European skiers ask ‘where's the snow?’

/ Source: The Associated Press

At many ski resorts across Europe, there's more mud than snow.

World Cup race courses are flanked by dead, brown grass. Tourists twirl umbrellas in the streets rather than clump around in ski boots.

The telephone hot lines at Europe's ski resorts have gone cold. Those who bother to call are most often greeted with depressing news of high temperatures and lack of snow.

"No winter sports are possible again today,'' is the recorded message on the "snowphone'' for Oberhof - a top German training area for ski jumping, bobsled and biathlon.

"With the current warm climate it's very clear that things have become completely crazy,'' says the Meteo France national weather service recording. "We're in winter and the temperature in the valleys is the equivalent of the end of March.''

Tourism in the Alps is crucial for the European economy, with up to 80 million tourists and 160 million ski days in Austria, France, Switzerland and Germany each year.

Though a few lucky areas have snow, for the majority the situation is bleak. Much of Europe has seen record-high temperatures in January.

In France, it's been raining at altitudes of 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) and most ski resorts are below that. Only a few high-altitude stations - such as Tignes, Alpe d'Huez and La Plagne - are escaping the depressing drizzle.

Tourist offices say February hotel bookings at French resorts are down, with only 40-60 percent of rooms reserved so far.

The French are booking ski holidays at the last minute. Many are opting instead for sunny destinations like North Africa or the Antilles.

In Chamonix, one of the world's top off-piste destinations, temperatures this week reached 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit) at 1,000 meters. Only 60-65 percent of the resort's recreational pistes are open.

Lean on snow and unable to make more on its World Cup course because of mild temperatures, Chamonix was forced to hand over its races to another French resort, Val d'Isere, which itself lost races earlier in the season.

Hotel bookings at Swiss resorts have not been affected because tourists are lured by the sunny weather in the mountains, even if they can't ski, Swiss Tourism said.

In fact, ski resort restaurants, bars and pubs are thriving. The food and dining industry in the ski-rich Graubunden canton enjoyed a 10 percent increase in sales.

However, daily lift ticket sales dipped slightly compared to last year.

"Tourists are still booking. They trust there will be snow soon,'' said Swiss Tourism spokesman Roger Waber. "Of course that could all change. Tourists could start canceling their reservations if there's still no snow the next two weeks.''

Less than 40 percent of slopes were open at the posh resort of Gstaad, Switzerland - known as "The Beverly Hills of the Alps'' and a hot spot for celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Roger Moore and Paris Hilton.

At Wengen - a World Cup host this week - organizers scrapped a men's super-combination race Friday after the famous downhill course was damaged by rain. A fragile 4.5-kilometer (2.8-mile) white stripe that snakes down the Lauberhorn mountain, the piste is flanked by endless blankets of grass and thick healthy green moss on either side.

Ski, snowboard and toboggan rentals at the drizzly resort have dropped 25-30 percent the last couple of weeks, said Markus Zumbuehl, owner of the Alpia Sport shop.

"The hotels are full because of the races but it's vital for the village that the races go ahead. They're an important commercial for us,'' Zumbuehl said.

Some World Cup venues can't decide where to make snow first. Logic says the recreational ski pistes but races receive wide television coverage in Europe. Caling off the races can lead to a rash of ski vacation cancellations.

Low-altitude Kitzbuehel, Austria, home of the famous Hahnenkamm races, is also suffering. Mountain operators have banned public use of the race slope to preserve the snow there for the Jan. 26-28 races. The event is in danger of being moved to St. Moritz, Switzerland, where colder weather has allowed snowmaking.

At Spindleruv Mlyn, snow is almost nonexistent.

So Czech adventure outfit Yellow Point earlier this season came up with "No Snow passes'' - which it is now optimistically renaming "Apres-Ski Pass'' - offering non-winter pursuits such as zorbing (rolling down a slope inside an inflatable balloon) and bridging (crossing a 220-meter or 700-foot rope bridge over the village dam).

"There's no snow,'' Yellow Point director Ales Koca said. "Skiing is possible only on three slopes but it's not good. So we needed to come up with something else for people to do.''

In the Italian Alps, where dandelions were sprouting over the holidays, resorts are relying on artificial snow.

At Cortina d'Ampezzo, a popular ski resort in northeast Italy, 61 of 68 runs were open Friday.

"We had very little snow in early December and since then, it hasn't snowed,'' said Gianfranco Talamini, director of a Skipass office in Cortina.

Snowmaking cannons should allow the women's World Cup events to go ahead Jan. 19-21.

However, the freestyle world championships in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy, scheduled for January, were postponed until March because there's no snow.

Though poor Oberhof is suffering, farther south in Germany, the Bavarian resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen is coping even if conditions are not optimal and cross-country trails have been closed.

Many alpine enthusiasts are finding joy at the Zugspitze, the country's highest peak.

"It's reminiscent of early-year skiing. Temperatures are now like they normally are in March,'' said Eve-Marie Greimel, spokeswoman for area ski operator Bayerische Zugspitzbahn.