- Animal parks, paragliding, mountain hikes replace schussing
- More of the same in coming years as temperatures keep rising
The town of Chamonix, France, opened a petting zoo to entertain children deprived of skiing. In Laax, Switzerland, operators raised lift prices, to keep out skiers from lower altitudes. Helicopters are carrying snow to Meribel, and in Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, the mayor asked locals to eschew the slopes.
It’s all a response to what’s shaping up to be the worst December in memory for snowless European ski resorts, the vacation destinations for movie stars and schoolchildren alike. On a continent where ski holidays are de rigueur, the mountain meltdown is putting a crimp in local economies that could be hurt more if bookings don’t improve. More slushy ski seasons may be in store, said Daniel Goetz, a meteorologist and snow researcher at the French weather service.
“What’s expected with climate change is that winters with very little snow cover will become more frequent,” Goetz said. “In the future it will become more and more difficult to offer snowy slopes.”
Global warming has put 2015 on track to be the world’s hottest year, and second-hottest in Europe, just after 2014. There’s almost no snow on sunny slopes in the northern Alps below 2,000 meters (6,570 feet); farther south the snow has melted at as high as 3,000 meters.
Craig Jones, a London-based banker who loves to ski, had eagerly awaited the Christmas break so he and his wife could introduce their young daughters to the sport in Morzine, a French resort where they’d booked a chalet five months before.
It wasn’t his dream vacation. With the slopes covered with little more than slush, rocks and mud, the family tried driving 40 minutes to Avoriaz, at a higher altitude. But it was jammed with others doing the same.
“We took the kids to the swimming pool,” Jones said. “We also had the iPads for entertainment, and we took some walks.”
In some areas even artificial-snow makers have been of limited help as the heavier, cold air has stayed in the valley, said Christoph Marty, a climatologist at the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research.
“We’ve been searching for other activities,” said Liz Mercer, co-owner of BlackRock Ski Lodge, a sport-focused luxury chalet in Les Houches, near Chamonix. Chamonix and Les Houches have made a huge effort, she said, putting on ice skating and opening an animal park that’s normally used only in summer.
“The paragliding instructors have been very busy,” she said. “A lot of people have been very happy to put on their hiking boots and walk up to a mountain restaurant.”
Given that winter skiing is the classic activity for well-heeled families throughout Europe, it’s doubtful that a season or two of poor snow will dramatically change habits. In France, where many people get five or more weeks of vacation, families with children often take ski holidays at least once a year, aided by a school system that guarantees time off every February. Munich schoolchildren take ski classes in school and go on a ski trip once a year, and no proper Austrian misses a ski vacation.
This year, that can mean broken bones and worse. Innsbruck University Hospital, where complex cases are helicoptered in from resorts all over Austria’s Tyrol, is getting 100 skiers and snowboarders daily. They are hurt worse than usual because of the artificial snow, the narrow slopes and the presence of rocks and trees, said hospital spokesman Johannes Schwamberger. While the number of patients is slightly smaller than last year, the injuries are more severe and paraplegia more frequent, he said.
“Normally, you break a leg and you fall, maybe you slide a bit further and hit the snow but that’s it," he said. "Now, when you fall you slide and hit a rock, or a tree, break another bone, get a bruise, that’s where the multiple injuries come from.”
Because people often book their holidays four to nine months in advance, many resorts saw decent crowds over the Christmas break. At La Plagne, the largest ski resort in France, bookings are at 97 percent of capacity, the same as a year ago, said spokeswoman Anais Alaurent.
That’s not the case everywhere.
“This year is the first in which we can’t say we’re fully booked in the period around New Year’s,” said Petra Nocker-Schwarzenbacher, head of the Tourism and Leisure Industry chapter of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce. “‘We’re at about 80 percent to 90 percent of capacity, and with the weather forecasts showing no snow until well after New Year’s, our phones remain silent right now.”