If I had a pound for every time I had to explain to someone that snowfall patterns aren’t always linked to altitude, I would be a very rich man!
I live and work in the Portes du Soleil ski region of France & Switzerland, which is located in the Northern Alps of Europe, and I forever have to tell people the following facts in order to convince them that there will be snow here:
Fact: This area has had a good long ski season every year for as long as I can remember – from mid December until the end of April. There is usually good snow outside of these dates but the lifts are often not open.
Fact: Last winter (04/05) was a fantastic season – it didn’t stop snowing for most of January and February, and there were plentiful snowfalls throughout March and April as well. Other, so called “snow sure resorts” had a terrible season last year.
Fact: At the start of the season three years ago, people were being brought into the Portes du Soleil by bus, travelling over 2 hours each way because their high altitude snow sure resorts had no snow.
Fact: These occurrences are not isolated incidents. When you look at snow fall and snow depths throughout a typical winter season, it is often lower altitude domains which consistently get the best conditions.
The Portes du Soleil ranges in altitude from 1000 m to 2465 m – not as high as many resorts in the French Alps. Why then, does the area get such good snowfall?
The answer is simple – location, location, LOCATION! As mentioned previously, the area is in the NORTHERN French Alps. It is also located in between Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva. All these factors create prevalent weather patterns which tend towards heavy snow falls interspersed with glorious sunny days (hence the name “Portes du Soleil”).
It isn’t just the Portes du Soleil which is blessed by such favourable weather patterns – the Grand Massif, also in France (and at a similar altitude to the Portes du Soleil), and many of the low altitude ski regions in Austria far outshine the resorts with skiing over 3000 m.
You don’t need to take my word for it. You only need to take a look at the Ski Club of Great Britain’s historical snow records to see how well the Portes du Soleil performs against other ski areas.
So why are so many Brits misinformed about the snow surety of different resorts?
I believe it all stems from the fact that Britain doesn’t have any mountains so many Brits don’t understand how they “work”. Throughout the 80’s and early 90’s large tour operators were able to convince the great British public that “higher means better” which helped them sell their holidays into the horrible concrete apartments and hotels which they had block booked and needed to fill.
Late 90’s onwards and enter the information (or misinformation) age. People are now able to sit at work looking at snow depths and snow falls on the internet, and everyone has the potential to become a bad amateur meteorologist! Often, knowing half the story is significantly worse than knowing nothing.
Over time, throughout the British skiing fraternity, the myth grew stronger that in order to guarantee good snow, it was absolutely essential to go high. And this myth still prevails today, except amongst those who have discovered where the good skiing can be found.
It is also worth pointing out that it is only the Brits that believe this rhetoric. The French, Dutch and Germans all tend to go skiing in more traditional resorts at lower altitudes. Is this just to escape the Brits on holiday? No, it is because they know where the good snow is likely to be.
I started this article with facts, but I am also going to finish with a few as well:
Fact: In ski areas such as the Portes Du Soleil in France and the Kitzbuhel region in Austria, because most of the lower slopes are pasture land, depths of 10 cms are often all that is required to open the pistes, compared with higher altitude resorts where a metre or so is needed to cover the rocks.
Fact: When the weather closes in and it is snowing, you can still see and ski powder below the tree line in such areas.
Fact: When the weather closes in and it is snowing, you might as well forget going over 2500 m anyway.
Fact: When the skiing becomes spring-like, at lower altitudes the snow softens quickly to give good skiing for most of the day, whereas above 2500 m the pistes can often be ice until well into the afternoon.
I am sure that lots of people will read this and think I am talking rubbish. The only way to change the mind of some people is to get them here for them to see with their own eyes. Personally, I don’t care if this article changes people’s preconceptions or not. I’ll continue to ski in the resorts where the French ski, and as a result, I will probably ski on better snow than many of my fellow countrymen.