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FOUR SEASONS: SNOW GRAFFITI

Published in The Scotsman (TSMag) 23 January 2010

FROM the point of view of the UK snowsports industry, the story of this winter’s Big Freeze has been the massive financial boost it’s given the nation’s ski resorts. From Glencoe to the Lecht, skier numbers are up up up, as people who would normally go to the Alps to ski suddenly realise there’s much better snow to be had just a few miles from home. But there’s another story emerging from the chilly depths of the last few of weeks – one you probably won’t have seen covered much in the newspapers or on TV – and that’s the substantial number of skiers and snowboarders who have been heading off into the hills under their own steam, often enjoying world class descents in places that rarely get enough snow to make them worth the effort; perhaps sometimes even in places that have never been skied before.

Of course, nobody charges you anything for parking your car in a lonely lay-by, trekking up a nameless hillside and then sliding down it, so there’s no way of knowing how many of these backcountry warriors have been active in Scotland since the snow started falling just before Christmas. But they’re out there all right, and like a gang of inadvertent graffiti artists they’ve been drawing beautiful lines all over the landscape for the last month, creating a giant, constantly evolving public art project, albeit one best viewed from the air.

Like graffiti artists, these people realise the lines they’ve drawn are ephemeral – that sooner or later someone (or something) will come along and paint over them – so it’s hardly surprising that, in common with their can-slinging brethren, they often choose to document their artworks online. Various forums exist, but there’s no better way of checking out the latest mountainside doodles than by visiting www.winterhighland.info, a Scottish mountain sports website with a dedicated “Touring & Backcountry Reports” section anyone can add to.

Here you’ll find words and pictures from Ross, of Moffat, who skied Hart Fell on Christmas Eve; from Helen, who found “deep unconsolidated powder” and “tussocks” on Beinn a Bheurlaich near Inverness on 27 December; and from Al Todd and Dave Mitchell, who took on the peaks around Glen Lyon in Perthshire in “bitterly cold minus 17C” two days later.

You’ll also find a spectacular post from Iain Low, Gordie and Blair Fraser and Henry, George and Magnus Chaplin, who took a trip from the top of Cairngorm into the fearsome, steep-sided amphitheatre of Coire an’t Sneachda on 9 January. Their trip is notable for the fact that, judging by the pictures, Blair, George and Magnus all seem to be exceptionally young to be tackling such a serious trip. Names to look out for in the future, perhaps.

Some of the posts on Winter Highland really make you wish you’d been there – and yes, I’m talking about you, members of the Eagle Ski Club, who scored “proper powder” on Meall Ghaordaidh in Perthshire on 30 December. Inevitably, though, some don’t. Big respect to Jurassic, Shuzzy and Es, the three snowboarders who tried to ride the Cobbler on 3 January – it’s an iconic mountain and I’m glad somebody had the balls to give it a go. I don’t envy them their “hard, windblown slabby snow near the top,” though, or the “grass boarding” and “comedy crashes” at the bottom.

But that’s the beauty of the Winter Highland site: it’s not just another means of bragging to anyone who’ll listen after a perfect day on the hill (although obviously there’s an element of that). It’s really about sharing the thrill of the chase. Backcountry skiers and boarders are all looking for the same thing: that deep sense of satisfaction that comes from spying some promising-looking contour lines on a map, then obsessively checking the weather forecast for days, slogging through knee deep snow for hours and, finally, for a few precious minutes, drawing the line of your dreams. Or, if things don’t quite work out, finding yourself grass boarding down the side of the Cobbler. In a way, the pay-off doesn’t really matter – it’s the journey that counts.

Sorry, scrap that, of course it’s the pay-off that counts. I’ve spent the last couple of weekends exploring the snowboarding potential of the Pentland Hills outside Edinburgh, and, frankly, I’ve come to need those pay-offs like a junkie needs a hit. The picture to the right was taken in a little bowl so on the beaten track it’s practically on Princes Street, yet at time of writing, it’s still hardly been touched. I never thought I’d say it, but on their day the Pentlands can be as good as anywhere. And if you won’t take my word for it, visit www.wildernessscotland.smugmug.com and check out Ski Touring guide Paul Easto’s account of what he dubbed The Pentlands Haute Route. One picture is captioned “Aspen? Megeve? No, it has to be the Pentlands.”

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