Mention skiing in November and it will likely result in empty phrases or comments such as: “It’s too early, there won’t be any snow.” While this is true for some resorts, not all ski areas are created equal.
A recent study shows that in 2015 the snow arrived in the Swiss Alps 12 days later and melted 26 days earlier than in 1970. This has made it more difficult to book ski holidays and be certain that there will be enough of snow when you get there. Additionally, this has led to stiffer competition for hosting in February, the most reliable month.
Some high altitude resorts, however, still have long seasons. Some even ski all year round.
So why ski early? Here are some good reasons:
Fight the fall blues
For those living in northern Europe, it’s easy to dread cold, gray and dark winters. In Switzerland, it’s a different matter. Winter brings snow and snow means outdoor fun. The only problem is to endure this period of “nothing” between the end of summer and the beginning of winter pleasures. This patch when it’s cold but not cold enough.
Skiing in November and early December is like traveling back in time. Fast forward to snow.
Avoid the crowds
Few people catch the snow early. Most are still yearning for summer or getting back to work after their summer vacation. While this bundle is working or lamenting the end of summer, you’ll have the mountain to yourself.
Register a plan
Accommodation prices are significantly lower at the start of the season. For example, December prices before Christmas are sometimes 30% lower than February prices. Hotels and vacation rentals are also cheaper. Vacation rentals and hotels in Zermatt can be 20-30% cheaper, and in November some hotels offer discounts of 40-50% off the higher rates.
So where are the highest slopes in Switzerland? Three of the highest in Switzerland are Zermatt, Saas Fee and Verbier.
Zermatt is the highest of all. The highest point of the lifts is Gobba di Rollin at 3,899m. From there you can ski to Italy. A much more impressive highlight is the nearby Klein Matterhorn at 3883m, which has a restaurant, accommodation and an ice cave.
Long before Zermatt became famous for skiing, it was a mountaineering resort. 2015 was the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn by an Englishman Edward Whymper and his team in 1865.
Due to the altitude and the glaciers, Zermatt offers skiing 365 days a year. In winter, when fully open, it has 360 km of ski runs.
Point: Buy an international pass and ski in Italy for lunch. Make sure you don’t miss the last elevator to Switzerland. It’s a long taxi ride back.
Do: The iconic Matterhorn, 4,478m high, is only half Swiss. One side is Italian where it is called Cervino1.
Raise the high point: 3,899 m (Rollin’s Gobba).
Village elevation: 1,620m
Season opening: All year.
Saas Fee is Zermatt’s lesser-known neighbor. A mountain range to the east of the mighty Matterhorn is the 4,027m Allalin Peak, the centerpiece of Saas Fee. Accessible only by road since 1951, the mountain village of Saas Fee, like Zermatt, is car-free.
One October, I skied on the Saas Fee glacier. Queuing with the Russian ski team, I braced myself for heavy, unforgiving snow. To my surprise, it was light and fluffy.
Point: Ski school group lessons start at 10am, which means you can get some sleep.
Do: The 1984 Song Wham last christmas was filmed in Saas Fee.
Raise the high point: 3,573 m (Allalin 2).
Village elevation: 1,800m.
Season opening: All year.
Verbier is one of four valleys linked by a network of ski lifts, with Mont Fort (3,328m) as its summit. The other three resorts of Nendaz, Veysonnaz and Thyon share Mont Fort as their highest point. The peak sits above the Tortin Glacier.
From the top of the Mont Fort lift, it is possible to see both the peaks of the Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps (4,809 m) and the Matterhorn. It also offers a bird’s eye view of the course of the biennial Glacier Patrol ski touring race from Zermatt to Verbier.
Point: Ski on December 3, 2022, Verbier opening daydress up as Santa Claus and get a free ski pass.
Do: Verbier once offered summer skiing on the Tortin Glacier. T-bars installed on the glacier in 1982 were decommissioned in 2008.
Raise the high point: 3,328 (Mont Fort).
Village elevation: 1,500.
Season opening: December 2.
Among these resorts, the first two are the best equipped for skiing at the start of the season. Zermatt and Saas Fee have skiable glaciers and boast year-round skiing, including the summer months.
1 The border was finalized in 1941.
By Phillip Judd