Skiing, Switzerland: Where the action never stops

Zermatt. They ski all year round there, and they do it on glaciers. Which is not without its drawbacks
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The Independent Travel

To everything there is a season, including skiing. How long that season lasts depends on where you go, and how you travel. For most British tour operators it starts on 15 December and ends in the second week of April - even though Easter weekend falls on 22/23 April, a time when the high Alpine resorts will still be open. In several of those resorts, where they have pistes that run down a glacier, the ski area never closes: the season lasts for 365 days. One of them is Zermatt in Switzerland. I skied there last weekend, on the Theodul glacier.

To everything there is a season, including skiing. How long that season lasts depends on where you go, and how you travel. For most British tour operators it starts on 15 December and ends in the second week of April - even though Easter weekend falls on 22/23 April, a time when the high Alpine resorts will still be open. In several of those resorts, where they have pistes that run down a glacier, the ski area never closes: the season lasts for 365 days. One of them is Zermatt in Switzerland. I skied there last weekend, on the Theodul glacier.

Although there are drawbacks to glacier skiing, it's a cool thing to do. Not only do you get on to the slopes when most skiers are still reading the brochures, the envy you attract is more than matched by admiration, at least from the uninitiated. For those who have never done it, glacier skiing sounds like something that requires immense skill, razor-sharp ski edges and a complete disregard for one's safety - a real daredevil sport. It's nothing of the sort. The glacier merely serves as a giant refrigerator, preventing the snow which falls at high altitude from melting, something that, in summer and autumn, it will do if it lands on rocks warmed by the sun. You don't actually ski on the glacier; you ski on its snow cover.

Getting to the glacier always involves a long ride, across green pastures, right to the top of the resort; the ski area is very limited and, if the weather is good, often crowded; the lifts run for only a few hours, stopping as early as lunch-time in high summer, when the snow quickly turns into slush. Otherwise, glacier skiing in good conditions is almost indistinguishable from the real, winter-season thing. And Zermatt is commonly regarded as the best place in Europe to do it.

Visiting a ski resort in the autumn is a curious experience, and not just because there is not really any snow to be seen. Zermatt's reputation as a blue-chip resort rests upon the combination of a great Alpine history and an up-market clientele. The Good Skiing Guide refers to the "astonishing experience" of arriving at the town's small railway station, where "backpackers mingle with fur-clad socialites". Not at 8.30 on a Friday night in October they don't; and I'm not sure that a dozen nondescript people descending from the train to the warm, deserted streets of Zermatt even constitutes a mingle.

The guide goes on to say that, whatever their social standing, "everyone is equally awe-struck by the mountain setting that greets them". Unfortunately I missed that experience, too, by a few hours. I was greeted by cloud cover, which obscured the top of the Matterhorn, Zermatt's logo, all the time I was there (a charming young woman from Dallas who had the good luck to arrive a little earlier told me in a cable-car the following day that the mountain had lived up to her expectation: she knew what to expect because she had seen it before, in Disneyland).

Clearly I wasn't alone in being disappointed by the weather. In the skiing pre-season, Zermatt's tourist office organises ski-test weekends (and one ski-test week), offering packages of hotel, lift-pass and free use of the new season's skis, loaned to the resort by the manufacturers. When I got out of the ski-lift at Trockener Steg, the base of the glacier-skiing area, I had about 200 pairs of skis to choose from (almost all long ones: the rush towards short skis is turning into a stampede). To my shame, the only number I can ever recall to help a technician adjust my bindings is 12 stone, which is what I used to weigh.

An interpreter was called for, and Richard Hirst - who came from Bristol to Zermatt 10 years ago and presumably isn't going back, unless his Swiss wife and child agree - answered the call. He told me that there had been far more skiers present for the previous two ski tests: "I suppose that people heard the weather forecast and decided not to come this weekend."

Out on the Theodul glacier, the dense cloud provided testing conditions - not much good for a ski test. It wasn't only the Matterhorn that was obscured; I could hardly see the snow beneath the Atomic Beta Carve 9-14 skis that I had selected from the racks. A few more skiers would have been a blessing, to help me find my way down the slopes. For about half-an-hour, there was a patch of blue sky; but then the clouds closed in again across the Testa Grigia, a corner of ski area which is right on the Italian border. I did ask in the café there why it was called the "grey peak", like a straight man providing the comic feed; the barman obliged, gesturing out of the window with a broad smile.

The glacier stretches a lot further than the eye could see. It's a relatively large area, with 21km of pistes: hence Zermatt's reputation as a glacier-skiing resort. Although nearby Saas-Fee's glacier may be steeper (I couldn't remember, having skied there several years go, but the Elan ski rep at the test site assured me that it is), Zermatt has the longer runs.

Having stumbled down past the half-pipe (I didn't see it) from the 3,820m station at the top of the Klein Matterhorn lift, I had a much more enjoyable dash down a red run from the Testa Grigia during the cloudless interlude; and the blue run that connects with it was a long cruise across the lower reaches of the glacier, where the clouds were wispier, to the Trockener Steg.

The entire descent is about four kilometres, very long by glacier-skiing standards. It must be awesome when the scenery is visible, but the only awe-inspiring sight I saw was in the restaurant: a man wearing ski trousers apparently cut from a Disney patchwork quilt, with the word "Blast" overprinted several times in four-inch letters.

The short skiing day - the lifts close at 3pm in Zermatt's pre-season - meant that there was time to kill in the afternoon. Back in my hotel room, I did toy with the idea of watching a saucy French skiing film, dubbed into German, called Sonne, Sex und Schneegestöber, which was showing on television. Not for the sex, you understand, nor for the snow flurries; it just would have been nice to see some sun.

 

The remaining pre-season ski-test weekends at Zermatt are now fully booked. Further information from Switzerland Travel Centre (tel 020 7734 1921; fax 020 7437 4577; e-mail stc@stlondon.com), which can put together early-season packages in Zermatt until 18 December for from £614 per person per week, including scheduled return flights to Geneva, rail transfers, seven nights in a three-star hotel, ski lessons and ski pass

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