Tag Archives: engelberg

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

1/8/11 – At SF1.27 and falling, every centime counts

Today is Swiss National Day, this year marking 720 years of age for the country. While its inhabitants enjoyed a bank holiday, with parties in every village, visitors from the UK will not feel so festive looking ahead to a winter of grappling with an increasingly grim pound-franc exchange rate. Today it’s SF1.27 = £1; on 1 August last year it was SF1.63; in 2009 SF1.78; in 2008 SF2.06; in 2007 SF2.43. The Euro is 1.14 per £1 compared to 1.2 last year (source: currency website xe.com).

Common sense says this could be a year to go to Italy or Austria – the cheapest of the “big four” – but I think there are plenty of skiers who will remain faithful to Switzerland. To a certain extent I am one of them, chiefly because our family has a fantastic little flat in Anzere. As I’ve been doing my cheapskate best to save cash in Switzerland for years, well before the exchange rate turned nasty, here are a few tips.

1. Use the Resort Price Index in Where to Ski and Snowboard 2012 (out in September) to identify cheaper resorts. In the 2011 edition (rrp £18.99), Meiringen was the sole Swiss resort (of those that made the survey) that was cheaper than the average across the Alps. Engelberg and Laax were a little dearer, followed by Andermatt, Anzere, Val d’Anniviers, Adelboden, Champery and Villars. Into the “ker-ching” category, and in ascending order, were Davos/Klosters and Zermatt, then Crans, Verbier and St Moritz. I’ve missed a few – and so have they – but you get the idea. There are various advantages to smaller resorts, anyway – such as fewer opportunities to shop or eat expensively.

Instructor Monica Heussi (right) with a friend of mine, Kirstin Jones, in Andermatt

2. By canny about guided off-piste. In Andermatt and Engelberg, two of the best off-piste spots in the Alps, a little knowledge can save you a fortune. In Engelberg, the guiding centre (opposite the station) is happy to form groups out of strangers, which brings the cost down dramatically if you are on holiday a deux. A couple of years ago a friend and I were put with three Swedes for a fantastic day with guide Remo Baltermia. A few days later in Andermatt, we nearly fainted when told the day rate for a guide and instead tracked down Monica Heussi of Andermatt Experience, a qualified instructor who took us to some brilliant remote places, but – as per Swiss rules for non-guides – not on glacier, for almost half the price.

3. In some cases chalet packages will be the cheapest option, but if (like me) you are not a fan of chalets or if they are not an option, go self-catering – or choose a self-catering package with a small operator; for instance, Zuba Ski has uncatered chalets in the Val d’Anniviers, prices tbc soon, and German operator Belvivo has flats in Anzere, including six days’ ski pass, from 249 Euros per person. Even in Zermatt, you can get reasonable rates on apartments – as long as they aren’t flash – in lowish season. Last year my sister and her family of four paid SF1,200 for a week in a central apartment with a balcony. To make this work, it follows that you must then shop sensibly in the supermarket rather than pursuing a daily diet of boutique cheeses and the finest viande sechee.

4. Pick your resort carefully if you have young kids. In Zermatt, under nines are free, but in Verbier, Davos and Wengen only under sixes are.

The view from one of our picnic spots in Anzere

5. Picnic at lunchtime – even in midwinter. Last January in Muerren we ate rolls on the chairlift and stopped for a hot chocolate or two if we needed to warm up. In a blizzard we  snuck out our picnic into the restaurant, which I know is naughty, but at least we had cash left to spend in the Staegerstuebli later… In occasional resorts you can cook your own meat on the mountain: in Anzere, there are barbecues in two piste-side cowsheds, plus a supply of firewood, and many a lunchtime have we heaved a rucksack full of saucisses and a tube of Thomy mustard up there (only to forget the matches…).

6. Buy your train pass in advance if you have a long trip from airport to resort – the Swiss Transfer Ticket costs a fixed price for train and/or postbus from airport or border to end point (currently SF130), but it’s only worthwhile if your journey is quite a decent one and if the on-station price is more (check at http://www.sbb.ch/en).

Balmers Herberge in Interlaken, where a B&B in a dorm room cost us SF28.50

7. Sleep in budget accommodation: Switzerland has plenty. I’ve stayed comfortably in a dormitory in Basel BackPack en route to ski touring, and in the excellent Balmers Herberge, Interlaken (gateway to Jungfrau region), both for around SF30 per night including breakfast. I’ve stayed in the youth hostel and in the then-unmodernised Hotel Bahnhof in Engelberg for around SF45, and in slightly ropey hostels in Zermatt and Verbier for a similar amount. My favourite budget lodging in Switzerland is Chalet Fontana smack in the middle of Muerren, opposite the supermarket, at SF50 per person per night.

8. Make use of ‘guest card’-type offerings. In some resorts you’re entitled to use a sports centre, go on local buses or visit museums and attractions for free or at a discount. Check what you can get and use it.

9. Go for the Tagesmenu. In Zermatt’s Schwyzer Stuebli in Hotel Schweizerhof, three tasty courses costs less than SF30 in winter (and as a bonus there is nightly live Swiss music too). If you’re visiting a hotel for supper, eat in the Stuebli rather than the ‘smart part’, if there’s a choice. For example the Stuebli at the Walliserhof, an excellent hotel in Zermatt run by a friend of mine, offers more rustic, cheesy, reasonable options than the next-door Grill.

That’s it for now – and if you have tips for saving cash in Switzerland please post a comment!

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Filed under Austria, Food and drink, Gear, Italy, Off-piste, Switzerland, Transport