Zermatt in Switzerland, which operates Europe’s highest lifts reaching 3.899m, and the Hintertux glacier in Austria’s Ziller Valley are both open year round. Zermatt’s neighbor Saas Fee opens mid-July each year so by the start of autumn is already three months in to its 10-month-long snow sports 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 two resorts have it ready in the autumn if temperatures are high on their glaciers and there’s no fresh snow.
Where to ski in October and November?
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.
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.
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 and Folgefonn has a lot of beaches nearby and a reputation for a very deep snow base – often reaching 10m. Both have a kilometre of so of slopes to enjoy.
Early December resorts
Yes, of course Val Thorens! It’s a fact that 99% of its ski area is set above 2000m, and that at seven separate points the lift system rises to 3000m or higher. The whole place is high-altitude: so even if there’s not much early-season snowfall, the snow cannons will have plenty of cold nights in which to lay down their cover on the pistes.
Just like Obergurgl, Val d’Isere gets its weather from more than one direction. Storms from the Atlantic are its most frequent providers of the white stuff: but when low pressure systems muscle into northern Italy from the Gulf of Genoa, Val gets snow too – which often misses resorts further west, such as Les Arcs and La Plagne.
In other words, Val has – by Alpine standards – a reliable climate. Its high and remote setting, deep in the mountains, helps to keep it cold, too.
If you want to get the most out of your winter sports holiday, then Val Thorens is the place to be. Val Thorens has a warm, welcoming atmosphere and a breathtaking natural environment. All ingredients are present for an unforgettable world-class winter sports holiday. It is a pleasant and friendly place where both beginners and advanced winter sports enthusiasts can indulge themselves. The ultimate goal: to fully enjoy the high-quality slopes and superb snow conditions. The area literally and figuratively brings visitors to great heights. Whether it’s winter sports, accommodation, or après-ski. It is hardly a secret that Val Thorens has been one of the world’s top ski resorts for years. It has been regarded as the best ski village in France and Val Thorens received the top prize at the World Ski Awards for sixth consecutive times.
At the end of November – the winter sports season starts early in legendary Val Thorens – you are assured of three things. The first and the most important: an early-season relatively thick layer of quality snow. Val Thorens is the highest winter sports resort in Europe. Due to its high location (at 2300 meters), you are already assured of a good amount of snow in November. When mother nature can use a handful of help, the necessary snow cannons provide back-up. Val Thorens has a large water buffer and can therefore produce a lot of artificial snow. However, this is rarely necessary.
The second you can count on is a wide selection of accommodation; ranging from economic self-catering accommodation to the best five-star luxury hotels. The resort is only one square kilometer in size, but has appartments and hotels of different sorts and price class at its disposal. There are more than 25,400 beds for tourists. People sometimes tend to forget that Val Thorens also has many cozy chalets and chalet-style accomodation. What almost all accommodations have in common is the convenience of the so-called ‘ski-in’ and ‘ski-out’. The majority of accommodations are located directly on the slopes, so you only have to strap-on your equipment and enjoy the endless ski opportunities right in front of you!
The third and final point is that in Val Thorens you are assured of the ultimate winter pleasure thanks to the large variety of slopes, some of them legendary. So, whether you are a beginner, or seasoned veteran you are assured of enough choice to keep you busy and happy for a week.
Wide slopes at your door step
Val Thorens is a fantastic place to find your feet in as it’s packed with confidence-boosting wide, cruisy blue runs and plenty of piste for less-experienced skiers to get their teeth into. At the same time, there’s a huge range of pistes to suit even the most advanced skiers and boarders, with challenging reds and blacks, moguls and ungroomed pistes to be found. The steepest descent is the Combe de Caron. Snow parks have been created at various locations. The Val Thorens snow park can compete with the top of Europe.
The heart of the town is focused around the top of a short slope equipped with a canopied conveyor-belt surface-lift, which enhances the ski-in/ski-out convenience. The main access road through the resort is bridged by a couple of pisted bridges that funnel a through-route piste via the down-town area, so slope users can simply glide through the middle of the resort to access all areas. At the front of the resort you will find an excellent gentle beginners’ area with canopied conveyor-belts and a drag lift. The beginner’s lifts are free of charge. In general, the beginner runs are all situated right in the heart of the resort in and around the nursery slopes and lifts. Progression will be on blue runs many of which are easy and wide so that beginners can gain confidence. A gentle set of nursery slopes around the Rond Point des Pistes provides an excellent training ground, with greens and blues off the Deux Lacs and Cascades chairs well positioned for graduation to the piste-proper. Intermediates will love the grippy, confidence-boosting snow on many of the runs above Val Thorens itself. And, the best thing? You don’t have to worry as all these slopes converge into town.
Val Thorens’ ski area fans out over seven distinct sectors, including the mostly blue-classified slopes of the Col de la Chambre, where links towards Meribel-Mottaret and Les Menuires are situated. The high Peclet sector directly above Val Thorens, offers a handful of nice long reds plus a glacial black, while the narrow Pointe de Thorens sector at the head of the valley provides access to epic off-piste routes but also has a lovely long red-into-blue cruise back towards resort.
The principal twinned Rosael and Cime de Caron sectors form the bulk of the area, filled with wide high-altitude blues and reds plus some testing mogulled blacks. The ‘fourth valley’ sector of Orelle, over the watershed in the Maurienne Valley beyond the col de Rosael, boasts the highest lift-served point in the entire Three Valleys; and finally the usually quieter Boismint sector that overlooks the Vallon du Lou and runs down to Plan de l’Eau at 1800m, the lowest point in the Val Thorens ski area.
