Snow is falling across the Alps, from the Arlberg and St Anton to Zinal and Zermatt, and so it has been since the end of August. Extraordinary has become the new normal. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve said: “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Unfortunately, the same is true for the weather forecasts. Modelling past events to predict future outcomes does not stand up well to unprecedented climate change, so it’s anybody’s guess what exactly happens next. So, how do we go about planning a powder quest? Well, there are several things to consider. . .
Go where the snow falls
Last winter, while the BBC forecast the end of skiing as we know it (in true ‘myopic Brit, focused only on Geneva airport’ style) we were down in Serre Chevalier wondering what the fuss was all about and enjoying normal conditions for the time of year. Meanwhile, the United States was racking up the highest snowfalls on record, and northern Scandinavia was having a bumper season. So, get with the trends in weather patterns and simply go some where more reliable.
The recent sketchy winters have been partly caused by the jet stream being pushed about by La Niña. The past few seasons have seen stubborn areas of high pressure, pushing temperatures up, and precipitation away, from our favourite Alpine resorts. But, weirdly, the same phenomenon has swept the winter storms all around the edges, with places like Southern Italy (Abbruzi), Greece and Turkey getting fabulous dumps of the white goods. Some places, like the Baltic states and deep mid-continental cold places like Siberia (think Georgia and Kazakhstan), seem to have been less adversely affected by the wackiness further west. Sticking to our favourite resorts and booking the first trip of the winter well in advance does not seem to be paying dividends any more. The problem is not a lack of snow – the challenge is being in the right place at the right time.
The time is right to consider being nimble, then chasing the snow, wherever it falls. After the past few seasons it is almost certain to be a wacky, unpredictable ride.
Pick resorts with variety
‘Go high’ used to be our primary mantra for early season, powder quest ski missions. Get above the rain-snow limit where any precipitation will fall as snow for longer – and is less likely to melt – so it quickly builds a base. Simple and obvious, this quest for altitude served us well in the past. The challenges now come when we simply don’t get any precipitation. Or when the freezing level cruises back into orbit. Again! The solution this season is to line up your options in a variety of locations, as there is more to glacier skiing than the Grand Motte in Tignes.
If the snow falls further east, then the Austrian glaciers of Stubai and Hintertux may be the key, with many race teams heading there for early season training. Of course, glaciers may keep the limited snow cool on the piste, but you need a decent cover to ski in the backcountry with any degree of safety. So the presence of a glacier may not be the answer for our early season powder missions off-piste…
In the last couple of winters there has been a band of great skiing wrapping around the middle mountains. Head too high and the snow has been wind hammered and battered. Too low and the soaring temperatures and limited snow fall have left it cruddy and lean. The Goldilocks band has been somewhere in the middle, so go for a resort with a good vertical range and options for skiing at various altitudes. Then enjoy going exploring to work out where the sweet band is.
All the better if the mid-levels are not strewn with base-wrecking boulders, so…
It’s all about the base
One way to get great off-piste skiing is to go somewhere that only needs a single decent dump. Many of the middle-mountain resorts have huge areas of grassy hillsides that are eminently skiable after the most modest of early season snowfalls. Last December, we were meadow-skipping down freshies in the Southern Alps, while others were mountain biking further north.
Lesser known resorts in the Queyras and Cerces (within easy reach of Briançon) and some low-lying classic resorts in eastern Switzerland offer acres of meadows that require only the most minimal cover to yield some great off-piste skiing.
You can also frequently find pockets of powder in the less-frequented areas of the busiest resorts, if you know where to look. At the latest high-tech and digital end of the spectrum, this has never been easier. From Google Earth to detailed exploration in FatMap (especially in summer mode) satellite mapping is the secret to seeing beneath the snowpack.
At the industry ski test in La Clusaz last January, the Fall Line team were able to ski tons of quality freshies (without hardly any ski damage) by sticking to the grassy slopes. This takes a bit of research or local knowledge, so get Googling or get a guide to lead the powder quest! And if you don’t mind making do with some top-quality piste skiing, then there is an ironic solution: some of the lowest places, with the most-fickle snow records, have the best artificial pistes and snowmaking. The Dolomites are a great example of unlikely and low-level resorts capable of crafting world-class piste skiing out of nothing. Unfortunately, however, we all have to question our collective conscience about the morality of high-energy and high-water consumption to indulge our enjoyment of the natural environment more than ever these days.
This may not be popular with the tour operators but, as a guide myself, I respect the hypocrisy in asking people to book early right now. I won’t be – so why should you? Leaving your options open may risk higher flight prices (or you could go by train, of course). But I would love it if more clients got real and waited. For those first early season powder quests of a new season, it is worth remembering that it is a buyers’ market: resorts have enough beds to accommodate the peak demand of high season, and any pre-Christmas bookings are usually a welcome bonus. So anything you may lose on last-minute flights (until you know where the snow is best) you will usually make up on the cost of accommodation.
Ask ‘What will I be doing?’
Personally, I will be hedging my bets with a mix of plans. This season will kick off in Kazakhstan, following the ‘go somewhere more reliable’ rule. The travel is too big a deal to leave to chance, so we will confidently nail this one down (in fact, we still have a few places available for 9-19 December, if you’re keen – click here for more) in the hope that the snow-sure track record for early Siberian powder remains largely unaffected by the latest trends.
I’m focusing on getting dates in the diary and then, as the season develops, staying footloose on the exact venue for as long as possible. There is a plethora of resorts in Switzerland where we can find great meadows for limited early season snow; yet go as high as one can, on the lifts of the highest resorts, as the base builds. Heading for places on the main alpine chain enables you to quickly switch sides if the snow falls over the border. Hopefully, a combo of all the tactics above will yield some great skiing again – wherever we end up. It hasn’t failed me (or my regular clients) yet…