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.