As summer ends, temperatures drop and the ski shows roll in to town, most of us become increasingly excited about the coming ski season and start planning our winter trip, if we haven’t booked already.
But for some people it’s a case of, “why wait?” A handful of ski resorts are already open as autumn begins and during October and November another dozen of Europe’s leading ski centres will crank up the lifts and open their slopes for early season skiing, months before most other resorts.
“Having worked in the ski business for many years, I am often surprised by how few people take advantages of the opportunities for early season skiing in October and November,” says Katie Waddington, boss of ski tour operator Zenith Holidays.
“You will enjoy uncrowded slopes, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with the national ski teams as they prepare for winter and best of all you’ll be paying less for accommodation and lift passes – all in all a five-star experience at three-star prices.”
In most cases, early season skiing is limited to glacier areas, but on the upside you’re likely to have the slopes pretty much to yourself and a select few other early-birds. You’ll be able to travel through quiet, empty airports there and back and you’ll be the first to try out the new season’s equipment.
The first of the World Cup races will be taking place too (in October at Solden, Austria) so you could time your trip to coincide with one of them and get all the excitement of seeing the world’s best racers in action, or attend one of the big ski test festivals laid on by the resorts each autumn. And if you like a bit of park life, a big draw at virtually all of the autumn-opening ski areas are their terrain parks - as good in autumn as mid-winter.
And if you’re a family, fed up of limited availability, crowded slopes and sky-high prices when trying to book your ski trip in the February half term, how much more relaxing, peaceful and better value to go skiing in the October half term instead (OK, you probably won't be able to stop yourself then booking February once you’re back, but you can worry about that later!).
Of course it’s impossible to predict snow conditions for early season skiing in October or November, and unlike in the winter when you may feel almost a right that mother nature at least makes the effort to deliver some decent powder, it is very hit and miss in the autumn – but, some years lucky skiers and boarders have been riding on powder a metre deep in the first weeks of October as they were fortunate to be on the glacier when huge autumn falls arrived – or they just heard about them and raced out there!
Autumn skiing on the Hintertux glacier
Copyright: Tuxertal Tourism
Where’s open already?
At the start of autumn just six ski areas are almost guaranteed to be open for early season skiing.
Zermatt in Switzerland, which operates Europe’s highest lifts (two T bars that only open summer and autumn) reaching 3,899m, and the Hintertux glacier in Austria’s Ziller Valley are both open year round. Zermatt’s neighbour Saas Fee opens mid-July each year so by the start of autumn is already two months in to its 10-month-long snowsports season!
The fourth option is Pitztal, with Austria’s highest lifts, which closes in mid-May but re-opens in mid-September each year for an eight-month season, and its sister resort, Kaunertal, operates to a similar schedule. The sixth choice is Italy’s Val Senales that normally opens at the start of September (subject to weather conditions) where the cable car will lift you up to the station at Hochjochferner in just six minutes from where a five-mile-long (8km) downhill run is possible with additional trails available from linked chairlifts.
Apart from operating their country’s respective highest lifts, Pitztal and Zermatt have another thing in common. They both own a revolutionary snowmaking system designed by an Israeli company, IDE, which is capable of making snow in above-zero temperatures. The IDE snowmaker was actually discovered by accident by IDE (a company that works with water purification and similar industrial machinery and had no previous interest in the ski industry) in the 1990s when they were asked to make a cooling system for a South African gold mine. To everyone’s surprise the system started churning out snow in the South African desert at temperatures above +30C and the machine just uses water and electricity. The two resorts have it ready in the autumn if temperatures are high on their glaciers and there’s no fresh snow.
Autumn skiers on the Pitztal Glacier, Austria
Austria normally has more places to ski or board operational in the autumn than any other single country with up to eight areas open by mid-October. The precise date each winter depends on snow conditions but in any case many tie in the traditional autumnal beer festivals of the region with the first skiing of the season to create one big party atmosphere.
Along with Hintertux, Kaunertal and Pitztal, Austrian autumn glacier ski or board options include the Kitzsteinhorn glacier at Kaprun; the Mölltal glacier ski area, the twin glaciers of Solden; the Stubai glacier close to Innsbruck and the Dachstein, not far from Schladming.
Solden and the Stubai may indeed have already opened in early September, depending on conditions. Obergurgl is normally one of the first ski areas that doesn’t rely on a glacier to open each winter, thanks to its high base and very high slopes above – it can usually offer top-to-bottom skiing from mid-November.
Besides Saas Fee and Zermatt, several more of Switzerland’s glacier ski areas open from early October each year. The four other autumn choices, which may only be open at weekends until the main winter season begins, include Glacier 3000 between Les Diablerets and Gstaad; the Titlis Glacier above Engelberg another; the Vorab glacier at Laax the third and the Diavolezza glacier in the Engadin Valley close to Pontresina and St Moritz the fourth.
Tignes is the only French ski resort opening for almost all of autumn – normally re-opening around the last weekend of September a few weeks after it had closed its summer skiing operation on the Grande Motte glacier.
Besides Tignes, Les 2 Alpes traditionally opens its glacier ski area, which it claims is Europe’s largest, for a 10-day period (two weekends and the week in between) straddling the end of October and start of November) when they run a kind of autumn snowsports festival with lots of fun events and new season gear testing. It then closes again until the main season starts at the beginning of December.
In Italy, apart from Val Senales, Cervinia usually opens at the end of October offering access from the Italian side to the Klein Matterhorn glacier paradise above Zermatt. A third option is the summer ski centre at Passo Stelvio, normally open at least in to October. The base of this ski area at 2760m is the highest bottom lift in Europe and there’s nearly 700m of vertical between it and the top of the lifts at 3450m. This is divided in to 10 separate runs served by half-a-dozen drag lifts.
The rest of the world
Of course it’s not just the Alps offering early season skiing in autumn. The southern hemisphere’s ski season will be in ‘spring skiing mode’ by September and many of the centres in Australia, Argentina and Chile will be closing at the end of the month. A few resorts in New Zealand, most notably Mt Ruapehu, are likely to last into October and perhaps even what they term, ‘Snovember’
In North America only Timberline on Mt Hood in Oregon stays open almost year round, but normally closes for a three- or four-week maintenance check of all its equipment in September, usually re-opening at the end of the month. If it’s a cold autumn the snowmaking guns will start at some of the world’s highest resorts in Colorado in the first weeks of autumn too with centres like Arapahoe Basin, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Keystone and Loveland all able to open in October if conditions are right. North of the border Norquay, Sunshine and Lake Louise around Banff are usually the first to open in Canada in the first weeks of November, even on Halloween some years.
Back in Europe, Scandinavia is first with the non-glacier slopes, with Ruka in Finnish Lapland claiming the longest non-glacier ski season in Europe, typically from mid-October to mid-June. Two of Norway’s small summer glacier ski areas usually stay open to October or November too – Galdhøpiggen operates on Scandinavia’s highest peak at 2469m (8,098 feet) and Folgefonn has a lot of beaches nearby and a reputation for a very deep snow base – often reaching 10m/33 feet. Both have a kilometre of so of slopes to enjoy.
And if you can’t get to the slopes of a conventional ski area don’t forget there are more than 50 indoor snow centres operating in 25 countries around the world now too, so you can always hit the snow of Manchester, Tamworth, Castleford, Glasgow, Hemel Hempstead or Milton Keynes on a rainy evening in late September. It may not have the Matterhorn view or the 800m September vertical of Zermatt, but you’ve got your skis or board on and it is snow.