Skiing in Switzerland: Passing the pandemic winter of 2020/21 skiing across the Swiss Alps from Andermatt to Zermatt
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the front pages of the world’s newspapers in early March 2020, I was where I usually was at that time of the year, skiing in Switzerland. The headlines repeated the names of China and Italy, again and again. I was at Zermatt, and on March 8, had taken the gondola to the top of the Matterhorn glacier paradise at 3,883 meters. It is the highest cable car station in Europe, with spectacular views of the most towering mountains in Italy, France, and Switzerland.
From the peak, you can ski along a high ridge for about 500 meters to an intersection, where you are greeted with two possibilities — ski right and down into Switzerland for some fondue or raclette, or turn left and down into Italy, where a plate of delicious pasta awaits. Knowing I could take a gondola back up from the Italian side and then down into Zermatt for dinner, I turned left into Italy. I thought that surely all those reports of people dying from the flu must be overly exaggerated.
A Noticeable Difference
The first thing I noticed, aside from light powder that dusted the immaculately groomed trails, was an absence of skiers. Normally one of the big differences between skiing on the Italian vs. the Swiss side of the Matterhorn (or Toblerone as the Italians call it) was fashion. On the Italian side, the ski suits are always more form-fitting and stylish, sporting brands like Colmar, Napapijri, and Moncler. It makes it easier to distinguish the men from the women, even from far away. On the Swiss side, the outfits seem more practical, sturdy, and warm. My own fashion statement is a mishmash of Eastern Mountain Sports, The North Face, and Target.
As I got further down the south side of Toblerone, I noticed that the restaurants were all closed, causing me great disappointment. I had enjoyed many a good meal at the little restaurants that dot the ski runs on the Italian side. I had been looking forward to another. That said, it immediately became apparent that something was different. There was tension in the air. I skied as far as Cervinia, a town in northern Italy not far from where the European outbreak of the pandemic first exploded. At the gondola station, they were enforcing a new rule. All skiers had to keep two meters apart. What normally would carry six skiers up the mountain could now only accommodate two. I found myself in one with a doctor who was taking a short break from treating the sick in Milano.
“How is it down there?” I asked. “And how are you?”
He immediately started coughing uncontrollably before stopping, looking at me sideways from behind his surgical mask, and saying: “Just kidding. I’m fine, but many people down the mountain are not.”
I found myself with a doctor with a morbid sense of humor. He advised me to get better PPE, as my ski mask offered little protection. I had no idea what PPE was at the time, but I agreed anyway and said I would. The gondola carried us up to the ridge that forms the border between Italy and Switzerland. We bid farewell, and he skied south and back to his work, and I went north to my fondue. The next day Italy closed all of its ski resorts for the rest of that season and, as it turned out, the next.
A few days later, on March 11, US President Donald Trump announced sweeping travel restrictions on 26 European countries to combat the spread of the coronavirus. “To keep new cases from entering our shores,” the president said in an Oval Office address that day, “we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days.”
Chaos ensued as Americans and US residents visiting Europe rushed to leave the continent and head home before the Corona curtain fell. I, fortunately, already had a ticket for the next day to fly to Washington, D.C. for my son’s birthday. It came as a surprise to see the flight so full and the airports so chaotic. I tried to buy a mask but there were none to be found, so I sat for nine hours in economy next to a guy who coughed and sneezed the entire flight.
From Andermatt to Zermatt: Skiing in Switzerland
I spent the summer of 2020 far from the slopes, locked down for the most part in the United States. But when November came along, I knew the Alps were getting plenty of snow. My feet began to itch in that way to which only ski boots can bring relief.
A quick review of skiing opportunities in Europe yielded only one option. France, Germany, Italy, and Austria had all closed their resorts until further notice. Switzerland, however, was keeping theirs open. So I arrived in Geneva just before my birthday in mid-November and was back in Zermatt a week later.
