Let it snow! It was 20C on New Year’s Day and the rain’s hardly stopped, ROBERT HARDMAN visits the Alpine resorts forced to close runs or even shut down entirely – and asks: Is this the end of skiing as we know it?
At 10.30am this morning, viewers around the globe will be watching Olympian talents charging down an alp at breakneck speeds of up to 70mph in the latest round of skiing’s World Cup.
The sell-out crowd of 25,000 at the bottom of the hill will be authentic enough, as will the dangers for the athletes.
However, if the cameras pan back from the action, they will see a narrow white stripe glued to a vast landscape of green.
The audience may wonder if they are looking at Exmoor or the Brecon Beacons or a modest Scottish hillside – until they catch the odd glimpse of a Heidi-style chalet on the grassy slopes.
If the cameras pan back from the action at the Skiing World Cup, they will see a narrow white stripe glued to a vast landscape of green
Adelboden, like much of Europe, is suffering the warmest, the wettest and – for skiers, at least – the worst January most people can recall
For it is thanks only to the combined efforts of dozens of artificial snow machines, several lorry-loads of real snow from elsewhere and a battalion of Swiss Army conscripts with shovels whacking the track into shape that today’s racing is taking place.
Last week, one Swiss newspaper reported that it would require a ‘miracle’ for this event to go ahead.
That is because Adelboden, like much of Europe, is suffering the warmest, the wettest and – for skiers, at least – the worst January most people can recall.
It is thanks only to the combined efforts of dozens of artificial snow machines, several lorry-loads of real snow from elsewhere and a battalion of Swiss Army conscripts with shovels whacking the track into shape that today’s racing is taking place
On the day I arrive in the delightful French town of Morzine, the authorities finally decide to close a popular ski run down to the town that had been clinging on only thanks to a layer of artificial snow
For the average Brit like me, standing here in the drizzle, Adelboden feels very much at home. And yet it should not
Eight nations have already reported their highest January temperatures ever recorded, with the Swiss mountain town of Delemont clocking up 20 degrees on New Year’s Day.
To their great credit, the locals in the Swiss resort of Adelboden have managed to pull off their miracle, but the crowds turning up this afternoon will certainly not be needing scarves, thermals or thick gloves. A raincoat, on the other hand, is a must.
For the average Brit like me, standing here in the drizzle, Adelboden feels very much at home. And yet it should not.
People flock to this old Swiss ski town for its 70 miles of downhill skiing, not for a ramble in the rain.
It is the same all over many famous European resorts this weekend as skiers start to face the reality that one of the continent’s favourite sports – originally pioneered by bored British holidaymakers during the Victorian era – is now, gradually, going in the same direction as the average skier: downhill.
For a combination of warmer weather and equally unseasonal quantities of rain is conspiring to leave swathes of the Alps looking not so much like the proverbial chocolate box but, merely, like the chocolate inside.
Just this week, a TikTok clip of Swiss skiers ploughing through mud has gone viral.
The Patscherkofel winter-sport resort near Innsbruck, Austria, on January 2
And now an assortment of academics across Europe are warning that we must no longer regard this as an occasional freak result.
Rather, skiers must accept that this is becoming the new normal thanks to climate change.
One study has predicted that, a few decades from now, there will be no skiing below 1,600 metres (5,250ft, a level significantly higher than the top of the UK’s highest point, Ben Nevis).
Climate scientist Wim Thiery, from the University of Brussels, has gone as far as to predict that Alpine skiing as we know it will be over by the end of the century.
So I have spent this week travelling hundreds of miles through a list of places familiar to the million or so Brits who go skiing each year, not to mention the many millions more from all over Europe for whom this is a way of life.
And while Alpine veterans will always point to past seasons that got off to an awful start – I recall reporting on a few myself – and though it must be said that there is still much wonderful skiing to be had all over Europe right now, I have also been alarmed by some of the scenes I have witnessed this week.
