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Historical snow conditions in the Portes du Soleil

October 12th, 2008

 Why does the Portes du Soleil ski area get such bad press?

I read an article today about which resorts got the most snow during the winter 07/08 season. A couple of European resorts which got a mention were Tignes (which recorded 5.82 m) and Verbier (which recorded 6.31 m). What immediately struck me was that neither figure seemed that great for such “snow sure” resorts during a good winter.

I regularly ski in the Portes du Soleil ski area – it is without a doubt one of my favourite ski areas in the whole of Europe. Because I am obsessed with skiing, the Portes du Soleil and weather in general, I get quite fanatical about staying updated with weather patterns and snowfall.

I had quite a few trips planned to the Portes du Soleil last year, so I kept close tabs on the snow conditions throughout the season. I was sure that Avoriaz had probably had more snow than both Tignes and Verbier, so I emailed the tourist office who keeps accurate historical snow data for the resort. Sure enough, Avoriaz had more snow last winter than the aforementioned resorts (6.95 m @ 1800 m altitude, and 8.39 m @ 2460 m).

Thinking back to last winter (07/08) there were a few occasions where I noticed that the Portes du Soleil had rather unfairly received bad press, or had been omitted from the snow overviews. On the 22 March 2008, I read an article in the Daily Mail – “Snow Patrol” – which reported joyously on all the excellent snow that had fallen throughout Europe. The Portes du Soleil did get a mention:

“The lower resorts of the Portes du Soleil have had a dusting of new snow.”

To me, the term “dusting” insinuates that not much snow had fallen. However, because I was checking whether forecasts fanatically at that time, I can report that at the time the article was written, Chatel had 245 cm at 2200 m compared to:

Tignes 230cm
Val d’Isere 180cm
Val Thorens 240cm
Verbier 220cm
Zermatt 230cm

And the “dusting of new snow” was actually 40-50 cms which I had to clear off my steps at resort level!

The figures which I quote aren’t biased in any way – they were taken from the Ski Club of GB’s website.

A couple of weeks later, I was happy to note that even the lower resorts of the Portes du Soleil were recording greater snow depths than Tignes/Val Thorens etc. As reported by the Ski Club, the snow depths for the last week in March 08 (upper slopes) were:

Chatel: 246 cm
Avoriaz: 242 cm

compared to:

Tignes: 233 cm
Val Thorens (highest resort in Europe): 224 cm
Val d’Isere: 171 cm
Courchevel: 158 cm
Zermatt: 218 cm
Verbier: 211 cm

However, once again there was no mention in the press about how much snow there was in the Portes du Soleil. All reports predictably said “go high, go to resorts with glaciers in order to get the best skiing”.

So was last season an anomaly? Is that why the Portes du Soleil was overlooked?

The answer is “NO”.

The Portes du Soleil gets some of the highest snowfall in the whole of the Alps. This is due to its proximity to Mont Blanc and the European prevalent snowfall patterns. However, over the last few years as I have holidayed more and more in this area, I have noticed that not only does the Portes du Soleil not get praised for its excellent snow record, it gets regularly slated for having a bad snow record.

A search online for reviews of the Portes du Soleil often throws up comments about the lack of altitude and the high possibility of poor snow. Anyone not familiar with the area could easily think twice about booking a holiday in this area based on what they read online and in the press.

So why does the area get such a bad write up?

The main reason I can think of is actually quite simple – misinformation.

It is extremely feasible that not everyone who writes for ski publications and websites gets to ski at every resort or ski area that they write about. It is also therefore feasible that they rely to a certain extent on hearsay and 2nd or 3rd hand information when writing their articles. Assuming that this is the case, suddenly things become a lot clearer. For someone who hasn’t skied much in Europe and who suddenly has to write a “where to ski in March” article, the first port of call will be look at ski area stats. It is then quite a safe bet to spot that an area has a glacier so would be “good for late season snow”, and that a second area has some low resorts so would be “less reliable for snow”. What the top line resorts stats don’t show is where the areas lie (North vs South) in relation to snowfall patterns, and also slope aspect.

Another curious thing about the Portes du Soleil is that it seems to get actively targeted for having poor snow because of its altitude whereas other ski areas of similar heights don’t (the Grand Massif and the Massif des Aravis to name two examples).

I think that this may be down to the fact that the Portes du Soleil is a victim of its own success. For many years, Morzine & Les Gets have been extremely popular with the Brits. These are both lovely picturesque ski resorts which are on the edge of the main Portes du Soleil circuit. When the snow is good, the skiing is excellent. However, because a lot of the slopes local to Morzine and Les Gets are sunny and south facing, they can sometimes lose the snow from their lower slopes during a warm snap. If someone has holidayed here during a warm patch, and if they didn’t make it over to Avoriaz during their stay, they might well go home thinking that the Portes du Soleil had poor snow and bare slopes.

What is often overlooked are the mighty north facing ridges of Avoriaz which link into Pre La Joux and Linga in Chatel. These areas get lots of snow, and keep their snow from top to bottom from early December well into May. However, if you don’t ski them, you wouldn’t know they were there. The Portes du Soleil needs to be regarded in its entirety and not judged on just a handful of sunny slopes.

I also think that the bad winter of 06/07 didn’t help matters. People started to panic that this was a sign of global warming, and so again the obvious knee jerk reaction was to look to the glacier resorts, without actually looking at how much snow had fallen and where. At the start of the 06/07 season, I spent the Christmas week in a catered chalet in Chatel. The other guests there had been reading the online snow reports and had bought their tennis rackets because they had been led to believe that there was no skiing at any resort below 2000 m. After a week’s excellent skiing at Pre La Joux and Avoriaz, there was another family of Portes du Soleil converts to add to the list!

Winter 06/07 wasn’t great, but neither was it a disaster. There was reasonably good skiing to be had throughout the area from start to finish and snow depths weren’t too bad. One of the great things about the Portes du Soleil is that the lower slopes need about 10 cm to open because they are mostly all pasture land.

To finish up this article, I want to draw your attention to the average snow depths of Avoriaz (highest point 2460 m) and Val Thorens (the highest resort in Europe with a top lift of 3200):

Avoriaz
November – April weekly averages

Avoriaz weekly averages

Val Thorens
November – April weekly averages

Val Thorens weekly averages

 What is clear is that the difference in altitude makes no difference to the amount of snow received. In fact, Avoriaz’s lower slopes on average get more snow than Val Thoren’s.

In summary, if you consider the Portes du Soleil as a whole, with Avoriaz as the centre point, the skiing there can be as snow sure, if not more snow sure than the higher glacier resorts of the southern alps.

Reference sites:

Snow Conditions – it isn’t always about altitude…
Are high altitude resorts always better?
Ski Club Historical Snow Records

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