ROGER COX Gallery images


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 19 February 2011

UP UNTIL a couple of weeks ago, I used to think I knew Cairn Gorm reasonably well. I’d swished around in soft corn snow in the Gunbarrel on warm, sunny days in spring. I’d moseyed up to the weather station on the summit in the middle of winter and chuckled at the surreal ice formations that had attached themselves to the radio mast. And I’d sneaked into Coire na Ciste on chilly winter mornings when the West Wall Poma wasn’t running, ridden deep powder with hardly anyone else around, then slogged my way out via the Aonach Bowl (very bad behaviour: sorry ski patrol).

I’d even been there a couple of times without a snowboard, once to learn basic winter skills with Stuart Johnston Mountaineering (anyone for self-arrest on the Fiacaill Ridge?), once to camp out in a snowhole in the middle of the Cairngorm Plateau with Chris Wilson of Torridon Adventures (nothing like digging your own digs).

I’d never thought of Cairn Gorm as “my mountain”, but it was certainly a place I thought I knew my way around. Well, it turns out I didn’t have a clue.

A decent Saturday snow and weather forecast had me picking up my brother Simon from Leith at 5:30am and driving somewhat erratically north, glugging coffee and gibbering like a loon to keep my eyelids from drooping shut.

As we entered Drumochter Pass it started snowing big, fat flakes – a promising sign. The idea of the early start was to beat the crowds, but when we arrived at 8:30am the main car park was filling up fast. We were just about to join the queue for lift passes, which was already snaking out of the door of the funicular building, when we were approached by three resort “ambassadors” in yellow jackets.

One I recognised as the legendary Helen Rennie – aka Hilly – who hit the headlines last October for managing to ski on Cairn Gorm for 12 months in a row.

“You know you can join a much shorter queue over there if you pay by cash?” she said, pointing to a booth on the other side of the car park.

“Nope, didn’t know that,” I said. “Thanks.” That single observation probably saved us the best part of half an hour. “Oh, and I wouldn’t bother trying to take the funicular up,” she added, “just take the Car Park T-Bar – look, there’s no queue.”

Another half an hour saved. Hilly then told us that she and the other ambassadors would be running tours of the mountain starting at 11:30am – would we like to come along? When a living legend invites you to go skiing you can’t really say no, so of course we said yes – which turned out to be a very, very good call.

After an early lunch, we were the only people to join the 11:30am tour. It struck me as a little odd, but Hilly said they often found themselves with few takers.

Not that we were complaining: Hilly knows Cairn Gorm inside out, not just where everything is, but which lifts to use to maximise riding time, which runs to avoid if you want a crowd-free ski and – most importantly – how the crowds shift across the mountain during the day.

When the West Wall Poma opened, she made sure we were there to get fresh tracks down the Ciste Gully, first in a virtual white-out, then in good visibility as the cloud burned off.

With the Ciste open, all the advanced skiers on the hill charged over to that side of the mountain – a development predicted by Hilly, who, going cannily against the grain, took us instead to the now almost-deserted White Lady.

Who’d have thought you could get one of Cairn Gorm’s signature runs almost to yourself in the middle of a busy Saturday afternoon? But we did, and it felt like robbing a bank.

With the M1 Poma about to close for the day, Hilly spoke nicely to the liftie and scored us one last ride up.

It was almost 4:30pm, and we’d been on the go for five hours without a break, but the promise of one more run was too good to pass up. With the sun setting behind the Fiacaill Ridge, we swooped down the M1 Race Piste, crossed over into the Gunbarrel and made like bars of soap sliding around a bath before joining the Home Road for the final cruise back to the car park.

Even by Alpine standards, it had been an almighty day – I’d estimate we covered more than twice as much ground with Hilly as we would have done by ourselves. So next time you’re at Cairn Gorm, go skiing with an ambassador. Just make sure you have an early lunch.

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