The passes are pressed, the pistes pristine and the schnapps on ice. But the one thing the ski industry hasn't prepared for is the warmest winter for 1,300 years. As Alpine resorts across Europe postpone the start of the season and ship in tons of artificial snow to keep the downhill brigade happy, Peter Popham looks to the skies and wonders what became of the winter sports wonderland...
They call it "la Ponte dell'Immacolata"; the long weekend that begins with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Friday 8 December and which - for much of Catholic southern Europe - is draped, traditionally, symbolically and poetically, in snow. Every year, it's the weekend when Europe's skiers descend into cellars to dust off the skis and poles and boots and suits and cram everything they have into the car and head for the slopes for the first outing of the season.
And this year just might be the same. The doomsayers, by the time you read this, might be eating their words. Yesterday evening, snow was finally falling in the Alps and, after a pause today, it is predicted to continue tomorrow.
It's slushy snow, falling on preternaturally warm ground, but it's white and relatively soft and if it keeps falling the skiing business will breathe easily again after one of the nastiest (read balmiest), most frightening (most delicious), dryest and warmest early winters ever.
Sorry, cross out "one of". The winter in southern Europe so far this year has not been a winter at all. It's been the warmest "for 200 years, since records were started" says Luca Mercalli, Italy's most famous weatherman, who is president of the Italian Meteorological Society. Other climatologists say the Alps are experiencing the highest temperatures for 1,300 years.
The winter so far has barely been even autumnal. You go outside in the morning and think: "Hmm, that's nice, spring is in the air" - and then it hits you that we haven't had winter yet. The leaves are still on the trees, drifting down grudgingly one by one. The flowers have yet to quit blooming. The false jasmine on my terrace is sending out fresh green shoots.
The prognosis for the ski industry is grim. Even if the heavens do open over the next few days, much damage has already been done. Hotels across the Alps, in France, Austria and Switzerland, as well as in Italy and the Pyrenees, are heavily underbooked. Federalberghi, the Italian hoteliers' association, claims that the financial damage to date has been almost €600m (about £400m).
Sports-skiing events have been thrown into chaos, with the men's races in Val d'Isère in the French Alps, scheduled for the coming weekend, cancelled. The world's top cross-country skiers and shooters gathered last weekend in the Austrian village of Hochfilzen for a biathlon event, but there was no snow. Rather than cancel, villagers spent five days hauling snow by lorry from Grossglockner, Austria's highest mountain, allowing the event to go ahead.
In France, as elsewhere, they are hoping for relief by the weekend. "We have been promised snowfall on the pistes above 1,500 metres by the weekend," said a tourist official in the French resort of Chamonix. "In a normal year, you would expect to see snow on the ground in the valley bottom by now, but in truth there are no normal years any more. Each year is different from the previous one. Last season, for instance, was very cold early in the first part of the season, with plenty of snow." On Grossglockner last winter, they had 8.7m of snow, the heaviest fall for years.
Last year was a "golden oldie" of a winter right across the Alps: my snow-addicted Italian father-in-law, who has been watching the permafrost line creeping ever higher up the slopes for decades now, wore a disbelieving smile.
But this year has seen a return to the grim reality; until last night, the Italian Alps were a snow-free zone. "As of today, there is no snow in our Alps," Mercalli said. "Normally we would have at least 70cm at 2,500m but this year in many areas there is none or at the most, in the most fortunate cases, there is 10cm."
The temperature has been 2C to 2.5C above the seasonal norm. "Snow is per se an irregular phenomenon," Mercalli said. "There is no constant; one year there is little, another there is a lot, one year it comes earlier and the next it's late." But in the past there might have been one year of little and late snow per decade; now it's one year in two. "On the Alps, the autumn snows lay the foundations, then the cold preserves the snow layer. But today, both snow and cold are missing."
And this is just the start. According to a recent study by Mercalli, within 20 years skiing in Italy below 2,000m may be impossible. And the process will continue: between 2030 and 2050 only slopes above 1,600m, and probably above 2,000m, will be skiable, because of the steadily rising winter temperatures and declining snowfall.
This will mean that the lower slopes of some of the most famous ski resorts in the country will be redundant, including Bormio, the site of last year's World Skiing Championship, and Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy's glitziest resort. The lowest slopes of both resorts are at about 1,220m.
