I love early season skiing. LOVE it.
Because when Britain is like this…
You can get this…
And – occasionally – this…
But there’s more to early season skiing than simply jumping ship at a murky and frenetic time of year. Maybe I should have been a druid: because there’s something profoundly satisfying about marching in step with the season, and embracing winter right at its start. It’s like getting in that first surfing trip to Cornwall in early June. It just feels right.
But there are drawbacks – notably this:
This photo was taken in high-altitude Tignes on November 23, 2014. Compare it with the video of conditions there in November 2013 (see above) to remind yourself just how variable conditions can be in the early season.
No doubt about it, the start of last winter was a shocker. It was ridiculously mild for months, and in the western Alps the first heavy top-to-bottom snow didn’t come till our after Christmas (and it was only a little earlier than that in the east). In some of the low-lying resorts in the Portes du Soleil, guests had to be bussed to Chamonix to find snow.
That said, early-season skiers have always known they must be picky about their resorts, which is where this guide comes in. Altitude is a priceless asset at this time of year, and it helps enormously if a resort has a glacier and/or a powerful snow-making system, too. It’s also a great time of year to sign up for a ski-technique training camp – because you don’t need 100 miles of piste if you’re skiing through gates or fine-tuning your turns over moguls. In fact, the day after I took the photo, above, I had a superb morning on an all-terrain course with the British ski school Snoworks, higher up the mountain. The day after that, when I was tearing through gates like a hyperactive weasel, was even better.
Don’t forget that prices are low at this time of year too. Even when the snow’s good, tour operators are virtually giving holidays away in the run-up to Christmas, because so few people have time to ski, (see this deals round-up from 2013 for an idea of how cheap early season skiing can be). Not surprisingly, the lucky few who do get out are pretty fired up, and the atmosphere is fresh, giddy and adventurous.
One final note: usually, this guide kicks off with Lake Louise in Canada. But this time round, I’m holding it back, because of El Niño 2015-16. As every self-respecting skier now knows, the occasional Pacific Ocean climate anomaly is back, and it’s stronger than ever. No-one knows exactly how it’s going to play out – they never do – but one probable effect is a milder, drier winter in the Canadian Rockies. That could mess with the usually smooth start to the season in Banff National Park.
So here, then is my pick of nine of the best resorts for early season skiing – five for November, and four for the first three weeks of December. Now all you have to do is keep your eyes on our snow reports, and our snow forecasts, and get ready to pounce if conditions look promising.
1. Tignes, France: snow-sure skiing on the glacier…
Plus Brit-friendly ski camps…
And top-to-bottom skiing as soon as conditions allow.
Brits who want to sharpen up all aspects of their technique – aside from terrain-park tricks – should target Tignes. Its slopes are generally gentler than those of the Hintertux (see below), and it’s well-served by English-speaking ski schools in November, including Snoworks, which runs a brilliant programme of race-training and all-terrain camps on the glacier. You can also join a series of convivial and confidence-boosting courses run by Welove2ski’s very own Peter Hardy, in collaboration with chalet specialist Le Ski and the famous Espace Killy guide, Pat Zimmer.
The glacier is already open, and the whole of the Espace Killy (including Val d’Isere) will hopefully be up and running on November 28. In Tignes itself they’ll open up the pistes earlier if the snow allows. In 2013, for example, you could ski the Double M piste all the way back down to Val Claret by November 11. A week later, thanks to a spectacular dump of snow, you could ski most of the way off-piste too (check out the video at the start of the feature for a taste of that).
Best for: intermediates as well as more advanced skiers.
Getting there: book Peter Hardy’s clinics direct with Le Ski – packages include flights, transfers and catered chalet accommodation in Val d’Isere. Snoworks uses of Mark Warner’s chalet-hotel L’Ecrin in Tignes Val Claret, which is also the venue for some inspiring talks by Phil Smith about ski technique: see details here. Meanwhile, skiers who want to go it alone can also book early-season self-catering apartments in Tignes Val Claret through Erna Low.
2. Hintertux, Austria: steep on-piste skiing…
Even when there’s barely a flake of snow lower down.
It’s home to the best early-season terrain park in the Alps, too.
Why do so many ski-racing teams train on the Hintertux each autumn? Because it’s the steepest of the Alpine glaciers. Watching them bomb through the gates at what looks like Mach3 is an awe-inspiring experience – and you can have a go yourself by joining one of the race-training or season warm-up camps that run alongside them. In November, British race-training specialists ATC are often on the glacier, as well as Canadian ski school Section 8; or you could have lessons with one of the local ski schools. You could even call the lift company (+43 5287 8510) to set up your own lane of gates. Bear in mind, though, that this is serious stuff. The pitch of the slopes means you’ll be skiing at speed.
