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Altitude or intervention? Which is the better strategy for early season skiing ?

 Poster: A snowHead
Poster: A snowHead
Read any article about early season skiing and it will recommend going high and usually going west. The logic being that at higher altitudes the temperature will be lower and the snow that falls in the autumn will survive into December. Having a glacier may also mean some year round runs are still open. Most of the recommended early season resorts tend to be in the western alps where snowfall also tends to be heavier because of greater exposure to saturated Atlantic air.

There is an alternative strategy however. In the eastern alps some resorts now rely on 100% human intervention through snowmaking. In particular south of the Alpine ridge the factors that make natural snowfall less predictable, such as its shelter from the North and west and low humidity, also make snowmaking more effective. Runs sheltered by trees and an absence of rocks also help early opening there. Some of the resorts in the east plan to open up as early as late November each year.

High altitude resorts also have snowmaking, but that is geared to supplementing their natural snowfall rather than opening 100% of their runs.

So then we have two different philosophies. Will high altitude and snow from the west mean good early season skiing in France, Switzerland and the Voralberg? Or will shelter from the west and lower temperatures mean more reliable early season skiing on 100% artificial snow in the east ?

We can make the comparison in terms of kms of piste open, number of lifts operational and the quality of the skiing surface.
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@Peter S,
My preferred strategy is book late because it is not the same two consecutive years.
If bad weather is forecast you can have a miserable time in a high resort . If the weather is unseasonably warm man made snow may not be up to much. Neither are as good as the freshly fallen snow that may have fallen in one part of the alps but not another.
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Nothing means anything with any certainty.

If it was however a choice of either high altitude natural glacier skiing early season or 100% canonage early season but lower altitude I would go with the Glacier any day of the week.
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@Peter S, what do you mean by early season?

I've skied Tignes and Hintertux glaciers pre-season for 15+ years (various times from as early as the end of September, through to end of November) and that pretty much guarantees skiing. Sometimes the snow has been mighty thin, but that's not a disaster if you treat that skiing time as more for training or improving your skiing than anything else. Typically high wind is a bigger problem at that time of year.

I've also skied main season from early December, often skiing in one resort or another for all of the month. My priority has always been to go high (or at least have ready access to high terrain even if the village is low), no matter what country I was in. I've never not had enough snow to ski on. Sometimes it has been a bit thin, mostly manmade, other times it's been amazing. My two most memorable days for off-piste skiing in Europe were both during the second week of December, one of those days in Meribel and one of those days in Hintertux, both with utterly amazing snow.
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For most piste skiing punters it probably doesn't matter although there is something to the aesthetic of not skiing the WROD through brown dirt.

I find skiing manmade groomers a pretty joyless experience. If it was all that skiing was, despite my love of the sport I'd probably jack it in. So personally I'd always take chance of natural over guaranteed manmade.
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Dave of the Marmottes wrote:
So personally I'd always take chance of natural over guaranteed manmade.
Does it have to be a choice? All the high altitude resorts I know have also invested heavily in snow-making, to such an extent I now take that as a given unless I am deliberately choosing a very small destination because it is unlikely to have that infrastructure. Hintertux, for example, has a snow cannon network on its glacier.

For me the sweet spot is a resort with plenty of high altitude terrain but also some terrain through the trees. Best hope of snow, but a place to bolt to if the visibility is bad or when higher lifts lifts are closed because of too much wind or snow.
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Quote:

I find skiing manmade groomers a pretty joyless experience. If it was all that skiing was, despite my love of the sport I'd probably jack it in. So personally I'd always take chance of natural over guaranteed manmade.

