Escaping the desert heat 3,000 metres up in the Alps: an introduction to glacier skiing for winter sports fans based in the Gulf.
High above the Swiss resort of Saas-Fee, in the next valley along from Zermatt, lies the Fee Glacier. Every year, in the middle of July, it opens to skiers, snowboarders – and anyone who wants to cool off in high summer in grand style.
It sounds like a gimmick. And you can be sure that when you tell anyone of your plans, you get the same questions: Aren’t you going to fall down a crevasse? Isn’t summer snow horribly slushy? And can’t you just wait for winter?
As we snow addicts all know, there is never a bad time for skiing. But there are good reasons, too, why the summer snows attract not just amateurs but also national ski squads and top coaching organisations.
The Warren Smith Ski Academy, based during the winter in the nearby resort of Verbier, has decamped to Saas-Fee every summer since 2002. “We find our clients often progress faster in summer,” Warren Smith told me. “The altitude and the regimented nature of the environment make for more intense training, more focused on physical performance.”
It is hard, though, to imagine skiing at all on the first morning of the course, as you carry your skis through the pretty, car-free village, past hikers in their summer finery and chalets decked with flowers. A cable car carries you high above the treeline; a second whisks you, ears popping, over a wilderness of rock. Finally you ride the world’s highest underground funicular until you emerge on the flank of the glacier, your eyes dazzled by the pristine whiteness and your heart racing in the thin air up at 3,500 metres – about double the altitude of the resort.
Up here, three T-bar lifts serve 20 km of piste, smoothed by grooming machines. The pylons are movable, for this is a slow-flowing river of ice; the sight of gaping crevasses in other parts of the glacier are an effective reminder not to head off-piste. In the distance, freestyle skiers twist and corkscrew through the air above the snow park – the venue for the annual British Freeski Camps, where top slopestyle and half-pipe athletes come to train.
Warren and his team of instructors divided us by ability into groups of no more than eight, and had us looping the lifts as we practised a string of drills to fine-tune our technique. Doing this in summer made sense: with no other slopes to tempt you away, you’re happy to work for hours on end on technique – and you soon see the results.
Apart from 15-odd minutes for a picnic lunch on the snow, we skied until the lifts closed at 1pm. Back in the resort, we would spread out on the lawn at the back of the hotel and Warren would guide us through a sequence of athletic stretches.
Most of the afternoons we were free to relax or hike. We could visit attractions such as the world’s largest glacier ice pavilion or the world’s highest rotating restaurant, or indulge in activities from summer tobogganing to climbing via ferratas or whizzing down mountainsides on giant freewheeling scooters. Several in the group had travelled with non-skiing partners – so as well as a daily fix of snow, they had time for a conventional summer mountain holiday as well.
I loved our base for the week, the Hotel du Glacier, opened in 1901, and disarmingly relaxed, despite its 4-star status. A photo display at the entrance introduces all the staff – their hobbies, childhood ambitions and dreams, from the manager to the dish washer and the housekeepers; it is one of the most inclusive, welcoming and friendly places I have stayed.
On two afternoons we gathered in the hotel lounge to watch videos that the coaches had made of our skiing earlier that day. Surprisingly, the same basic errors in technique kept cropping up – even among the experts. We also saw how each of us had a weaker turning direction – and over the week the coaches worked with us to develop exercises to strengthen our weaker side.
The Academy places a big emphasis on biomechanics, and one morning Warren and his team had us leaping around the lawn behind the hotel, practising the athletic movements we would need to make dynamic ski turns. At first, our legs and arms flailed everywhere, but we repeated the jumps until we could keep our hips, knees and feet the same distance apart – a prerequisite for controlled turns. We worked on increasing the flex in our ankle joints, and practised exercises to strengthen muscles in our legs that would help us maintain our stance in uneven terrain – and prevent injury.
The next morning, up on the mountain, I could feel a marked advance in the control I had over my skis. And over the week as a whole, I noticed big improvements: flexing my ankles more in order to edge the skis better and so carve more effectively, switching from steering with my feet to steering with my more powerful thigh muscles, activating my core muscles to prevent my body buckling when tackling bumpy terrain, and working on a host of techniques from quick jump-turns to thrilling high-speed carved giant slalom turns.
Others were equally enthusiastic. Jackie Hampton, a New Yorker based in London, thought the “quality of the course was phenomenal, the instructors fantastic. I’ll definitely do summer skiing again.” Julián Gay Meca, a currency broker who describes himself as Spanish/French, and who had previously only done four days’ skiing, said he was “very pleased with the experience, my improvement, the staff, the town – not pretentious, down-to-earth, lots of activities.”
The resort will see more visitors from the Gulf, too, if the national tourist board has its way. Given the strength of the Swiss franc and the weak economy in Europe, Switzerland Tourism is focusing on key markets elsewhere – including Gulf countries – to bring more summer tourism, especially to mountain resorts. Last year, ST opened an office in Dubai, its new headquarters for India, the Middle East and Africa, and in the first five months of 2012 saw growth of nearly 20% from Gulf countries compared to the previous year.
Some have already made the discovery. Dubai resident Simon Longley is regional director for a construction consultancy, and the veteran of four ski trips to Canada and some 20-odd days at Ski Dubai. “It’s been nice to come somewhere fresh and see some trees and greenery. The instructors have been very good, very patient, and I’ve enjoyed the terrain – you can really practice consistently what you’ve been learning. And Saas-Fee is a lovely village, there are so many things you can do in the afternoon. It feels like two holidays, you get the best of both worlds. So yes, I’ll be back on the glacier another summer.”
- From summer 2013, The Warren Smith Ski Academy (www.warrensmith-skiacademy.com) is running its summer training courses in the Italian resort of Cervinia. Courses run from 29 June to 7 September; £508 for five days’ tuition, including lift pass.
- The Academy has organised special rates at the Hotel Mon Reve (www.duglacier.ch): 60 euros per person, per night, half-board (85 euros in a single room).
- The Academy also runs autumn courses from November 2 to 30; £605 for five days’ tuition, including lift pass. Half-board accommodation 65 euros per person, per night (93 euros in a single room).
- The British Freeski Camps take place from 13 July to 3 August (www.britishfreeskicamps.com).
- For information on skiing and holidays in Saas-Fee: Hotel du Glacier (www.duglacier.ch); Saas-Fee (www.saas-fee.ch); Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com).