Tag Archives: avalanche

30/3/12 – Where to go for April snow?

Spring-like Ischgl slopes this time last year

Spring ski deals have been landing in my inbox thick and fast this week. Inghams has amazing April savings – Courchevel or St Christoph am Arlberg for £349, including flights and half-board – while Powder White has slashed hundreds of pounds off holidays in St Anton and Meribel and extended the season for several of its properties. I’m sure Crystal, Iglu Ski and other operators and agents have bargains as well.

Most cut-price offers are chalet-based – not my ideal set-up as I prefer b&b or self-catering to take advantage of “local life” – but when such great savings are on offer, no matter.

Do be aware, however, that even in a bumper snow year it’s still worth aiming high (a top of somewhere around 3,000m, I suggest) if you want quality conditions.

Afternoon ski-touring in the woods near Anzere

Even if – like in many places – you still have a metre of snow at village level, if it’s 20 degrees by day then that snow will be foot-deep slush by 2pm unless you’re properly high and – just as crucially – north-ish facing.

Last weekend in south-facing Anzere, which still has mountains of snow in the village (at 1,500m), by 1pm it was over, even on upper slopes (2,400m). I was happy to ski in the morning and go touring through the woods in the afternoon, or sit on the balcony or swim at the great new indoor-outdoor pool (more on this nice, affordable Swiss resort here).

The high slopes at Grimentz last weekend

By contrast an hour away in the Val d’Anniviers, the resorts of Zinal and Grimentz had wintry piste conditions from three of their top stations (each around 2,800-2,900m), and the week-old, tracked-out powder by the side wasn’t bad either. The crucial thing was that the worthwhile top slopes were north or north-east facing (the fourth top, which faces south at 2,800m, was heavy slush by lunchtime).

The other consideration is that places where you typically find lovely “firn” or “corn snow” off-piste at this time of year (caused by freeze-thaw) may not be as good as usual.

A wet-snow slide of the full snowpack that started on a slope of around 30 degrees and crept a surprisingly long way

In Anzere you can often ski almost every square inch of south-facing slope safely during freeze-thaw if you catch it at the right time of day.

However, the cracks in the snowpack that appeared in December – after 2m of snow fell on warm, bare ground – are still there. They haven’t responded well to blasting, but some readily slide off by themselves.

Sunny side up: lunch outdoors is a pleasure of a spring trip. Just don't necessarily expect to do much skiing afterwards

“Hors piste interdit”, read a sign at the top of Le Bate at Anzere, and patrollers were posted at strategic spots near the cracks, on the alert for one to turn into something like the lift-destroying, wet-snow slide of a few weeks ago near Valmorel in France (watch the footage here).

I may not ski this April, but if I was planning a trip for myself – an affordable week or long weekend with the hope of off-piste and enough late-season après-life – these are the places I’d consider:

The Guspis off-piste run at Andermatt in wintry conditions - but this is a good spring bet, too

Engelberg (Switzerland, nearest airport Zurich) – slopes to at least 3,000m, largely north-facing; open till 29 May; great guiding office (see my article about that here).

Monterosa (Italy, Milan or Turin) – Amazingly, until this resort closes on 15 April this Italian “three valleys” is offering a free lift pass to everyone who stays three or more nights (half-board) in Gressoney or Champoluc. The slopes go to about 3,200m and face in all directions, and there are legendary off-piste runs down wild valleys (with cheapish guiding) and superb, great-value food on and off the mountain.

Andermatt (Switzerland, Zurich) – Lower Naetschen will be closed, but the 3,000-ish-metre Gemsstock mountain has an amazing north-facing bowl and various back routes. Read more in my Telegraph report here.

Zermatt (Switzerland, Zurich or Geneva) – several high tops and possible guided descent of Schwarztor. Stay in the Walliserhof for a treat or the Alphubel for a bargain. My sister has found a super-cheap, central, family apartment but it’s such a steal that it has to remain top secret so she can always get in. Sorry!

...and when the slush sets in, here's what you can do instead

Ischgl (Austria, Innsbruck or Zurich) – up to 2,800-ish, but the main thing is that it has a lot of upper slopes and they face in various directions. A year ago we had a lot of fun there with Jim Costelloe, a Ski Club of GB leader who found us fabulous snow despite very scant cover. A friend and I even did an easy self-guided tour up a side-valley – although this year it would probably be less safe.

