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. There’s also something profoundly satisfying about 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 is one notable drawback. This:
This photo, taken when I was skiing Tignes back in 2014 is a reminder of just how snowless the early season can be. And boy, the last three starts to winter in the Alps have – for the most part – been stinkers: characterised by warm spells that lasted right up to Christmas and beyond. In many of the lower resorts in France, the 2016-7 ski season didn’t really get underway until January 13.
So how do wring the maximum amount of pleasure from this flukey, uncertain time? Simple. You aim high. Altitude is a priceless asset at this time of year. So too is a glacier and/or a powerful snow-making system. 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 in Tignes, above, I had a superb morning on an all-terrain course with the British ski school Snoworks, higher up the mountain.
Don’t forget that prices are lower at this time of year too. Even when the snow’s good, tour operators are discounting holidays in the run-up to Christmas, because so few people can spare the time to ski. That means that bargain-hunters (and powder-hunters) can sit tight until the last minute, wait to see if the early-season snow comes, and then book. Not surprisingly, the lucky few who do get out are pretty fired up, and the atmosphere is fresh, giddy and adventurous.
So here then is my pick of ten 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 sacrifice a few chickens to the Snow Gods and keep your eyes on our snow reports, and our snow forecasts. If conditions look promising, pounce.
1. Lake Louise, Canada: we can’t promise a rerun of November 2016…
But it is usually cold as autumn turns to winter…
Which is why it’s an early fixture on the World Cup calendar.
Winter bites early in Banff National Park. Both 2015 and 2016 saw strong starts to the season – as there were in 2012 and 2013. But even when Mother Nature doesn’t deliver much in the way of natural snow, it’s usually cold enough for the resort to work its snow cannons hard and lay a solid base down on the pistes. That’s why FIS uses Lake Louise – the biggest of the Banff ski areas – as an early stop on the World Cup tour.
Most of the hotels in the area are in Banff itself. But unless you’re a raging party monster, you’re better off staying in Lake Louise – home to the best piste-skiing in the park. Yes, the village is dead at night, but to be honest, if you’re coming to this part of Canada, the lack of nightlife should be part of the attraction. After all, you’re in one of the world’s great national parks – a profound sense of quiet, combined with wide-open, unpeopled spaces, are what it’s all about. If you want to dance in your ski boots till 2am, go to Ischgl (see below).
Best for: intermediate skiers who don’t want to spend the whole time in ski school.
Getting there: November is too early to pick up a package from the likes of Crystal, Inghams or Skiworld, which run holiday programmes in the resort from mid-December. But North American ski specialist Ski Independence can tailor-make a November trip.
2. 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 the convivial and confidence-boosting Premiere Neige Ski Clinics run by Welove2ski’s very own Peter Hardy, in collaboration with chalet specialist Le Ski and the famous Val d’Isere guide, Pat Zimmer.
In 2017, the glacier is scheduled to open on September 30, and the whole of the Tignes-Val d’Isere will hopefully be up and running on November 25. 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 Mark Warner’s chalet-hotel L’Aguille Percée 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.
3. 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. 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). Thanks to early-season snow in September, it was able to open three weeks early this year, on September 9.
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.
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 16.
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: fly to Innsbruck, pick up a hire car and check out the early-season accommodation-and-lift-pass packages offered by hotels at booking.obergurgl.com. Or ask Momentum or Snow-Wise to tailor-make a trip. Once December comes you can book flights-inclusive packages from the likes of Crystal and Inghams.
5. Ischgl, Austria: it’s not just the skiing that that counts…
It’s 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 23. 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. Recently, the acts have taken a distinctly Teutonic turn. Last year, German band Pur opened the resort. This year, it’s Andrea Berg. 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.
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 Innsbruck 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 12.
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 18, and is followed by Val Tho’s opening party – La Grande Premiere on November 25 and 26. If you’re in the area, and the pistes are already in good nick, then check it out, for the ski and snowboard test and Saturday-night party. But if skiing lots of pistes is your aim, I’d wait till December 9 when (weather permitting) the neighbouring resorts of Les Menuires and Meribel will be up and running, and you can ski beyond Val Tho’s 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 and Erna Low for self-catering apartments, Ski Total for catered chalets, Momentum and Snow-Wise for hotels, and Crystal, Inghams, 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 2016, the top half of the mountain was walloped by 318cm of the white stuff in a single month, 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. You’re not guaranteed deep snow, but the early weeks of the 2016 season were a striking reminder of how much better Val d’Isere’s snow can be than other resorts in the French Alps. This winter, the opening day is scheduled for November 25.
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 and Powder Beds 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 10), 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 14-17 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. 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.