Issued: 26 May 2021
By Patrick “Snowhunter” Thorne
There’s quite an upbeat mood in the Alps this week. After unseasonal snowfall last week gave a very late boost to snow quality and quantity, easing of pandemic restrictions has led the first ski areas to open with lifts operating for 2021 in France and Italy. More centres are to open in Austria as pandemic restrictions have been eased.
In North America, warm weather has led to more areas. including Breckenridge, Killington and Snowbird, closing earlier than usual leaving just a handful still operating lifts and runs. The last area that had still been open in Canada has also closed, with Sunshine, near Banff, ending its season after the weekend. In Asia, we believe the Gassan ski area, in Japan, is the only centre still open.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the start of the season may be less than a fortnight away now and there’s been fresh snow and/or cold enough weather for snowmaking reported, again, in the Andes, Australia, South African mountains and New Zealand. Unlike in 2020, when few were permitted, almost all appear to be gearing up to open in June as per pre-pandemic days, so fingers crossed both the weather and the virus play ball.
As mentioned in our world overview there’s been excitement in Europe with a week of very cold weather bringing fresh snow to low elevations. The streets of resorts including Val d’Isere and Verbier turned white and the recently re-opened after eased-pandemic restrictions, Dachstein glacier in Austria, closed again due to the snow. At the same time, France and Italy’s governments finally confirmed ski lifts could begin running again leading to a spate of areas in both countries starting to open from last Saturday. More Austrian areas opened too as restrictions on hospitality were eased there.
In Eastern Europe, Slovakian ski areas that had re-opened in April following the easing of restrictions finally called it a day last week with Jasna saying they no longer had a complete ski run. In Slovenia though, the cold weather has allowed Krvavec (0/50cm / 0/20”) and Kanin (0/420cm / 0/168”) to keep operating, at least to the final weekend of the month they say.
The ski lifts on Europe’s highest mountain, Elbrus in Russia, will also be staying open to at least the end of May, the centre’s operators say, reporting conditions still good above 2500m.
Up in Scandinavia, all winter resorts including Sweden’s Riksgransen have now closed leaving two Norwegian glacier summer ski areas open, a third due to join them before the coming weekend.
ALPS REPORT| It has been an exciting week in the Alps with fresh snowfall for the end of spring and the news that French and Italian ski areas could finally re-open their ski lifts.
Of course, it is too late in the season for many but that didn’t stop La Clusaz, in France, from opening up its ski slopes on its Balme mountain on Sunday and Monday, offering 1,000 free tickets on a first0-com, first-served basis. The result, of course, was that tickets sold out instantly on release with the site crashing.
In Italy, the Presena Glacier in Trentino also opened at the weekend, operating on Saturday and Sunday, the first two days that the country’s government allowed ski areas to finally re-open after nearly 7 months.
Both areas have now closed again after giving local people at least the chance of a snow fix, But more French and Italian ski areas are set to open over the next few days.
In Italy, Cervinia opens Wednesday 26th followed by Passo Stelvio at the weekend. These were the only two areas that were actually operating their lifts when the government there announced the second lockdown seven months ago, Passo Stelvio just ending its five-month 2020 season and Cervinia just starting its five-month 20-21 season. Cervinia says the slopes at Plan Maison will open and the three chairlifts Plan Maison, Fornet and Bontadini will be in operation. A third area, Madesimo, also says it will open at the weekend, initially for four days, then on the first two weekends in June, with the possibility of a longer opening depending on how things go.
In France, it is the start of summer glacier skiing with Les 2 Alpes, Europe’s biggest skiable glacier they claim, opening this Saturday; a fortnight before Val d’Isere and three weeks before Tignes.
Things are looking much more promising in Austria too where remarkably seven glacier ski areas and an eighth (non-glacier) ski centre are now open, as hospitality was allowed to re-kindle last week. However, some are only open at weekends. Among the new openers are the Molltal Glacier (0/470cm / 0/188”) at the weekend, and the Dachstein (0/400cm). Although it was actually closed for several days at the end of last week due to snow if you can believe that.