I spent most of the season from November to May exploring resorts across the Swiss Alps; the only exception being a month back in the United States in March to get my COVID-19 Moderna vaccination. In the month between jabs however, I could not wait to get back to the slopes so I flew over to Colorado with my son, Sage, to ski at Vail and Arapahoe Basin. Vail was a big and expensive disappointment — I could not believe a resort could charge more than $200 for a day of skiing when in Switzerland, most places charge less than $100. The hotels there were three times the cost of what I would pay in the Alps. Arapahoe Basin was great though. I would go back there in a heartbeat, even though it was hard to find decent hotels at a reasonable rate.
But I digress slightly to the Rockies. As this is a write-up of my experiences in the Swiss Alps, I will now move on to the resorts I visited there in the winter of 2020/21, from A (Andermatt) to Z (Zermatt).
Andermatt, in central Switzerland, was a little-known backwater destination for skiing until Samih Sawiris, an Egyptian-born developer of integrated international towns, visited in February 2005. He thereafter embarked on a long-term project to double the size of the town. Spreading across one million square metres of former military land, 500 apartments in 42 buildings, 25 chalets, an 18-hole golf course, convention facilities, and six five-star hotels now call it home here.
Today, Andermatt is a major powder and off-piste skiing mecca for adventurous skiers. It also is perfect for families and those who prefer less adrenaline with their skiing. The cold storms from all directions ensure a deep alpine snowpack well into April of each year, with 1,500-meter vertical descents off the resort’s highest peak, Gemsstock. There are two distinct sides to the resort: one is the dark, north-facing vertical face of the Gemsstock looming over Andermatt, while the other is the sunny slopes reaching across the Oberalppass to neighboring Sedrun, another resort. I spent a few days exploring every piste and pathway across both sides. Of the two, although the north is more exciting, the southern slopes are more enjoyable.
Although I drove to Andermatt this time in a rental car from Geneva, I highly recommend taking the Glacier Express. It is somewhat like the Hogwarts Express but better. The Glacier Express Swiss train connects St. Moritz with Zermatt in a journey that covers some of Switzerland’s poshest and most coveted Alpine stations, including Andermatt. The magical train is also an engineering feat with parts of it listed by UNESCO.
For accommodation, although the small town is full of five-star hotels, I would recommend the Hotel Schweizerhof. This old, rundown (but immaculately clean) two-star hotel was there long before the Egyptians came to town.
As its hyphenated name suggests, Crans-Montana is made up of two Swiss mountain villages: Crans-sur-Sierre and Montana. In the French-speaking canton (province) of Valais (which is in a big valley), the two expanded and merged into a megaresort. As a result, the resort has received the Family Destination label by the Swiss Tourism Federation. Though it doesn’t have the rugged and steep black runs that characterize other places, it does offer some really nice trails.
The first and last time I was there was back in 2008 when my son Sage was learning how to ski. Since then, whenever I was in the area, I kept going to the more exciting destination of Zermatt. I kept passing Montana again and again. Until the pandemic of 20/21, when I stopped to give it another chance.
Experienced skiers will probably get bored here after one day, but it would be a one day well spent. The majority of the area is an undemanding playground for beginners and intermediates, mostly comprising cruise-able reds and a few mid-range blues, with just a couple of low-end black runs. There is, however, a fantastic long red run down from the glacier that I would call the highlight of the area.
The big plus is the scenery, which is outstanding. There is a glacier that covers an area of 10 square kilometres and offers 360-degree panoramas. You see all the way down the Valais to the Matterhorn and past the Dents du Midi to Mont Blanc. The slope-side surroundings are scenic as well – especially in the canyon-like area below Les Violettes, which has been dubbed the ‘Colorado’ zone or “midi Grand Canyon” for its reddish rock walls.
Say the word “Davos” and most people will automatically think of dollars and the World Economic Forum. I had been there before on my Harley, driving across the country from Geneva. It was somewhere I had always wanted to ski and now was my chance.
The town of Davos is the highest in Europe and was one of the first ski resorts in the world. It is not the prettiest town by a long shot, with grey block architecture and totally devoid of the normal ski-resort buzz. But the skiing on the broad peaks on either side is extensive and excellent.
Although I prefer the higher, in-your-face, and more precipitous mountains of the Canton of Valais (more on that later), the peaks here are indeed quite impressive.