In the context of the original post I can't say I find a huge difference between man made groomers and the high altitude remains of snow that has fallen several weeks previously which has probably been gathered and groomed to preserve it.
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I was thinking more in terms of outcomes than preferences. Ie. Will this November’s weather favour snow in the west or snowmaking in the east?
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Peter S wrote:
I was thinking more in terms of outcomes than preferences. Ie. Will this November’s weather favour snow in the west or snowmaking in the east?
Impossible to know that, and I'm not sure that I agree with your premise that snow in the West of the Alps is more likely in November than snow in the East of the Alps.
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For the last 18 Seasons in Austria I have checked the early season snow so I can jump in the car and follow the snow from Vienna. I'd say the west is more likely to receive Nov snow but this is far from always being the case. Some years the south east i.e. Kärnten (e.g. Nassfeld) gets the early snow. Some years it's Tirol although it can be that it's only a part of Tirol. (e.g. Obergurgl but not St Anton). Some years the Salzburg area gets the early snow but again this can be just a part of the Salzburg area. The weather conditions of recent seasons has seen the winter temps Yo-Yo and many resorts that receive early snow are then bare again a few days later after the air temp warms up again, especially if the snow gets rained on. Some seasons the low mountains in the East had a great dump of snow higher up, extensively used snow cannons lower down and opened early only to be hit with warm weather for a week or two that wiped away most of the snow. The higher glaciers are more snow secure but the weather can be very windy / foggy at these higher altitudes in Nov.
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Dave of the Marmottes wrote:
For most piste skiing punters...............


Careful you're beginning to sound like me Laughing

I'm heading East and low FWIW Cool
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Peter S wrote:


There is an alternative strategy however. In the eastern alps some resorts now rely on 100% human intervention through snowmaking. In particular south of the Alpine ridge the factors that make natural snowfall less predictable, such as its shelter from the North and west and low humidity, also make snowmaking more effective.


Can't think of anywhere in the eastern Alps that relies on 100% snowmaking, so I assume you're taking about the Dolomites?

The only reliable strategy for good snow is to book last minute, in the days before. Anything else is a gamble.

The safest places to be able to ski are the glaciers and other v high resorts*; the region most likely to have good offpiste early is NW Austria/Arlberg/Vorarlberg and the surrounding areas in Switzerland and even Germany (statistically snowiest in the Alps + plenty of grassy meadows without rocks).

*Suppose the Dolomites are guaranteed to have plenty of pistes open, but I just don't find artificial snow any fun
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rob@rar wrote:
Peter S wrote:
I was thinking more in terms of outcomes than preferences. Ie. Will this November’s weather favour snow in the west or snowmaking in the east?
Impossible to know that, and I'm not sure that I agree with your premise that snow in the West of the Alps is more likely in November than snow in the East of the Alps.


+1, resorts in both west and east can and do get hammered by a proper Nordstau, and for most resorts that would preferable as generally colder temps than storms from the west too.

Unless the OP means Dolomites and not eastern Alps, in which case it's pretty fair to say statistically lower chance of natural snow
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@clarky999, Honestly, if you're not going with the expectation that you'll be skiing 2m of powder through the trees, totally man-made Dolomiti pistes are not a big deal. They manufacture huge quantities of high quality snow, and spread it so wide that you don't even notice the edges until you get on the lift.

I was in Alleghe in Jan 2017 when pretty much no snow had fallen. I was expecting a disappointing week spent mostly in the bar, but it wasn't the case at all. Obviously, it's probably not worth making a special trip from Innsbruck to try it out, but for those booking an early week piste skiing in the Dolomites, it's a good a location as any, and possibly better than places without extensive snowmaking in some circumstances.

The eventual dump that started on the Friday lunch time after a huge downpour and lasted about four days, was all the sweeter after the dryness of the previous week Cool
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The best test of early-season riding in the European Alps is how guaranteed they are to be open in any November.

Based on the past two decades, only a handful of stations (<1%) have been open every single November without fail. Even in superbad years.

The most prominent ones have been high and with a skiable glacier and mostly above the ridgeline.

They include:

Zermatt.
Hintertux.
Tignes.
Soelden.
Pitztal.
Kaprun.
Molltal.
Cervinia.
Saas Fee.
Passo Stelvio.
Dachstein.
Kaunertal.
Stubai.

