There is snow in front of me, covering the main ski slopes of the resort, and there is snow behind, on the opposite side of the valley. Looking up, the flakes whirling out of the sky tickle my eyelashes; looking down I can see the great bastions – some of them one-and-a-half metres high – created by snow ploughs clearing the roads. There is snow everywhere, in fact, covering every surface. But curiously the most significant accumulation is invisible. It is the snow beneath my skis, which according to the illuminated sign at the lift station, is 5.81 metres deep.
Where am I? Amid a happy crowd of skiers I am in blessed St Anton, the Austrian resort which has topped the snow-depth charts for the Alps this season. In early January, the snowfall made news across Europe, partly because guests were “stranded” there (in perfect skiing conditions), but also because the event marked a dramatic turnaround: what in early December promised to be a barren winter had become a big-snow season.
The first snow fell in the Alps on 4 December, and by then the scare stories about another poor season in the Alps had already started. At the end of the 2010/11 season, there were reports of some of the worst-ever snow cover for April, thanks to a spring heatwave in which Chamonix experienced a daytime temperature of 26C, the highest recorded in more than 60 years. Indeed just hours before the snow finally arrived, the headline on the AOL Travel website read: “Thousands of Brits’ ski holidays ruined because there’s no snow.”
Snow is notoriously unpredictable. But as any experienced operator knows, British skiers are as good at forgetting that as they are at recalling what conditions were like the last time they skied. Illogical though this is, if a resort has good snow in one season, tour operators can be sure that demand will be strong for that resort in the following season.
Other indicators are only marginally more reliable. Take El Niño and La Niña. They are meteorological phenomena observable in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, between Peru and Papua New Guinea. An El Niño weather system occurs when the ocean is cooler than normal, La Niña when it is warmer. Both systems are associated with exceptional snowfall on the western side of North America, though the thousands of miles between the central Pacific and the ski resorts – plus the operation of other weather phenomena – make their overall impact and local effects unpredictable.
In the run-up to last season, the Pacific was warm and a La Niña was announced; and it had the desired effect, giving the United States great snow when, particularly in the two months after Christmas, the Alps had almost none. For this winter, too, a La Niña was announced; but after a good pre-season it failed to deliver. By mid-January, Mammoth Mountain, on the first range encountered by Pacific storms heading across California, was a sorry sight; it resembled a construction area on which broad white stripes had been painted.
Until last week, when snow fell copiously on the western United States, we were seeing the flipside of 2010-11. Then, the US had epic snow but the Alps had very little; this season it was the other way around. To dramatise just how good conditions are, ski resorts in the Alps have been going back to when records began. The Paradiski area, shared by Les Arcs and La Plagne, trumpeted that it had more snow than the two resorts ever did in the 50 years before they were connected. Chamonix posted photographs of chalets almost totally submerged in snow. The ski-sport news was about races being cancelled because of an excess of snow rather than a shortage.
St Anton is in the Vorarlberg area of the Tyrol, where winter storms can blow in from the east and west and snow is usually plentiful. But a search of the Ski Club of Great Britain’s records, which go back 18 years, confirmed how exceptional this season is. The records show a previous maximum for the third week of April of 4.5 metres, in 2003-04; in only two other seasons, 1998-99 and 1999-2000 did it exceed 4 metres; in another three, it didn’t even hit 2 metres.
This season, 2.5 metres fell in the week after the New Year alone. It virtually cut St Anton off. Both access roads were closed and, much more unusual, the train service was suspended for more than 24 hours.
“But this isn’t London: we are prepared for snow,” said the deputy director of the resort’s tourist office, Wilma Himmelfreundpointner (yes, it is the longest family name in the German-speaking world). “The community reacts immediately. Everybody starts shovelling. The avalanche authorities decide which roads will be cleared and which parts of the ski area will be opened. The fire service uses its ladders to clear snow off roofs.” Her own response was to travel to the office by toboggan, picking up a passenger on the way.
St Anton’s isolation was widely reported in the British press. “ And as soon as skiers heard that there was so much snow that you couldn’t get in or out, it was the place they most wanted to go,” said Marion Telsnig, a spokeswoman for the tour operator TUI. Soon all the company’s beds in the resort were sold for the half-term break; and customers unable to go to St Anton booked into other resorts in the Tyrol, and the flights into Innsbruck also sold out. The huge snowfall was “the best PR we could possibly have got,” says Himmelfreundpointner. “We were getting 40,000 hits a day on our website.”
The snow conditions in St Anton were extremely good last week, on-piste and off. Continuing cold weather and regular light snowfalls kept the surface fresh. The whole domain was skiable, a good thing because|although half-term was over the Germans were on holiday for Fasching, and the resort was full.
The snow’s great depth couldn’t be appreciated – it is sadly only possible to ski on the surface. But it was good to know that it was down there, even if at this time of year, and with low temperatures, the depth means merely that you ski at a marginally higher altitude than usual.
The environment does change, however. On the lower slopes of the main ski area, between the town and the lift hub at Galzig – used as pasture in summertime – there was an unusual hazard. Some of the shepherds’ huts were covered with just the roof ridges poking out to trip skiers on fast descents. Further up, on the run towards St Christoph, this satellite village, which dates back to the 14th century, looked as if it had been dug out of the snow. This is not as fanciful as it sounds: from the queue for the chairlift back to St Anton I watched as a Caterpillar excavator cleared snow from the walls of the chapel at the Arlberg Hospiz Hotel, its bucket directly above the driver because the snow had reached the sills of the second-floor windows.
That sight was a reminder of the force and scale of Alpine snowstorms. When I checked on St Anton’s historical snow depths I noticed one figure – for the last week of February in 1999 – which far exceeded anything seen this winter: the snow on the upper slopes was 6.5 metres deep. Too much of a good thing? Definitely. The great majority of the slopes had to be closed then so that the ski patrol could deploy explosives which are used to clear snow. That was merely an inconvenience; but in the next valley, at Galtür, the weight of the snow above the village, and an unusual weak point in the snowpack’s structure, led to tragedy. A sudden shear along a layer of ice sent 170,000 tonnes of snow hurtling down the mountain at almost 300km/h (180mph). It swept over the village and killed 31 people.
With the growing concern about climate change, receding glaciers and the predicted demise of winter sports, one could be forgiven for thinking that the days of big snow are almost over. But, at least for the time being, the two elements required to produce snow – natural or manmade – are moisture and cold air. Global temperatures may be rising, but in the Alps winter temperatures are still consistently low enough to make and maintain snow on the mountains. Moisture, however, is becoming more readily available. As temperatures rise, even slightly, more water is absorbed by the atmosphere. There is much debate about all this, but it is probable that there will be enough snow for skiing, at relatively high altitudes, until the middle of this century.
But what about the snowstorms such as those in St Anton in January? Will we still see the snows of yesteryear? Yes. Extreme recent weather events – sustained drought in Australia followed by flood, “Snowmageddon” on the east coast of the United States in 2010 – suggest a growing instability in our climate, largely attributable to the increased moisture in the atmosphere. And what does more moisture mean when there’s a snowfall? More snow. There’s stormy weather ahead.
A three-night stay with Flexiski (020 8939 0861; flexiski.com) at the Chalet Amalien Haus in the centre of St Anton, costs from £285 per person, including breakfast, tea and four-course dinner plus a ski orientation service and in-resort services. Flights, transfers and all extras are booked to suit guest requirements.
St Anton Tourist Office: 00 43 5446 22690; stantonamarlberg.com/en