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: but there’s something profoundly satisfying about embracing a new season right at its start, and taking the best of what it has to offer. It’s like getting in that first surfing trip to Cornwall in early June. It just feels right.
There are other benefits. Lower prices for a start: in the two or three weeks before Christmas tour operators are virtually giving holidays away, because however good the snow is, hardly anyone has the time to ski it (see this deals round-up from 2013 for an idea of how cheap early season skiing can be). The lucky few who do get out are pretty fired up, too: the atmosphere is fresh, giddy and adventurous as a result.
Of course there are drawbacks – the most important being the uncertainty of the snow cover in the lower resorts. But that’s okay: because to save you the worry of working out where to go, I’ve picked out nine of the best resorts for early season skiing – six 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.
One final thing: if it does snow hard early on, don’t imagine it’s going stay like that all winter – or even until Christmas. The 2013-14 season in the northern Alps was a salutary reminder of that. Epic snowfalls in November were followed by a mild, disappointing December. If you can, ski the snow as soon as it comes.
1. Lake Louise, Canada: okay, so we can’t promise a rerun of November 2012…
But it is reliably cold as autumn turns to winter…
Which is why it’s an early fixture on the World Cup calendar.
Winter starts early in Banff National Park. In 2012, it got going in spectacular fashion – with a string of
snowstorms that left the rest of the skiing world sick with envy. November 2013 saw a strong start, too. But even when Mother Nature doesn’t deliver much in the way of natural snow, it’s 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, Neilson 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. 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. This November, British race-training specialists ATC will be 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 early autumn, it’ll be home to the Betterpark – the best early-season terrain park in the Alps (watch the video here if you can’t see it above). The Hotzone.tv long weekend, October 2-5, is the first season highlight.
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. Once December comes you can also book flight-inclusive packages with Crystal, which features Finkenberg, a village that shares its ski area with Mayrhofen. It’s 10 miles down the valley from the glacier, and linked by a free bus service.
3. 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 aspects of their technique – rather than skiing gates or perfecting terrain-park tricks – should target Tignes. Its slopes are generally gentler than those of the Hintertux, and it’s well-served by English-speaking ski camps in November. In fact, you can join one that’s run by Welove2ski’s very own Peter Hardy, in collaboration with chalet specialist Le Ski and the Top Ski ski school. British ski school Snoworks also runs a busy, and highly-rated programme of race-training and all-terrain camps in the resort.
The glacier opens on October 4, and the rest of the Espace Killy officially on November 29: but in Tignes they open up the pistes earlier if the snow allows: last winter, you could ski the Double M piste all the way back down to Val Claret by November 11, 2013. 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 the Le Ski/Top Ski clinics direct with Le Ski – packages include flights, transfers and catered chalet accommodation in Val d’Isere. You can also book early season self-catering apartments in Tignes Val Claret through Erna Low.
4.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 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, the pistes are due to open on October 3, kicking off a vigorous early-season scene. The glacier’s terrain park – home to Austria’s largest superpipe – will be up and running by the end of the month: and if there’s enough fresh snow, November 24 will then see the first Freeride Monday, a weekly, two and a half-hour session for both first-time off-pisters and more experienced powder skiers, which costs €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.
5. 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 13.
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 Neilson.
6. Ischgl, Austria: it’s not really the skiing that matters…
It’s the opening party.
As a rule, Ischgl doesn’t open until the end of November: this year, for example, the lifts won’t be spinning until November 29. 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: this year, James Blunt will be playing the opening concert on November 29. What matters, however, is that everyone in town is determined to have a blast, whatever the music: and the whether it’s in the Trofana Alm, Niki’s Stadl 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 7.
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 22: 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 14, by which time the links into the rest of the Three Valleys should be functioning properly. Val Tho’s 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. Choosing a season when there’s a strong episode of the climate anomaly La Nina in the forecast is a good idea: because the weather is usually colder and snowier as a result (keep an eye on NOAA’s Climate Prediction Centre for that). So too is going at the last minute, when you’re sure there’s already plenty of white stuff on the ground.
Or you can simply roll with the punches. Yes you might get thigh-high powder. 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 7), 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 11-14 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. From December 13 Crystal also offers flight-inclusive packages. 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.