How long is a piste of string

“When it comes to size, lots of us might be guilty of a little exaggeration now and again,” declares the latest press release from the Where to Ski and Snowboard team. “Where to Ski and Snowboard 2014 has uncovered the biggest whopper of them all: the long and short of piste measurements.”

It turns out that the uncovering of the biggest whopper was actually done by a German cartographer from Cologne, Christoph Schrahe, who, after challenging resorts about their piste-length claims over many years, has harnessed google earth to his plough and unveiled his findings last January, about 9 months before Where to Ski and Snowboard unveiled them again this week.  Never mind.  Lots of us guilty of a little exaggeration now and again.

Schrahe charges 99 euros for a look at his report, but since his findings have had extensive coverage and been in the non-paying public domain for months, I hope he will forgive me for quoting his conclusion that while a few resorts, notably the Arlberg and Kitzbühel, measure their pistes in the only defensible way – in a line along the ground down the middle of the run – many others from Vars to Verbier inflate theirs by as much as 150% citing a variety of spurious justifications, such as double counting wide pistes because they offer more skiing, or multiplying the length of the pistes by ∏/2 because skiers make turns, or (cue audience laughter) including off-piste runs.

Of course this is all rubbish.  The resorts are fiddling the figures, because they can, or could, until Christoph Schrahe came along.

His report caused a stir.  Questions were asked in the Austrian parliament, inquiries launched with a brief to establish a national or preferably pan-European standard on how the length of a piste should be measured and quoted.  Prosecution for fraud has been mentioned, and some resorts have confessed.  One or two have even revised their statistics down, although this must be a bitter pill for the marketing departments to swallow.   SKS, the Swiss consumer protection agency, has promised to ‘take a look.’

Verbier claims to be re-measuring its pistes, perhaps hoping to spin out this exercise until the story goes away; or at least to continue reaping the benefit of dodgy marketing claims for another season or two.  Why rush?  One suspects Courchevel, Méribel and co will be in no hurry to replace ‘600km of interconnected slopes’ with ‘not quite 500km.’


This release from Crans Montana compares the dimensions of the ski area measured in the three different ways.  It’s interesting to note that the factor by which the straight line measurement (‘ski tout droit’) is inflated to reach the ‘ski sportif’ number is not consistent, but is much greater for difficult pistes than easy ones.  Ischgl has done the same for its ski area and seems to use slightly different exchange rates.


km a = gefahrene Länge
sportliche Fahrt
b = schräge Länge
c = horizontale Länge
GPS-Messung *
Gesamt 238 172 163
Schwer 34 22 21
Mittel 150 104 98
Leicht 39 33 32
Skiroute 15 13 12

No surprise to learn that both resorts continue to use the more flattering ‘ski sportif’ totals of 238km (Ischgl) and 140km (Crans Montana) for advertising purposes.

Considering Where to Ski and Snowboard is so keen to grasp this baton and run with it, you might think it would take a stand by refusing to publish unreliable statistics until the matter is sorted out.  That would nudge resorts in the right direction.  Instead, having accepted that piste length statistics quoted by resorts are unusable for inter-resort comparison, the guide continues to use them.  

So when newspapers and magazines ask for their fact boxes and pre-season top ten round-ups of the biggest ski areas and the best value lift passes, the writers will reach for the reference book on the shelf, copy down the numbers and report that Verbier’s Quatre Vallées has more skiing than the Arlberg and Vars-Risoul’s lift pass is better value than Schladming’s.  Tour operators’ brochure writers will do the same, the bad money will continue to drive out the good, and the marketing departments in culprit resorts will be able to congratulate themselves on a job well done.

Having long ago decided that I prefer small resorts to large ones, I do not feel personally aggrieved by the lies Verbier and other resorts have been telling me.  Of all the ways to evaluate a ski area, the aggregate mileage of its pistes is one of the least useful.  One long run is worth a dozen tiddlers.  Speed of lift and length of queue are more important factors in the value for money equation than available piste miles.

But the fact that resorts like to quote these numbers, and newspapers like to base their top ten listings on them, suggests that they do influence skiers’ choice of resort. As with all advertising, claims should obviously be accurate or at least consistent.  

Christoph Schrahe is not all that optimistic that his hard work will bear fruit.  “I guess it will be like with lots of things,” he says.  “If resorts won’t be forced to use a common method most of them will go on using their own which they design according to the ideas from the marketing guys.”

