Skiing in Switzerland
The alpine country, Switzerland is right in the middle of the Alps and dotted with some of the world’s most iconic mountains. You’ll also find the biggest glaciers, the most peaks in Europe over 4000 metres, and equally lofty opportunities to spend your money, though the thriving ski scene can be accessed on a budget if you know the ropes.
Switzerland’s quaint image is more than just a sales pitch: typically there are ten ancient mountain refuges and bars for every modern self-service cafeteria and the villages are often very traditional, sometimes even car-free. Quality in Switzerland is universally high and also extends to the skiing. Switzerland’s abundant and exceptional natural features have been relatively untouched by development thanks to innate Swiss conservatism and environmental considerations. The long list of essential Swiss sights includes:
• Fifty-seven 4,000m peaks including the Matterhorn, Eiger and Monte Rosa
• Europe’s biggest glacier – the Aletsch, along with many more
• World-famous resorts, less well known but still impressive resorts and more
• Europe’s highest railway station – Jungfraujoch at 3,454m
• Huge cable cars – such as Klein Matterhorn and Schilthorn
• Integrated transport – off the plane, into a train and get to your resort in style
Switzerland’s ski resorts have benefited from controlled development that preserves the charm but brings them completely up to date; they are well set to attract refugees from the ‘factory skiing’ of Europe’s more crowded slopes. Everyone today – from families to expert skiers – is hunting for the piste or powder less travelled, backed up by quality accommodation and services. They’ll surely find all this in Switzerland, as well as some of the most compelling resorts in the world: if you had to choose just one resort to ski in your life, you’d probably find it in Switzerland and Zermatt for the unique scenery, scale, ambience, and range of opportunity on and off-piste. But that’s just the start of it.
Skiing in Switzerland
Switzerland’s skiing is concentrated in several distinct regions. Easiest to reach are the Vaud and Valais resorts in the south-west – Villars, Crans-Montana, Leukerbad, Nendaz, Saas-Fee, Verbier,and Zermatt – that line along the Rhone valley from Lake Geneva towards central Switzerland. To the north of the Bernese Oberland, the vast mountain massif that divides the north of the country from the south, are the Jungfrau region’s Grindelwald, Wengen and Murren and plenty of other less well-known resorts such as Adelboden and Meiringen in Haslital. Graubűnden in the east is Switzerland’s biggest holiday destination and home to big names such as Davos and St Moritz and many lesser known gems including Arosa, Disentis, Klosters, Laax, Lenzerheide, Pontresina, Samnaun and Savognin.
Much of the skiing throughout Switzerland features big vertical from top to bottom, often accessed by huge cable cars, making for a very different ski experience from the ranks of modern multi-seater chairlifts that criss-cross the slopes of big ski areas elsewhere, with their rapid lapping of medium-length terrain. Even where substantial investment has taken place, such as the enormous improvement in uplift and ski area connections in Zermatt, the raw material remains unchanged and unmatched: mountains like the Matterhorn, the Eiger and Jungfrau, and the glaciers and peaks around Saas Fee, still have their backdrop of little red trains winding through quaint villages.
Most relevant to dedicated skiers is the average altitude of the country’s ski slopes. Switzerland’s ski resorts are high and relatively snow-sure, with plenty of glacier skiing; though Switzerland can’t claim immunity from snow-drought, it would be a particularly unenterprising skier who failed to find good snow conditions to slide on at any point during the long season.
As well as the best known ski areas, there are plenty of smaller resorts in Switzerland catering primarily for local weekend skiers. If you can put up with the isolation (you might not see many skiers on weekdays), and some truly historic lifts, places like Andermatt, Bruson and the Val d’Anniviers are not just for powder hounds, but good family skiers too.
Equally unknown overseas, but with a big Swiss following, are major resorts in the east such as Arosa, Flims, Laaxand Lenzerheide. Unless you need a truly international resort, these Graubunden ski resorts are all worth investigation as alternatives to better known Davos and St Moritz. Or in the Bernese Oberland try Adelboden which is the seventh biggest resort in the country, yet almost unheard of abroad thanks, until now, to limited flights into Berne airport (just an hour away).
In all there’s sufficient quality to choose from that even a significant ski resort like Crans-Montana fails to make the Swiss first division, despite its size and conventional ranking. This is a positive reflection on the country’s strength in depth, not a particular criticism of Crans-Montana. And then there’s Leukerbad, home to the biggest and the highest Alpine Spa and Wellness centres in the Alps. Best for intermediates and above, Leukerbad is an interesting ski and spa destination for a weekend or other short break skiing holiday. Easily reached from Geneva and Zurich, it’s well worth a look.
Then there are your hosts, the Swiss. Their worldwide reputation as the ultimate hoteliers is matched only by their famously serious approach to life (they even have a very small book entitled: Tell me a Swiss joke) and an equally serious attitude to making money. This is probably most apparent in the majority Swiss-German speaking region, with the French- and Italian-speaking areas to the south and west seeming – at least to foreigners – more like outposts of France and Italy. But wherever you end up, you can be sure of extreme fluency in English (as well as their first three languages) and universally high standards that include the warmest of welcomes. Looking after foreign guests has been a way of life here for well over a century and they do it well.
Visitors also get to benefit from all the best bits of a country that runs like clockwork: public transport is organised on the basis that you can get from pretty much anywhere to anywhere in comfort and at times that are likely to be useful, with stress-free connections; transporting luggage on buses and trains is entirely feasible, and at the major airports the train platforms are within a short trolley-push of the baggage carousel.
Supermarkets such as Migros have a commitment to charge the same prices at tiny outlets at 1600m as they do in the valley, making self-catering a worthwhile option. Meanwhile the straight-laced restrictions imposed on city-dwellers (never mind not washing your car on a Sunday, how about not flushing the toilet in your apartment after 10pm?) by-pass most resort visitors who can find vigorous apres-ski when they want it but are unlikely to be troubled by a thumping disco disturbing them in the small hours. Though the efficiency and regulations are the butt of jokes, for skiers who want to get to the snow and maximise their time there, it’s all good news.