The Hintertux glacier (0/410cm / 0/163”) has both one of the deepest snow bases in the Alps and the most terrain open, some 30km (19 miles) of runs, about half its winter capacity. The recently re-opened Kaunertal (300/450cm / 120/180”) has a deeper base but much less terrain open, around 6km/4 miles. Pitztal (260/330cm / 104/132”) has 12km (7 miles) of slopes open, the Kitzsteinhorn (0/370cm / 0/148”) above Kaprun a kilometre more.
The period of seven glaciers to choose from will be quite short as the Pitztal and Stubai, which have both extended their season so far, along with Kaunertal, which only opened in mid-May, are due to close a week on Sunday, June 6th. The Dachstein, Hintertux, Kitzsteinhorn and Molltal should stay open through June though. Also, the non-glacier Wildkogel (0/130 / 0/52”) area has decided to open up for the next two weekends into June, thanks to all the snow lying. Finally, Switzerland, which ironically has stayed open for up to nearly a year now (Zermatt has been operating since early June last year), may soon have fewer areas open than its three neighbours after being the main ski destination for most of this year to date. Engelberg ended its season at the weekend leaving only Crans Montana (0/60CM / 0/24”), with its extended season to June 6thand year-round Zermatt (0/180cm / 0/68”) still open there.
ALPS FORECAST| Although more snow was reported at some areas including Chamonix as recently as Tuesday this week,the cold, snowy weather of the past week appears to be ending as we near the start of June and meteorological summertime. The coming week looks predominantly sunny for most mountain areas although there are a few periods when precipitation will pass through, potentially bringing snow above 2,000m overnight, otherwise rain. Mountain temperatures should stay cool, below 5-above-freezing at 2000m and closer to freezing on the glaciers. Down in the valleys though it should get to plus 20.
SCANDINAVIA REPORT| Norway’s Galdhoppigen (120/180cm / 48/72”) and Fonna (600/700cm / 240/270”) glaciers are now both open and the country’s third summer ski centre, Stryn, will be opening in a week’s time on the 27th. Temperatures have generally been in the range of five below to five above freezing on the glaciers, mostly though very close to freezing and there have been some light snow showers to refresh cover with a centimetre or two (an inch) of fresh cover. It is also coming up to the last weekend of the season at the only resort still open in Sweden, Riksgransen (122/255cm / 49/102cm), closing on Sunday. It is believed to be the only ski area in the world to have operated to its usual season dates through both seasons of the pandemic pretty much as normal. This time of year is when the area can famously offer skiing and boarding under the midnight sun with 24-hour daylight at its latitude. (Even in New Zealand, the 2020 season started a few weeks later than usual.)
SCANDINAVIA FORECAST| The weather looks fairly settled on Norway’s glaciers and, although there’ll be cloudy spells, mostly sunny through the weekends. Temperatures at a low of around freezing but climbing up to +10C in the daytime so there’ll be some thawing. A little precipitation forecast too but that’s more likely to be rain than snow most of the time, unfortunately. They should be light showers and few and far between though.
NORTH AMERICA REPORT| The ski season is winding up fast. In fact, faster than expected in North America.
Four ski areas have closed since last weekend, three of them sooner than expected. In Colorado, Breckenridge ended its season a week earlier than planned as they said it was just too warm. Snowbird announced suddenly on 19th May last week that it too had done a stock-take on its remaining snow and looked at the forecast and made the decision to “close immediately” rather than staying open for last weekend and next weekend as they had planned.
Over in the east coast, it was a similar story at Killington, in Vermont, where the snow piled high on the Superstar trail finally gave out. Plans to open Friday to Sunday were abandoned with Saturday only targeted as the last day of the season, but by Thursday the resort had decided even that wasn’t going to be possible and retrospectively declared Sunday 16th May the season’s end date.
North of the border, it was also the last day of the season at the last area open in Canada, Sunshine near Banff. If it was down just to the snow conditions here it seems unlikely Sunshine would be closing as it kept falling through last week and right up to closing day.
