Is it that time already? After a wonderful summer in Mallorca that seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, I’m starting to think about the coming ski season. My winter home is Zermatt, one of the very best for reliable snow conditions in the early and late season. Indeed, skiing is possible in Zermatt 365 days a year.
I’m often asked about the guarantee of snow in any given resort. It’s a very fair question. You don’t want to blow a small fortune on a skiing holiday only to turn up to threadbare pistes, or, worse still, no snow at all. That’s a nightmarish situation, so the ‘snow sure’ question in understandable. As a rule of thumb the higher the altitude of a resort the more chance of good skiing conditions. There is a direct correlation between mountain height and low temperatures. This, in turn, will affect the quality of the snow and how long it will last.
With the highest groomed ski runs in Europe, Zermatt is one of the first resorts to open for the winter season. At almost 4,000m above sea level, the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise is the highest point in the Alps that can be accessed by cable car. In 2018, the Klein Matterhorn cable car was superseded by a brand new 3S gondola lift which carries 28 people in each of its 25 cabins.
With the autumnal drop in temperatures, Zermatt has already had some healthy snow falls on the upper slopes of the Klein Matterhorn where conditions are already looking wintery. What is more, the skiing currently available is about to be extended with the opening of the Furggsattel chair lift which is scheduled for this month (Oct). After that, skiers can look forward to a further increase in the ski area with the opening of the link with Cervinia (Italy) this October.
If you’re planning a December ski trip, you need to be confident that snow is guaranteed. The snow in Zermatt can come as early as October or as late as the end of November. But in Switzerland’s most famous ski resort there is always skiing to be had in early December when many resorts are still waiting to open.
Here are a few facts to help give December skiers the confidence to book an early-season trip to Zermatt. Over the past five years, Zermatt has opened its slopes at the beginning of the season with an excellent snow base. Since 2007 the average weekly December snowfall is close to 30cm. That means that in an average December, Zermatt receives 120cm of new snow, with the odds of a powder day on a December trip high at around 45%.
Traditional snowmaking requires a temperature of -2°C or lower. For now, it has to be below freezing to produce artificial snow to top up existing snow. The average December temperature in Zermatt is between -1°C on the lower slopes down to -13°C at the top of the mountain. These consistently low December temperatures guarantees snow can be made by all of the 1200 snow cannons in the area. The magic altitude for optimum snowy conditions is over 1800m and around 90% of Zermatt’s skiable area is above 1800m. At this height the temperature remains consistently low and helps maintain the quality of the snow.
Zermatt is unusual in that the historical snowfall record has seen even more snow fall in November than in December. Up to 200cm of snow can fall in Zermatt before most ski resorts are even open. The average snowfall in November is two-thirds higher than the December average, which means that by December there is already a good base in place.
Often claiming top spot for Europe’s snowiest ski area, this domain is no stranger to good conditions. The snow starts falling as early as September and really piles up throughout the season; we’re talking depths of around 7 metres in Lech and over 10 metres up in Zurs, which would bury most 2 storey houses.
The highest, best covered spots are over towards Warth or from the top of Zuger Hochlicht where there are lots of steeps to get waist deep in. With this much coverage it’s no wonder the Arlberg area’s such a huge hit in the world of freeriding. The village of Lech is set at a modest altitude of 1,450m, but each year the resort receives up to twice as much snow as some of its French rivals. The resort shares its local ski area with the smaller village of Zürs next door, and with nearby Warth-Schröcken, which lays claim to the title of snowiest ski area in the Alps, with an extraordinary average of 10.6m each winter.
For travelling further afield, heavyweight, modern connecting lifts make it easy for Lech visitors to access the whole Arlberg ski area, which is Austria’s largest interconnected ski area, and includes St Anton and its linked villages of Stuben and St Christoph. The Arlberg ski area has 88 lifts and 305 km of pistes, and also boasts 200km of off-piste runs.
A high percentage of Lech’s day visitors are from St Anton who find the neighbouring resort’s terrain much tougher than expected. However, overcrowding is rarely a problem – Lech was the first resort in Europe to cap the number of day passes issued to 14,000 a day. Lech enjoys one of the longest and most snow-sure seasons in all of central Europe.
With nothing but mountains for miles around, St Anton’s sheltered position in the Arlberg region keeps it cool and extremely snowy. The ski area goes up to 2811m on the Valluga, where you’ll usually find around three metre depths by the end of the season. North facing slopes keep the pistes shaded so your skis stay out the slush. The Rendl area is often quieter than the rest and not to be missed. Mother Nature also has a helping hand in the form of 194 cannons, which cover an impressive 95% of the pistes with artificial snow. While the Arlberg ski area as a whole has plenty of blue runs, the skiing in St Anton itself is mostly demanding and ideally suited to intermediates and above, so Lech and Zurs are more obvious bases for beginners.
St Anton is a non-glacial resort but is widely considered to be one of Austria’s most snow-sure resorts also famed for its regular bouts of winter sun. With pistes up to 2,811m in altitude, your sure of great skiing conditions throughout the season. Recently the completion of the Flexenbahn cableway linking St Anton to Lech and Zurs created a formidable ski area.
The L’Espace Killy is often regarded as having the most reliable snow in the Alps, primarily due to the extent of high altitude skiing. 60% of the L’Espace Killy’s 300km of slopes are above 2500m.
Although it’s on the northern side of the Alps, its proximity to the Italian border means that snow can also arrive from the south-east, a privilege not extended to other nearby resorts such as Courchevel or La Plagne . Throw in a couple of glaciers and nowhere else in Europe can offer such a variety of snow sure slopes for such a long season. Some of the areas pistes are at a dizzying height of 3,455m. Val d’sere is closely linked to Tignes, these two resorts offer drastically different village options but with the same fantastic skiing. State of the art artificial snow creation give arguably the best chance of low season snow in the world. Val d’sere also boasts a glacier ensuring skiing the year round.
The L’Espace Killy ski domain, which incorporates Val d’sere and Tignes is often regarded as having the most reliable snow in the Alps, primarily due to the extent of its high altitude skiing. 60% of its 300km of slopes are above 2500m. It’s then no wonder Tignes is high on the list of snow sure resorts. If there is a weakness in Tignes, it is that some of the home runs, lower down, are quite exposed to the sun and given the heavy traffic, can become slushy in spring.
Tignes is virtually tree-less, with nowhere to hide in really bad weather. If you can get over there, the woods above La Daille in Val d’Isere are your best bet for a bit of shelter. If poor snow conditions should prevail on the lower slopes, make for the Grande Motte glacier which nearly always has excellent snow conditions. Below glacier level, the long but shady ‘double M’ run down to Val Claret is also very reliable if conditions are below par. Tignes has the benefit of a glacier so skiing is more or less guaranteed all year round.
Danny Frith is Director at SkiBoutique. SkiBoutique is a luxury ski chalet agency based in Switzerland.