Rain and exceptionally mild temperatures across most of the Alps have caused chaos over Christmas and New Year’s, the peak two weeks of ski holidays, raising fears that climate change could kill a ski holiday, or at least a Christmas ski holiday, earlier than we had all thought of.
While there is plenty of snow in North America and Scandinavia, parts of Europe are in dire straits, with the northern French Alps – an area most popular with Brits – being the hardest hit. Social media was flooded with pictures of bare slopes, green trees and muddy slopes, as well as scary queues as skiers packed up the lifts to find better conditions at higher altitudes and crowded the few slopes with enough white material.
Fraser Wilkin of weathertoski.co.uk says the situation is not unprecedented – the 2015-16 season started with widespread drought in the Alps until the New Year – and says that while the situation in the north is “very bad”, the western Alps other areas, such as the Dolomites, have better conditions.
“Since Christmas, we’ve had mild temperatures coupled with unusual, heavy and prolonged rain that has destroyed quite reasonable amounts of snow that has fallen,” he said. “The rain was deadly.”
Resorts are offering free entertainment and cutting the cost of ski passes as they wait for the snow to arrive – some are due next week – and while skiers are worried, few have canceled their holiday entirely.
Skiworld’s Diane Palumbo said ski travel sales remain strong, but admits the company “only offers resorts with the highest snow confidence”.
She dismissed any suggestion that Christmas in the Alps might soon be a thing of the past. “We have the highest number of full-house bookings for Christmas, and people who choose to travel during the holiday season often have additional reasons to go – celebrate with family and friends, enjoy time together without having to cook a Christmas meal and do the dishes. “
Skiers who booked early in the season to secure an all-inclusive deal in the face of rising prices are among the hardest hit.
“It’s probably the worst conditions I’ve seen in the Alps at this time of year in more than 20 years of skiing,” says Louise Johnson from Lyndhurst, Hampshire, who spent New Year’s Eve in Alpe d’Huez with her partner Mark Barwell. . The couple usually book last-minute deals under the terms and conditions, but this year they bought an all-inclusive package in October to be sure of the cost of the holiday.
“It’s not that bad, there’s snow at the top, but it’s so warm that you don’t need much slush and the snow cannons don’t work – but it’s still nice to be up in the mountains and overall resort morale is fine.”
Which resorts are most affected?
There is no heavy snow anywhere in the Alps right now, but the northern French Alps and the western Swiss Alps are the hardest hit, which were hit by rains last week due to mild temperatures. Lower resorts in Austria are also severely affected, with the situation looking bleak in the lower French resorts of the Grand Massif, including Samöens, which is closed until the end of this week, as well as Megeve, La Clusaz and Portes du Soleil.
Conditions at Morzine have deteriorated so much that only three lifts – the Chavannes gondola, the Vieux-Chêne T-bar lift and the Chavannes magic carpet – remain operational despite the resort’s heroic efforts to keep snow on the slopes.
While connections to Avoriaz are still open, chaos reigned last week as queues for the connection between the two resorts reached three hours and ski pass sales were suspended, with skiers describing the situation as a “nightmare”.
Which resorts still have good snow cover?
North America, which experiences extreme weather, still has an abundance of snow, with avalanche warnings in parts of Colorado after severe storms, and conditions in Norway and Sweden, where temperatures are low, are also good.
In Europe, Italian resorts do best avoiding the recent rain, and although the snow cover in Switzerland is not what it usually is at this time of year, most of them serve a large number of routes – with the high-altitude resorts of Zermatt and Saas-Fee offering decent conditions.
What is the short-term forecast?
Snow will now fall on Sunday and Monday, but not enough to remedy the current situation, says Fraser Wilkin.
“What we really need is a series of back-to-back thunderstorm cycles, and while that looked very promising, right now it looks like one pretty big storm and I’m not convinced we’ll get enough to change the game given the mild air,” he said, but he added: “The jury is still absent.” You can find out more about snow guaranteed resorts here.
What is the long-term forecast?
Long-term projections for the Alps are difficult because the weather is so volatile, Wilkin said, but added: “In meteorological circles there is really talk of temperatures dropping in a few weeks and while the building blocks are there, cold doesn’t necessarily mean snow – so it’s very difficult predict anything.”
Can I get a refund if I cancel my booking?
If your ski holiday has been booked as part of a package – that is flights, accommodation and at least one essential item included – your tour operator has a legal obligation to transport you to a ski resort where you can ski or to offer a refund.
For example, Club Med is contacting customers directly affected by the Grand Massif closure, offering them alternative resorts if they wish to change.
If you have made a self-booking; you will have to deal with each element independently. If you have flights, ferry or train booked, you can change your travel dates or claim a full refund if you bought a flexible ticket – although the rules are different. For example, EasyJet allows you to change your ticket for a fee, and Eurotunnel allows travelers with standard tickets to change the date of travel by paying the appropriate difference between the original and new dates.
While there is no legal requirement for independently booked accommodation to offer a refund other than goodwill, this also varies.
For example, Tim Townsend of Chandlers Ford in Hampshire owns a cottage in Samöens and offers a ‘No Snow Guarantee’.
“I got an email from my rental agent that they have cancellation requests because the resort is closed,” says Townswend. “Since the resort has closed, we are offering guests who wish to cancel a 50% discount on what they spend with us as a credit for the next year.
“For the first time in 12 years of owning a cottage, the resort has actually closed down.”
Finally, some insurance policies (but not all) cover bad snow, but only when the lifts are closed. So check the fine print on your policy.
What else can you do in the hard-hit resorts?
The resorts work hard to keep the snow on the slopes, and offer additional entertainment and activities, from ski mountaineering and snowshoeing to snow karting, hiking, fat biking and rock climbing. Cinemas have increased their offerings and tennis courts, ice rinks and swimming pools have reopened or extended opening hours.
Morzine has taken the unprecedented step of reopening its ski lifts to mountain bikers, while offering free games and entertainment alongside the tourist office – even hosting an eagle flight show.