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Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 8 December 2012

AS I WRITE this, the webcams at Scotland’s five ski centres are slowly turning white. It’s hard to tell how much snow has fallen – perhaps a couple of inches, perhaps a little more – but at this time of year the amount of snow doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that snow is falling – right on cue – and that winter is officially on the way.

The question is: what kind of winter are we going to get? Will we see a repeat of the bumper snow of 2009/10 and 2010/11? Or will Mother Nature throw us a curve ball like she did last season, teasing us with a few early flurries, then driving us to distraction with a largely barren February and March before delivering Biblical quantities of the white stuff at the end of April?

At the moment, the omens are good. Just as the residents of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania put their faith in a groundhog called Phil to predict how long their winters will last, so Scottish skiers have increasingly come to rely on the snowberry bushes of Colin Matthew, operations manager at CairnGorm Mountain. In 2009 and 2010, the snowberries in his garden came early and were big and fat – just like the snowstorms that followed. And this year, once again, Colin has reported an early berry/large berry combo.

That in itself should be enough to bring a smile to the faces of most skiers and boarders, but it gets better: the boffins at the Met Office reckon the two weeks before Christmas will see northerly winds becoming “quite frequent” across the UK, bringing “colder than average conditions” and “an increased risk of snow.” When the meteorologists and the berry mystics agree that a harsh winter may be in the offing, it’s hard not to get just a little bit excited, no matter how many times you’ve been let down in the past.

And there are other, non-weather-related reasons to look forward to the forthcoming ski season. For a start, the sport of ski mountaineering is coming to Scotland in a big way, with the launch of the SkiMo Scotland series. In this lung-busting activity, much beloved of hairy Alpine hardmen, skiers and snowboarders on specially adapted touring kit race each other both up and down mountainsides, with the one who reaches the finish line first (or the one who gets closest to it before keeling over from exhaustion) declared the winner. The first SkiMo event is scheduled to be held at The Lecht on 19 December, with further races at Glenshee, Glencoe and Nevis Range. I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that – in a country where approximately 97 per cent of the population loves climbing hills – it’ll more than likely catch on.

Another area of Scottish snowsports that seems to be blossoming at the moment is the freeride scene, freeride competitions being opportunities for brave/foolhardy young men and women to throw themselves down the most extreme-looking bits of mountain they can find in a bid to impress a panel of judges with their skill, style and sangfroid. Last year saw the first Coe Cup freeride event at Glencoe, and it was such a success that it’s back again this year as an official qualifier for the glamorous Freeride World Tour, on 16 and 17 March. The folks at Nevis Range are getting in on the act too, with their first ever freeride contest, the Corrie Challenge, taking place in the steep ’n’ gnarly Back Corries area on 23 February.

Big air-lovers, meanwhile, have the Highlander Freestyle Series to look forward to, with events running throughout the season, and up-and-coming downhill racers will be able to cut their teeth on the Snowsport Scotland Schools Alpine Series, with events at Glencoe, Glenshee, Nevis Range and the Lecht and a grand final at CairnGorm on 13 March.

Yup, there’s lots going on. So much, in fact, that to celebrate the start of the 2012/13 ski season, tomorrow our sister paper Scotland on Sunday is launching a dedicated ski and snowboard supplement, Scottish Ski & Board. The 16-page pull-out features an interview with Olympic halfpipe hope Ben Kilner, backcountry adventures with Lesley McKenna, advice on learning to ski on a budget, a Coe Cup preview, an in-depth guide to Scotland’s ski resorts and more. Should pass the time before the first lifts open…

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