I do like a long run, and my first reaction to Schrahe’s great work is to wonder what are its implications for the hoary ‘longest piste in the Alps’ debate.

Here are some of the old favourites, with Christoph Schrahe’s comments.

Chamonix, Vallée Blanche. Top 3842m (if you count the ridge walk as part of the run, as I do), bottom 1035m (assuming you can ski down through the woods to Whymper’s grave and Les Trois Chamois bistro, as you usually can’t).  The length is usually quoted at 22km but Schrahe reckons 19.1km, which is a shame.  The run is off-piste so it shouldn’t really count.

Zermatt/Cervinia, Klein Matterhorn to Valtournenche.  Top 3820m, bottom 1600m(ish).   Cervinia makes extravagant claims for this descent – Regina di Valtournenche è la pista n° 1, la “Reine Blanche”. Se imboccata al Piccolo Cervino, a 3883 mt di quota, rappresenta uno dei tracciati più lunghi d’Europa: 20 chilometri circa, 2300mt di dislivello.”   But there is no avoiding a small chair-lift ride in the middle, so this is not one run but two.  The Ventina from Plateau Rosa (3500m) to Cervinia (2050m) is a great blast and may be 8km long, or 11.5km, depending on who you ask; and longer if you start from Klein Matterhorn.   Schrahe hasn’t given me a number for this one.

Davos/Klosters,  Weissfluh to Kublis.  Top 2844m, bottom 813m.  I have a feeling the old Parsenn Derby course is slightly longer if Weissflujoch is taken as the start, but starting from Gipfel gives more vertical – the magic 2000m in fact.  Schrahe endorses the usual estimate of 12km, give or take a metre or two hundred.

Alpe d’Huez, Sarenne. Top 3320m, bottom 1480m (?). Usually quoted as 16km, sometimes 18km. Schrahe:  “16km? Haha, 10,7 km.”

Les Deux Alpes, Glacier top station to Mont de Lans.  Top 3568m, bottom 1270m.  I think of this as the biggest vertical achievable, uninterrupted, on piste.  Schrahe: “using all the catwalks it’s 17,0 km, following the shortest possible route it’s still 13,5 km.”  (Btw, Christoph, it’s cat-track. Catwalk something else. Small point).  

Zermatt, Klein Matterhorn to Zermatt.  Top 3820m, bottom 1620m.  I entered a race on this run a few years ago, but the weather intervened and we had to make do with Gornergrat to Furi.  Zermatt’s tourist office website claims 25km for the top to bottom run.  Schrahe says 14.9 km.

Les Arcs,  Aiguille Rouge to Villaroger.  Top 3226m, bottom 1100m. This famous beast is described on the piste map as 7km which suggests something verging on couloir steepness. Schrahe: “16.5 km making use of all possible catwalks (sic).”

Argentière, Les Grands Montets, Intégrale.  Top 3278m, bottom 1235m.  Using the longer of the two pistes on the upper mountain (and with no deduction for the staircase, so as not to ruin a good statistic) the Point de Vue + Piste du Bas is 8.5km.  The Intégrale is 7.4km if you take the more direct Pylones piste, earning your turns all the way (and your drink at Les Marmottons).   It has been skied (with an off-piste short cut at the top) in 5 mins 35.

Mürren, Schilthorn to Lauterbrunnen.  Top 2970m, bottom 800m.  Don’t tell me this is not an uninterrupted piste.  Snow permitting, we Inferno racers ski it, interrupted only by the occasional fall, every January, puffing and cursing our way up the woodpath which avoids the need to take the Maulerhubel chair-lift.  The Inferno course is 14.9km, starting after the first steep pitch.  From the top, say 15.5km.

Flaine, Grandes Platières to Sixt. Top 2500m, bottom 800m. Flaine admits to inflating the length of its pistes to take account for turns, although few are needed on Cascades. The quoted length is 14km. Schrahe says 11,8 km.

Killington, Juggernaut. The claimed length of this run-cum-road has shrunk to 6.2miles/9.9km. Schrahe approves.

Juggernaut is not the only long road run. According to Michelin, the journey from the Col du Petit St Bernard to La Thuile by the S26 is 13km.  The San Bernardo red run follows it much of the way and you could rack up extra mileage by starting above the pass.  Escargot at Valcenis is a 9.5km stretch of the RN6, for 650m vertical – ‘not recommended for snowboarders’ says the piste map.

Christoph Schrahe’s website: 

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