The three Glaciers, that form the crown of VT-snow bowl, comprise Glacier de Peclet which is at an altitude of 3100m, the Glacier de Thorens at an elevation of 3130m and the Glacier de la Pointe Renod at 3230m. The tops of these glacier runs offer either red or black runs down from the top, however, there are easily accessible blue runs which run down from about the halfway mark on all of them.
Val Thorens ski resort is not only the highest village in France’s famous -600km- Trois Vallées linked ski area, it’s also the highest ski resort in Europe; snow conditions are very reliable throughout a long season. SkiWeather.eu ranks Val Thorens among the best destinations in Europe for that matter. Val Thorens welcomes a whopping 6 to 10 meter of snow during the winter season and its altitude means its much less affected by mid-season thaws, too. Val Thorens’ ski area is comprised of the highest and most reliably snow-sure sectors in France and makes for a superb late or early season skiing destination. In fact, Val Thorens is so sure that their resort will have snow from November to May, that they have a Snow Ski Pass Guarantee!
Where to party
Val Thorens is an après heavyweight. The après-ski in Val Thorens is considered the best in France. So, you can already start in the afternoon on the terrace of La Folie Douce, near the top station Plein Sud, where DJs play excellent music which often creates a huge party. Especially on sunny days when the south-facing, sun-drenched mega-terrace is filled with an enthousiastic crowd. Across the mountain and served by a gentler green run down into the village lies 360 Bar, La Folie’s’ lesser known but equally enthusiastic counterpart. In town you will find many après-ski venues including the famous Le Monde, where everyone is whipped up with party music. A very nice pub next door is the Snesko, there is always live music here. Furthermore, there are plenty of small bars where you can have a nice drink and want to continue for a while. Towards the early hours, Club Malaysia -which is located underground- will get you a worthy end of your party.
Off the slopes
Val Thorens is a fairly big town, but a compact one nonetheless; its wide streets and covered walkways are pedestrian friendly and it has a good selection of shops, supermarkets, cafés, restaurants, bars and pubs, plus plenty of indoor facilities to cope with any inclement weather, mostly located in or around the big central Galerie Caron complex that houses a shopping mall and leisure centre. The leisure centre has a spa, swimming pools, a gym and fitness suite, squash courts, multi-sports hall plus a children’s fun-park area. Several hotels also have spas that are open to non-residents. Other leisure options include ten-pin bowling, games arcades, and a cinema. For more active fun there’s snowmobiling, mountain biking on snow, paragliding, paintball, an ice driving circuit, and an epic 6km toboggan run from the top of the Peclet gondola.
Copyright: Hotel AltaPura
Moving on up
In recent years Val Thorens has steadily drifted more upmarket with many new 4 and 5* residences opening, improvements to its lift system and with the local resort facility modernisation programmes too. What is striking is that Val Thorens has invested a lot in recent years in the atmosphere of the village and the ski huts on the slopes. Instead of the stone eateries, more wooden ski huts have been built, which provides more atmosphere and ambience. Another development is that many five-star hotels have entered the scene. Some examples of these hotels are Fahrenheit7, FitzRoy, Altapura and Pashmina. In total there are now over 25 five-star hotels. This brings in a different audience. More wealthy people. In recent years the so-called Val Tho has been busy getting rid of the student image and this makes it very popular with older skiers nowadays. The restaurants in the village and on the slopes capitalize on this. There will be more gastronomy.
Val Thorens has become the buzziest and most well-rounded high-altitude ski resort in the Alps. Thanks to continued investment, it’s still evolving. Bars like La Folie Douce and 360 have brought a powerful apres-ski buzz, while a new generation of upmarket hotels such as Altapura, the Koh-i-Nor, and Hotel Pashmina – as well as smart self-catering residences – are broadening the appeal beyond its traditional, budget-conscious core. Val Thorens has a loyal following. Students and twenty-somethings love the place – because despite its recent step upmarket, there’s still plenty of budget self-catering accommodation here, and the apres-ski scene is one of the best in France. The future is looking bright for Val Thorens, as it is one of the few ski destinations with a spotless snow record. In a time when climate change is affecting low-altitude ski resorts, VT is a reliable choice for a holiday without any worries. Whether it is snow condition, value for money or plain fun.
Nearest airport: Chambéry, 90 minutes (122km), Geneva, two hours and 30mins (200km). The nearest train station to Val Thorens is Moutiers which is about 45 minutes away by car or bus if you’re staying in Val Thorens. A regular shuttle bus runs from the train station to Les Menuires and Val Thorens. More info: valthorens.com
During the winter season (mid December to 1st week of April) Eurostar runs both a direct daytime and a direct overnight train from London St Pancras or Ashford in Kent to Moutiers. The direct daytime Eurostar leaves London / Ashford on Saturday mornings and arrives around 7-8 hours later in Moutiers. Cross country trains also connect Moutiers to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, changing in Lyon, which takes around 6.5 hours. If you’re coming from Lyon Part Dieu (across town from Lyon Saint Exupery airport) you can reach Moutiers on the regional trains which takes around 3 hours. If you’ve flown into Geneva, trains change either at Chambery, Bourg en Bresse or Lyon and then onward to Moutiers, which takes around 3-4 hours.
For more information on Val Thorens, Trois Vallees, please visit the official website of Val Thorens