In the last few days, the picture has changed appreciably in the Alps. At last, some of our Atlantic weather has penetrated the Continent, delivering snow to many ski resorts on Tuesday and to practically the whole of the Alps on Wednesday - including resorts that had not seen a snowflake fall since mid-November. (Resorts on the south- east margins of the Alps - the Italian Dolomites in particular - seem to have missed out, as they often do when the weather comes from the north-west.)
With only a fortnight to go to the start of the Christmas holidays, this new snow was needed very badly. Before its arrival the picture across the Alps was broadly uniform and depressing, with patchy cover except in a few privileged areas - mainly high, north- facing areas on or adjacent to glaciers.
The shortage of early snow will have been evident to Ski Sunday viewers, who last weekend saw the women's downhill race at Tignes take place on a track consisting almost entirely of artificial snow. The surrounding mountainsides were not exactly bare, but they made a stark contrast to the same mountainsides a year ago, when the men's downhill at next-door Val d'Isere was called off because of bad (ie, snowy) weather, and a healthy base was laid for the 1993 holiday season.
This weekend's World Cup races at Val d'Isere (which is at a slightly lower altitude than Tignes) would probably have survived with the help of artificial snow, but by Wednesday morning the message from Val was that there was now a good blanket of natural snow on the course.
If you have booked a Christmas skiing holiday, you now have at least some hope of a worthwhile layer of snow in your chosen resort. If you haven't booked but still plan to get away, the choice of where to go isn't an easy one because the situation is constantly changing. The new snow has improved the prospects for Christmas, but it has not transformed them. The benefit has been felt mainly at high altitudes, and that pattern seems set to continue - further precipitation is expected in some areas this weekend, but it's likely to be rain in many villages.
If you want or need to take the plunge right now, do your homework first. Use the daily snow reports that appear in the Independent's sports pages to build up a picture of which areas of the Alps are doing best; and follow that up with a few carefully chosen calls to the paper's Ski Hotline (numbers listed on the sports page: they are a premium- rate phone service). If in doubt, look for extensive artificial snow-making systems, and preferably a glacier.
Right now, I would definitely recommend staying high, and on the western and northern sides of the Alps, where the bad Atlantic weather will be doing the most good to the pistes.
Of course, there are alternatives to the Alps - in particular, North America, where resorts open for business rather earlier in the winter than those in Europe. The picture there is far from ideal, but it is as appetising as the Alpine scene. Midweek, most Colorado resorts were quoting mid-mountain snow depths around the 80cm mark. At village level artificial snow has been playing an important part - but then that's what artificial snow is for, and American resorts will have been building up reserves of it for weeks now.
The Colorado resorts have typically got two-thirds of their skiing terrain in operation already - and much the same is true of the Utah resorts farther west, where the fabled 'greatest snow on earth' has thus far accumulated in quantities that you might call adequate rather than impressive.
That's more than can be said for the major Canadian resort of Whistler- Blackcomb, where only around 30 per cent of the area is open. Many of the main runs are reported to be worn, and runs to village level are closed. But storms are on the way, they say, and temperatures are encouragingly low.
And Flumserberg? It's in eastern Switzerland, at 1,400m but with skiing up to 2,200m, and has 16 lifts. But like most small resorts it won't be seriously in operation until next weekend.
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