So... 1 from France, 2 from Italy, 2 from Switzerland, and 8 from Austria.

Thus, for very early-season skiing, East is best.

But with global warming accelerating, that list will only get shorter.

And if you want absolutely 100% truly guaranteed skiing in Nov or early Dec, then only one resort really has enough glacier left to deliver it, and that's Zermatt (in the West). All the other skiable glaciers in the Alps are nearly gone.
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Scarlet wrote:
@clarky999, Honestly, if you're not going with the expectation that you'll be skiing 2m of powder through the trees, totally man-made Dolomiti pistes are not a big deal. They manufacture huge quantities of high quality snow, and spread it so wide that you don't even notice the edges until you get on the lift.


Depends on the person and priorities of course. If I was going (let alone booking) somewhere with the expectation of only skiing on hard man-made pistes I'd either cancel or switch (lets be honest, you never have to drive more than about 4 hours in the Alps to find completely different conditions) to somewhere else; or do something else there if that wasn't possible. This isn't something about only wanting to ski powder and not liking pistes - as you know, I luuuurve slushy end of season pistes - just that I simply don't enjoy the feel of skiing on artificial snow and how aggressive/grabby it often is. Plus the noice it makes. I'd far rather go for a hike or something.
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@clarky999, but you are lucky enough to have that choice by living in the Alps. I think the average punter will either have to follow the advice of @Whitegold, but risk high winds or white out or they will have to think about a resort with 100% man made guarantee.

We do a weekend at Hintertux in Nov, it can be amazing or bloody awful even though the snow is mainly real. However for a weeks holiday (and perhaps the only week skiing in the season) I would go for manmade in the east (or Italy). At least you would have many km open and still have the tree runs if needed. I wouldn’t touch France etc. But this is my personal view.
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Whitegold wrote:
The best test of early-season riding in the European Alps is how guaranteed they are to be open in any November.

Based on the past two decades, only a handful of stations (<1%) have been open every single November without fail. Even in superbad years.

The most prominent ones have been high and with a skiable glacier and mostly above the ridgeline.

They include:

Zermatt.
Hintertux.
Tignes.
Soelden.
Pitztal.
Kaprun.
Molltal.
Cervinia.
Saas Fee.
Passo Stelvio.
Dachstein.
Kaunertal.
Stubai.

So... 1 from France, 2 from Italy, 2 from Switzerland, and 8 from Austria.

Thus, for very early-season skiing, East is best.

But with global warming accelerating, that list will only get shorter.

And if you want absolutely 100% truly guaranteed skiing in Nov or early Dec, then only one resort really has enough glacier left to deliver it, and that's Zermatt (in the West). All the other skiable glaciers in the Alps are nearly gone.



So what years were the Austrian glaciers shut in November during the past 2 decades?

Hintertux.
Soelden.
Pitztal.
Kaprun.
Molltal.
Dachstein.
Kaunertal.
Stubai.

Obergurgl usually opens the 2nd or 3rd week in November each year - what years has this been delayed until December?
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Bennyboy1 wrote:
@clarky999, but you are lucky enough to have that choice by living in the Alps. I think the average punter will either have to follow the advice of @Whitegold, but risk high winds or white out or they will have to think about a resort with 100% man made guarantee.


I'm with clarky rather than scratch about on man made snow I get the mountain boots and snowshoes out. Great training for when the ski touring season starts.

Unfortunately there is no 100% man made guarantee, if the temps are not cold enough you can't make snow. Even the glaciers have snow cannons and only at high altitude is it almost certain temps will be low enough to run the snow cannons.