Stretches of grass, rock and dirt have appeared on the slopes of some of Europe’s megastar ski resorts, such as Germany’s Lenggries (pictured on December 28)
On the day I arrive in the delightful French town of Morzine, the authorities finally decide to close a popular ski run down to the town that had been clinging on only thanks to a layer of artificial snow. No one can recall it closing like this in January.
Up at the top of the Pleney cable car, there is enough artificial snow to enable beginners to have lessons and I join them for a couple of runs.
But when I look out over the main ski area below, with its blue and red runs plus the steep ‘Olympique’ black run, I see just grass, shingle and mud.
What is so upsetting for the locals is that all of this was covered in snow and skiers in December, after a huge dump of early snow.
However, a sudden change in the weather a few days before Christmas washed the whole lot away.
Now, most skiers have to head up to the higher neighbouring resort of Avoriaz, which still has plenty of snow on its upper slopes.
In the next valley, the equally famous resort of Wengen has been the reluctant star of that viral TikTok video of mud skiing
Across the border in Switzerland, I arrive in grand old Grindelwald, at the foot of the Eiger. This is a town with great character and charm, not to mention starring roles in Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction and JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts
But with so many skiers flooding in from lower resorts, the bottleneck means queues of up to an hour for the lift.
Across the border in Switzerland, I arrive in grand old Grindelwald, at the foot of the Eiger.
This is a town with great character and charm, not to mention starring roles in Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction and JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts.
In a normal January, it would be looking idyllic with an icing sugar coating of snow on the houses and the town centre filling up with weird and wonderful scenes. Grindelwald is home to the annual Snow Festival, a festival of ice sculpture with monster ice cubes – 16ft high and wide – laid out for invited sculptors to create and do their thing.
But not anymore. For the first time in its 40-year history, the festival has been scrapped.
In the next valley, the equally famous resort of Wengen has been the reluctant star of that viral TikTok video of mud skiing.
The Turkish resort of Davraz (above) will see 50cm (20in) of fresh snow falling on its slopes over the next six to nine days
Head of tourism Rolf Wegmueller wearily points out to me that the mud in question was a tiny snowless stretch at the bottom of an otherwise perfectly skiable run from the top of the mountain.
For Wengen, like neighbouring Grindelwald, still has plenty of good snow and excellent skiing at the top.
All the skiers I talk to say that while these may not be perfect conditions, they are still having a good time.
However, the towns themselves look forlorn and naked without any snow. The situation is much worse for the many other resorts not blessed with snow-capped upper slopes above the 2,000m (6,560ft) mark, the point at which snow currently holds firm.
As a result, some are clinging on with a few runs constructed from frantically preserved artificial snow.
When I drive through the French resort of Les Gets this week, I find a handful of lifts servicing a couple of pistes that remain just about operational.
At the same time, I also come across a busy boules tournament kicking off in the main square while the local tourism bosses are busy promoting mountain biking and hiking opportunities.
Elsewhere, some low-lying resorts have simply given up. Poor Splugen, in Switzerland, has simply surrendered to the weather and announced that it will remain closed until the temperature drops again.
The French village of Saint-Firmin, an hour from Grenoble, has just demolished its solitary 58-year-old ski lift because the snow no longer falls there.
Resorts in the French and Spanish Pyrenees – where President Macron of France likes to ski – have shut up shop for the time being.
However, we should still put all this in perspective. There have been dismal starts to previous seasons that have then gone to produce some excellent skiing.
As old hands say, the European season never really hits its stride until February.
Plenty of French ski resorts can expect a high volume of snowfall in the next three to six days, including Alpe d’Huez (pictured), which is due to receive 58cm (23in) of snow
What’s more, skiers are like sailors, a philosophical breed who accept that good conditions must never be taken for granted.
Approaching various resort bosses this week, I have been impressed that all are happy to talk to me and that no one has tried to spin this as a one-off blip.
They are realists who know there is no point moaning like grumpy sunbathers on a cloudy day. You make the most of what you can find.
