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Last Updated: Monday, 19 November 2007, 11:37 GMT
Early snows boost Alpine ski resorts
By James Cove
BBC News, The Alps

Ski tracks in the snow on a mountain
Many Alpine towns rely on skiing for up to 80% of their income
Dozens of ski resorts across the Alps have begun running their lifts after unprecedented levels of snow this month.

Some parts have had the most snow in November since 1956.

Last winter was a bad season for the multi-million pound ski industry and there were real fears that some resorts might go out of business due to a lack of snow.

But the ski industry is now breathing a collective sigh of relief as bookings are picking up for the all-important Christmas period.

Many villages and towns in the Alps rely on skiing for up to 80% of their income.

Last December the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned that some resorts could become unviable due to climate change.

It said resorts under 1,500m (4921ft) should focus on other activities.

Huge snow storm

Last week, though, a massive storm dumped over 1m (3ft 3in) on parts of the Eastern Alps and then it spread west.

A snow-covered vehicle in the Swiss resort of Engelberg
Recent heavy snowfall has brought an increase in tourist bookings

The Austrian resort of Kitzbuhel, 760m (2493ft), has opened some of its lifts six weeks early and resorts are now open across Austria, Switzerland, Italy and France.

Last season was one of the worst in recent years with some resorts closing in January.

The doom-mongers predicted the end of skiing.

The truth was somewhat different as resorts expect poor winters every now and again, but two poor years in a row would be very damaging.

"Last season we now believe was just a blip," says Lisa Holm from the Austrian Tourist Office.

"A second year running would have been terrible as people might think it would not snow again, so we are very relieved."

However, in the same way that the poor levels were exaggerated last winter and there was wild speculation about the end of skiing as we know it, we should not read too much into this.

It is, after all, only November and the only thing certain is that the weather will change.

Glaciers growing

The mild and wet summer has also helped snow levels at high altitude.

Toby Mallock, commercial director of the European Snowsport ski school
Many of the people here today have been coming for years and they all say it is the best day they can remember
Toby Mallock
European Snowsport

In the Swiss resort of Saas Fee, high snowfall meant the glacier stopped shrinking at its top this summer.

Last month I climbed the Allalinhorn mountain, 4,027m (13,212ft), and saw for myself where the glacier had actually grown in places.

The respected Swiss mountain guide Beat Supersaxo took me to the summit.

"This summer was a great improvement on recent years as the high levels of precipitation meant we had more snow than normal and it was cold so the level of retreat certainly slowed considerably," he said.

"It will, however, need much more snow and colder temperatures to halt the retreat low down."

The phenomenon was not confined to Switzerland.

Western Europe's highest mountain, Mont Blanc, actually grew last summer as the glacier on its summit got thicker.

It now stands 2m taller at 4,810m (15781ft). The volume of ice has doubled since 2005 to reach 24,100 cubic metres.

Tourist bookings up

The recent snow has led to an improvement in early season bookings as people have seen the snow and decided to book for Christmas and New Year.

Mountains above the ski resort of Verbier, Switzerland
Ski resorts have been warned to prepare for a future without snow

Until now, early season bookings had been one of the worst in recent years as people simply refused to book for fear of there being no snow.

The industry was deeply worried.

In the last few days dozens of resorts have opened early. Zerrmatt, Davos, Cortina, Tignes and a host of less well-known resorts have all opened for weekend skiers.

The Swiss resort of Verbier saw crowded slopes as it opened up large areas last weekend.

"It feels more like mid-winter than mid-November and the skiing conditions are fantastic," says Toby Mallock, commercial director of the European Snowsport ski school who was enjoying the conditions on the opening day of the season last weekend.

"Many of the people here today have been coming for years and they all say it is the best day they can remember."

It is of course a long winter ahead and the conditions will undoubtedly change, but for the time being skiers and the multi-million pound ski industry are smiling.

The slippery slope of winter sports
06 Aug 07 |  Science/Nature

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