Switzerland’s third largest cable car has opened, bigger than many a ski chalet in the vieux village and only five weeks late. At a cost of 32 million francs (£23m), the new lift links the neighbouring ski areas of Zinal and Grimentz in the Anniviers valley. If my soundings are anything to go by, its impact on the two villages may be more divisive than unifying.
And so it really WAS. Keen to try the new lift without delay we made it the first move of our first morning, strolled on board, helped ourselves to the seats thoughtfully provided and flew up the mountain, completing a journey that would previously have taken an hour, in seven minutes, looking down on an inviting playground of open snowfields and steep forest. Come on down.
Beneath us, a couple of adventurers were picking their way down a ridge towards a wilderness zone called, I think, Tsirouc. I am no stranger to the Chamois run and nearby off-piste but, viewed from above, the scenery was a revelation. Note to self: come back and explore later. It goes without saying that we were not alone in making this observation.
We took the sunny option from the top station: by piste and chair lift up to the top of Zinal’s ski area, Sorebois, and from there via blissful easy powder slopes – avalanche risk 0 – across the mountain and down to Zinal.
Returning to Sorebois by the ‘old’ route of Zinal’s cable car and two chair lifts, we dropped over the back and ski’d down to the Moiry dam. The first pitch had some rocks to avoid, but apart from that it was gentle rolling powder fields all the way.
After pushing across the dam we paused to watch a family of ibex watch us, then followed the long road back to Grimentz via the excavations of stalled hotel projects, gaping like unfinished dentistry. Just made it to Florioz in time for last lunch orders at 2 o’clock.
An hour later we took the new cable car back to Zinal and returned via the Chamois, which was closed as usual. At the end of the day it was hard to escape the conclusion that Grimentz is now a much better base for skiing Zinal, than Zinal. Amazing!
My friends in Zinal take a different view. “We’d much rather it wasn’t there,” said Penny. “Grimentz skiers come and take our snow and go back again.”
I confessed: that’s exactly what we had done.
Uncertainty hangs over the future of the bus service between the two villages. What about our skiers who want to spend the day in Grimentz, Zinal would like to know. If the Chamois is closed or not to their liking, will they be happy to queue to go up the mountain by cable car in order to ride another cable car down to Grimentz? A bus ride would be simpler and quicker.
“There are much better things they could have done with 32 million francs,” Penny continued. A really spectacular terrain park, new and improved mountain restaurants, a complete overhaul of Grimentz’s messy and inefficient upper-mountain lift system ….. and plenty of change left over.
“Or something imaginative on the theme of small is beautiful, instead of trying to compete with the big resorts.” Anniviers should play to its strengths.
Now that the lift is open, its impact will become clearer. Sad to say, they will probably have to do something about the Chamois run. This is a long tough piste, rightly graded black. No doubt there are reasons for closing it as often as they do, but in practice the closure is widely ignored. The pressure to make an easier and more reliable way down will only grow.
The avalanche accident risk has surely increased. My friends were so alarmed by the sight of skiers swarming down steep slopes below the cable car on its first weekend of operation, they called the pisteurs and urged them to rope off the most dangerous areas.
“We would much prefer they had developed Orzival,” they say, referring to the empty valley between Grimentz and Vercorin. “If you want to create a big resort for piste skiing, there’s more logic to that link.” The Grimentz faction would say the opposite. They are never going to agree on this.
Zinal’s cable car used to suffer from queues. Now, on a sunny February morning, the car park is empty and the village quiet. At Grimentz, by contrast, one gets the feeling: ça bouge. For the moment there is a marvellous mismatch between the cavernous new glass and concrete multi-directional lift hub, and the quiet chalet village. But that is an accident caused by the recession and Grimentz’s folly in entrusting its future to a Belgian spiv, Thierry Dubuisson, whose failure to deliver has cost the resort about five years in hotel development. It will catch up.
Already the conveniently located hotel Alpina, a casualty of Dubuisson’s machinations, has reopened under the management of the lift company. Prices have gone up a notch and not just for lift passes. And then there’s the parking. The great new lift has gone in, attracting day trippers who would previously have started and finished their day at Zinal, Crans Montana or Nendaz. But Grimentz has not built a car park to accommodate them, so it’s open season for touts. Now that building new chalets has has been banned, parking spaces are the next boom. How much am I bid for this snow bank?
At the end of a day’s tour of Orzival and Vercorin, our guide said goodbye on the bus back from St Jean. “I had to park at the bottom of the village,” he said. It’s meter parking and permit zones everywhere else now. As seen in Crans-Montana and other urban resorts.
Oh well. As my Zinal friends said: “we’ve had good years here, and we’ve always told ourselves: when they destroy all the things we love about the valley, we’ll sell up and move on. There are plenty of other places.”