Once there you can explore skiing in five separate areas of which the largest is the Parsenn sector shared between Davos Dorf and Klosters. Jakobshorn is reached from Davos Platz, the Rinerhorn is a short distance from Davos above Glaris, and Pischa is also above Davos Dorf. The fifth area is Madrisa on the far side of Klosters. The bad news is that none of them are connected, and some of the ski runs arrive on busy highways where you have to wait for a bus to get back to the lift or to town.
There are some fairly decent forest runs but overall I was bored here after just two days. I couldn’t wait to get back to the Valais.
Grimentz is one of the ski and summer resort villages located in the Val d’Anniviers, a valley in the south of Switzerland on the border with Italy, in the spectacular Canton of Valais. Its location is approximately between Zermatt and Crans-Montana as the crow flies. You’ll often see Val d’Anniviers marketed as a single entity, but it’s made up of a number of small resorts, such as Grimentz, Zinal, Saint Luc, and Chandolin. Grimentz is connected to Zinal by a magnificent gondola, and a ski pass in one can be extended to include the other for a small fee.
The villages in the area are hundreds of years old, and there are lots of classic old chalet-style buildings and raccards scattered over the bottom of the valley. The town of Grimentz is built into the hillside, with the roads winding up into the village. Most of the hotels and amenities are located on the Rue du Village. I would recommend combining a ski day in Grimentz with one in Zinal, its neighbor. It is not possible to ski from one to the other, but as previously mentioned, there is a gondola linking the two.
I kept expecting to run into Gellert Grindelwald of Harry Potter fame in this town, but he was nowhere to be found. Situated in the shadow of the colossal North Face of the Eiger, a trip to Grindelwald is an unforgettable experience. For nearly a decade I drove my Harley past and around the area while going to or from the town of nearby Interlaken.
Grindelwald is located in the Jungfrau Region, which is also popular among young men looking for a good ski adventure (Pardon the pun, but I couldn’t resist — Jungfrau is German for a young woman or maiden). The Jungfrau Mountain, at 4,158 meters (13,642 ft), is one of the main summits of the Bernese Alps. Located between the northern canton of Bern and the southern canton of Valais, the mountain divides German and French-speakers.
Also in the area is the Jungfraujoch, a saddle connecting the two major peaks of the Bernese Alps: the Jungfrau and the Mönch. A restaurant is accessible year-round via the Jungfrau line. This railway from Interlaken and Kleine Scheidegg runs partly underground through a tunnel. I have yet to go up there because I’ve been too busy skiing, hiking, or riding every time I am in the area. It looks great though, and someday, perhaps when I am too old to do anything else, I will take the train up there for a beer.
There is not much of interest for advanced skiers in Grindelwald, but the long runs through the trees and spectacular views from up top make it well worth a day or two. Also, like some of the Colorado resorts like Vail and Arapahoe, there is skiing on both sides of the big mountain. In other words, you can take the lifts up and ski down the other side, then back up and return to your car or hotel on the side where you started.
Grindelwald apparently celebrated its 850th birthday in 1996 and the 60th anniversary of the First Mountain railway in 1997. The first person to ski here was reportedly the Englishman Gerald Fox, who — according to a poster in the lobby of the Hotel Bernerhof — put his skis on in his hotel bedroom in 1881 and walked through the hotel bar to the slopes wearing them.
When I was there, the town had recently inaugurated the new Eiger Express cable, which takes only 15 minutes from Grindelwald Terminal to Eigergletscher (from where the mountain train climbs to the Jungfraujoch — Top of Europe station for those who want to go there). Passengers are transported from Grindelwald Terminal at 937 meters (3,074 feet) above sea level to the Eigergletscher station at 2,328 meters (7,637 feet). The cable car ride is 6,483 meters long but remarkably needs only seven support pillars en route.
Saas-Fee was my biggest and most pleasant surprise during the entire winter of 2020/21. I had intended to go there for more than a decade, but every time I found myself heading down the valley from Visp, I always took a right via Stalden and on to Zermatt, rather than hanging a left and going to Saas-Fee. But WOW! When I finally got there it was one of the “where have you been all my life?” moments, to which the glaciers responded, “right here, waiting for you.”
