I returned in January this year with my family to see how it was readying itself for this potentially seismic shift. Perhaps it was because of the post-Christmas lull, perhaps because it was buried in snow, but for now it still felt like the backwater it had always been. When we arrived, the roadsides were already flanked in huge banks of snow, and it kept coming, the constant fall of soft flakes muffling sounds and swallowing road signs, cars and any skis left outside cafés for more than a few minutes. Standing beside Frantze I heard a loud crack as a big branch fell from a tree, no longer able to bear the weight of snow.
Francesca had had a baby but still hadn’t been to Zermatt. “Like all big changes, there’s a bit of enthusiasm and a bit of fear,” she told me (about the lifts, not the baby). “People who come to Champoluc now like it because people in the cafés recognise them from one year to another. It’s quiet, there are no queues, there’s a real village life. If it becomes much bigger and busier, some people might be put off, but on the other hand it could be a great opportunity for the future generation.”
Champoluc is not chocolate-box pretty like some Swiss resorts — the centre is a mix of old and new — but strict controls on second homes have kept the apartment blocks at bay, and that sense of village life is beguiling. The women in Dolce e Salato, the café next to our hotel, befriended our kids, amused by their insistence on eating ice cream, outside, even as the snow fell hard. At lunchtime in Lo Bistrot, the waiters happily shifted tables around so that we could cram in, pushchair, wet anoraks and all. “In a big resort in France, you feel like a walking wallet,” said Ivan Munari, who runs the Tako ski-hire shop. “But here if you go into a restaurant, you don’t find seasonal employees, you find the owner, and he wants you to come back with your friends.”
The kids played with sledges on the nursery slope in the village, or in the playground where only the highest tip of the climbing frame remained visible, while we took turns to head up the mountain. I blasted down some wide, deserted blue pistes, then headed into the trees, where the powder lay as deep as anything I’ve found in Utah or British Columbia. When it was time to get warm, I stopped for a bombardino — hot brandy, eggnog and cream — at Stadel Soussun, a 500-year-old chalet in a forest glade.
We were staying with Inghams — one of the few international tour operators to come to the village — at the Hotel Champoluc, where the rooms are big (most with terraces), the food good and the location unbeatable, right beside the piste and the main Crest ski lift. Down in the older part of the village, I stopped at the Hotel Castor, family-owned and run since 1900 and full of atmosphere. Behind the bar, I found Herman Buchan, a Briton who married the great-granddaughter of the founders (“I fell in love — I never expected to get a hotel!”), and who was a councillor and president of the local hoteliers association when the plan for the new lift connection was formed. “They’ve been talking about it for 50 years,” he said. “But things are different now — the snowline is going up every year.”
At a conference five years ago, stakeholders from the Champoluc valley discussed the effects of climate change and options for the future. “One idea was we could cultivate potatoes and carrots and end up trying to promote local products. The other was that we could take the skiing up high.”
Champoluc sits at just under 1,600m; the highest piste of Monterosa Ski (the existing area shared between Champoluc, Gressoney and Alagna) is 3,275m. Zermatt’s highest piste — also the highest in the Alps — starts at 3,883m, and its glaciers allow skiing even in midsummer.
If the advantages are clear, the timetable is less so. A feasibility study has been completed, referenda have been held in all the communities concerned (and have come back in favour) and the regional Aosta government has voiced support, but there is still no firm start date or agreement over financing. Giorgio Munari, president of Monterosa Ski, told me he thought it would be five years before the lift opened. Already, though, there are signs of new investment. Camp Zero, Champoluc’s first five-star hotel, is due to open in December, and the slow and ageing Crest cable car has been renewed over the summer.