Tignes (France, Geneva or Chambery I think) – When there was virtually no snow last November, we had great conditions on the glacier. Stay on the upper slopes throughout the area for quality snow and see here for more about its group off-piste days out. Go the first weekend of May to catch the Black Shoes Telemark Festival’s 20th anniversary. The other high French resorts (Deux Alpes, Alpe d’Huez, Val Thorens) should be fine, too.

Obergurgl and/or Soelden (Austria, Innsbruck, Zurich or Salzburg) – They didn’t benefit from the big weather fronts in December and January, which approached from the north and blanketed the Arlberg again and again before arriving in the Oetz valley as wind. But now, conditions look great. Take the bus to the Aquadome at Langenfeld if it’s boiling hot in the afternoon and don’t miss the Nederhut après-ski on Mon, Wed and Fri.

I’m a great fan of St Anton, where I have been late in the season several times (most lately to do the Weisse Rausch, a mad annual race), but I recommend it less as a late-season place than my two other Austrian tips, as the number of its slopes that are really up near its tops, as well as being north-ish facing, seems to be fewer for its size, and rather scattered about, compared with other options. But if you like a busy town with plenty of après-ski, this is still a good bet well into April.

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Filed under Austria, Food and drink, Italy, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Link to film, Off-piste, Racing, Ski touring, Switzerland

6/1/12 – How I was once ‘imprisoned’ by an avalanche in Zermatt

Zermatt from its ski area. Yesterday's avalanche came from the left, round the corner... I think

Yesterday, an avalanche down the valley from Zermatt blocked the road and railway up to the Swiss resort. My parents happened to be driving up the valley at the time, and came to a couple of men waving flags to stop the traffic at about 2pm, somewhere below Randa, where the avalanche had come down. Today the road and railway have reopened.

While I was cruising the web looking for information, I came across an article (read it here) in the Swiss newspaper, Blick, which expressed entertainment at British papers’ coverage of the Zermatt situation (“Trapped! Avalanche strands skiers in Swiss resort of Zermatt” – Daily Mail).

Here’s my rough translation.

“The situation has even been causing excitement in England,” wrote the Blick reporter. “…Even the Guardian reports on its ‘imprisoned’ countrymen. But Marcus Rieder, a spokesman for the cantonal police, had to chuckle. ‘It’s not a serious situation, and the avalanche wasn’t that big,’ he said. ‘A couple of cars were covered briefly and a disused building had its roof blown off by the avalanche wind.” Interestingly, Rieder added that the avalanche – a powder avalanche rather than a slab – was triggered by a serac breaking off the Weisshorn glacier high above.

In fact, it sounds as though the conditions have left people stranded all over the place. According to the same report in Blick, the Swiss resort of Andermatt, parts of the Bernese Oberland and parts of Austria’s Arlberg are now cut off due to the high avalanche risk, which is level five in places after massive snowfall and – more significantly – high winds.

Yesterday was far from the first time holidaymakers have been “imprisoned” in Zermatt. On my first visit, aged seven-ish, just before Christmas, an avalanche in a similar spot shut off access for several days.

With no choice but to stay put, we tried to extend our lift passes beyond the three days we had already purchased and used up, but the lift pass office refused to sell us additional (and therefore cheaper) days, insisting we start again at day one. So unimpressed were we at this attitude that we joined the queue for a helicopter out of town…

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Filed under Switzerland, Transport

21/1/11 – Avalanche article – skiers warned…

Below is a link to an article of mine that appeared in Country Life magazine in one of its January issues and at http://www.countrylife.co.uk. It was in the wake of two horrific recent avalanches in the Le Fornet section of Val d’Isere, in which two groups, led by mountain guides, were caught in separate incidents.

http://www.countrylife.co.uk/countryside/article/513587/Skiers+urged+to+exercise+caution.html

During the Ski Club of GB leaders’ course (see posts from December) a lot of the teaching related to avalanches. I think that the more skiers and boarders know about the risks, and the better they understand them, the better.

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Filed under France, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Off-piste