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Snowstorms leave some ski areas scrambling

A series of snowstorms crashed into Switzerland over the weekend, spilling enough flakes to force some ski areas into digging themselves out for opening day.

From Sunday to Monday as much as 45 centimetres of snow collected on peaks across the country. That is on top of other storms that have dumped more than a metre of snow in three days.

"I've been working in the ski industry for 16 years and in that time I've seen conditions this good maybe three or four times," Eric Balet, director of TeleVerbier, the largest ski-lift company in French-speaking Switzerland, told swissinfo.

"In 1998 we had two metres of snow at 1,300 metres. That was crazy. Now it's not crazy but it's white and very good and you can ski all the way into town."

Weather monitoring stations near Andermatt in central Switzerland report some of the biggest recent totals, with more than 105cm of snow having fallen over the past few days.

For many ski areas from Andermatt towards Chur in eastern Switzerland the snow is already more than twice as deep as average for this time of year, according to the Swiss institute for snow and avalanche research.

Other areas in far eastern Switzerland currently have as much as 12 times the normal snow depth.

Balet cautions that the way the snowpack forms is just as important as how deep it is because of stability. The avalanche danger is "considerable" at the moment, he warns.

"The snow this year has come three times," Balet said, adding that Verbier has been open since November 6. "We first had a good base that sticks to the ground, then it filled in, now this storm is the cherry on the cake."

Digging out

But the weekend storms also caused problems for some ski areas as workers raced to open slopes for skiers.

"We had a good start but in many places the storms were too strong to do preparations," said Renate Schoch from the Swiss Association of Cable Car Operators. "It's difficult to groom slopes and mark the way when it's that stormy."

Schoch said cable car companies getting ready for the season have already invested more than SFr265million ($218 million) to improve lifts and make them more comfortable, for example with windshields or insulated seats.

"The ski areas that were hindered from opening by the storms will open next weekend or even during the week," she said.

Stormy all around

Last year massive snowstorms that dumped more than 120cm of powder helped many of the 300-plus ski areas in Switzerland open on November 17, the snowiest start to the ski season in 55 years.

A strong start this year might help get people in the mood to come skiing in Switzerland, but big snowfalls aren't the only element needed, said Veronique Kanel from Swiss Tourism.

The recent economic downturn could hurt the number of visitors who come to the country this winter. The winter tourism industry accounts for about SFr15.5 billion, about half of all tourist revenue. Last year more than 16.8 million people stayed the night in Switzerland during the winter, up 6.2 per cent from the 2006-2007 season.

"We hope that the mood is still going to be good to come skiing even if the economy isn't great," she said, adding that Swiss visitors account for 40 per cent of all visitors and that the financial situation isn't traumatic in some of the big markets, like Germany.

"It's too early of course to say we are going to have a fantastic season because the season lasts until April," she said. "The storms are certainly a good sign."

swissinfo, Tim Neville

Winter in Switzerland

Marked ski pistes: 7,400km

Marked cross-country ski trails: 5,500km

Marked winter walking trails: 2,900km (largest network of winter walking trails in the Alps)

Marked snowshoe trails: 2,100km

European altitude record: 29 winter sports areas are located above 2,800m (average altitude)

Marked and prepared slope with the greatest vertical drop:
Klein Matterhorn-Zermatt: 2,300m (most in Europe)

end of infobox


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