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SPRING SKIING ON BEN MACDUI

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 3 December 2011

THE SCOTTISH Mountaineering Club’s ski touring guidebook, Ski Mountaineering in Scotland, describes the 700m descent from the top of Ben Macdui to the floor of the Lairig Ghru as “one of the finest and most challenging ski runs in the Scottish mountains.” Backcountry skiing in this country has come a long way since that guide was published back in 1987, and as far as today’s crop of extreme skiers are concerned, the relatively undemanding lines on Macdui’s west flank are hardly worth bothering with any more – except perhaps as a means of accessing more heart attack-inducing terrain elsewhere. On a scorching April afternoon, though, with plenty of sun-softened snow still clinging to the sides of Scotland’s second highest mountain, I can’t think of anywhere in the world I’d rather be.

My guide for the day is Paul Easto, managing director of the award-winning adventure travel company Wilderness Scotland and also a keen backcountry skier, who has completed both the famous 180km Haute Route in the Alps and also its lesser-known little brother, “the Pentlands Houte Route” – a 5km ski just to the south of Edinburgh, linking up the various “peaks” between Turnhouse Hill and West Kipp.

Like many serious skiers in Scotland, Easto is passionate about sliding in his home country. Having sampled the best that the Alps and the Rockies have to offer, he has returned home and realised that, while the snow here is less sure and the weather conditions can be more challenging, Scotland’s hills offer a truly unique skiing experience – scenery and terrain the likes of which you’d be hard pushed to find anywhere else on Earth.

As if to prove the point, he has recently moved the headquarters of his Wilderness Scotland operation from Edinburgh’s New Town to the outskirts of Aviemore. From his new office he can see right across the Rothiemurchus Estate to the crags and gullies of Coire an t-Sneachda. No need to check the snow report online anymore – a quick glance out of the window suffices.

We begin our day by skinning up to the summit of Cairn Gorm, Paul on touring skis, me on a split snowboard (a snowboard that snaps in two to form skis which can then be fitted with sticky climbing skins). The north side of the mountain is still holding plenty of snow, and the ski resort appears to be doing a roaring trade, but when we reach the summit we realise the mountain’s south-facing slope is almost completely bare. Paul can’t believe it – he was here only a few days before and the hills were covered. Clearly we’re in the middle of a ferocious thaw.

Never mind – we strap all our gear to our backpacks and pick our way down the steep boulderfield into Coire Raibert, then don skis again for the gentle 5km climb across the Cairngorm Plateau towards Macdui.

Contouring around Coire Raibert, the snow is so soft and slushy I’m finding it hard to hold an edge. Every time I try to move forwards the brittle, water- rotted snowpack crumbles underneath me and I start sideslipping downhill. Paul suggests rolling my ankles a little to bring more of my skis into contact with the surface of the snow. That helps, but I’m still finding the going tough. Eventually I resort to zig-zagging across the slope – climbing up at a 45 degree angle to the fall line for a few metres, then allowing myself to slide back downhill, climbing again, then sliding once more. Who’d have thought that traversing this gentle snowslope would turn out to be the hardest part of the day?

Eventually, after much cursing on my part, we round Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, and the snow becomes firmer and the going gets easier. In fact, the gradual ascent towards Ben Macdui is blissful – we feel like a couple of ants, inching our way across the brilliant white vastness of the Cairngorm Plateau.

As we near the summit of Macdui we are rewarded with completely unrepresentative, holiday brochure-style views of Braeriach, The Angel’s Peak and Cairn Toul over to the west. With their dramatic cliffs still streaked with snow for most of their height, they look more like 4,000m high mountains than 4,000-footers.

A quick lunch beside the trig point on Macdui summit and a few minutes’ bask in the sunshine (we don’t have a thermometer, but we reckon it must be close to 20 degrees C) and then it’s time to go and play on our own private piste.

After cruising down the easy-angled slope to the northwest of the summit for a few hundred metres, the yawning, U-shaped gully carved out by the rushing waters of Allt a’ Choire Mhoir gradually comes into view to our left. Paul comes to a halt at the point where the ground starts to drop away more steeply, and we stand quietly for a moment, soaking in the view.

Directly beneath us lies the great glacial chasm of the Lairig Ghru with the beginnings of the River Dee running through it from right to left, and beyond that the deceptively Alpine-looking peaks of the Braeriach massif. Paul gestures to the vista with his ski pole and grins. “Not bad for Scotland, eh?”

In a bid to get some action shots of Paul I ride off high to the left of the gully, fumble around for my camera and then snap away as he flies along beneath me, drawing a series of smooth, graceful arcs. He eventually comes skidding to a halt several hundred metres below, at the point where the snow starts to thin out, then turns around and beckons me down.

Snowboarders are notoriously picky about snow quality, and I’m no exception. I don’t like ice, I don’t like windslab, I don’t like moguls … in an ideal world, I’d ride nothing but fresh, featherlight powder. Failing that, though, an even covering of forgiving spring snow will do nicely – and that’s exactly what’s lining Coire Mor today. After straight-lining for a hundred metres or so to get some momentum going, I draw out a looong heel-side turn on the right-hand side of the coire, cross over the fall line and put in another looong toe-side turn on the opposite side. It’s a rare, restful thing, having a blank canvas this size to doodle on all by yourself, and by the time I reach Paul I’m so zenned-out I almost ride straight into the burn, which is gushing out from beneath the snowpack just downslope from where he’s been standing.

After crossing the stream, we are then able to follow a thin strip of snow along its left bank almost all the way to the valley floor, skooshing slush into the water on alternate turns. As we pack our gear away at the bottom of the slope, the smell of hot, wet vegetation is suddenly overpowering, and it occurs to me that it’s going to be a long, hot slog back to the car. But hey – it certainly beats standing in a lift line.

• THE FACTS

Wilderness Scotland offer a four day/three night ski touring intro course for £545 per person. The price includes guiding and instruction (maximum ratio of one guide to six clients), three nights’ accommodation at the four-star Boat Hotel near Aviemore and all meals and travel during the trip. Dates available: 1-4 March 2012 and 8-11 March 2012. To book, see www.wildernessscotland.com or tel: 0131-625 6635.

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