Don’t get me wrong, I am still in love with Zermatt, and will continue to spend a lot of time there. But I now have two loves, and will henceforth spend as much time as I can with both.
Just like Zermatt, Saas-Fee is ‘car free’, but unlike its neighbor, it doesn’t have the convenience of train line access. However, it is still relatively easy to get to via car and bus. I rented a car at the airport in Geneva and drove.
Saas-Fee has been called “The Pearl of The Alps,” and when you are there, surrounded by no fewer than 13 soaring peaks all of which are higher than 4,000 metres (12,000 feet) it is easy to see why. The place is so picturesque your eyes can scarcely believe what they are seeing. The permanently snow-capped major Alpine summits include the Allalinhorn, Alphubel, Taschhorn, Lenzspitze, and Dom (third highest peak in the Alps), and looking out over the Saas Valley (the Saastal), the Weissmies, and Lagginhorn.
Despite the decidedly rugged surroundings, Saas-Fee is also a family-friendly winter-sports resort that’s well suited to beginners and intermediates, skiers, and snowboarders. The highest peak in the ski area is even accessible by pedestrians, courtesy of a funicular railway, which also hosts the world’s highest altitude revolving restaurant.
There are three main ski areas – Saas Fee, Saas Grund, and Saas Almagell. There is no way to ski from one to the other, but there are free local buses. I stayed just in the main ski area for a few days and could not get enough. The views, the ski runs, the glaciers — if there is skiing in heaven, this is it.
In the words of Snow Magazine: “St. Moritz ski resort in Switzerland has long been one of Europe’s most glamourous Alpine playgrounds, attracting royalty, celebrities and wealthy socialites to its chic lakeside village and high-altitude ski areas throughout the decades since the founding days of the European winter-sports holiday industry.”
And thus the reason why I had always avoided this place like the plague. It took a pandemic to finally get me there, and the fact one of my best friends, Sebastian Copeland (and author of the foreword to my book The Intrepid Traveler), was there with his family.
Once in St Moritz, however, I felt pleasantly surprised at the scenery, the ski runs, the people, and the food. The town is still considered Europe’s most esteemed old-money Alpine playground, but it’s also a modern snowsports resort with much to offer the adventurous. It makes itself up of two parts: chic St. Moritz Dorf on the hillside overlooking the lake, plus the spa resort suburb of St. Moritz Bad (bath) on the adjacent southern shore. I should have known that Sebastian, who has walked to both ends of the Earth, would never lead me to a place of mere posh puffery.
A Similar Tale
As with Grindelwald, the story of how St. Moritz first got its start also involves a bunch of Brits. According to local folklore, back in the summer of 1864 Swiss hotelier, Johannes Badrutt, wagered with a group of well-connected British guests that they would enjoy the then summer-only spa village even more in the winter. The guests were invited to return in the winter on the understanding that if they didn’t enjoy the experience then Mr. Badrutt would cover the full cost of their stay. They did return, they loved it, and thus became the area’s first winter tourists. Word of the wager and the wonders of wintertime in the Alps spread across Europe and before long the rich, famous, and infamous were on their way to hang out in St. Moritz.
That said, considering the other places reviewed in this article, I probably won’t return to St. Moritz anytime soon unless it is to meet up with old friends. But perhaps I can talk them into meeting me in Zermatt or Saas-Fee instead.
Verbier and Nendaz
I have been to Verbier more than a few times over the past 10 years or so. However, I gave it a miss during this trip in the winter of 2020/21. Why? Because although it features at the top of most people’s bucket lists when planning a Swiss ski holiday, there is not much I like about this place. The skiing is rather mediocre, and the town itself is a bit overrated and very expensive. Some of my friends like it for the nightlife, and for the chalets.