So the number of ski areas in North America looking likely to make the last day of the month, and in some cases even stay open into June, is fast diminishing.
Five areas in four states are still operating from back in autumn 2020, having clocked up six months of the 20-21 season in several cases, nearly seven for some. The numbers will even get a brief boost, with a fifth area due to open on the 28th. The only summer ski area in North America, Beartooth Basin on the Montana/Wyoming border. There is some doubt, at the time of writing, that it will open on time though as the US Roads Department had not yet confirmed the road that allows access to the ski slopes will be cleared of snow in time, especially after recent snowfalls. Otherwise, several more areas may be closed by this time next week. One that looks more certain to be is Oregon’s Mt Bachelor (10/28” / 25/69cm), which already said it plans to close this weekend. It’s one of two areas open in Oregon though, the only state left with more than one open area, and the other, Timberline (24/120” / 60/300cm), will be hoping to make it right through the next three months to the start of September if the snow holds out. That said its base numbers do seem to be dropping fast at the moment in the warm spring weather.
In Colorado, the only area still open is Arapahoe Basin (18/51” / 45/127cm). However, it has been announced that it is shutting down more of its terrain as the temperatures warm up there. But, so far, it is sticking to its target of staying open at least to June 6th. The Pallavicini, Molly Hogan and Beavers chairlifts ran for the final time this season last weekend but the Black Mountain Express, Lenawee and Zuma Chairlifts are still turning.
Washington State’s Crystal Mountain has announced it will be re-opening for the US long holiday weekend next weekend, reopening from Friday, May 28-31. The resort is opening the Green Valley chair for skiing and snowboarding from 10 am to 3 pm each day on terrain they say is suitable only to intermediate and advanced level skiers and riders.
Finally, there’s Mammoth (2/20” / 5/50cm) still going strong in California, but it looks like there’ll be no July or August skiing this year, and it may not even quite make June with next Monday, May 31st, a public holiday in the US the target season end date at present. Currently, they report that their Discovery Chair (11) has now closed for the season but said that the Broadway (1), Stump Alley (2), Face Lift (3), Unbound (6) and 23 lifts, as well as the Gondi to the top, are still spinning from 7:30am-2pm with access to 25 trails.
To spice things up for the coming long weekend a one-day ticket covering skiing, mountain biking and a round of golf at the local 9-hole Sierra Star Golf Course, all in the one day, is on sale at $139. The pass actually offers skiing and mountain biking all day but the golf course is only open between 1 pm and 4 pm so ticket buyers will need to plan their day accordingly.
As to the weather, well “mostly warm” sums it up and that’s the reason why areas like Breckenridge, Snowbird and Utah decided to close earlier than planned. That said there was some fresh snowfall further north for the final week of operations at Sunshine near Banff, and over in California, there was snowfall to start the week up high in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
NORTH AMERICA FORECAST| Generally clear, sunny skies and dry weather for western North America for the rest o this week. Temperatures reaching double digits above freezing even at altitude so thawing will inevitably continue. Much warmer in the valleys.
ASIA REPORT| Gassan (150/550cm / 60/220”) remains the only ski area open in Japan and possibly all of Asia. The past week has seen lift closures due to stormy weather and the continuing rapid thaw of the huge snowpack. It has lost another metre in the last seven days and no longer has the deepest base of an open area in the world, with that status switching to Norway’s Fonna glacier. However, its depth means the centre should be able to keep its higher slopes open into July, as usual. The past week has seen most variants of weather with temperatures 10-20 degrees above freezing, some rain, some sun and plenty of the mist and fog that’s common in the region.
ASIA FORECAST| After last weeks’ rain, wind and fog, this week has started increasingly sunny with plenty of sunshine midweek before cloudier, rainier weather towards the weekend.
SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE INTRO| We’re less than a fortnight away from the expected opening date of the first ski areas in the Southern Hemisphere. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if one or two open earlier to claim that first of the season title.
