IF THE season is already 'won' in high French resorts such as Val d'Isere, victory is rather more in doubt elsewhere in the Alps.

Although the news from most resorts is fairly encouraging, it is far from conclusive. It would be overly optimistic to assume that this season, which follows one that was at least adequate for snow, will finally lay to rest our fears of climate change.

Altitude has so far been a key ingredient. The weather has not been particularly cold - the wind has to come from somewhere near north and east for that, and most of the recent weather has come from the west and south-west. As a result, much of the recent precipitation in the Alps has been rain at low altitudes.

Even at high altitudes, there has been some rain in the past couple of months. Experienced observers maintain that moderate autumnal rain is no bad thing. It helps the fallen snow to consolidate into a durable base before the skiers arrive to scrape it off the high spots and the steep pitches.

But aside from altitude, geography has had its effect. When the weather comes from the west, the Alps that benefit most are those that receive the full force of the weather fronts - the Alps of France, northern Switzerland and western Austria.

A week ago, practically all the major high resorts in the northern French Alps were claiming something in the region of 2m of snow on their upper slopes, and those with glaciers were claiming more than 3m.

At village level, the amounts of snow were directly related to altitude. Val Thorens, scene of a tragic avalanche in November and, at 2,300m, Europe's highest resort, could claim 1.5m, while lowly Chamonix at just over 1,000m, was practically bare. Fitting in with this pattern, Avoriaz had 60cm at its village altitude of 1,800m, and 1.3m at its modest top height of about 2,300m.

Resorts further south in the French Alps were not quite so well off - Les Deux Alpes, for example, had only 35cm at the resort altitude of 1,650m, and 2.3m on its 'upper' slopes, which would normally mean at glacier level.

In Switzerland, the higher resorts are in the south and east of the country, and are more sheltered from westerly weather than the high resorts of France. With one or two exceptions - Crans-Montana was claiming an astonishing 3.7m on its upper slopes - the figures make less impressive reading. Except for Verbier, Zermatt and one or two other resorts, upper-slope depths are around the metre mark or less.

But there are some acid tests to be applied to Swiss resorst. In what condition, for example, are the pistes down to Zermatt and particularly Saas Fee, where rocky terrain requires good cover?

'Good' is the encouraging answer - with about 70cm at village level proving enough to do the trick. But these are high resorts. Lower down, resort runs have not fared nearly so well. In traditional British favourites such as Wengen and Villars, for example, 15cm or 25cm of snow at resort level has not been enough for home runs to function, despite grassy pistes.

Meanwhile, the famously dry corner of Switzerland occupied by St Moritz - about as sheltered from westerly frontal systems as is possible - appears to have had a famously snowy start to the season, with more snow (almost a metre) at resort level than anywhere else, and runs to the valley not surprisingly in good condition. At altitude (which in St Moritz means more than 3,000m), the reported depth is a modest 1.3m. Have they really mad a metre of artificial stuff?

As is so often the case, particularly when the weather has come from the west, about the best snow in Austria is to be found in the Arlberg resorts. St Anton and Stuben have had French-style falls at altitude, with reported depths of 2m or more. However, runs to resort level, although skiable, cannot be considered safely covered with a depth of only 30cm in St Anton - and that partly due to snowmaking.

As elsewhere, altitude has been important. Generally, it is only the higher resorts such as Obergurgl and Ischgl that have reported much over a metre depth on their upper slopes, while at village level in lower resorts such as Soll, very little snow has accumulated.

And Italy? I have to admit that the information that has reached me is thin and in some respects suspect - does Cervinia really have a metre more on its upper slopes than neighbouring Zermatt, I wonder? But the general message is a positive one, with runs to valley level skiable in most areas.

Ski Sunday viewers can testify to the fact that Selva's race course was in good condition last weekend - but given the biggest artificial snow installation in the Alps, it would be, wouldn't it? More to the point, the Val Gardena as a whole was looking adequately snowy, with a few centimetres on the rooftops and, indeed, on the trees.

The overall message is clear: go high. But don't overlook the woodland skiing.

Comments