“Any chance you can supply a picture?” Cue small earthquake in south west Oxfordshire. The filing system is comprehensively rummaged, turned upside down and shaken. Could have sworn I saw it the other day …. but where?
As usual the rummage fails to bring the desired picture to light, but other treasures emerge from the bag of snaps, including two batches from February 1999, when the Alps lay under a thicker blanket of snow than I have seen before or since.
Usually we attach a premium to resorts that bear the brunt of the prevailing winter storms, calling them ‘snowsure’ and describing their snow record as ‘good’. But when abundance turns to excess, a good snow record becomes bad. There is too much snow for the lifts to open and the avalanche risk hits level 5 which conveys a simple message: stay indoors.
Staying indoors failed to save the 12 victims of the Montroc avalanche near Chamonix (excellent snow record) on February 9 1999. I was lucky to be spending that weekend with a group of friends in the Swiss village of Grimentz, where our local guide told us with a straight face, half way down a waist-deep powder run, that the only drawback to the Val d’Anniviers was its snow record: a bit thin.
“Whichever direction the storm comes from, we only get the crumbs here,” I recall Stephane saying. This selection of pictures may explain why we found this remark mildly hilarious. Thanks to its poor snow record, Grimentz was able to keep some lifts open through the blizzard. When the time came for us to leave, the road to Sierre was closed. So we were forced to ski another day.
Two weeks later the telephone interrupted my packing for the small Austrian resort of Gargellen (terrific snow record) where the Hotel Madrisa was lined up for my 3 year old son’s first ski holiday. It was the owner Herr Rhomberg who announced gravely that the road to Gargellen was closed and the forecast was not encouraging. “If you can make other arrangements,” he said, “I advise you to do so.” The road and ski area remained closed, and two days later a couple of locals were killed when an avalanche wiped out Gargellen’s ski lift and mountain restaurant.
At a loss as to what ‘other arrangements’ to make, we called the Hotel Eiger in Mürren. “I know it’s a really busy week, but I don’t suppose there is any chance ….. ” I can still hear the slightly hysterical laugh that cut me short. “Have a room each if you want!” sang Annelis, who had spent the last two days taking cancellations because of all the avalanche stories on the news.
Mürren has a pretty good snow record and there wasn’t a lot of skiing to do for the first half of the week. But when you’re three the streets of a traffic-free resort will do nicely. Even that had its perils, with the towering snow banks posing an avalanche risk to the smaller skier, not to mention the danger of being squashed by the Mürrenites who were up on their chalet roofs, using two-man saws to cut up the snow and heave it off in great chunks.
In this small village there is only one thing to do with too much snow: throw it off the cliff. Mürren’s lower road has a special chute reserved for this purpose. My son and I watched the dump truck driver reverse to the very edge, hoping his foot would not slip on the clutch, and that there were no cross country skiers in the fall line 500 metres below.
Last week my friend CB and I were lucky enough to be in St Anton for three days of intermittent sun and storm. All the high runs were closed but we had great skiing in the woods. We texted a friend in the French Alps, where the snowfall was more intense. Powder must be fantastic – it’s pretty amazing here on the lee side of the Arlberg,
“No skiing,” she replied; “too dangerous. Frustrating.”
So much for the joys of the snowsure resort.