The horses were all set. The players were ready. As were the spectators, many of whom had arrived at the idyllic winter wonderland of St. Moritz, Switzerland, with soft fur coats and stylish moon boots. Everything was in place for the Snow Polo World Cup.
But the weather didn’t play along.
Because of high temperatures, the frozen lake of St. Moritz became too slushy and slippery for the horses to gallop. As a result, the event’s founder, Reto Gaudenzi, called off all matches for the 39th installment of the tournament which was held from Friday through Sunday, and resorted to three days of slower, more stationary penalty shootouts instead.
The event, which features a variation of polo played on packed snow atop the frozen lake surface, attracts thousands of people to St. Moritz, a luxury ski resort town, many from the highest echelons of the 1 percent. It is sponsored by companies selling private jets, exclusive retreats and top-shelf champagne, and included a gala dinner that the organizers described as “the hottest ticket in town.”
Organizers tried to keep an upbeat tone: “With the weather gods smiling, perhaps delivering too much sunshine in St. Moritz recently, the ice depth is good and completely safe,” they said in a statement. (While there was no risk of anybody falling through the ice, there was concern over horses falling on the ice.)
Temperatures had been well below freezing in recent weeks, but the week before the tournament they swung as high as 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. At night, temperatures dropped back below freezing, but not long enough to prevent puddles from forming on the frozen lake.
These temperatures were unusually high, if not unheard-of, for St. Moritz, which is about 6,000 feet above sea level.
“This is very mild for the mountain regions,” said Lionel Peyraud, a forecaster at Switzerland’s weather service, MeteoSwiss. “The air is really quite warm.”
The snow polo tournament still had about 25,000 visitors over three days, organizers said, with many of them wandering around the lake eating food, listening to music and drinking champagne despite the truncated competition.
“It’s the place to be,” Markus Berger, a spokesman for Switzerland Tourism, said, adding that part of the reason to attend was to “see and be seen.”
“It’s like a class reunion for many of them,” Mr. Berger said.
Late January is high season for winter tourism in the Swiss Alps. At the tiny Engadin Airport, which caters to private jets, about 25 jets landed and took off each day over the weekend, said Christian Gorfer, the airport’s chief financial officer and a native of the region.
“It’s crazy at the moment,” Mr. Gorfer said. “As an airport we have to look at the balance of movement and the environment.”
The tourism industry in Switzerland, which relies heavily on the winter holiday season, is well aware of climate change. Communities at lower altitudes, in particular, have been trying in recent years to find different means of income by attracting people for activities other than skiing.
But St. Moritz is high enough that the effects of climate change should not be felt as intensely yet, Mr. Berger said.
“I don’t know how the situation in St. Moritz will develop, if this is an exception or if this will become a new normal,” he said.
While the Snow Polo World Cup usually doesn’t receive a lot of mainstream media attention in Switzerland, the event’s problems were still meaningful for the rest of the country, Mr. Berger said, because it was all part of “the image of the Swiss winter.”
The next event on the frozen lake of St. Moritz is scheduled for this weekend: the White Turf horse race. Thousands of people attend the event, which is more than a century old and is held over three Sundays in February every year. But the White Turf could face the same issues that plagued the Snow Polo World Cup: Temperatures are expected to stay in the 40s Fahrenheit during the day this week, according to MeteoSwiss.
Despite the sunny skies and the relatively warm temperatures, Dennis Schiergen, the head of racing for the White Turf, expressed optimism that the race would be held. “Now the temperatures are quite stable and the lake is recovering,” he said.
On Friday, the first day of the snow polo tournament, Alessandra Fenyves, who was in St. Moritz both as a polo fan and as a freelance magazine journalist from Italy, said the atmosphere was different than in previous years. It was her seventh time there.
“It’s disappointing,” she said in a phone interview, adding that she had seen people leave the stands, which are usually packed. “It’s like when you switch off the music at a party and the waiter comes and takes away the last chips on the table.”