Thursday, March 3, 2016

Relaax @ Flims Laax Falera

Flims Laax Falera is in the Graubunden region in southeastern Switzerland, about 12 miles away from the small city of Chur and 84 from Zurich.

It's actually three villages in a row–F-L-F–and on March 2, 2016 I left on the gondola from the first one, Flims Village, which sits at about 3200 ft. or 1100 meters above sea level. The vast and breathtaking Laax terrain goes all the way to the Vorab Glacier at 9900 ft. or 3018 meters.

Skiing down the "moonscape" or terrain below the glacier
From a flat forested area named Plaun (nearby a cool nordic track, btw), I took another chair to Crap Sogn Gion, a station at 2228 meters (7309 ft.). A bit of background on the word "Crap" on the trail map, which I heard some Brits chuckling about. Crap is a Romansch word for stone or rock, so these are "holy rocks" or sites named centuries ago when the Romans had strongholds (or strangleholds, more like) in the Alps, as in St. John's Rock. At least according to a Swiss friend with roots in Graubunden. Cool, huh?

The weather was better than expected, so I wanted to make sure I took a "marquee run" from the area's high point, before I left. That took a powder run down to Alp Dado, and then another chair to Crest la Siala at 7600 ft. From here is a nice run down to Fuorcia, where a small cable car called a bergbahnen hauls the skiers to the bottom of the Vorab glacier.

Take the t-bar up and ski the glacier from 9900 feet
The bergbahnen takes you over what I'd describe as a snow-covered lava field or moonscape; enigmatic terrain that was downright spooky when it was enveloped in mist the day before.

Not today. The sun was fairly strong on the slopes, through wispy clouds.

From Vorab, a t-bar takes you to the top of the glacier at about 10000 feet. The ski down is easy, a kind of blue piste that kids can do safely. Yet off to the side I found plenty of powder to augment the desire to ski an alpine glacier.

But I wouldn't venture too far, because glaciers have crevasses, even "civilized" glaciers like this one. In fact, a glacier doesn't know whether it has a t-bar and a groomed piste on it; it just does what glaciers do. Just including this so skiers and riders don't go too far in their glee.

The skiing was even better going over that "lava field," a kind of rolling, high plateau covered in untracked powder. It felt nice to silently swoop over that unusual, low-angled terrain. The off-piste near Crap Masegn (2477 meters or about 8130 ft.) was also very good. Then I ended the day by skiing all the way back to Plaun (pronounced like "brown"), a leg banger which made the stange (the beer), outdoors in the sun at Plaun, taste all the more savory.

Flims is a busy cluster of chalets and hotels but quiet, when I was there
For someone who'd never skied at any of the uber euro resorts like Verbier or Ishgl, I'd say for the American skier, Laax is definitely a skier's mountain. Get a clear day and you can cruise wide open alpine slopes surrounded by miraculous views. The place has to be seen to be believed, if you catch it in the sun.

There are thousands of acres of fresh tracks and bowls and mountain flanks to challenge any skier or rider. You can ski all the way back to Flims dorf, or the villages of Laax or Falera, if that's the way you want to cap off your day.

About half a meter of snow was forecast for the week I was there; snow is likely to be plentiful, even though it might appear as rain in the towns.

One more thing. For the overnight I made a last-minute rez on booking.com and got a pretty good deal at the Hotel Adula, with a great included Swiss breakfast and "sauna garden." These are different sauna variations followed by a cold room with a spray; it's a great combination for the banged up athlete. Talk about "chilled" and uber relaxed!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Global Warming, Skiing, And Water Resources

Climate change causes a long-term erosion of the snowpack, particularly at low-elevations, such as 5K feet above sea level (ASL) and below.

The recent science bears it out. This post discusses the findings by perhaps the leading snow researchers in the world, the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF). In Switzerland, up to 90 percent of the local economies in alpine villages depend on ski tourism. I have skied at Laax and Flumserberg, which are thriving, yet both of these vast areas have high alpine slopes (8K ASL up to 10K ASL) that receive generous snowfalls, while the valleys have rain.

The first photo shows the snow line in Feb. 2016 in eastern Switzerland. When you look around the Alps, the low-altitude ski areas in winter look like glaciers that are melting back. There are rocks and grass that used to be reliably covered in snow.

Obviously, there are still big winters happening and in the offing (that's true in Colorado, Montana, and Vermont, USA, too), but neither is it all that difficult to spot the climate-warming trend line over time.

The SLF, ever cautious scientists, do not say that "global warming is causing it," but they do attribute the huge decline in snow days in the Alps to "rising temperatures" as opposed to less precipitation.

One SLF report compared snow days in the 40 years between 1948 and 1987, with the 20 years from 1988 and 2007. The findings were stark; a 54% drop in snow days in the northern Alps in the lower altitudes between 201 and 800 meters above sea level (up to 2600 feet), and a 42 percent decline in snow days in alpine areas up to 4265 feet or 1300 meters.

They found a lesser decline, but still statistical, in the higher elevations.

You can check out the scientific report yourself:  (http://www.slf.ch/ueber/mitarbeiter/homepages/marty/publications/Marty2008_RegimeShift.pdf).

The second photo shows my view through a fence at 8K above sea level, in February 2016 in the Alps. Even at 8,000 feet, large regions of green, alpine mountainside are visible. Of course, this is literally only a snapshot of the Alps in winter, but it is an example or emblematic of the nature of a warmer trend that has emerged of late.


2015 was the warmest year on record worldwide, 2016 is on track to break that record, and roughly a dozen of the hottest years have taken place since 2000, according to researchers.

As a layman, I've noticed the change in my home ground of northern New England, where most of the mountains are well below 5K feet, and in Switzerland, where I've been coming for 25 years.

In the Alps, the climate situation has created an amazingly diverse array of activities, where you can ride your mountainbike pleasantly on a February morning by the green-bordered lake, followed by a great powder ski at 8K feet ASL.

But that's a double-edged sword, because some village economies are highly dependent on visitors to low-altitude ski resorts, which are becoming like an endangered species.

The only solution for ski resorts is to diversify the activities they offer way beyond the snow-related ones (which many do anyways), because consistent, snowy winters may already be a thing of the past.

Lift-served skiing, of course, isn't the most important thing in the world. Snow is a critical stored water source for millions of people throughout the world. Civilizations need water from rivers, and have built their living systems such as agriculture around the dependable spring run-off.

When snow falls as rain in February, or the snowpack melts away partially or completely, these food and hydrology related systems are disrupted or destroyed.

The Himalayan glaciers, for example, which provide water for giant rivers that help feed hundreds of millions of people, are melting back in the rising heat. "In the Ganges, the Yellow, and the Yangtze river basins, where irrigated agriculture depends heavily on rivers, this loss of dry-season flow will shrink harvests." (http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/08/asia/brown.htm)

Obviously, the happiness  and expectations of skiers, and their associated small villages, pales in importance next to the depletion of major water sources for heavily populated regions of India and China.

We humans need to alter our frame of mind to think long-term, as snow at several different elevations becomes an "endangered species."

More articles:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/nov/07/snow-climate-change-effect-on-skiing
http://www.grida.no/news/press/1616.aspx
http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/08/asia/brown.htm
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/17/2016-set-to-be-hottest-year-on-record-globally