ROGER COX Gallery images

SCOTLAND: A BACKCOUNTRY GUIDE

Published: The Scotsman (Sporting Scotland Supplement) 27 December 2010

IN THE spring of 2009, skiing in Scotland seemed to be on the verge of extinction. A succession of mild winters had seen the number of skiable days per year decline alarmingly, even at the highest resorts, while the advent of budget airlines made foreign ski trips an irresistible alternative. But then the winter of 2009/10 happened, and everything changed. Scotland received more snow than it’d had in decades, and for a couple of magical days in the middle of March, Glencoe briefly topped the world snowfall charts, ahead of big name resorts in the Alps and the Rockies. Of course, Scotland’s five commercial ski hills – Glencoe and Nevis Range in the west and Cairngorm, Glenshee and the Lecht in the east – all cleaned up financially, as thousands of skiers flocked to their slopes, but that was only part of the picture. When the weather changed, the skiing map of Scotland changed with it as the abundance of snow turned almost every hill into a potential sliding opportunity.
After a decade of honing their skills on mostly foreign mountainsides, Scottish skiers awoke one chilly morning to discover that they didn’t need to book a flight to somewhere exotic to live out their backcountry fantasies – they didn’t even need to go to one of the Scottish ski resorts – there was more than enough white stuff on the hill just down the road. All they needed to do to access it was either attach sticky skins to the bottoms of their skis or strap their snowboards to their backs and start climbing.
Websites like www.winterhighland.com, which encourage outdoors enthusiasts to post details of their adventures online, suddenly started to see backcountry skiing reports arriving from unusual places – from the Borders, home to some great ski touring in the right conditions; from Tinto Hill in South Lanarkshire; and from some long-forgotten ski fields of yesteryear, such as Ben Lawers in Perthshire.
Last winter was supposed to be a blip, a freak occurrence, but at the time of writing the winter of 2010/11 is shaping up to be another cold one – which is great news for anyone with a yen to go exploring off the beaten track.
When the conditions are right, Scotland is home to literally hundreds of great backcountry ski areas – so many, in fact, that it would be futile to try to list them all here. As you’d expect, the most famous routes are concentrated in the Cairngorms and around Ben Nevis, where snow can be relied on for most of the winter and into the spring. But although these areas may provide the most spectacular and challenging descents, they are by no means the be-all and end all. The following list draws attention to a few less obvious areas, mostly neglected by skiers and snowboarders in recent years, which – if our winters stay cold and snowy into the next decade – may be about to come into their own.

BACK WHERE IT ALL BEGAN: BEN LAWERS
Long before Scotland’s first proper ski resort opened at Glencoe in 1956, Ben Lawers, just north of Killin, was the centre of the Scottish skiing universe. In 1932, the Scottish Ski Club built a tin-roofed hut at the foot of the mountain, in Coire Odhar, and at weekends keen skiers would travel there from miles around to take part in races. When the big resorts to the north started offering mechanised uplift and more reliable snow, Ben Lawers declined in popularity, and its little hut was dismantled in 1999 following a fire. However, the 20km “Grand Traverse” of Ben Lawers and the five adjoining hills remains one of the most challenging ski touring routes in the country, and the gentle, grassy lower slopes of Ben Ghlas are well-suited to beginners. To find out what conditions are like on the hill, call the Killin Outdoor Centre on 01567 820652.

CANO BAGGING: ARTHUR’S SEAT
Back in 2005, Scottish Ski Team members Blair Aitken and Tom and Robin Hutchison opened their award-winning film Cano Bagging, about skiing volcanoes in New Zealand, with footage of them braving icy conditions off the top of Edinburgh’s own lava-chucking monster, Arthur’s Seat. At the time it seemed like a one-off stunt. Fastforward five years to December 2010, however, when a couple of feet of fresh snow fell on the capital and stayed there for more than a week, and suddenly the Seat started to look like a bona fide ski resort, albeit one without lifts. A few days after the initial falls, scores of locals descended on the hill for a freeride event dubbed Shred-inburgh, and World Cup ski racer Finlay Mickel and ex-Scottish team athlete Jimmy Gill made a well-documented assault on the steep end of nearby Salisbury Crags, describing the conditions as “amazing”.

THE BONNIE, BONNIE BANKS: THE LUSS HILLS
Traditionally, Glasgow-based skiers and snowboarders have travelled up to Glencoe and Nevis Range to get their kicks, but if colder winters are here to stay, they might not have to look so far afield in future. Under just a few inches of snow, the Luss Hills, on the west side of Loch Lomond, turn into a ski touring paradise. There’s easy access from the A82 at Luss, from Glen Fruin to the south or from Glen Douglas to the North, and most of the hills are smooth and grassy, which means less chance of colliding with partially hidden rocks. And, of course, on the other side of the loch there’s a mountain called Ben Lomond…

THE FAR NORTH: BEN HOPE AND BEN LOYAL
Remember the recent satellite pictures of Scotland showing the entire country covered in snow and ice? Well, that blanket of white extended all the way up to Sutherland, home to the most northerly Munro, Ben Hope (927m) and its near neighbour Ben Loyal (764m). The cliffy western aspect of Ben Hope is probably best left to extreme skiers and serious winter climbers, but the gentler slopes to the south have been skied in the past. Meanwhile, Ben Loyal and nearby Cnoc Nan Cullean offer the possibility of skiing two summits in one day, thanks to easy road access from the A836.

THE ISLANDS: SKYE, MULL AND ARRAN
The Scottish islands aren’t supposed to get much snow because the Gulf Stream keeps them nice and toasty, even in winter. But is the benign influence of this deepwater current starting to wane, as some scientists believe? If so, pick a hill, any hill: the Cuillins on Skye, Goat Fell on Arran, Ben More on Mull, The Paps of Jura… And if you think this all sounds a bit far-fetched, check out the website of the Arran Outdoor Education Centre, which at time of going to press featured pictures of “primary school pupils mastering the sport of skiing on Arran”. Yup, that thur’s real snow.

A NOTE ON BACKCOUNTRY SNOWSPORTS
Backcountry skiing and snowboarding are inherently dangerous activities and should only be undertaken by people with the proper equipment and training. Avalanches claim lives in the Scottish mountains every year. Anyone thinking of venturing onto avalanche prone slopes (avalanches can occur on slopes of anything from 25-50 degrees) should carry a shovel, probe and transceiver and know how to use them. Courses in backcountry skiing – including avalanche assessment – are available from Glenmore Lodge, www.glenmorelodge.org.uk and Wilderness Scotland, www.wildernessscotland.com.

Leave a Reply