In Adelboden, I meet the man responsible for the ‘miracle’ of this weekend’s World Cup racetrack.
‘We have done what we can and now the forecast is looking good for the weekend because at least we have clear nights ahead,’ says Toni Hari, the chief of the course.
For the rest of the year, he is a ski instructor and also a farmer with 40 cows. Now aged 54, he grew up in this town and says he has never known a start to the season quite like this, with a hefty December snowfall followed by a 180-degree U-turn in the weather system.
The fact that this weekend’s race will take place on artificial snow is nothing new. As Toni points out, top skiers now insist on racing on artificial snow as it can be packed down harder and produces a more even surface.
The problem has been making the stuff in the first place. Snow machines – which are in effect high-pressure water pumps – need a minimum of -2C (28F) to produce decent snow. Even an Alpine January is finding those conditions elusive.
Ski bosses must also now contend with eco-activists who have started campaigning against snow machines.
Two snow cannons in Les Gets recently suffered £2,500 of vandalism, while campaigners in nearby Megeve are blocking attempts to open a new ski area there because it would rely on artificial snow.
The base of the peaks in U.S resorts – including Mammoth Mountain ski resort in California (above) – are offering high-quality snow depth
These machines do use huge amounts of power and water to generate the necessary results. However, ski resorts point out that water is one thing nobody is lacking right now.
What’s more, these places are not sitting idle while nature turns up the thermostat. Grindelwald, for example, runs its entire transport and ski lift system – including the world’s most modern, energy-efficient cable car – from its own hydro-electricity plant.
All the town’s hotels run on carbon-neutral power from a newly built recycling plant.
‘We may be a small town but we can show how these things are done,’ says tourism director Bruno Hauswirth.
He also points out that his town could have continued with this month’s Snow Festival if it had chosen to import truckloads of snow from elsewhere.
‘But we did not think that would be sending the correct signal in this climate. So we chose not to.’
However, you certainly cannot fault the upbeat, ‘chin-up’ attitude of the nation that invented the skiing holiday in the first place.
All the Brits I have met this week remain in high spirits. Perhaps our own experience of fickle weather helps.
‘Conditions haven’t been ideal but we have still had a great week,’ says Morzine regular Rachel Williams from Basingstoke.
Would it put her off coming back? ‘Of course not,’ she replies, with son, Zac, 15, in vigorous agreement.
In Wengen, I drop in at the headquarters of the Downhill Only Club, founded by bobble-hatted British enthusiasts here back in 1925.
The walls are lined with silverware and boards with the names of eminent past members.
Club manager Mark Hughes, an international ski instructor for the past 40 years, says there is more than enough skiing to be had on the upper slopes and that the membership – now around 1,000 strong from all over the world – will not be deterred by a bit of slush at the bottom.
I contact the oldest winter sports club in the world, the St Moritz Tobogganing Club, home of the famous Cresta Run, which was founded in 1888 (by guess who).
Riders travel head first down a 1,200-yard-long man-made ice chute lying on a steel frame called a skeleton, with the most reckless or unfortunate flying out at a notorious V-bend called Shuttlecock.
A lack of snow has left normally bustling European ski resorts deserted. Above is a slope formed from artificial snow in the very green alpine resort of Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland, on December 31
Many Olympians have cut their teeth (and other things) on this track.
Unseasonal warmth has already closed the run for two days this winter (whereas it didn’t miss a day last season) but club secretary Martin Greenland tells me that, overall, everything is in good shape.
Ironically, warmer weather makes the run slower and, therefore, less dangerous than a deep freeze.
However, with snow forecast for the week ahead, he is expecting a bumper turnout for the big race of the season, next month’s Grand National.
‘Look back through history and there have been some seasons when we didn’t race at all so no one is getting downhearted round here,’ he tells me.
Clearly, climate change means that grave challenges lie ahead for the entire winter sports industry.
But at least the country that first had the idea of turning two planks of wood and a snowy incline into a sport is not giving up just yet.
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