Ambitious freestylers need to put Hintertux on their hitlist, too. From Ocotber 1, it’s home to the Betterpark – the best early-season terrain park in the Alps (watch the video here if you can’t see it above).
Best for: big, bold freestyle tricks and high-speed race-training. There’s room for ordinary piste-skiing here, but as with most glaciers you’ll be bored of it after a couple of days if you don’t sign up for tuition and work on your technique.
Getting there: in November, fly to Munich, pick up a hire car and stay in the friendly Hintertuxerhof hotel at the bottom of the lifts. From November 28, you’ll be able to fly into Innsbruck with easyJet.
3.The Kitzsteinhorn, Austria: race training…
Regular ski school…
And, if the snow’s right, oodles of off-piste
Set between 2,000 and 3,000m, the Kitzsteinhorn glacier ski area above Kaprun is usually a safe bet for autumn – and a lot more than that if any storms roll down into the Austrian Alps from Scandinavia. Just south of here is Austria’s highest peak, the 3,798m Grossglockner, and if conditions are right the topography will shake an awful lot of snowflakes out of the clouds. As a result, there’s a lot off-piste skiing here, and an unusually developed freeride infrastructure.
This year, thanks to a hot summer and a mild start to autumn, the opening of the first pistes has been delayed, but there’s fresh snow now and the autumn season should start on October 15. The glacier’s terrain park – home to Austria’s largest superpipe – will be up and running by “mid/end of October”: and if there’s enough fresh snow, the first Freeride Monday, a weekly, two and a half-hour session for both first-time off-pisters and more experienced powder skiers, will be held at the end of November. The cost is €85pp.
Three ski schools are active up here: Hartweger’s, Ski Dome Oberschneider, and Garhammer Ski Tours. Hartweger’s offers 2hr private lessons for two people at €139 a pop – and those can be in the terrain park as well as in powder or on piste. Three days of group lessons with Ski Dome cost €185.
Best for: intermediates, freestylers, and – if the Snow Gods oblige – powder pigs.
Getting there: fly to Salzburg, pick up a hire car, and hot-foot it to the village of Kaprun, which should be your base. You can also take the train from Salzburg to Zell am See (or a shuttle bus from mid-December onwards): and local buses on to Kaprun. Zellamsee-kaprun.com has more travel details.
The lifts to the Kitzsteinhorn are set away from the accommodation, a mile or so up the valley, and there are shuttle buses connecting the lift station with the village. The four-star Hotel Active is a popular base.
4. Obergurgl, Austria: plenty of skiing between 2,000 and 3,000m…
Plus a favourable location…
View 6456 Obergurgl in a larger map
Usually adds up to this…
The linked villages of Obergurgl and Hochgurgl are set at the end of long, high valley, deep in Alps, close to the Austro-Italian border. They’re cold and remote, and if Italy is getting all the snow, rather than the northern Alps, theirs is one of the few ski areas in western Austria to benefit. As a result, they’re always amongst the first non-glacier resorts in the Alps to open. This year the first day of the season is set for November 12.
Just in case Mother Nature doesn’t deliver, the resort also has snow-making equipment to cover 99% of its pistes. But all the same, early on, I’d wait until the last minute to book, to be sure conditions are good, and you can ski pretty much the whole area.
Best for: intermediates, who want a proper ski holiday at the start of winter – rather than a training camp. Bear in mind that you can also ski the glaciers at Solden, which is a short shuttle bus/car journey along the Oetztal.
Getting there: in November, fly to Munich, pick up a hire car and check out the early-season accommodation-and-lift-pass packages offered by hotels at obergurgl.com. Or ask Momentum to tailor-make a trip. Once December comes you can book flights-inclusive packages from the likes of Ski Total and Inghams.
5. Ischgl, Austria: it’s not the skiing that matters…
So much as the the opening party
But all the same, they really know how to make snow
As a rule, Ischgl doesn’t open until the end of November: this year, for example, the lifts won’t be spinning until November 28. But party animals need to take note all the same. If you want a firecracker start to the season, this is the place.
Of course, the headline act may not be to your taste: last year, James Blunt, played the opening-weekend concert. This winter, it’ll be the, er, Beach Boys (c’mon Ischgl, get a grip – the Killers played your closing concert in 2011). But what really matters, is that everyone in town is determined to have a blast, whatever the music: and the whether it’s in the Trofana Alm or the nightclub Pacha, you’ll find the atmosphere infectious. And so what if the flavour is overwhelmingly Germanic? As a rule Germans are very good-natured and friendly when they’re drunk. You’re bound to leave the resort with some new best friends.
Best for: intermediate-level skiers, and expert-level party-goers.
Getting there: for opening weekend, you need to book ahead – the resort’s hotels often sell out completely. Fly to Munich or Zurich, pick up a hire car and if budget allows stay at the lovely Hotel Jaegerhof in the middle of town. Ski Total has a good chalet-hotel in the resort too: the Abendrot, which is available from December 13.
