Roger Cox: Some ski resorts are taking the piste

A skier at CairnGorm Mountain. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

A skier at CairnGorm Mountain. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

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Dave Watts and Chris Gill are like the Starsky and Hutch of the skiing world, seeking out injustice, protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty.

They may not have a red-and-white Ford Gran Torino, but they do have a 700-page guidebook, Where to Ski and Snowboard, painstakingly revised and updated every winter, and unlike the majority of travel hacks they aren’t afraid to upset the gravy train from time to time and deliver a few uncomfortable home truths.

For a while now, Watts and Gill have been investigating the way some ski resorts appear to exaggerate the total length of their pistes. Back in 2011 they looked at some maps, crunched some numbers and wondered why the people running the Italian resort of Monterosa claimed to have approximately twice as many kilometres of groomed runs as they actually had. They also did some digging at another Italian resort – Courmayeur – and asked why its website and promotional literature claimed it had 100km of pistes when the real figure appeared to be significantly smaller.

Monterosa realised the game was up and more-or-less halved its headline figure, cutting it from 135km to 73km. Courmayeur, meanwhile, wrapped itself in tautological knots by trying to argue that its 100km figure consisted of 36km of pisted runs and 64km of off-piste runs – that is to say, 64km of their pistes are actually un-pisted pistes or, er, non-pistes. By Courmayeur’s logic, Mount Everest has more pistes than any other ski resort in the world. It’s not great for beginners though, and the dining options are limited by the number of sherpas you can afford to carry your supplies up the hill and how skilful you are at eating fondue in a hurricane.

Anyway, now it turns out Watts and Gill aren’t the only super-sleuths to have been working on the mystery of the dodgy piste measurements. A German writer and consultant called Christoph Schrahe – I like to think of him as more of a fastidious, Poirot-type figure – recently used fancy digital wingdings to measure the pistes of the world’s 50 biggest ski areas. One resort, Schladming, in Austria, actually claimed to have less than the total Schrahe arrived at. Kitzbuhel, bless it, was right on the money with its claim of 164km, and a couple of other resorts had figures that were very similar to Schrahe’s. The rest? Well, the rest have been anywhere from a little bit naughty (seven per cent over Schrahe’s figure) to breathtakingly stupid (more than 150 per cent over Schrahe’s figure).

In the newly-published 2014 edition of their guide, Watts and Gill provide a handy list of “saints and sinners” in this regard. Topping the hall of shame with a staggering maths fail of 152 per cent: Vars in France. Second, on 123 per cent: Isola 2000, also in France. And third, on 120 per cent: Verbier’s Four Valleys in Switzerland.

For many skiers and snowboarders, the total length of pistes available at a given resort isn’t that big a deal. Freestylers will only really care about the park setups, beginners will be more concerned about the number of green runs while freeriders will be more interested in those “un-pisted pistes” the folks at Courmayeur seem so keen on. (I’ve sampled some of their non-pistes and they’re wonderful – just not very... pisted.)

For the majority of skiers, though, a skiing holiday simply means cruising around on pre-prepared trails, admiring the scenery and chowing down on tasty foreign food. For these people, a resort’s total piste length is a good indicator of the extent and variety of runs they can expect, so kudos to Watts, Gill, Herr Schrahe and his little grey cells for catching the creative piste accountants red-handed.

If you’re planning a ski trip to the Alps or the Rockies, Where to Ski and Snowboard 2014 is an indispensable guide, but it’s not so hot when it comes to more exotic locations. Japan, for example, with its epic snow conditions and hundreds of resorts, only merits two pages. Scotland, meanwhile, is dealt with on a rather perfunctory single page. One of our plus points, apparently, is that we’re “easy to get to from northern Britain.” Who knows – by this time next year that statement might make a bit more sense.

Twitter: @outdoorscots

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