As I've said in other threads Obergurgl is my early season pick as you can choose between Obergurgl and the nearby Sölden glacier depending on weather / snow conditions. Between them you have a possibility to ski at altitudes between 1800m and 3340m.
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Useful reminder that there is no man made snow guarantee. A couple of years ago with high pressure and massive temperature inversions they were making snow in the cold valley bottoms and trucking it up to the balmy pistes in some parts of the French Alps.
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@DB, yes not guaranteed. Me saying 100% was incorrect and should have referred to the % of coverage.
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Fresh snow. Austria. 260818. snowHead
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snowHead snowHead snowHead

https://www.bergfex.at/kitzsteinhorn-kaprun/webcams/c522/
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Bennyboy1 wrote:
@clarky999, but you are lucky enough to have that choice by living in the Alps. I think the average punter will either have to follow the advice of @Whitegold, but risk high winds or white out or they will have to think about a resort with 100% man made guarantee.

We do a weekend at Hintertux in Nov, it can be amazing or bloody awful even though the snow is mainly real. However for a weeks holiday (and perhaps the only week skiing in the season) I would go for manmade in the east (or Italy). At least you would have many km open and still have the tree runs if needed. I wouldn’t touch France etc. But this is my personal view.


Whitegold's list is actually pretty good, but honestly I still don' think that's what the average holiday skier should do either.

The thing most likely to ruin an early season ski trip? Booking it in advance.

There's just no need to, and always plenty of accommodation to choose from. Book 2 days before when you can see where the snow is and what the forecast looks like. If you need to book flights before, book somewhere fairly central like Zurich. Even if you have to drive 4-5 hours to where the snow is rather than 1-2, it's not really that big a deal.
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The quality of Snowmaking is not the same everywhere. In the west it tends to be harder and icy because the air is wetter and the runs less sheltered. further east and south artificial snow is drier and a much better surface for skiing.

In recent years the Dolomites have been able to open more runs and lifts earlier in the season than anywhere else. They have also had much more reliable weather with almost no days lost.

We can have a look how things are working out this year when we get to the start of the season at the end of November.

I’ll use this site to compare number of open kms of runs and open lifts. https://www.skiresort.info/snow-reports/filter/open-ski-resorts/


Last edited by Ski the Net with snowHeads on Mon 27-08-18 7:50; edited 1 time in total
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FWIW, I have been last mid december to Obergurgl. Plenty of snow and quality slopes/ski conditions, but the place seemd small and not interesting. Nearby Solden was way better, beneath and at the glacier height.
I am searching where to go in the first week of this December, weighting between booking flights to Geneva in order to get to Tignes (SH early bash!) or to Innsbruck for Solden by train plus bus, like last year. Would rather join the party at Tignes, don't know the amount of open pistes and general conditions in the beginning of December.
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Well it’s the 1st of December and the first day of the season for many resorts. Time to reflect on the early season strategies of altitude versus snowmaking.

In terms of snow depth, unsurprisingly the altitude resorts are way out in front with 300cm reported today at Andermatt. The heavy snow that fell in October has of course lasted longer at altitude.

On the other hand the 100% snow making resorts such as Madonna, Saalbach, Kronplatz, Alta Badia and Obertauren have less than 40cms on their upper slopes, most of which is not natural. Ischgl is a half way house having high slopes and 95% snow making. It too though is only reporting 20cms depth.

In terms of actual open terrain, Cervinia/Zermatt are way out in front with a reported 218kms of runs and 37 lifts operational.

According to this list:
https://www.skiresort.info/snow-reports/europe/sorted/open-slopes/
The next ten resorts are either high altitude, 100% snow making or just happen to have been in the right place for the early season snow eg Isola and Limone.

The 3 valleys currently have 50kms open, Verbier 35kms, Tignes 24kms and St Anton 22kms.

Kronplatz in north east Italy opened yesterday with 55kms of mainly artificial snow. That was enough to put it in 6th position in terms of open runs, after Obertauren (62kms) another 95% snow making area. Other ‘intervention’ resorts such as 3 Zinnen have 45kms open, Kitzbuel 40kms Madonna 40kms, Mayrhofen and Alta Badia 30kms (joint 19th).

Is there a conclusion ?
Altitude is reliable because it gets the early snow and holds onto it.
But modern snow making has caught up and the 95% plus intervention resorts at medium to low altitude in the drier eastern alps, can now reliably open (and stay open) from early season. Some of them have more skiing available than some much bigger names.

