Do you glumly hang up your ski boots in March, thinking the season is over until the following winter? Do your holiday thoughts suddenly veer towards locations of the sun-and-sea variety as soon as Easter is over? Then you are missing a trick, particularly this year with its slow start and recent heavy snowfalls. Because despite all the gloomy talk of global warming, there is still, in certain resorts, plenty of northern hemisphere skiing and boarding to be had in April and May.
I decided to check this out for myself, heading off for a week in late April last year to Saas Fee, a southern Swiss resort that is promisingly dubbed the Pearl of the Alps. Being late in the season, I knew that height would be key, and the village of Saas Fee lies at a lofty 1,800m, nestling at the foot of the very highest Swiss mountains, the Mischabel chain, which consist of 13 4,000m peaks. The ski slopes themselves climb to a literally breath-taking 3,600m (at this height, shortness of breath is common, if not full-blown altitude sickness) so it sounded like snow was almost guaranteed for the late season adventurer. In addition, Saas Fee has the dramatic Feegletscher glacier, so there would definitely be something to ski on, even if there were no fresh flakes.
But how different would it be from early-season trips to the slopes? Would the snow really be any good? Would the resort be deserted, or would I be sharing the mountains with ladies jauntily carving their way down in bikinis?
From day one, we were blessed with what is the prime advantage of the late season trip: the weather. The sky was deep, deep blue and the sun blazed down, bathing the slopes with dazzling light and ensuring long, outdoor stop-offs at one of the resort’s nine mountain-side restaurants – the best being the charming and typically Swiss Gleschergrotte. Long forgotten was the zero visibility, teeth-chattering cold and general battling-with-the-elements of January and February outings: this was pure heaven.
Ann Williams, a seasoned spring skier from Cheltenham whom I met on one of my stops, commented: “It’s lovely to ski at Christmas but it’s icy, you are often stuck in blizzards, and you can’t see where the ground is. Coming now means you are guaranteed a good holiday because the sun is out, even if the snow is soft. You can get a better tan here than in Portugal.”
The clear sky also meant that the views from the upper slopes were staggering. It is said that you can see the bright metropolitan lights of Milan on a really clear day from Saas Fee. In any event, the mountain vistas from the Mittelallalin restaurant – the “highest revolving restaurant in the world” at 3,500m above sea level – were extraordinary, stretching across the Italian Alps and beyond.
As the week progressed, other advantages emerged: the days were longer, which meant we could stay skiing for at least an hour more than in February or early March. Fewer people were around so the runs were less busy, and we totally beat the half-term madness that stretches throughout February into March. There were also handy late-season discounts in the village shops on all ski wear, with some slashing prices by as much as 50 per cent by the end of the week.
Yet a few pitfalls did become apparent – the main one being the condition of the snow. First thing in the morning, the slopes were rather hard and icy from the overnight freeze, and by the afternoon the warmth had turned the lower runs into mush, so it was a little like skiing through semi-frozen mashed potato. Throughout the week, the number four blue run to the main Alpin Express lift in the village was patchy and best avoided, so we were deprived of the emotionally satisfying last-in-the-day run down to the bottom. Nevertheless, higher up it was still good, and records show that snowfall is in fact often at its highest in April – the ski resort equivalent of April showers. Over the past 10 years, Saas Fee has had more snow falling in the first three weeks of April than in March, according to the Ski Club of Great Britain’s historical snow reports.
Another slight drawback was that the relative lack of people meant the village was rather quiet, particularly at night, although après ski at the Die Muehle bar on the main street still managed to be impressively lively. Not all late season resorts might be like this however: in Saas Fee, any night-time noise is drastically clamped down on by the “noise police”, a brigade of black-shirted gentlemen who are empowered to slap an instant SFr400 fine (a stiff £180) on anyone deemed to be disturbing the peace. Civilised indeed.
For those who can get flights, book hotels and find somewhere with a big enough altitude, a glacier or a north-facing location, late season skiing is as fantastic as winter skiing – and a great way of closing the gap with the start of the next season.
Other late season resorts
tel: +33 450 53 00 24
Les Grands Montets ski area, at a mighty 3233m, stays open until 6th May
tel: +41 27 966 81 00
High altitude skiing and a glacier open all year round.
■Val Thorens, France
tel : +33 479 00 08 08
Europe’s highest resort at 2300m
tel: +33 479 40 04 40
Excellent snow record in enormous Espace Killy area
tel: +43 52 56 64 66
Most snow-sure of Europe’s non-glacier resorts
tel: +41 41 887 14 54
Tops out at 3000m
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