ROGER COX Gallery images


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 12 February 2011

YOU can’t ski what you can’t see.” Really? I’ve always had a bit of a problem with that chirpy little saying. I’m not sure where it originated, but I suspect it was probably somewhere like Utah or Colorado where seldom is hurrrd, a discuuurigin’ wurrrd and the skies are not cloudy all day. It certainly wasn’t coined here in Scotland where skiing what you can’t see – often in the teeth of storm force winds – is all part of the fun.

True, hammering downhill in a whiteout can be more challenging than skiing on a perfect blue-sky day, but with your eyes struggling to gather useful information, other bits of your brain just have to work harder to compensate: you scour your memory, trying to remember what this part of the mountain looked like last time you were here; you feel what the snow under your feet is doing and feed that information back, trying to build up a mental picture of the terrain around you; and wait – what’s that smell? Heather? Oh. Ouch.

To make things even more interesting in low vis, I’m short sighted – safe to drive, apparently, but only just – and I hate the idea of wearing contact lenses for characteristically Luddite reasons. (You want me to put something in my eyes ON PURPOSE? Are you mental?) So even on the days when the skies are clear and the sun shines brightly, everything still looks a bit like an Impressionist painting to me. More Manet than Monet, y’understand, but still – fuzzy round the edges.

Usually when I head to the hills it’s at the weekend, so, weatherwise, I get what I’m given. The other week, though, I was persuaded to take a Thursday off work by Scotsman deputy picture editor Alex Hewitt in order to make the most of an almost unheard-of forecast for Glenshee: clear skies, fresh snow and – best of all – no wind. I had a new pair of goggles to try out too, some Adidas ID2s. Winners of a raft of awards for design innovation, they have a clever little prescription insert that sits just behind the main lens, affording semi-blind folk like me 20/20 vision. They have white frames too, so if you happened to grow up in the 1980s, as I did, they make you feel a like a speeder bike pilot from Return of the Jedi.

Glenshee (Gleann Sith in Gaelic) means “Glen of the Fairies” and there might as well have been fairies frolicking there the last time I visited because I couldn’t see more than 10ft in front of me at any stage. This time, however, we got lucky: a crystal clear day and eerily still. There hadn’t been as much fresh snow as we’d hoped, but a quick glance at the compass (NE winds yesterday so there should be more snow on SW-facing slopes) and we were able to find our way to the mountain’s most snow-loaded aspects. Well, perhaps “loaded” is the wrong word. Dusted, let’s say, or perhaps sprinkled. The cover really was a bit thin. But hey, on the plus side we could see for miles from the top of the Glas Maol poma and – in my case – everything was in focus for once.

After taking the loooooong traverse from the top of Glas Maol, we ignored the icy gully run and kept traversing, bouncing through tussocky grass and scraping over bald sheets of ice until we arrived at a spot directly overlooking the bottom of the poma. I then rode halfway down the slope, found a secure-ish spot to stop and whipped out my camera, in the hope of getting some snaps of Alex as he flew past me.

Unfortunately he’d taken a different route, and I eventually heard a scraping and chattering from the valley below as he left the soft, fresh snow of our sun-kissed hillside and hit the brick-hard ice of the piste. Pity, as I’d had the perfect shot all framed and ready. I took one last look through the viewfinder at the picture that never was – empty, inviting slope in the foreground, snow-clad mountains in the background – and then started to pack away my gear … at which point another snowboarder swooped out of nowhere, taking a perfect line for my shot, and slid to a halt just beneath me. Duncan Holyhead spends most of his winters in Avoriaz in the French Alps, but this season, he said, the conditions have been better in Scotland. He kindly hiked back up the hill so I could get my shot and I’ve sent him a copy to show the guys in France. Maybe they’ll start taking holidays here now. Or maybe the grass in the foreground will put them off.

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