November 11, 2008 / 1:44 PM / 10 years ago

Skiing starts early at Switzerland's highest resorts

ZERMATT, Switzerland (Reuters Life!) - Switzerland’s highest Alpine resorts are enjoying a very early ski season start, with runs and lifts open a month earlier than last year.

“The impression is very good. We have had an early winter,” said Helge Von Giese of Zermatt, a sprawling ski station just below the famed Matterhorn peak pictured on Toblerone chocolate.

It is possible to ski year-round on parts of the glacier at Zermatt, whose highest lift stretches to 3,883 meters (12,740 feet). But plentiful November snowfall prompted the resort to open up large sections of skiable domain weeks early, including a run linking it to the Italian resort of Cervinia.

“It is very early. Last year we opened it at the end of December,” spokeswoman Von Giese said. “We already have the possibility to ski 6 km (3.7 miles) into the Italian side.”

On the mountain, skiers and snowboarders expressed delight and disbelief about conditions in the early season.

“I can’t believe it’s early November,” said Bruce Boyd, a New Zealander who lives in Geneva and snowboards regularly in the area. “I didn’t expect so much to be open.”

While smaller ski resorts will need to wait weeks longer to open, fresh snow high in the mountains has given an edge to the large, high-altitude facilities whose peak season is normally January to March.

Verbier, a Valais-region resort known for its well-heeled clientele, opened up its top section last weekend.

“There were many people and everybody was happy,” spokesman Pierre-Yves Deleze said. “The weather was excellent, with blue skies and sunshine, and the snow conditions were good.”

Economic stormclouds could cause people to book shorter ski holidays, or spend less money on food and drink on the hill, but should not pinch overall visitor numbers, Deleze said.

“People are keen to ski,” he said. “If the conditions are good again this winter, people will still be on the slopes.”

St. Moritz in Eastern Switzerland opened part of its resort on October 18. “It is the first time we are open that early,” said spokeswoman Sara Roloss.

And at Saas Fee, which like its neighbor Zermatt offers summer skiing on parts of its highest runs, spokeswoman Stephanie Bellward said there was 40 km (25 miles) of terrain now open.

Bookings for the key Christmas and New Year periods were generally made in September — before the financial crisis erupted — and are on par with 2007. “For the rest of the season we might have a slowdown, but we need to wait,” she said.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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