Snow news is bad news: With springtime in the Alps arriving early, Chris Gill says Utah is the best place to go

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The Independent Travel
AS SKIING's high season approaches, the news from the Alps is more worrying by the day. At precisely the time when the slopes need dumps of snow to see us through the mild and sunny days of February and March, many have been getting prematurely spring-like weather in mid January. There has been sunshine and high temperatures and what little precipitation there has been recently has fallen as rain up to quite high altitudes. This is particularly worrying for those people, like your correspondent, who predicted great things in early December when all the signs were good.

Of course, the problems are not uniformly distributed. Some areas have fared better than others; altitude has once again proved its value and artificial snow has insulated some resorts from the whims of nature. And in promotional terms at least, the misfortunes of some resorts have been strokes of luck for others.

Ski Sunday viewers will be well aware that St Anton in Austria, staged its first World Cup men's downhill for three years last weekend, taking over the race at a few days' notice from Kitzbuhel, where the famous Hahnenkamm course was washed out. But at 1,300m St Anton is not super-high and, equally importantly, its main skiing and racing mountain faces south.

Keen-eyed viewers will have noticed that the race-course was flanked by spectators in shirt-sleeves sitting on grass; proof, if it were needed, of the value of artificial snow. Earlier in the week, rain fell at village altitude and on the lower slopes, and the dreadful possibility arose that the race might not take place after all. Happily, a clear but not-too-hot Friday saw the threat recede, and St Anton's public relations boost was in the bag.

Today's World Cup men's downhill was to have taken place on the equally famous Lauberhorn at Wengen in Switzerland, descending sunny slopes to the village at 1,275m. With not much more than a foot of snow at the top of the ski area and none at village level, the race has been switched to the north-facing slopes above Veysonnaz.

Where? Veysonnaz is a small resort on the North-east fringes of the four-valley lift network around Verbier, well equipped for snowmaking - and presumably now well equipped with hoardings to catch the eye of the TV-watching world.

The ski-racing spotlight now moves on to Japan for the World Championships, and North America, where the World Cup circuit resumes before coming back to Spain and Scandinavia. But most holiday skiers' attention will remain firmly focused on the Alps, and the European weather chart.

What it is showing as I write this is high- pressure systems over contintental Europe, with lows and weather fronts out in the Atlantic that look too weedy to penetrate the defences of those highs. The result during the week seems likely to be calm weather, with valley fog particularly in the eastern and southern Alps.

Clearly, things are not going to get much better in the short term. The best that can be said is that things aren't going to get much worse. And if ever there was a time to go high for your skiing, this is it.

If the high pressure persists, low pistes - particularly those that have had some sun and or rain recently - will remain rock hard, sheltered from the softening rays of the sun by the fog. Higher runs will have escaped rain damage, and may even have benefited from occasional powderings of snow in the first half of the month; being above the fog, they will be enjoyable to ski; and in January the sun isn't strong enough to do much damage.

As I've explained before, assessing what is and what is not a high resort is not entirely straightforward - you need to focus on the height of the slopes you'll typically be skiing on, not the village height or the extreme top height of the skiing. In these terms, the top 10 major resorts in the Alps are Saas Fee, Val Thorens, Val d'Isere, St Moritz, Obergurgl, Zermatt, Verbier, Cervinia, Tignes and Ischgl.

And altitude isn't everything. Wengen and Grindelwald, for example, are not exceptionally low resorts, but right now they do have exceptionally poor conditions. In the Dolomites last week, on the other hand, I encountered better-than-expected conditions, thanks mainly to the very heavy snow the area had in December and the very extensive artificial snow installations of resorts such as Selva and Cortina.

So information on particular resorts may be well worth getting. The obvious first step is to scan the brief reports published in the sports pages of this newspaper. Remember to read between the lines: 'Good snow on Diavolezza' implies not such good snow on St Moritz's other, lower or sunnier mountains. My impartial trials of the Independent's Ski Hotline suggest that it is pretty reliable; by speaking at the appropriate time you specify which resort you want to hear about, so only about one minute of your expensive call is lost before you start getting useful information.

Meanwhile, there seems little doubt about where you should head if you have complete freedom: the snowfalls in Utah have been so heavy that a state of emergency has been declared. At Park City, up to 2ft of snow has fallen every day for a week, and my correspondent reports skiing waist-deep in powder.

(Photograph omitted)