October 25, 2013 7:02 pm

New links: making the connection

After years of planning, four small resorts are linking up with their larger neighbours
A ski lift with passengers

Back in 1972, Austria’s Vorarlberger Nachrichten newspaper published an exciting scoop. Plans were afoot, it revealed, to build a new ski lift that would link the slopes above the village of Warth with the celebrated resort of Lech.

On December 6 – after a 41-year gestation – those plans will finally reach fruition. A new €12m, 2km-long gondola-style lift will stretch across the Auenfeld pass connecting Lech and Warth, at a stroke making the latter a compelling destination.

A small village with a modest collection of comfortable hotels, Warth is barely known outside Austria but has a good claim to be the Alps’ snowiest resort, averaging 10.6m of snowfall every winter. Now it will also have access to 190km of high-quality piste skiing (including Zürs, which is already linked to Lech) – or 340km if you include St Anton’s pistes, accessible from Zürs via a short, free, bus ride.

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Such a project would normally be the winter’s big story in the Alps but this is the year of the link-up, and Warth-Lech must share the limelight with no fewer than three other schemes. Possibly this is coincidence, possibly it’s because smaller resorts are increasingly feeling the need to join with large ski areas in order to compete.

In Switzerland’s Val de Bagnes, the sleepy village of Bruson has long been a secret stash – a place to find powder when its famous neighbour Verbier is skied out. Getting between the two has always involved a bus ride, but this winter they will be linked by a new gondola, via the village of Le Châble down in the valley between them. Little Bruson, with just a few private chalets and apartments, will go from having four lifts to having direct access to more than 90; it will now be possible to travel from Bruson to Les Masses – 20km away as the crow flies – purely on skis and lifts. Again, it’s been a long time coming: the link was first proposed in 1988 and due for completion in 1990, but has been mired in opposition from environmental groups and some local landowners.

In the east of the country, Arosa is linking with Lenzerheide, another project that was first proposed more than 40 years ago. The former is smaller but far more popular among English-speaking skiers, while Lenzerheide is well known in Switzerland, not least because Roger Federer has a home there. Critics had opposed the linking of the two resorts because of fears of environmental damage to the Urdental, a pristine high-alpine valley that lies between the two ski areas. In response, the resorts have opted not to build a series of chairlifts and pistes into the valley. Instead, skiers will be carried over it in a 1.7km-long cable car built without the need for supporting masts. Together the two resorts claim 225km of pistes, making this the largest ski area in the Graubünden region.

Also in Switzerland, off-piste mecca Zinal is being linked to chocolate-box-pretty, family-friendly Grimentz, giving two fairly niche destinations far wider appeal.

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Size matters

A skier holding a map

Gauging the size of a ski resort is far from straightforward. European resorts quote how many kilometres of pistes they have, but skiers have long harboured doubts about the accuracy of these measurements.

Those suspicions appear to be confirmed by the work of Christoph Schrahe, a German ski writer who has used digital mapping techniques to check the statistics. His results suggest widespread exaggeration, or at least confusion. France’s Grand Massif area claims 265km, but Schrahe measured just 172km; Switzerland’s Four Valleys claimed 362km, Schrahe measured 164km. On average, resorts claimed a third more than Schrahe’s measurements. A Grand Massif spokesperson explained that the discrepancy was because rather than measuring a line straight down the centre of the piste, they took into account the fact that skiers make turns across it. The Four Valleys has asked consultants to investigate.

The findings have now prompted a reaction from the Fédération Internationale des Associations Nationales d’Exploitants de Téléphériques, the body representing ski-lift operating companies. Earlier this month it issued guidance recommending that all resorts measure pistes as Schrahe does, in a straight line down the middle. It follows a similar recommendation from Austria’s national association of lift operators. Already the Zillertal ski area has reduced its claimed total. Expect others to follow suit.

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