Year after year, ski resorts in the Alps bemoaned the worst snowfall in recent memory. Mountains were left bare, skiers disappointed and travelers deterred. This season some of the biggest ski stations are struggling to deal with too much of it.
In Zermatt, Switzerland, thousands of skiers were stranded in the village for three days last week after train access and roads were shut because too much snow created avalanche risks. It was the second time this season alone that access to Zermatt, perched at the base of Switzerland’s most famous mountain, the Matterhorn, was cut off.
“We got the snow we needed for the past four years in about one week,” said Christian Eckert, the managing director of the Omnia, a five-star hotel in Zermatt. The risk of being trapped this year is reminiscent of the notoriously avalanche-ridden winter of 1999. On Tuesday, the snow cover was 1.35 meters (53 inches).
Eckert and the Omnia provided free rooms for the hotel’s 53 guests—a mix of Swiss, British and Canadian tourists—that would have otherwise gone for 500 Swiss francs ($535) to 2,500 francs a night. After three days, Eckert arranged for a helicopter evacuation at 70 francs per person for a 90-second flight.
For the first time in almost two decades, many of the Alps’ snowmaking machines are idle, from Austria to France and south into Italy. The main culprit has been mild and humid air masses from the Atlantic and Mediterranean that brought heavy storms to regions such as Valais and Davos, according to weather service MeteoSwiss.
Whether it’s climate change or a one-time weather system, hoteliers and skiers are elated. In Switzerland, about 164,000 people are employed in tourism, which generates about 16 billion francs for the economy, or about 2.5 percent of economic output, approaching that of the nation’s famed commodity-trading industry.
Most hotels say rooms are filling up after years of disappointment. However, a series of piste closures, road shutdowns and delays have prevented a ski nirvana.
“In the short term, it was costly for us because there was nearly no skiing for some days, and guests weren’t that happy,” said Simona Altwegg, a spokeswoman for Zermatt Tourism. Bookings have recovered “we think, because of the snow, and those who like powder.”
In Chamonix, France, the host of the 1924 Winter Olympic Games, locals are enjoying the benefits of the heaviest early season snowfall in more than a decade.
While a lack of snow during last season’s Christmas and New Year’s period forced hotels to create indoor games to keep children occupied, this season they’ve been dealing with a prolonged snow dump that’s strained local services tasked with keeping the roads clear.
“I don’t remember having so much snow so early on,” said Claire Burnet, a spokeswoman for the Chamonix tourism board who’s lived in the valley, about an hour’s drive from Geneva, for 31 years. There’s already about 2 meters of snow piled near her home, she said, which usually gets about 3 meters in an entire year. “There’s been so much,” she said.
While ski trails were open at lower-altitude Les Houches every day in January, at least some of Chamonix’s higher stations—including the Grands Montets, prized by off-piste powder hounds—were forced to shut for five days during the month because of high winds or too much snowfall.
Temperatures, meanwhile, have been warmer than normal. Geneva, the Swiss city that’s the jumping-off point for many Alpine resorts, had its warmest January ever and the fifth-most precipitation since 1864, according to MeteoSwiss. A heatwave could cause floods.
In Sion, in the Canton of Valais and near Swiss resorts Verbier and Crans Montana, precipitation in January was about 2 meters, more than four times normal. Higher up, at an altitude of 2,500 meters on the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, more than 850 millimeters (33 inches) of precipitation fell in January, more than three times the normal level, according to MeteoSwiss.
In the Austrian Alps, about 30 roads and passes were closed last week after about a meter of fresh snow fell, partially cutting off the ski resorts of St. Anton and Ischgl.
Hotels in Ischgl and in the Arlberg region said guests had already arrived and left for the weekly turnover before the road closures because of extreme avalanche risk.
“We had enough wine in the house, we had enough food, so it wasn’t too bad,” said Nicole Becker of the luxury Hospiz hotel in St Christoph on the Arlberg pass.
Many parts of the western Austrian Alps already have more snowfall than they normally have in the entire winter season, said Alexander Orlik, a meteorologist at Austria’s Central Institution for Meteorology and Geodynamics.
“The timing was more than ideal this year,” said Andreas Steibl, the head of the tourism association in Ischgl in Austria’s Paznaun valley, where bookings are above last year’s. “The snow started in early November, three weeks before the season started, which made the start of the season perfect.”
And unlike the early snow in Austria last season, which melted before Christmas, colder temperatures there this year have helped the snow stick.
“We’d get along with what we have until the end of April, even if there’s nothing new,” the Hospiz hotel’s Becker said.
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