1. Val Thorens, France: a lot of altitude…
A bit of attitude…
And, sometimes, a flake or two of snow.
Yes, yes, we all know Val Thorens is the highest ski town in the Alps. But what really matters is not the elevation of the buildings: it’s the fact that 99% of its ski area is set above 2000m, and that at three separate points the lift system rises to 3000m or higher. The whole place is high-altitude: so even if there’s not much early-season snowfall, the snow cannons will have plenty of cold nights in which to lay down their cover on the pistes.
This year, opening day is scheduled for November 21: two weeks ahead of neighbours Les Menuires and Meribel in the Three Valleys. For that reason, I’d suggest holding off a visit until December 5, so you can ski beyond Val Tho’s own limits. Its buzzing apres-ski scene will be building nicely by then, too: so if they weather is half-decent you’ll be able to get a proper ski holiday under your belt for a fraction of the normal price.
Best for: intermediates, night-owls and (if there are a couple of decent dumps in early December) off-pisters, too.
Getting there: lots of tour operators offer mid-December holidays to the resort, including Ski Collection, Pierre & Vacances, and La Grange for self-catering apartments, Ski Total for catered chalets, Momentum for hotels, and Neilson, Crystal, Skiworld and Snowfinders for all accommodation types.
2. Whistler, Canada: the maritime climate doesn’t always cooperate…
But the early-season scene is buzzing…
And when those Pacific storms deliver – OH MY.
Whistler’s early-season snowfall stats are impressive. In November 2011, the top half of the mountain was walloped by 312cm of the white stuff in a single month. In 2006, the November total was 416cm, and in 2009 it was a mind-boggling 560cm. That’s more than most Alpine resorts get in an entire season. Often the storms last for several days – which means lengthy periods skiing the trees rather than the high, “Alpine” areas: but all the same, it’s not hard to see why it’s on most the hit-list of every serious off-pister.
That said, the maritime climate doesn’t always deliver, and the temperature can yo-yo about a bit too. Welove2ski has been in Whistler in early December when a mild spell has suddenly turned frigid, without any accompanying snowfall, and virtually the whole mountain turned into an ice rink.
As a result, you need to be realistic when you book it. Yes you might get thigh-high powder, three or four days in a row. Or you might have to get your edges sharpened and ski the pistes. Either way, you can be sure of an buzzing atmosphere, at the weekends, at least. The locals love their skiing: it takes a lot of top-to-bottom runs to burn off their excitement.
Best for: advanced skiers.
3. Val d’Isere, France: snow from the Atlantic…
And snow from the Med…
Usually adds up to cracking early-season conditions
Just like Obergurgl, Val d’Isere gets its weather from more than one direction. Storms from the Atlantic are its most frequent providers of the white stuff: but when low pressure systems muscle into northern Italy from the Gulf of Genoa, Val gets snow too – which often misses resorts further west, such as Les Arcs and La Plagne.
In other words, Val has – by Alpine standards – a reliable climate. Its high and remote setting, deep in the mountains, helps to keep it cold, too. But having said that, in recent years, winter has only got going in early December. So wait until the last minute to be sure of good snow. That way, you’ll also be able to take advantage of the late-booking offers.
Once you get there, you’ll be impressed by the early season atmosphere. This isn’t one of those resorts that winds up slowly to Christmas. There’s a buzz in the air right from the start. Coming back to Blighty in mid-December, after a week on its slopes, can be quite a come-down.
Best for: all kinds of skiers, except the wobblier kind of intermediate. If there’s no powder, then the experts can amuse themselves playing people-slalom on famous runs like the Face. Thanks to the large numbers of British ski instructors based in Val d’Isere, this is also a great resort in which to get early-season tuition.
Getting there: the world and his wife will get you to Val d’Isere. YSE, Le Ski and VIP are among those offering chalet holidays, Erna Low, Ski Collection, Powder Beds and Pierre & Vacances will sort you out with an apartment, and Momentum can help you find an upmarket hotel.
4. Breckenridge, USA: jumps…
And – sometimes – dumps.
The high-altitude Colorado ski town of Breckenridge is always one of the first big resorts to open in the US (first day this year is November 13), and often offers memorable skiing before Christmas. Mid-December should be a great time to visit: hopefully, there will have been a couple of decent dumps to set up the slopes – and from December 10-13 one of the biggest freestyle events of the season – the Dew Tour – will be in town.
Best for: freestylers, beer-drinkers, cautious intermediates, and anyone who wants to experiment on new types of terrain.
Getting there: North American specialist Ski Independence can tailor-make an early-season trip. Inghams offers flight-inclusive packages from December 9 and Crystal from December 12. If the budget allows, get a hire car rather than a transfer bus from Denver up to the resort. That way you can day-trip to other resorts covered by your lift pass, such as Keystone and Vail.