Snowy chalets and skiers hurtling down pristine slopes come to mind when you think of winter Alps.
But this year, many Europeans ski resorts struggled with the lack of snow, due to unseasonably warm temperatures and heavy rainfall. As a result, half of France’s ski slopes have been forced to close.
With heating winters set to continue, many ski resorts are looking to provide alternative entertainment to attract visitors, in case skiing is not possible.
How were the conditions in the Alps this winter?
In December, France it has experienced its warmest weather since 1997 with temperatures reaching seven or eight degrees above the seasonal norm, according to Météo-France. Swiss AND Austria faced similar problems with soaring temperatures melting early season snow, leaving runs bare and skiers disappointed.
Popular ski resorts like Morzine it faced an uncertain time. “During the Christmas season, there was very little snow on the ground. It was a difficult situation,” says Sara Burdon, communications manager at the Morzine tourism office. Artificial snow is often created during dry spells, “however we couldn’t use the snow cannons because the temperatures weren’t cold enough. low,” he explains.
Luckily, heavy snow fell in the second week of January, but mild temperatures at Christmas and New Year’s are becoming more common. Since 1951, nearly half of FranceThe 169 ski resorts have closed due to lack of snow, according to a study by the University of Grenoble.
How are ski resorts adapting to a warmer climate?
Tucked away in the Jura region of France, 45 minutes from Lausanne, the tiny ski resort of Métabief is at the forefront when it comes to tackling climate change.
It was the first French ski resort to organize a climate study with Météo-France’s Le Center d’Etudes de la Neige (Centre for Snow Studies). Its relatively low altitude – at 1,463 meters above sea level \- will likely mean that visitors won’t be able to ski here beyond 2035.
Instead of waiting to see what happens, Métabief took matters into his own hands. The resort has already introduced a number of off-snow activities, including an all-weather toboggan run, winter mountain biking, caving and guided horseback riding.
“We have no choice but to adapt to these changes,” said Sylvain Authier, Métabief slopes manager, to the EU Strategy for the Alpine Region (EUSALP). “We have to make sure people can keep making a lot of them winter activities. We better do it now, because in 10 years, who knows?
New outdoor activities are emerging in ski resorts
Across Europe, ski resorts such as Métabief are extending their summer operations to maintain visitor demand during the warmer winter months. Mountain biking and hiking are common, but some regions are thinking outside the box to provide more offbeat entertainment.
Take Morzine, for example, where you can go walking with eagles. At 1,500m above sea level, the environmentalist Jacques-Olivier Travers organizes falconry shows with the largest birds of prey in Europe.
Here you can meet snowy owls, feed giant condors, and go on a hike while white-tailed Fletcher eagle look up. Travers hopes that by teaching visitors about these birds of prey, he can also raise awareness for their conservation.
Inside Swiss, surfers can catch waves all year round at Alaïa Bay. Only 45 minutes drive from Verbier, the world class hinterland to surf the lake aims to be open 10 months of the year, from early February to mid-December, so visitors can swap skis for a surfboard during the winter months.
“The water is not heated, so the temperature varies between 5 and 10°C,” says Vincent Riba, communications manager of the Alaïa Group. “However, with the right wetsuit and gloves, you don’t feel the cold. Plus you stay active for the entire session—you can make a wave every three to four minutes, depending on the number of participants.”
Concerts and art events flourish in the ski areas
While the Alps naturally lend themselves to outdoor activities, there are plenty of cultural events cropping up in France, Switzerland and Austria.
This season, Les Gets in France hosted the former Montreux Comedy Goes Skiing, organized by the Montreux Comedy Festival, the largest francophone comedy event in the world. Elsewhere, winter music festivals have been hugely successful – from the eclectic Rock festival The Pistes at the Portes du Soleil to Polaris for electronic fans in Verbier.
In Austria, Top of the Mountain attracts over 20,000 visitors to Ischgl for its biannual concerts; previous headliners include Robbie Williams, Katy Perry and Elton John.
Art proved another way to attract visitors. The Grove Gallery, in the Swiss ski resort of Villars-Sur-Ollon, saw strong visitor numbers when it opened in late December.
“The lack of snow has actually worked in our favor,” says Rachel Chester, manager of Grove Gallery Villars. “Above Christmas and New Years, a lot of people came to the gallery, as they weren’t able to ski that much, so that really helped put our name on the map.
The gallery not only exhibits works by international artists, but also hosts a range of cultural events, from art workshops to intimate artists’ dinners. It has seen an increase in visitors who have signed up for its businesses, especially the yoga and meditation workshops.
How can ski resorts and skiers help mitigate the impact of climate change?
Whilst it is certain that ski resorts across Europe have much more to offer, snow sports are not done yet. Winters may get warmer and shorter, but skiing and snowboarding will still work. This is especially true for locations above 1,500m where snow conditions are more stable.
Resorts are also increasingly introducing eco-friendly practices to reduce their carbon emissions \- from slowing down the ski lifts to reducing energy consumption and introducing outdoor Teflon skating rinks.
However, visitors can still play their part. “50-70% of carbon emissions come from visitors travelling to resorts,” says Burdon.
To combat this, Morzine has teamed up with Montagne Verte to offer discounts to anyone who comes train; these include reduced prices on lift passes, food, drink and shopping.
With ecological initiatives that way, in addition to all the sustainability work going on behind the scenes, there’s still hope for the ski resorts.