Time to add them to the guidebooks?


Last edited by And love to help out and answer questions and of course, read each other's snow reports. on Sat 1-12-18 19:46; edited 1 time in total
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Well in little old low down Serre Che today, opening day of the season* was not too bad Cool


http://youtube.com/v/5fDGNkIvaNg


Weathercam wrote:


I'm heading East and low FWIW Cool


And I'm censored from mentioning Siberia last week Laughing

But feck em Toofy Grin


http://youtube.com/v/oz8Nbz7jw8s


*grim from tomorrow and high temps and high FL Sad


Last edited by So if you're just off somewhere snowy come back and post a snow report of your own and we'll all love you very much on Sun 2-12-18 9:42; edited 2 times in total
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Wow that looks fantastic Cool
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I've been skiing today, altitude below 1,830. A mix of natural snow and man-made. Pistes well covered, trees white. Snow a bit hard and grainy but good fun. The big bonus of low is that there is tree cover for better visibility and weather protection. I'd take that over a zero visibility windswept moonscape any day.
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Espace Killy now up to fourth place with 104 kms open. snowHead
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I am glad someone has been keeping track of what opens when, but logically it make more sense to go high, because...cold.

However, I am no fan of treeless skiing, at least for a week. We have gone low last year (paid off with big, early dumps) and this year (am planning other activities). I think we like being in the mountains almost as much the skiing...sometimes.
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Weathercam wrote:
Well in little old low down Serre Che today, opening day of the season* was not too bad Cool


http://youtube.com/v/5fDGNkIvaNg


If that's not bad I can't wait to see the 'going off' vids Smile
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It makes sense to go high, but we all know that although it will have more snow it will also suffer more from strong winds (thus shutting off chairs) and whiteout.
For me Austria (Iscghl, Solden) is a better bet for december than the northern Alps. 2 weeks ago Solden was fun-tastic.
Today in Tignes I battled thick snow, whiteout, strong winds (closed Grande Motte near lunch), rain (above Val Claret). A proper december in the Alps. And the next 2 days will be more or less the same.
Still it's fun 'cause it's skiable and it's the Bash! NehNeh
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drporat wrote:
I
For me Austria (Iscghl, Solden) is a better bet for december than the northern Alps. 2 weeks ago Solden was fun-tastic.

Austria is further north than most of the alps Puzzled
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I was referring to the French Northern Alps. Val Tho/EK.
In nov-dec, many people usually weight between them and Austria's glaciers.
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@Peter S, I think to be scientific we need to look each year at the same stats. I have no idea if this data is actually available. But I would have thought high resorts would tend to have more snow over a longer time period (years).

Also big linked areas are likely to have more pistes open than the smaller unlinked resorts.

But I am with @queenie pretty please, as I have experienced days of white out at high French resorts and I would take man made snow in the trees over the white out experience.
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Of the top 20 resorts by open runs, currently half are medium altitude intervention resorts (reliant on 80% plus snowmaking).

Currently absent from the top 20 are the 3 Valleys (just), les Arcs/La Plagne (not yet open) , Verbier, St Anton and Les 2 Alpes.

https://www.skiresort.info/snow-reports/europe/sorted/open-slopes/
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Strong wind and heavy snow has today closed some lifts and runs in some of the altitude resorts.

Eight out of the top 20 resorts (by open runs) are now altitude resorts. The other 12 predominantly rely on snow making for their early season skiing. Being mostly in the east of the alps and at modest height they tend to be more sheltered from the westerly airstream.

https://www.skiresort.info/snow-reports/europe/sorted/open-slopes/

This data however is not entirely up to date and is probably modelled to give an estimate of the kms of open runs, so treat it as indicative.
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Curious : For a skier of average ability, perhaps ten weeks under the belt, on piste , how different is man made to natural snow. Is it slower, more difficult to carve on etc ?
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