“Where is the skiing?”
It’s hardly the first question you want to ask when you arrive in a ski resort. But I’d been in the Swiss village of Saas-Fee for almost a day and hadn’t seen a single person sliding on snow.
So as I ascended from the valley floor on the AlpinExpress gondola, I felt nervous. I’d come to the Alps for the first time in summer to debunk the myths around skiing during the off season. But so far, I couldn’t shift the worry that I’d be left, quite literally, high and dry.
The fate of Europe’s snow-capped mountains is a hot topic of debate. At the end of last winter, the condition of Switzerland’s glaciers was described as “critical”, with reports that, if effective climate policies aren’t adopted, all glacial ice in the Alps could disappear by the end of the century. According to the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), summer 2023 was the hottest on record.
And while Saas-Fee has managed to operate a schedule of snow sports throughout the summer (from mid-July) on the Mittelallalin glacier, it’s one of only a handful of resorts to do so. In France, Les Deux Alpes and Tignes called it a day early in July, and Stubai, Austria shut down operations in May.
You can understand my apprehension, therefore, as, dressed head-to-toe in ski wear, I reached the Felskinn funicular station at 3,000m, still wondering where all the other skiers were.
I rode the final leg of the journey alone on the funicular train up to Mittelallalin, feeling it gain altitude as the temperature in the cabin dropped. And then, after puffing my way up a flight of stairs into the fresh air at 3,500m, I felt immediately relieved.
In front of me lay a wonderland of white, with the familiar dots of skiers carving tracks on the canvas. As I marched over the moraine to the snow line and clipped into my skis, I was energised with that familiar rush of excitement.
I also quickly realised the cause of my earlier anxiety – I was late to the party, despite it only just passing 9am. The glacier had been open since 7:30am and having underestimated the time it would take to ascend (40 minutes on three different lifts) I’d missed the morning rush.
The glacier is home to up to 80 international race teams each day, hosting up to 80,000 skier days in total over the summer. I rubbed shoulders in the lift queue with Italians, Chinese, Americans, Swiss and Germans, all decked out in their slinky race suits. I saw only a handful of other recreational visitors.
The racers’ presence was felt on the slopes too. There are 20km of pistes available, but during my visit, the majority were reserved with training gates. This left five empty pistes to enjoy. While, at first, I felt disheartened by the lack of terrain, the Metreo run (18), which began just below the Allalin summit, was a long and varied cruise, with ample opportunity to practise my technique. The red Allalin piste (19) was so immaculately groomed that for a split second, I fancied my chances against the racers.
As for the snow conditions, I was blessed. Just a matter of days before, the resort had received a healthy dump, which fell as low as the village at 1,800m. The high-altitude pistes were perfectly white. As the sun rose higher, they transitioned from compact corduroy to soft and forgiving – by which time, after three hours at altitude, it was time to call it a day – the glacier closed at 1pm to preserve the snow. Riding the T-bar back up the slopes before returning to the funicular, I smiled to myself, all too aware of how rare this opportunity could soon become.
A slower pace
With the midday sun high in the sky I wondered, “what now?” As a die-hard skier, when on a ski holiday, I rarely take a moment to slow down the pace. But in summer, with limited terrain and opening times, I had no option but to adopt a less gung-ho attitude.
Luckily, relaxation is the lifeblood of Waldhotel Fletschhorn, which sits on the outskirts of the resort, and was my base for the weekend. The 100-year-old lodge has 13 rooms and is accessed by an off-road track, navigated by private electric shuttle or on foot. The staff welcome guests like family and after changing into a summer wardrobe (temperatures of 24C in the valley were a stark contrast to 8C on the glacier) I was happy to relax and enjoy a glass or two from the hotel’s 9,000-strong wine cellar.
Beyond the terrace, the Saastal valley is the hotel’s own private painting – the panoramic views were mesmerising in the afternoon sunshine. Seeking shade I strolled slowly through the forest in the company of squirrels into the car-free village. Without its winter coat, I was able to see every charming detail of this picture-postcard bolthole – where wonky wooden chalets line the streets and in summer lush green lawns roll up the hillside.
That evening, I continued my new slower-paced approach as the sun set and the surrounding peaks were alight with Alpenglow. A five-course taster menu – starring tender cuts of local beef – was prepared with a smile by chef Nuno and paired with more treats from the cellar, all sourced from the Swiss Valais region.
More than just skiing
Intrigued by the mountain world presented to me beyond the pistes – and with skiing complete by lunchtime again on my second day – I enlisted the help of Michi Schwarzl, a local mountaineer from Saas-Fee Guides, to complete the resort’s Alpin Gorge experience.
The via ferrata course descends the Fee gorge from Saas-Fee to Saas-Grund, as the river roars with glacial water below. Split into three sections, the route combined a Tarzan swing, and multiple ziplines, including a drop into a cave, plus rope ladders and rock scrambling. After three hours, I’d forgotten I’d come to the resort to go skiing – it was the most fun I’ve ever had in a ski resort off the snow.
As we traversed the Alpine meadows back to the village, a circle of 4,000m peaks above us, I revelled in the endless surprises I’d discovered in the mountains in summer.
Lucy was a guest of Waldhotel Fletschhorn and Saas-Fee Tourism. Double rooms cost from CHF 195 per room per night, B&B, in summer (fletschhorn.ch). Summer ski lift passes cost from CHF 79 per day with a Saastal card, provided to guests staying in local hotels.
Equipment hire from Sport-Art Saas Fee (sport-art.ch) costs from CHF 42 per day.
A three-hour Gorge Alpin experience with Saas-Fee guides (saasfeeguides.com) costs from CHF 130 per person, for groups up to 10. Flights with SWISS start from £54 one-way from London to Geneva (swiss.com).
The Swiss Travel Pass offers unlimited train and bus across Switzerland during your stay, prices start from £210 (myswitzerland.com/swisstravelsystem).