Piste extent update: comparable figures remain a distant hope

27th October 2015, by Chris Gill

Ischgl now conveys the extent of its pistes in three ways

Ischgl now conveys the extent of its pistes in three ways

Since the start of Where to Ski and Snowboard 21 years ago, we’ve expressed doubts about the claimed extent of the pistes in some major Alpine resorts, and in recent years we’ve taken positive steps to challenge some of the figures – notably in 2010, when we said publicly that the Monterosa Ski piste total was overstated by 100%.

In 2013, German writer and consultant Christoph Schrahe started publishing the results of his own measurements of pistes, using digital techniques – first in German newspapers, and then in a detailed report published by his own consultancy. The report gave measurements of the slopes of all the big resorts, and confirmed that most of them overstated the extent of their pistes, often by surprising amounts.
In September 2013, in our 2014 edition, we brought these two strands together in a feature article which triggered media attention abroad as well as in the UK.

Some resorts are no doubt blissfully ignorant of all this, and some have no doubt decided to carry on regardless. But some have responded, as have some industry bodies, and last year we reported concrete progress towards the ideal of properly comparable piste extent figures. This year there are again some positive developments, but also a worrying development that some resorts are introducing an alternative measurement of pistes in terms of hectares, which makes comparisons with resorts that quote km impossible.

Previously on ‘piste extent update’
Until we came to prepare our original feature article two years back, it had not occurred to us that there might be more than one way of measuring the length of a piste. We assumed that you would simply measure the piste down the centre line, following the curves of the piste but not deviating from that centre line. This ‘centre line’ approach is how Christoph Schrahe measures pistes, and it is how the FIS measures race courses.

But one of the key things we then discovered is that many resorts claim to justify their figures on the basis that what matters is the distance the skier travels. On most pistes, the thinking goes, skiers execute turns; they therefore follow a path that is longer than the centre-line length of the piste; and this longer path gives a more meaningful figure than the simple measured length. Conveniently it is also a bigger, more impressive figure.

For example, the Grand Massif area (Flaine and neighbours) assumes that your track down the mountain is a continuous series of linked semicircles. So instead of skiing 10m down the line of the piste you ski a semicircle with a diameter of 10m; the distance travelled, as any primary school pupil could tell you, is 10 x pi/2. So to get the ‘linked semicircles’ length the centre line length is multiplied by pi/2 or 1.57 – ie adding 57%.

We don’t go along with this. Different skiers behave differently – what is a schuss to editor Watts, for example, would have many less competent skiers turning furiously. Different runs require different techniques – there are some runs that even a novice will go straight down. And if you do short turns, your feet are following a wiggly line but your head is not. We also think most skiers would intuitively expect pistes to be measured along the centre line. But the real problem is consistency: some resorts use the centre line figure, some add 57%, some add larger or smaller amounts. So comparisons between resorts are impossible.

Resorts and industry bodies are responding to the pressure for clear, sensible and comparable information about their slopes in various ways, which we’ll now summarize.

The official position
In the wake of the publicity generated by Christoph Schrahe’s work, the associations of lift companies in Austria, Switzerland and Germany reached agreement on recommendations to their members. On the fundamental question, these were clear – the length is to be measured down the centre line of the piste. These recommendations (also covering matters such as how to deal with pistes that split or join part-way down) were adopted by FIANET, the international association of ropeway operators, at its congress in October 2013. But they remain simply recommendations, which lift companies can adopt or ignore, as they choose. Broadly, they have turned out to be a waste of time.

Certified sane
Major Austrian resorts dominated the very short list of areas with claimed piste km figures that closely matched Christoph Schrahe’s original measurements, and in the past year Schrahe has developed the enterprising idea of building on that by offering to ‘certify’ the figures published by such resorts. So far, Kitzbühel and Saalbach-Hinterglemm have signed up. We are delighted to see this happening, and we are supporting the scheme in the 2016 book by displaying in the relevant chapters Schrahe’s ‘seal of approval’ (shown in the margin on the left). We hope to see more resorts taking up Schrahe’s offer, and not only in Austria. To be honest, right now this is the main glimmer of hope for the future.

Stepping in the right direction
As we reported in our original feature two years ago, the Austrian national association of lift companies was quick to issue guidelines about piste measurement, and by the start of the 2013/14 season some resorts had taken action. The Zillertal resorts cut their claim for the whole valley from 666km to 487km; Mayrhofen cut its claim from 159km to 133km; more radically, Hochzillertal cut its claim from 181km to 88km.

Since then, disappointingly little of significance has happened. Another Austrian area, Serfaus-Fiss, which previously had claimed about 50% more than Schrahe’s measurement, cut its claim radically and with 160km now almost matches the reality.

Area of concern
While some resorts are coming clean, others are heading in a different direction and starting to quote hectares instead of km of slopes – representing areas of piste, or areas of skiable terrain, or simply areas of ground within the lift network, skiable or not. This, of course, prevents comparisons with resorts that are sticking with km, and we view it as a backward step. It also opens up the question of how they measure their areas and yet another problem of inconsistency between resorts.

But, handily, Schrahe’s new report includes the overall area of the 100 biggest linked ski areas in the world. In Europe, where ski areas do not have the boundaries that are standard in North America, this is quite tricky, but his results are very much what we would expect – the Sella Ronda in Italy and the Three Valleys in France come out way bigger than anything else.
Les Deux-Alpes already offers 415 ha of groomed slopes – a figure that is meaningless to us, and presumably to you. But on its piste map it also continues to advertise ‘220km of slide’ – 65% more than Schrahe’s figure. This season, we are told, Serre-Chevalier will not quote a km figure but will claim 410 ha of groomed pistes and a total area of 3,900 ha; Schrahe makes it 2,300 ha. Meanwhile, the latest piste map we have on file from Val d’Isère-Tignes slips in the unexplained ‘10,000 ha’ – equivalent to a square 10km by 10km. Schrahe makes it 4,300 ha. At which point, we begin to despair.

Choose your own figure
In the wake of the Schrahe report, the area shared by Austrian Ischgl and Swiss Samnaun started publishing three alternative figures based on three different measuring methods.

238km – method a – the track a skier might follow; much like the Grand Massif figure explained earlier
172km – method b – the centre line length; the approach taken by Schrahe
163km – method c – the length as you would measure it on a map; the lowest figure, because the length measured down the slope (method b) is of course slightly more than the length measured horizontally.

This is all admirably comprehensive, but is confined to a backwater page on the Ischgl website that resort geeks will find but no one else will. When Ischgl wants to make a clear offer, it still falls back on the exaggerated 238km – now supported, on its website, by ‘515 ha piste area’. So you have four figures to choose from.

Sorting out this mess
We say again: inflating the length of runs by making assumptions about how skiers behave is ludicrous. But what matters is that pistes should be measured in a standard way. Given that centre-line measurement is now recommended by the international association of ropeway operators, that’s what all resorts should adopt.

This year Christoph Schrahe has produced a new and greatly expanded edition of his report, covering the top 100 ski areas and considering more aspects. Ski resort obsessives can get a copy for 99 euros – email schrahe@ski-weltweit.de.

Big numbers
Claimed total / measured total / % by which these top ski areas overstate their km, according to Schrahe

Three Valleys
600 / 495 / 21%

Les Arcs-La Plagne
425 / 383 / 11%

Sella Ronda
365 / 310 / 18%

Portes du Soleil
300 / 265 / 13%
Excludes Morzine and Les Gets; this is a very complex area where there are various ways of arriving at a claimed figure

360 / 257 / 40%

Milky Way
400 / 252 / 59%

Val d’Isère-Tignes
300 / 236 / 27%

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