Whisked straight to the top: Resorts are spending millions on new lifts to satisfy our appetite for instant elevation, says Chris Gill

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The Independent Travel
SKIING isn't exactly booming at the moment, with concerns about the environment adding to the problems of an industry already hit by poor snow, economic recession and the impact of what marketing people call alternative leisure opportunities. But resorts continue to invest in their infrastructure, as they must if they are to keep up with skiers' expectations. In particular, they continue to spend millions on new lifts to give us the instant elevation we crave.

This winter, the big news is from Switzerland. Saas-Fee gets not one important new lift, but two. Much the more important is stage two of the big Alpin Express gondola. The first stage, already operating, runs from the village to mid-mountain, where last season it deposited skiers in numbers that far exceeded the capacity of the higher drag-lifts. Result: queues in which brawls broke out at times.

The new second stage goes up to Felskinn at 3,000m. The astonishing thing about Saas- Fee is that when you get to that height you're only at the starting point of another serious lift - the Metro Alpin underground funicular, going up to 3,500m. But its capacity is no match for that of the new lift up to Felskinn. Does that mean that the queues will simply move higher up the mountain? Not necessarily, because you don't have to go on the Metro. You have the alternative of 450m vertical of skiing down to the mid-station of the gondola (and the start of those drag-lifts). Or, of course, right on down to the village at 1,800m.

The second new lift here puts an end to the Fee Chatz, an improvised way of getting skiers from the minor Langfluh sector of the ski area across the glacier to the major Felskinn sector. You rode in the back of a hideously cramped snow-cat bus, or (more excitingly) were dragged across the glacier behind a piste-basher. And you were charged pounds 3 a time.

A few miles to the west, Verbier is also opening a big new gondola, from Les Ruinettes (the lift junction 700m above the resort) to Les Attelas (500m higher). This is Switzerland's first twin-cable gondola - less sensitive to wind than ordinary ones, as well as very good at shifting people. But whereas the second such gondola, due to open in Crans Montana next winter, seems sure to pay off, the Verbier lift seems to me of doubtful value. It will help with some of Verbier's queuing problems, but worsen others.

Another piece of news from Switzerland will, curiously, be of most interest to those bound for Austria - for Ischgl, to be precise. As anyone who has skied over to Samnaun in Switzerland knows, there are practically always queues to get back to the Austrian border from Alp Trida at mid-mountain, because everyone has to ski the international circuit anti- clockwise. A new quad chair from Alp Trida up to Viderjoch should solve that problem. Which just leaves the problem of the cable-car from the valley up to Alp Trida.

The news from France is of various efficient new chairs, usually of the high-speed 'detachable' variety. Courchevel gets two in strategic locations.

Alpe d'Huez gets one from Les Bergers, at the lower end of the village, to the mid-station of the main gondola from the top. This should ease queues for the first-stage gondolas, particularly those for the gondola from Les Bergers.

A few miles away in Les Deux Alpes, a new lift will have the unusual effect of providing a new way down the mountain. A chair up to the ridge immediately above the resort from the bottom of Les Gours, a north-facing spur from the main ski area which until now has been the preserve of off-piste skiers, will create an alternative to the main route home from the higher ski fields. This is extremely good news: congestion on the existing piste between 2,600m and the ridge has become nightmarish.

Pretty little Montchavin is set to become an even more attractive base from which to ski the big La Plagne area, with the replacement of two drags above the village by big chair-lifts - one taking six people per chair. How, I wonder, do they propose to fill the seats, when most French resorts can't organise efficient use of triple and quad chairs?

In the Trois Vallees, an ingenious way has been found to give another 'backdoor' resort quicker access to the heart of the skiing. The chair- lift out of St-Martin de Belleville, down the valley from Les Menuires, will be able to run more quickly because skiers will be fed into the lift on a moving carpet.

In the US, Aspen's takeover of nearby but separately owned Aspen Highlands mountain sees the installation of two fast new chairs, halving the time to get up to the top of the mountain, and the opening of an extra 45 acres of expert terrain.

Interestingly, there's little to report from Austria, which is engaged in a campaign to regain some of its declining British market share.

(Photograph omitted)

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