Mention skiing in November and it is likely to draw blank expressions, or comments like: “It’s too early, there will be no snow”. While this is true for some resorts not all ski domains were created equal.
A recent study shows that in 2015, snow came to the Swiss Alps 12 days later and melted 26 days earlier than it did in 1970. This has made it harder to book a ski holiday and be sure there will be enough snow when you get there. In addition, it has brought stiffer competition for accommodation in February, the most reliable month.
Some high altitude resorts however, still have long seasons. A few even have skiing all year round.
So why ski early? Here are a few good reasons:
Beat the autumn blues
For those living in northern Europe it is easy to dread cold, grey, dark winters. In Switzerland it is a different matter. Winter brings snow and snow means outdoor fun. The only catch is enduring that “nothing” period between the end of summer and the start of the winter fun. That patch when it’s cold but not quite cold enough.
Skiing in November and early December is like time travelling. Fast forwarding to the snow.
Few take to the snow early. Most are still pining for summer or getting back into work after their summer break. While this lot are working or lamenting the end of summer you will have the mountain to yourself.
Save a bundle
Accommodation prices are significantly lower early season. For example, prices in the December lead up to Christmas are sometimes 30% lower than those in February. Hotels and holiday lets are cheaper too. Holiday lets and hotels in Zermatt can be 20% to 30% cheaper, and in November some hotels offer discounts 40% to 50% off pricey peak rates.
So where are Switzerland’s highest slopes? Three of Switzerland’s highest are Zermatt, Saas Fee and Verbier.
Zermatt is the highest of them all. The ski-lift high-point is Gobba di Rollin at 3,899m. From here you can ski over to Italy. A much more impressive lift high point is the nearby 3883m Klein Matterhorn, which has a restaurant, accommodation and an ice grotto.
Long before Zermatt became famous for skiing, it was a mountaineering resort. 2015 was the 150-year anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn by Englishman Edward Whymper and his team in 1865.
Due to sheer altitude and glaciers, Zermatt boasts 365-day-a-year skiing. In winter when it is fully open it has 360km of ski runs.
Tip: Buy an international pass and ski over to Italy for lunch. Be sure not to miss the last lift back over to Switzerland. It’s a long way back in a taxi.
Fact: The iconic 4,478m high Matterhorn is only half Swiss. One side of it is Italian where it is called Cervino1.
Lift high point: 3,899m (Gobba di Rollin).
Village altitude: 1,620m
Season opening: Year round.
Saas Fee is Zermatt’s less well-known neighbour. One mountain range east of the mighty Matterhorn, is the 4,027m peak Allalin, the centre piece of Saas Fee. Accessible by road only since 1951, the mountain village of Saas Fee, like Zermatt, is car free.
One October I skied on Saas Fee’s glacier. Standing in line with the Russian ski team, I braced myself for heavy unforgiving snow. To my surprise, it was light and fluffy.
Tip: Group ski school classes start at 10am, which means you can sleep in a bit.
Fact: The 1984 Wham song Last Christmas was filmed in Saas Fee.
Lift high point: 3,573m (Allalin 2).
Village altitude: 1,800m.
Season opening: Year round.
Verbier is one of four valleys connected by a network of lifts, with Mont Fort (3,328 m) as its summit. The three other resorts of Nendaz, Veysonnaz, and Thyon share Mont Fort as their high point. The peak sits above the Tortin Glacier.
From the top of the Mont Fort lift it is possible to see both the tops of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps (4,809m), and the Matterhorn. It also offers a bird’s eye view of the route for the biennial Patrouille de Glacier ski touring race from Zermatt to Verbier.
Tip: Ski on 3 December 2022, Verbier’s opening day, dress as Santa Claus, and get a free ski pass.
Fact: Verbier once offered summer skiing on the Tortin glacier. T-bars installed on the glacier in 1982 were decommissioned in 2008.
Lift high point: 3,328 (Mont Fort).
Village altitude: 1,500.
Season opening: 2 December.
Of these resorts the first two are best equipped for early season skiing. Both Zermatt and Saas Fee have skiable glaciers and boast of year-round skiing, including the summer months.
1 The border was finalised in 1941.
By Phillip Judd