The spectre of climate change is stalking the resort where winter tourism began, after warm weather forced the cancellation of last weekend’s White Turf horse races.
It began snowing in St Moritz last Saturday night and continued all the next day. Soft, settling, silent, Sunday snow: six inches or more. It was certainly not a tearaway New York-style blizzard; it was respectful, perhaps apologetic, having been expected since about November.
St Moritz, perhaps the world’s most famous winter sports resort and certainly the most distinctive, was not dreaming of a green, grey and brown Christmas but it got one nonetheless. And snow has been elusive until now. “I think it’s the worst winter we’ve ever had,” one resident told me. “Worst” in this context meaning something different to a shopkeeper in an Alpine resort than it would to a Long Island commuter or a Welsh sheep farmer.
It has not been a total disaster: skiers are now used to artificial snow, and techniques to make it have improved, though a connoisseur will always regard it as inferior to the infinite moods of a naturally snowy mountain. Also, skiing on a man-made white track through a bland autumnal landscape can make you feel a bit of a prat.
And for everyone who lives in St Moritz, or loves it, there is a lurking terror. What if this is the future?
By cruel coincidence, the first serious damage to the resort’s economy was inflicted a few hours before the snow got started. The organisers of White Turf, the horseracing festival on the frozen lake, had to cancel a meeting – one of three scheduled for consecutive Sundays this month - for the first time since 1986.
The racing attracts crowds of up to 10,000 or more, some of whom were wandering forlornly around the track on Sunday lunchtime, just as the first race should have been under way. Many spectators come from outside Switzerland; not all had heard. “I just had to tell a man who’d come over from Bali,” said a steward. “But even he understood.”
Actually, I am not sure he did understand. It was not that the ice on the lake was too thin, as was generally assumed. In fact, it was plenty thick enough to cope with the 2,500 tons of horse, humanity and equipment that would press on it. But because of the unusual warmth, explained the racing association’s vice-president, Luigi Sala, the limited amount of snow that had fallen had not properly compacted on top of the ice. That meant a galloping thoroughbred might suddenly sink into the snow, with potentially terrible consequences for its fragile legs. In fact, a similar concern forced a day to be abandoned after a single race in 2014.
The fear that this might be a new normality hung heavily over the usually jolly pre-race dinner. “Obviously we hope it is just an exceptional year,” said Sala. “But it could mean we will have to adapt. We have already started a Night Turf meeting under floodlights. Maybe we will have to race more in the evening when the temperature is lower.”
St Moritz claims to have invented winter tourism 150 years ago, when British aristocrats began visiting in search of the crisp, sunny climate, then started looking for diversions - sledging, curling and eventually skiing. Today, winter in St Moritz is full of what anywhere else would call summer sports. The 2016 snow golf and ice polo tournaments have taken place; cricket on ice is due to start on Thursday. I acquired my affection for this place seven years ago when the FT sent me to find out if the cricket was for real. It was, and it was great fun, too.
And I vowed to come back so I could see the racing. Which, unlike the cricket, is not just a novelty but a serious sport, supported by some of Europe’s best trainers, with decent prize money. I came back all right but . . .
This unique schedule derives from a splendid combination of studied British eccentricity allied to Swiss ingenuity. Plus phenomenal landscape and 322 sunny days a year, even if Sunday was not one of them.
The more obvious wintry activities carried on, but not quite regardless. I wandered over to the Cresta Run, where members of the St Moritz Tobogganing Club hurl themselves down the hillside, head first, on glorified teatrays at up to 82mph. It is not now entirely English, though it is certainly all-male, and a particular kind of male at that. One man walked in from the snow in plus-fours as though he were just heading up Everest with George Mallory (“Do you think I should bring a woolly, old boy?”) while awaiting the start of the Battle of Britain.
Another Englishman was booming race times over the tannoy for a club competition, the Roger Gibbs Challenge Cup, though he was apparently not getting through to the competitors, who were failing to report to the start.
The voice was getting cross. “I do not understand why nobody is ready to race. If you read the order on the paper it will tell you when to ride. IF YOU CAN READ.” It turned out that, whether or not they could read, they could not hear - the loudspeaker wasn’t working in the competitors’ hut, probably because of the snow. The voice was undaunted. “We have lost a lot of time because of the complete unbelievable stupidity of the riders. UNBELIEVABLE!”
Over the road at the neighbouring bob run, a round of the 2016 World Cup was taking place: a bigger deal in sporting terms but conducted with better grace. Professional bobsleigh teams tour the European circuit but St Moritz is special, because it is the only championship bob run that still uses natural snow and ice. For the bob people, this is like playing tennis on Wimbledon grass. All the other venues involve concrete bases and refrigeration; sometimes even a roof. “It’s so much smoother here,” said the British team performance director Gary Anderson. “It’s like running on velvet.”
And with snow falling and conditions changing, it also creates uncertainties that competitors don’t always face. There was nervous conversation as officials tried to work out which runners to use on the bobs. And, deep down, there is uncertainty about the future, too. Will climate change force St Moritz to give in to artificiality?
Up on the mountain, the pistes were still quiet. Visibility was poor and the snowfall had concealed the moguls, creating traps for the unwary. But it was going to be great, enthused a ski instructor: “It will be spring in Zurich and we could be skiing – maybe into May.”
The racing people hope that all will be well and that the meetings this Sunday and next will take place as planned. It will take a lot to deter the cricketers. But, as strange season follows strange season, no one with an eye on the future can be worry-free, even Dominic Bachofen, the unflappable manager of the Carlton Hotel, the smallest and most discreet of St Moritz’s five-stars.
This is not unprecedented: the first snow in 1989 came on February 20, he said. “But obviously this concerns me. Having a dry winter when temperatures go up to 8C or 9C, this is unusual. I think there is a heating up of the climate.”
However, he insisted: “This valley will always stay extraordinary.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016