creditable 26km piste. Most years you would also be able to connect to the slopes in Cervinia, across in Italy, but the border is closed at this time due to Covid-19

Empty slopes above Trockener Steg in Zermatt

But the good news is that the snow above Zermatt is near perfect and the pistes are wonderfully quiet.

Skiing on the Theodulgletscher

Zermatt is an expensive resort, and you might well ask if it is worthwhile when so little is open. Furthermore there is limited off-piste and the available runs are all limited to cruisy reds and blues. I can only offer the opinion that this quality of lift-served skiing, in November, is not available anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere. Zermatt never rests on its laurels and every year there are lift improvements. Even though you need to take three cable cars to get to the highest point, at a dizzying 3883m, you can be skiing a little after 9am with an 8.30am start.

View over Cervinia towards Mont Blanc from Klein Matterhorn

A large proportion of the other skiers are ski instructors, in training for a new season – most of which seems to involve warming up and talking. As a result the slopes are delightfully uncrowded and you can do some runs without seeing another soul the whole way down.

I would have liked to stay in Zermatt longer, but with a lockdown imminent I decided to slip in a day’s skiing in Verbier before returning to Aigle. Verbier opened up for weekend skiing only and has, in effect, only one open run. Whether that was worth skiing, I was about to find out.

Attelas, Verbier

What are the ski resorts like at this time of year, before the season fully starts? Ignoring the impact of Covid-19, the resorts are still in effect in off-season mode and most hotels, bars and restaurants are still closed. Those that are open are quiet. Add to that the impact of Covid-19 and the whole experience of skiing in autumn is not what most skiers and snowboarders would recognise as a winter sports vacation. If you are coming primarily to ski and snowboard though, Zermatt definitely gets my vote. But what of Verbier?

Sadly, Verbier fell somewhat short of the experience in Zermatt. The only slope open is the run off Attelas at 2727m down to le Lac des Vaux. It’s a short blue run, with the dogtail of the red run off Chassoure providing a little variety. There’s a number of off-piste runs down to the lake too, but the snow cover is very thin and I wouldn’t recommend them.

Skiers on Lac des Vaux run off Attelas, Verbier

When I got to Attelas, having taken one of the first gondolas up, the run was busy but not too crowded. It got more crowded as the day went on and queues developed at the lift back up to Attelas, but the crowds and queues were acceptable. The ski and snowboard set were different from Zermatt, being mostly younger skiers and families on a day trip from nearby towns.

The snow deteriorated through the course of the day and was more like spring skiing than was the case in Zermatt where the base held up throughout the day. The volume of skiers also led to moguls forming on the steeper section of the run.

Fontanet, Verbier
The closed ski area between Fontanet and Attelas, above Les Ruinettes

It’s clearly very early in the season and the snow line is above 2500m on North-facing slopes. If the temperatures start to drop and there is more precipitation, the section above Les Ruinettes will also open, providing a reasonable variety of piste. However the prospect at this time is for warm, sunny days and it might not be before December when Verbier can offer more pistes. If, however, you are in the region and fancy getting a couple of turns in, Verbier is open for business.

A number of other resorts have limited skiing at this time, almost exclusively in Switzerland, including the glaciers on Titlis (Engelberg) and Diablerets (Glacier 3000). However there are only a few kilometres of piste open at these resorts, and the few others that I think will be open for weekend skiing will be very limited. More promising is Saas-Fee, which claims to have 53km open, and that will be my next port of call. I like Saas-Fee, having first visited the resort over a quarter of a century ago and been several times since. I did ski there early in the season one year before, and found the ski conditions pretty good.

Verbier Medran Gondola
Verbier

Of course, snow conditions are not the only consideration when going skiing or snowboarding in these Covid times. I’ll cover that in my next blog article.

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