The only time I ever really enjoyed Verbier, however, was when my son and I stayed in the town of Nendaz, just over the mountain. You can get a ticket there that links the entire 400 km ski area, and ski over into Verbier, and then back to Nendaz. Nendaz has a wide choice of chalets and apartments at a much more reasonable cost — perhaps the best place to stay when exploring the Four Valleys ski area. The views from Nendaz, overlooking the Rhône Valley, are a stunning enough reward for those who take the time and trouble to find this lesser-known corner of the region.
I first visited Zinal in the Fall of 2018 while on a 23-day, 300 km hike across the Alps from Chamonix to Zermatt, a trek popularly known as the “haute route.” On day 20 of that trek, I crossed a magnificent high ridge and descended into a valley with a ski resort and mesmerizing views. I said to myself then that I would one day return when there was snow on the ground and skis on my feet. Of course, I then completely forgot about the place until I went there this winter and immediately screamed “Eureka!” when I realized where I was.
A gondola connects Zinal to the adjacent resort of Grimenz but you can’t ski from one to the other. As there is a different feeling to each, I thought to include a separate write-up. There are not many runs here, but the few that are can be a lot of fun. The views looking west from the high ridge are spectacular, and the rough trail through the woods back down into town is fantastic. It was closed when I was there, which made it even more fun — you just climb under the rope and keep going (but of course you do so at your own risk).
Zinal, a hidden gem is at the far end of the Val d’Anniviers, just a hop, skip and a ski jump as the crow flies from its more famous Swiss cousins, Verbier, Crans-Montana, and Zermatt (aka the ‘Imperial Crown’). The 4,000+ meter peaks of the Matterhorn, Weisshorn, Zinalrothorn, Obergabelhorn and Dent Blanche tower over it. The ski area runs along a wide ridgeline with stunning panoramic views and offers everything from wide smooth pistes to challenging narrow couloirs. There are not all that many runs, but the views are so stunning I kept stopping to take it all in, which made the end of the day come all too quickly.
I stayed in a wonderful little Hotel/Restaurant called Le Trift that had amazing fondue and a good local IPA beer.
We have reached the end of the alphabet, and although the aforementioned Zinal comes before Zermatt, I have left the Seventh Heaven to the end. As I mentioned before, during a decade living in Switzerland, and after having explored a few other places, the only two places I frequented were Chamonix and Zermatt. Even though I am really happy to have explored all the places in this article over the winter of 2020/21, Zermatt remains my favorite — with Saas-Fee coming in as a close second. So it is only fitting that I begin and end this article with a short description of Zermatt. I started and ended the season there, the last run being in early May 2021.
Zermatt sits at the foot of the iconic Matterhorn (4,478 meters or 14,691 feet) and on the flanks of the heavily glaciated Monte Rosa (4,634 meters, or 15,203 feet). To say the scenery is incredible would be an understatement — in fact, I don’t think there exist words in any language to describe the sheer beauty of this place. Whilst it’s more of a town now than a village, Zermatt has managed to maintain most of its traditional ‘old town’ feeling with gas-powered cars being Verboten. All motorized transport in town must be electric.
Best of Both Worlds
In a normal year, one of the aspects I love about Zermatt is being able to ski in two countries, as mentioned in the beginning. But the Italian side remained closed well into 2021 leaving only the Swiss slopes to ski down. However, there are so many runs to choose from that it would be impossible to ski everyone in a single day, even skiing all day.
To get a headstart in the morning, and to be the first one on the slopes, I usually stay up in the mountains at the Schwarzsee Hotel, a true mountain chalet at an altitude of 2,600 meters (8,530 feet). Otherwise, in town, I prefer the self-contained apartments at Casa Raposa. The rates are best when you book for at least a week. For the ultimate experience, I suggest booking a week at the casa followed by a few days up at the Schwarzsee.
Even though I have been going there each year for more than 12 years, there is still so much more I would like to see and do. At the top of the list is staying at the Iglu-Dorf Zermatt which is rebuilt each year. I have been there for mid-day ski breaks for a hot wine, but have never spent the night. They even have a whirlpool and fine dining. There are also basic accommodations at the top of Glacier Paradise. The list goes on and on, but it is my list. Go there and make your own.
by Adam Rogers