The Alpine drought is causing mayhem for resorts. We look at the places that are affected and why, plus where the best spots to ski are now
Why is there no rain or snowfall in certain parts of France? “It was a very weird start to winter in the Alps, all thanks to a battle between wet and stormy weather trying to sweep in from the Atlantic, and high pressure stuck over central Europe, bringing dry, calm conditions and some long sunny spells,” say the Times weather writer Paul Simons.
As well as bright sunny days, there was also a temperature inversion in large parts of the French Alps over the Christmas period — meaning that it was colder in the valleys than at altitude.
The worst affected region is the Haute-Savoie, where the head meteorologist at Météo France, Serge Taboulot, has described the situation as “unprecedented”. Last month was the driest December in the region for 135 years, but the drought is the result of below average rainfall in the past six months.
Thankfully, many resorts in the region woke to light snowfall this morning and there is more snow forecast in the coming days, which will top up pistes and turn lower-altitude areas from green to white. “Snow conditions have been improving across the northern half of the Alps, and will continue to do so this week with more snow forecast,” Fraser Wilkin, of weathertoski.co.uk, says. “However, it should be remembered that snow depths remain way below where they should be for early January and that few resorts are anything like close to being fully open.”
Of the 20 worst-faring French ski resorts in terms of snow cover on their highest pistes, nine are located in the Haute-Savoie department, according to data from the Ski Club of Great Britain. The resorts are: Le Grand-Bornand, Les Contamines, Les Gets, Samoëns, Megève, Les Houches, St Gervais, Les Carroz and Morzine.
Where in France is not affected?
The best snow conditions remain in the high resorts close to the Italian border, from Val d’Isère and Tignes southwards, including Val Cenis and Montgenèvre. Other high resorts such as Val Thorens and Les Deux Alpes have good on-piste conditions.
What about other ski countries?
Right now, the best snow conditions can be found in Austria (away from the far south) thanks to multiple recent snowfalls. Resorts that have seen plenty of snow and have good skiing conditions include Lech, Ischgl, Saalbach, Kaprun and Kitzbühel. St Anton and Lech have the best off-piste possibilities.
Switzerland also suffered last month, recording its driest December in 150 years, but conditions at its resorts have improved dramatically thanks to heavy recent snowfalls. Wengen and Klosters offer excellent on-piste snow quality now, even if they are far from completely open. “Off-piste opportunities, however, remain limited in most resorts,” Wilkin says.
Italy isn’t faring so well, and bar one or two exceptions, most Italian ski resorts are still heavily reliant on artificial snow. The best snow cover can still be found in the higher resorts of the western Alps, such as Champoluc, Cervinia and Sestriere.
What happens if you’re booked in at resort that has limited skiing because of lack of snow?
All resorts, even those in the drought zone, are open for skiing. However, at many only are handful of slopes are open. In the Portes du Soleil, one of the worst affected areas, high-altitude Avoriaz has 60cm of snow on its upper pistes and all but ten of the 34 lifts are open.
Crystal Ski said that before Christmas it allowed customers to change resort for free, and also offered free coach services to transport skiers to higher resorts in areas affected by lack of snow. The company said it is now possible to ski at all the resorts it offers.
However, it is very important not to ski on closed slopes — even if they look as though there is enough snow. Virtually all travel insurance policies will be void if you hurt yourself on a closed slope and you may be liable to pay expensive rescue bills.
What does it mean for resorts?
Businesses in ski resorts are very unhappy. The town hall of Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc issued a statement this afternoon lambasting the comments of Pierre Lambert, the head of the Haute-Savoie regional government. It said his threat of a drought stoppage was “a stab by the state against tourism and its economy”.
Ski resorts have had a tough couple of months. Unseasonably early snowfalls in November were celebrated, but in many resorts it was the last snowfall for 50 consecutive days. Christmas was a hard sell for resorts. La Clusaz, in the Haute-Savoie department, recorded an occupancy rate of about 50 per cent for the Christmas week, compared with 90 per cent last year. Resorts also suffered with Christmas falling on a Sunday, and New Year’s Eve a Saturday.
It has been a difficult couple of months for ski resorts
What do tour operators say?
Tour operators that offer holidays in the affected region were quick to say that there is more to skiing than just powder snow. “Skiers have been enjoying blue-sky days and sunshine on the mountain, and on higher slopes, the huge snowfalls of November provided a lasting base,” says Paul Carter, the chief operating officer at Hotelplan, which owns Inghams, Ski Total and Esprit Ski.
Are there any good deals?
Yes. For example, in the Portes du Soleil, Ski Total (01483 791 935, skitotal.com) has a week’s chalet board at Chalet Perce Neige in Avoriaz from £527pp (reduced from £907pp), including flights and transfers, departing on January 22. Meanwhile, in Austria, Crystal Ski has a week’s half board at the Pension Maximilian in Söll from £463pp, saving £115pp, including flights and transfers, departing January 21.