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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Short Trips to Winter Sports Resorts




If you are fortunate enough to live in Switzerland, or have some other reason to be in or near Switzerland between November and May, it is remarkably easy to take a day trip to the Swiss Alps. Although it is convenient to use a car, there is very little reason not to take public transport. The travel times are comparable, it is at least as convenient by public transport and the ecological footprint is smaller. In addition many trains provide buffets and if they don’t, the local kiosk or Co-op can sell you snacks and refreshments to take with you. It is quite acceptable on Swiss trains to bring on board your favourite tipple to enjoy apres ski in the comfort of your return journey, reflecting on your day in the mountains whilst the mountain scenery passes alongside.
Probably the most cost-effective way to ski or snowboard is to take advantage of the Swiss Railways “Snow’n’Rail” scheme, which offers discounts on ski hire from the ubiquitous Intersports hire shops and significantly reduced charges for a combined rail and ski passes. You receive a ticket and a seperate voucher for the ski pass which can be exchanged for a ski card at the mountain resorts. Often there is a small deposit on the ski card, typically 5 SFr, redeemable when you return the card. The ticket and voucher can be purchased at railway stations either at a counter or from a ticket machine. The ticket machines will guide you through the purchase in English, French, German or Italian, and the online and printed brochures promoting the scheme are available in these languages too – although only the German version is comprehensive and the online versions are only available in season.
You can buy Snow’n’Rail passes for one or two days. There are also some destinations which offer six days passes, Engadin St Moritz being the most attractive. Astoundingly you can get to most ski areas in Switzerland by public transport on a day pass and get a full day’s skiing, provided you are willing to get up early enough! Some Snow’n’Rail desinations involve a combination of train and bus – don’t be put off by using buses, the buses are as efficient as the trains and the transfers are usually as easy as they are between trains. Most stations, hire shops and ski areas provide storage facilities if you don’t want to carry your gear around with you when you ski, although many regulars of the Snow’n’Rail service I know literally leave home in their ski boots ready to leap off the destination lift or train right onto the slopes.
Snow’n’Rail is not just for residents or people passing through Switzerland. It is entirely feasible to take a flight to Zurich Airport and get a full day skiing at somewhere like Flumseberg, two hours away from the terminal. An evening flight to Basel and a night at the YMCA near the station means you can get a full day skiing the next day at resorts like Wengen and Engelberg. Flying into Geneva on a Friday and staying at a hostel in Zermatt can give you two full days on the slopes before you return home on a Sunday evening flight.
Snow’n’Rail’s online brochure is produced seasonly, but this link will help you navigate it when it is available.

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