Winter nights in many ski resorts are punctuated by the boom of the snow cannons as man uses machines to compensate for what nature no longer provide enough of. But Mercalli warns that the cannons, which fire millions of drops of water into freezing air on more and more pistes around the Alps, are not a long-term solution to the problem. "If one considers the economic costs, not to mention the environmental costs of snow machines," he writes, "the strategy seems unsustainable."
Mercalli says that installing the machines requires an investment of €140,000 for each hectare to be covered with snow, and then there's the further cost of €3 to €5 for each square metre of snow produced. The machines use vast quantities of electricity - 3.5 kilowatt hours per cubic metre of snow - and one cubic metre of water for every 2-2.5 cubic metres of snow produced.
Aside from the costs, there is the simple fact that the snow machines do not work unless the temperature is at least 4C below freezing. Mercalli predicts that average winter temperatures in the Val d'Aosta region will rise by about 1.8C by 2050. "Where [the water cannons] have already been installed, it's right to keep using them as long as possible," he writes. "Where they have not yet been installed, however, it is inadvisable to install them at this point in history."
Will this miserable flop of a winter so far deliver the shock the industry needs? "People are still investing big money in ski resorts," Mercalli told The Independent. "Perhaps the data of recent days will bring them to their senses. Until now, the private investors have gone ahead because there was willingness to spend lots of public money, but once that willingness is questioned things will change, because the costs of running the resorts are enormous. The important thing is to explore new avenues and to create alternatives to the skiing monoculture."
Of course, global warming will not be all bad for the mountains. Agriculture will become more productive at higher altitudes, and the region will become more attractive for visitors in the summer. It's just that there will be less skiing in winter.
Additional reporting by John Lichfield
Country of choice for traditionalists with money - Prince Charles goes to Klosters, and resorts such as Wengen, St Moritz and Gstaad reek of old-fashioned glamour - Switzerland is suffering like elsewhere. Zermatt is looking like the safest bet, but even here only nine of its 30 lifts are open. Verbier has just one area open, and that only at weekends. In St Moritz, a women's World Cup race scheduled for this weekend is off. Only nine of the resort's 56 lifts are open. Crans Montana, another World Cup venue, was scheduled to open on 25 November, but so far only two days' skiing has been possible.
Right across the Italian Alps, the story is the same. In the Dolomites, near the border with Austria, snow is in extremely short supply, and the only resort open is Cortina d'Ampezzo. Even here, only three out of 45 lifts are running. To the west, near the border with France, Courmayeur was meant to be opening today, but the date has been put off indefinitely. You have to go really high to find any joy. The glacier at Cervinia - on the other side of the Matterhorn from Zermatt - is in business, with five lifts open, and it is snowing.
Still the No 1 skiing destination for the British, France is looking not such an attractive prospect at the moment. The highest resorts are open - for example, Tignes, which has a glacier where skiers go even in summer. But there's no skiing across the celebrated Espace Killy and over to the perennial favourite, Val d'Isère. The lift and linked runs are closed, leaving the bus looking not such a bad option for people who want to visit other towns. Val is the traditional early-season venue for World Cup races, but this weekend's are already off. The chic resort of Courchevel is suddenly looking less glitzy: c'est fermé. Chamonix, in the Mont Blanc region, has no snow on its lower slopes. The opening of Val Thorens was delayed, and Montgenèvre, due to open today, will not do so for over another week. Other resorts affected include Le Grand Bornand, Risoul and Vars.
German skiing conditions tend to mirror those in Austria - so there's more bad news here. Its resorts, which tend to serve locals only, remain largely closed. The best-known, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, has 27 lifts, of which only two are open. However, it was snowing in Germany yesterday.
Hugely popular with British families, Austria got off to a fabulous start last year with plenty of early-season snow. This year could not be more different. Of all the Alpine nations, it is the worst affected. St Anton, which has a devoted British following, drawn particularly by its powder skiing and challenging runs, is still closed, despite plans to have it open by 25 November. Even on the upper slopes, there is still only 10cm of snow (there was 25cm by this time last year), and the resort's much-loved pristine white acres of off-piste skiing are looking distinctly green. In resorts at lower altitudes, such as Kitzbühel and Mayrhofen, where there is just 15cm of snow even on upper slopes (compared with 47cm this time last year), the outlook is worse still. Mayrhofen was scheduled to open last Saturday, but remains closed. It is hoped that it will open in the next couple of weeks. Bad Gastein and Bad Hofgastein planned to open for weekend skiing from 18 November, but remain closed. And Fieberbrunn was hoping to open on 24 November but will now not open before 15 December. Hopfgarten has moved its opening from 3 December to 8 December.Reuse content