For hikers and mountain bikers in the Austrian Alps, the end of the year has brought perfect conditions. High-altitude walks and tracks are in optimum shape. As an apparently endless summer prevails into the deep midwinter, the tourist board for the town of Zell-am-See promises “The sun will shine from a cloudless sky.”
The Pascherweg, a trail connecting the Austrian village of Saalbach with the Spielberghaus mountain inn, threads through forests alive with birdsong and across meadows strewn with thistles in bud. Only one impediment mars the carefree hike: the need to cross a 20-yard wide stretch of artificial snow, which is extremely busy with winter-sports enthusiasts enduring a less-than-perfect season.
“You should be on the beginners’ slope, mate,” exclaimed a young British snowboarder after hitting a slower skier at some speed. “So fuck off,” she advised as she accelerated down the mountain.
During the peak winter-sports week of the year across the Alps, tempers are fraying as hundreds of thousands of skiers converge on resorts where at least some runs are open.
An area of high pressure known as “High Brigitte” has been dominating the weather in central Europe since the start of the ski season, bringing spring-like temperatures and leaving the mountains naked.
At Saalbach, most of the lifts are running and about half the pistes are open, thanks to careful conservation of early snow and some artificial snow making.
Martina Jamnig, Marketing Manager of the Austrian Tourist Board said: “Even there is no new snow at the moment, people can still ski as the cable-car companies every year invest heavily in artificial snow production.”
Because Saalbach has runs open, it is actually more crowded than normal: frustrated skiers from elsewhere in the region are being bussed in. Business is booming at bars and restaurants, with tables on the outdoor terrace of the Maisalm mountain inn at a premium.
At around 1,200m above sea level, the surroundings should be draped in snow. Instead, T-shirted customers gaze across a picture of autumnal loveliness scarred only by a few narrow ribbons of snow, as they sip Schnapps and gently tan.
Lower down the valley, the Zeller lake would normally be deeply frozen enough to allow skating. Instead, boats are bobbing prettily on the water.
The picture across the rest of the Alps depends largely on altitude, with only resorts offering glacial skiing in anything like prime condition.
“The southern French Alps are really struggling, with resorts such as Valfrejus and La Grave not yet open for skiing,” said Chris Madoc-Jones of the Ski Club of Great Britain.
Further north in the Portes du Soleil area, snow is thin on the ground in resorts popular with British skiers such as Morzine and Avoriaz, and across the Swiss border at lower altitudes.
Over the Italian frontier in the Milky Way Region, only a fraction of pistes in resorts such as Sauze d’Oulx and Sestriere are open. “Bardonecchia is also really struggling,” said Mr Madoc-Jones. But he said the outlook is optimistic: “Snow is very much on the way, with temperatures falling already and lots of snow expected in the New Year. We could see upwards of a metre in places if the current forecasts hold true.”
Ski operators, though, are discounting heavily in a bid to fill off-peak capacity. Inghams has cut the price of a week in Les Deux Alpes in France, departing 9 January, by 52 per cent.
Meanwhile, the sauna of the Alpinresort in Saalbach is packed each afternoon for the “infusion performance,” involving salt, honey and plenty of naked flesh. As the inside temperature rose to 100C, Michel, the Cuban-born supervisor, said: “It’s like a football stadium in here”.
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