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Heavy Snow Returns To Europe

December 2nd, 2009

www.Skiinfo.co.uk has issued hundreds of powder alarms in the past 72 hours as resorts across the Alps, Dolomites and Pyrenees report big and on-going snowfalls.  Hundreds of resorts are now planning to open for the coming weekend across the continent with superb conditions, although freeriders are warned to beware of high avalanche risk off piste in many locations.

As a result, www.Skiinfo.co.uk has now released more than 200 powder alarms for ski areas reporting more than 20cm (eight inch) falls in 24 hours, with Switzerland among the big winners.  St Moritz and the Engadin Valley have received 1.3m (4.4 feet) since the weekend.  Most other Swiss resorts have done well too, Sedrun, for example, got a whole metre of new snow in 24 hours on Monday (Nov 30th) – the road to nearby Disentis was covered with snow.

Engelberg was virtually closed down by snow at the start of the week too due to a massive storm that hit central Switzerland with over 90cms (three feet) of fresh snow according to Eric Spongberg an ex-freeriders based at Ski Lodge Engelberg (www.skilodgeengelberg.com).

 The roads in and out of the village where closed down on Monday, and all the lifts were closed on Tuesday due to high avalanche danger.

”There was rumours of snow coming in, but we have virtually been covered in snow in the past 24 hours” says Eric. ”It is total chaos here, with ploughs running back and forth trying to clear the streets and the avalanche bombs thundering in the background. The snowpack has been looking thin lately, but this definitely means a white Christmas in Engelberg”.

The ski area is open today and Eric is hoping to be on the slopes, ”It might be one of those days, I just might need to skip a couple of hours off work.”

Austria, which had great snow in late October and early November, but in common with the rest of the Alps, suffered a warm spell through the mifddle of last month, has also been receiving plenty of fresh snow,
The Mölltaler glacier got 60cm (two feet) of powder and now have one of the deepest snow depths in the world at present with a 220cm (7.3 foot) base.  Many other areas received between 20 and 50cm (8-20 inches) including Axamer – Lizum at Innsbruck, Sölden (52cm) and Obergurgl-Hochgurgl.

Lech Zürs has confirmed it will open lifts on Friday. Currently they have up to 55cm (22 inches) of snow on their slopes. Hochzillertal will open on the same day.

Silvretta Montafon (Nova and Hochjoch) now has 70cm of snow for their planned opening on Saturday. “There’s been heavy snowfall down to 800 metres and we hope to begin operating the Zamang Bahn (the ski lift for Hochjoch) and Versettla Bahn (for Nova) on December 5th.” said Frank Peters of Silvretta Montafon Mountain Railways.

It’s good news once again in France where more resorts are opening after good snowfalls across the country’s ski areas.

Lans en Vercors and Collet d’Allevard are opening their ski lifts today as a result and La Clusaz it’s Nordic ski area “Les Confins”

Many more plan to open thisweekend, at least partially, including Meribel, Alpe d’Huez, the Grands Montets at Chamonix, Montgenèvre, Les Arcs and probably Courchevel 1850, Le Grand Bornand and La Clusaz (only this weekend and just the “Massif de Balme”).

Val Thorens, which is already open, has reported  40cm of fresh snow and has one of the deepest bases in the country with a metre of snow lying. 

It’s a similar picture in Italy where the powder alarms continue to be issued.  Bormio has the deepest base in the country at 1.9m (6.6 feet), much of it fallen in the past week.  Other resorts reporting big falls include Madesimo with 90cm (three feet) and Alagna, Cervinia, Livigno and Monterosa resorts reporting at least 50cm (20 inches of new snow each).

Italy’s ski resorts enjoy a long ski weekend to December 8th so it’s great timing. This weekend many ski resorts will officially starts the season including Monterosa Ski, Dolomitri Superski, Limone, Courmayeur, resorts on the Milky Way pass like Sestrire and Sauze d’Oulx, Adamello (some lifts open at Passo Tonale and Pontedilegno).

Forty-eight hours of heavy snowfall over the Pyrenees has left Formigal more than ready to open this weekend.  Spain’s largest resort has 160 cm of snow on the higher slopes, around a metre on the lower pistes and more is predicted to fall over the next few days.

For bookings made before 15th December there is free ski or board hire for everyone and throughout the season there is a free child lift pass for every pre-booked adult lift pass.

There’s fresh powder too at Baqueira (40-70 cm), Cerler (20-125cm), Panticosa (70-130cm) and Sierra Nevada (10-30 cm). All the main ski resorts will open on Friday for a four days holiday (December 8th is a local holiday in Spain too). For Spanish skiers and boarders, this ‘Purísima Feast’ is a must every year and represents the official opening of the winter season.

