Top 5 resorts for glacier skiing

Over the last few ski seasons, in the Alps, the snow down at lower altitudes has started showing up later than expected. Is this a natural cycle, or is climate change the culprit? That’s a debate for another day. Thankfully the snow always shows up but it’s squeeky bum time for anyone who booked the lower resorts in the early December weeks and sometimes even into January. Of course the easy answer is, don’t book a lower resort in early season. If you really want to guarantee that you ski, at any time of year, not just early season, go for a resort that’s known for glacier skiing. If you must book early I suggest you go for one of these options, snow sure, the year round, Tignes (France), Zermatt & Saas Fee (Switzerland) and Hintertux & Stubai (Austria).

Tignes, France

The current Tignes didn’t get off to a very auspicious start. The original Tignes was flooded back in 1952 to make way for a dam, being built to supply hydro electricity to the French national grid. Those that didn’t willingly accept the move higher up the valley were more or less coerced into complying which caused huge resentments, this and the original brutalist 60‘s concrete structures must have made Tignes a fun place to be back in the day. Tignes is trying very hard to rid itself of the worst offenders, in terms of architecture, that are an unfortunate legacy from those turbulent times.

Every cloud as they say, the cost of the infrastructure to meet demand didn’t have as far to go to service the current village, saving the lift companies sizeable amounts of start up capital, and scaring less of the landscape into the bargain. If I’d been turfed out of my home back then I don’t think I’d have been much impressed with the compensation.

The Tignes Tourist Board came up with this in one of their brainstorming sessions, “Come and ski on the 20 km of pistes of the glacier, try new tricks on the snowpark, go cross-country skiing and improve your suntan on the terrace of the Panoramic restaurant in unique surroundings!” A good days work I would say, succinct, with a refreshing lack of adspeak and BS. Albeit a little dour, I wonder if they work in one of those concrete horrors?

Zermatt, Switzerland

Hands down the winner for me. Perfect skiing the year round, maybe best on the glacier earlier in the day at the height of summer, apart from that you’re guaranteed to be able to ski, weather permitting of course.

The high altitude skiing on 360 km of pistes in Switzerland and next door to its Italian neighbours is guaranteed, 365. The ski lifts go to the highest heights. Up to the Klein Matterhorn at 3,883 m, where you can look the four thousand-meter alps and the Matterhorn right in the eye. The relatively extreme high altitude has been known to catch people out. At times, up here, my heart swells with pride at the beauty of it all, I can feel the warmth of tears well up and I’m reminded, once again, that this sublime landscape, this wonderous . . . . ooo ‘eck, give me oxygen!

Hintertux, Austria

When I first heard of the Hintertux glacier, back in the day, I thought it was a spoof, the name just didn’t ring true, it sounded more like a Yorkshireman getting ready for a dinner dance.  “I’m just gonna slip int’ ter tux, duck”. Turned out it was one of the most popular glaciers in Austria. The Hintertux glacier is open all year round with skiing in the winter, and hiking activities in the summer. Its altitude means that there are usually good snow conditions, enabling almost all pistes and lifts to be kept open. The glacier skiing region has its own ski school for both beginners and advanced skiers.

The Hintertux Glacier offers an all-round view of the Alps from just under 3,250 m. The region is also suitable for mountaineering – there are plenty of Alpine huts, some managed all-year round. One of these huts is the Spannagelhaus next to the natural monument of the Spanagel Cave, which is over 10 km long and the largest cave system in the  Austrian Central Alps. The cave entrance is immediately next to the Spannagelhaus.

If climbing down into large cracks in the ground is your thing, a crevasse – the Natural Ice Palace – can also be viewed. Its entrance is just above the top station on the Gletscherbus 3 lift. Visitors can climb about 25 metres down into the ice using a combination of steps and ladders.

Saas Fee, Switzerland

Its location close to the glaciers of the Dom and the Allalinhorn provides winter sport opportunities throughout the year. The neighbouring peaks of the Weissmies, the Nadelhorn and the Lenzspitze  are popular climbs in the summer season.

Piste guides on the glacier at Saas Fee

Saas-Fee offers 22 lifts, 1 funicular railway, 5 gondolas, 2 chairlifts, the remainder being drag lifts. The ski run has a vertical drop of 1,800m and covers 100km .
Saas-Fee can be reached by car or bus. No cars are allowed to enter the city, they have to be parked in special car parks outside, only small electric vehicles operate on the streets. The decision to exclude most motor vehicles, with some foresight, was made by the village at the time of the construction of the road from Saas Grund in 1951.

The resort offers many cultural, sporting and off-slope activities, including classical music, a sports and leisure complex, restaurants, and nightclubs. The resort features the highest underground funicular railway in the world which ascends to the skiing area and the highest revolving restaurant in the world at 3,500m. Design guidelines for the village require houses to be 40 percent wooden, to maintain its architectural character and as a result Saas Fee is quite a characterful and pretty village.

‘Not a lot of people know that’ facts coming up… Saas-Fee was the location for the filming of the 1984 video for Wham’s hit single, Last Christmas. The cable car that they get into to go up the mountain is labelled with the name “Saas-Fee” in the typical Saas-Fee font. This appears to be an artistic device as the cable car, now replaced by a more modern version, runs between the edge of Saas-Fee and Felskinn which is considerably above the normal height for residential buildings. Saas-Fee is also the setting for various ski chase sequences in the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the hit James Bond movie from 1969, was it really that long ago?

Stubai, Austria

Latest bulletin from the Stubai glacier… the new ski season is in full swing. Skiing is possible on 4 glaciers. More slopes and lifts are open now! How’s that for early season skiing, guaranteed and if you hurry you might catch the FIS Freeski World Cup Stubai. From 24 to 26 November 2017 a Slopestyle FIS Freeski World Cup takes place in the DC Stubai Zoo snow park for the first time. 120 freestyle skiers want to make their dream come true and qualify for the Olympic Games in South Korea in the next to last World Cup event in Europe. An absolute highlight for skiers here is the 10k downhill from the Wildspitz mountain station at 3,210m to the valley station at 1,750m.

Top of the world on the Stubai glacier

Stubai boasts the largest glacier ski area in Austria. The lifts do take a summer break from the end of June; but come late October they are back to work. This season’s opening, last month, was particularly auspicious because it saw the debut of Stubai’s new €68 million gondola. Skiers came to celebrate from Germany and the Czech Republic, North America and Scandinavia.

An Alpine glacier is a river of ice that slides imperceptibly down a mountainside. It acts like a refrigerator, preserving snow that falls upon it. A minor irritant for skiers and ski-area managers alike is that since the glacier moves, so must anything fixed to it, as a result, nothing more permanent than a drag-lift can be erected upon it. The result is congestion. Characteristically, glaciers are relatively smooth and featureless, except for the odd deep crevasse and some folds in the ice. But Stubai is different; its glacier flows across irregular terrain and has been diverted by rocky outcrops. If you didn’t know the slopes are on a glacier, you would never guess.

Getting up there? A breeze. The new 5km-long gondola climbs for 12 minutes from the lower valley to the centre of the ski area; beyond is a drag-lift running up to the 3,210m peak. The gondola was designed by Pininfarina, famous for styling Ferraris. And its performance is impressive, too, it carries twice as many passengers as the lift it replaced, and at twice the speed. The new 3S Eisgratbahn with a length of 4.7k  is the longest lift of its kind in the Alps. Two suspension cables and one pulling cable guarantee a maximum of operating steadiness and wind stability.

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