How to ski late - and on time

Reach for the heights and when March comes it won't be all over. Chris Gill points the way
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
The end of February: the height of the season is almost upon us. What - with the half-term hols out of the way, and winter beginning to give way to spring in the valleys? Surely the skiing high season is over, and the skiing season as a whole is not far behind?

Well, yes and no. The absolute peak of the season may now be over in resorts that attract a lot of families, and low- altitude resorts can now expect business to wind down; even if conditions in such resorts benefit from decent late season snowfalls (as some did last season, for example), the dwindling flow of customers is unlikely to be reversed, except at weekends.

But for some higher resorts that attract keen and child-free skiers - the Verbiers and Val d'Isres - March is a very popular time to visit. You may well get excellent snow; if you don't (and, to an extent, even if you do), you've a good chance of getting an excellent tan and enjoying glorious terrace lunches.

In a year when Easter falls early, such resorts can hope for a March sell-out. In a year such as this, when Easter falls in mid-April, the jam is spread more thinly; busy though March is, you should find there is still space available in most of the likely places.

Most of the likely places, of course, are high. It's possible that there will be good snow down to the shores of Lake Geneva throughout the month, but it's not likely, and anyone booking ahead would be prudent to plan on skiing mostly above 2,000m, preferably with access to skiing around 3,000m. Snowguns that may compensate for low altitude in mid-winter become increasingly irrelevant as temperatures become more spring-like.

You might expect this specification to rule out most Austrian resorts. I think you'd be right. But the increasingly energetic Austrian National Tourist Office thinks otherwise. They've come up with a bizarre "sunshine skiing" campaign, designed to promote resorts offering "excellent skiing conditions well into late spring".

The 29 resorts involved include places you won't have heard of, and some I've heard of but have never regarded as ski resorts (such as Otz). They are all given one, two or three sun symbols, according to how long the "perfect skiing conditions" can be expected to last.

Saalbach-Hinterglemm scrapes a single sun, indicating skiing until 4 April. Two suns, indicating skiing until mid-April, are awarded to some worthy candidates such as Heiligenblut and Galtur, but also to Kitzbhel and Kirchberg. I don't doubt that there can be some excellent spring skiing in the ski area shared by these resorts; there is some such skiing to be found in most areas if you know where to look. But the idea that Kitzbhel is generally recommendable for an April holiday is, frankly, nuts.

Three suns, meaning another week or two's skiing, go to places such as Gurgl (Obergurgl to you and me), Ischgl and the Arlberq resorts (Lech, Zurs and St Anton) - and Obertauern, at the eastern end of Austria's skiing mountains.

These are the best Austrian bets outside the ranks of glacier resorts, which get three suns and a snowflake. Glacier resorts are by definition snowsure, but they are not all equally satisfactory bases for a holiday; glacier ski areas can be small, and they can be tediously flat.

Perhaps to the surprise of keen British skiers who look first to France and Switzerland, Austria has some of the Alps' best glaciers. Hintertux has the greatest extent of challenging glacier skiing in the Alps. It doesn't have much else, but if the single ski area palls and snow conditions are encouraging it's easy to make expeditions by bus down the valley to explore other small resorts such as Finkenberg, Mavrhofen and Zell, all covered by the Zillertal pass.

France and Switzerland, of course, do have their strengths. In France, Val-d'Isre/Tignes and Val-Thorens select themselves, with extensive high ski areas that are not limited to their respective glaciers. The Chamonix valley's skiing has tremendous appeal in the spring, particularly if you are prepared to ski with a guide.

In Switzerland, my late-season favourite is Saas-Fee; the ski area is not large but much of it lies between 3,500m and 2,500m, and of that a good part is on glaciers, with a good variety of gradient. Zermatt, over the hill, has much more skiing in several separate high-altitude areas; don't be surprised if the links between them are tricky in late season. Like Chamonix, this is a place where off-piste adventures with a guide are particularly attractive, perhaps with the occasional aid of a helicopter.

Zermatt's skiing links up with that of Cervinia in Italy - south-facing, but high (2,050m) and sufficiently well endowed with glaciers to enjoy a long season. Practically all the skiing is easy. Italy's other skiing glaciers are generally too limited in extent to be of much interest to holiday visitors. But a couple of non-glacier resorts are worth a mention: Sestriere is almost as high as Cervinia; and Bormio offers 1,000m vertical above its 2,000m midstation even when its lower slopes are closed. The skiing at Kitzbhel doesn't even reach 2,000m.

Comments