It’s been another promising week with moderate snowfalls reported in Australia, New Zealand and the Andes, along with cold weather for snowmaking in most areas. It also seems likely that ski areas will open in all four major Southern Hemisphere ski nations: Argentina, Australia, Chile and New Zealand as well as Lesotho’s Afriski next month, This is something that didn’t happen in the early months of the pandemic last June when South American and most Australian ski areas remained closed. The only question mark hangs over Tiffindell, South Africa’s only ski area, which wasn’t allowed to open in 2020 and so far remains mute about 2021 plans.
AUSTRALIA REPORT| After the snowfall last week, the skies cleared in Australia. But, crucially, temperatures stayed low, going subzero overnight.So snowmaking systems have been fired up ahead of the season start date in just over a fortnight now. Mt Buller has reported the deepest base of natural and machine-made snow so far at 45cm (18”) last week, so it remains to be seen if it actually opts to open early.
AUSTRALIA FORECAST| Not too much snow in the forecast but low temperatures will dominate and it’s looking very promising for great snowmaking conditions ahead of the season start at the end of next week. There is a likelihood of more natural snowfall too around the weekend and next week.
NEW ZEALAND REPORT| The snow arrived in New Zealand as forecast in the middle of last week and the country had a full taste of winter with snow falling throughout the latter half of last week, with some stormy conditions attached. Management at Ruapehu announced on Thursday they felt they were on track to open their Happy Valley slopes at Whakapapa, a small snow play and learning area with an all-weather snowmaking system, from the weekend after next. That could make them the first in the Southern Hemisphere to open for 2021 unless somewhere else opens early. Mt Hutt, on the South Island, should then be the first full area to open in the country on the 11th June, just over a fortnight. It reported more snow on Tuesday morning, as did other areas including Cardrona.
NEW ZEALAND FORECAST| Generally sunny for the last few days of this week, quite warm in the daytime but dropping below freezing overnight to snowmaking lows. This weekend is shaping up well though with a major snowstorm and cold temperatures set to hit.
ARGENTINA REPORT| There’s been fresh snowfall for most of Argentina’s ski areas in the past week too. Last Thursday Catedral, the continent’s largest area by uplift, posted images of mountainsides looking autumnal one day and snow-covered the next. So the direction of travel currently looks good for the 2021 season start here expected in the next 2-4 weeks, It will be the first June opening since 2019 after most of last season was lost to pandemic lockdowns.
ARGENTINA FORECAST| A fairly snowy picture for the coming week on Argentinas’s mountains, particularly higher slopes which could see 30-60cm (1-2 feet) more snowfall by the start of June; perfect timing. Not terribly cold, low single figures above freezing and perhaps a little too warm (rain at times) on lower slopes but a promising picture overall.
CHILE REPORT| It has been a great few days on Chile’s slopes with a huge snowfall to end last week. El Colorado reported a 42cm (17 inch) accumulation giving a deep snow base across the mountain. Most other ski areas in the country also reported good falls, Portillo at 27cm (11″). The weather was cold too so those resorts with snowmaking were able to use them. It looks like most of Chile’s ski areas are ready to open next month. Last year only three or four did, and not until mid-August when the pandemic’s first wave eased. This time the country is lying fifth in the world for vaccinations with more than 90 in 100 people having had the first dose.
CHILE FORECAST| After the recent snowfall, the week ahead looks predominantly sunny, but, crucially, staying mostly fold. That’s particularly overnight when we’re looking at temperatures well below freezing every night. So that’s good snowmaking conditions and not too much thawing, especially up high.
SOUTHERN AFRICA REPORT| There is still no word on whether South Africa’s Tiffindell, which was closed all last season due to the pandemic, will open this season. Website and social media channels have had no updates for a year and there are reports of email and phone enquiries unanswered, so it doesn’t look promising. However, at Afriski over the border in Lesotho, they have been celebrating their fourth pre-season snowfall over the past week.
SOUTHERN AFRICA FORECAST| Mostly sunny and unfortunately warmer than it has been with quite high daytime temperatures, but it should drop a few degrees below freezing to allow snowmaking systems to fire up. It’s just a case of whether more snow can be made than will thaw at these temperatures.