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FOUR SEASONS: GET IT WHILE YOU CAN

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 23 April 2011

BY THE freakishly hot weekend of 9 and 10 April this year, the Scottish ski season appeared to be over. After a prolonged thaw, the resorts at Glencoe, Glenshee, The Lecht and Nevis Range were all closed due to lack of snow. Only Cairngorm remained open, and even there it was possible to ski only a handful of runs on the top of the mountain. But if the time for snowsports had passed, nobody had told extreme skier Jamie Johnston and three of his friends, spotted in the Cairngorm car park at 7:30am on the Saturday morning, getting ready for a two-day camping trip to explore the super-steep gullies around Braeriach. (“This is me packing light,” Johnston joked, a mug, an ice axe and a pair of flip-flops dangling from the outside of his overstuffed backpack.) And if the winter of 2010/11 was officially finished, nobody had told the small army of fluorescently-clad snowboarders that assembled at the funicular base station a couple of hours later, waiting for the first train up to take part in the Vans-sponsored freestyle contest, Dawn of the Shred.

In spite of alarming snow-loss caused by a combination of torrential rain and ferocious, hairdryer winds, the staff at Cairngorm had still managed to build a first-class terrain park in the Ptarmigan Bowl; and now riders from all over the UK were in town to put on an aerial display that would make the Red Arrows look like Sunday drivers. There were boxes and rails for sliding along at the top of the course and an assortment of objects to jump over at the end, but the main draw was the humongous dome of snow directly in front of the spectators’ area, topped off with an intimidating-looking ramp – the launch pad for the big air element of the contest.

The best thing about events like this – apart from the vicarious buzz you get watching people throwing themselves 20ft into the air while revolving around various axes – is observing how the different personalities of the riders are reflected in their different styles. I liked Lecht local Nick McIntosh the best. He wasn’t the smoothest competitor, but he was easily the most lackadaisical, pulling off tricks so casually it almost seemed as if he might have had his hands in his pockets, even when he was upside down and back-to-front. Aviemore’s Angus Leith was also one to watch. Resplendent in a fur-lined purple jacket, he had helped shape the jumps over the previous week, and used his intimate knowledge of the park to good advantage. He pulled some of the biggest, most convoluted moves of the day, but in the end just lost out to Sam Turnbull in the Men’s Open category.

After all Saturday’s loud music and DayGlo colours, it was a completely different experience, on the Sunday, to go ski touring around the Cairngorm Plateau with Paul Easto, director of Aviemore-based adventure travel company Wilderness Scotland. The snow cover was patchy, so we spent almost as much time carrying our skis (well, split snowboard in my case) as we did sliding along on them, but the downhill rewards made it all worthwhile. The highlight of the day was skiing off Ben Macdui, cruising through the gentle bowl at the top of Coire Mor before dropping into the steeper, v-shaped gully carved out by the rushing waters of Allt a’ Choire Mhoir. The banked sides of the upper section were ideally angled for bar-of-soap-around-a-bathtub impressions, while lower down, to the left of the burn, a long, thin strip of snow gave the opportunity for fun turns almost all the way to the valley floor.

Earlier, eating lunch on the summit of Macdui, Paul had gestured to the west, towards the endless possibilities of Cairn Toul, The Angel’s Peak and Braeriach, and said: “There’s a whole lifetime of skiing here – why would anyone want to ski anywhere else?” In January, in the teeth of a gale, I might have felt differently, but under the baking April sun, with hardly a breath of wind and not another soul in sight, I found it hard to disagree.

*To watch a film of this year’s Dawn of the Shred, visit www.scotsman.com. To see pictures of the action visit www.facebook.com/greatscottishoutdoors. For more on Wilderness Scotland visit www.wildernessscotland.co.uk

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