Snow has also been snowing in Andorra, where resorts first opened early in mid-November after heavy snowfalls at the start of the month, but then had to postpone opening on the scheduled season start date last weekend due to a thaw.  It’s now looking goods for this weekend.

On the French side La Mongie and Bareges reported 60cm (two feet) on Tuesday, Piau Engaly 30cm (a foot). Piau-Engaly expects to open this weekend with its “Rock on Snowboard Tour” event.

Although the focus of recent snow reports has been on mainland Europe, conditions remain good in most Scandinavian ski areas to the north. Resorts in Norway reported up to 50cm (20 inches) of new snow in the past week and this weekend there will be 38 ski resorts open  including the big ones of Trysil, Geilo, Hafjell, Kvitfjell, Skeikampen and Hemsedal which has the most snow in the country with a 94cm (3.2 foot) base.  There are also a lot of opportunities for people who want to go cross country skiing, with 13 ski resorts that have more than 30km of tracks groomed.

There´s been some fresh snow in Sweden too where Lindvallen reports 15 cm and Tandådalen 7cm of new cover. In addition, the cold weather over large parts of the country makes ideal conditions for snowmaking. Further up north the resort of Kittelfjall has opened with a snow depth of 46cm. Dundret, 100km north of the polar circle, has opened too with a snow depth of 35 cm.

Elsewhere in Europe the ski season began in Scotland on Saturday when Cairngorm Mountain opened runs at the top of the ski slopes, attracting about 600 hardy souls who enjoyed the first turns of winter despite 45mph winds and a much stronger wind chill factor.

There’s no information on ski areas opening yet in Eastern Europe, however temperatures have dropped at last in that part of the continent with Bansko in Bulgaria reporting several days of sub-zero temperatures and snow falling.

Across the Atlantic the prolonged warm spell that stopped virtually all of New England’s ski areas opening for Thanksgiving weekend has finally ended and many resorts are reporting some snowfall and temperatures cool enough for the region’s mammoth snowmaking arsenal to dire up. Sugarloaf in Maine and Whiteface in New York State are among those planning to open at the weekend.

Further north in Eastern Canada, where Toronto recently declared last month the driest November in 70 years without a snowflake, conditions have improved greatly too.  Mont Ste Anne in Quebec expects to open after several postponements this weekend with at least four runs available.  It reported 12cm (5 inches) of snow at the weekend.  Mont Sutton received 43cm (17 inches) of snow at the summit over the weekend.
In the west of course it is a different story and Whistler’s November snowfall total officially passed 5.6m (18 feet) by the month end, with a 1.92m (6.5 feet) base, by far the biggest ever for this early in the season and indeed the biggest ever monthly snowfall for the resort.

The good snow news isn’t just restricted to the 2010 Winter Olympic host however, most of Western Canada’s resorts have great snow cover, and several more resorts opened early at the weekend, or announced they’d be opening earlier than planned in coming weeks including Fernie and Kicking Horse.

Revelstoke, which now has North America’s largest vertical, as well as the only heli and cat ski operations running along-side regular ski lifts from one base, opened upper slopes for a ‘taster weekend’ and will open permanently from next weekend.

Silver Star has also opened, “To the delight of us all, the winter skies have opened up and delivered over 40 cm of the white stuff needed to make the jump from Nordic skiing to alpine. With the alpine base now over 100 cm the Comet Express, Silver Woods Express, and the Silver Queen Chair. “ said a resort spokesperson.

The world’s attention has however been on Alberta over the weekend with Lake Louise Ski Area hosting its annual Winterstart World Cup Races. The men’s races took place November 28 and 29 and the women race this coming December 4 through 6.

 The WinterStart Festival takes place over the two weekends and includes the World Cup Alpine Ski Racing followed by a festival within a festival; Christmas in the Rockies, which runs December 5 and 6.
All the lifts are open at The Lake Louise Ski Area and Sunshine Village, with more available at Mt. Norquay today! The North American chair is open morning offering access to the infamous Lone Pine run.

“This is the best snow we’ve seen in 30 years, allowing the backside of Lake Louise and Goat’s Eye at Sunshine Village to be open already, offering tons of terrain, fresh tracks and a lot of powder.” Said a spokesperson
On Thursday, December 3rd, the newly renovated Sunshine Mountain Lodge at Sunshine Village will open 30 new eco-luxurious rooms.

Back south of the border in the Western US states temperatures are low for snowmaking but precipitation has been rather limited meaning that bases remain modest and open terrain is little changed from last week.

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Ski & snow news, Snow Conditions ,

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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