... what defines a Scottish skier ?
I am being blasted by the wind as the Main Basin T-Bar pulls me back up to the top of Meall A Bhuridh for yet another lap of the tiny Glencoe ski area. Snow is drifting in the strong westerly wind quickly covering previous tracks and leaving a silky smooth surface. Despite it being a weekend the wild weather means the hill is fairly quiet, with only a handful of enthusiastic locals and regulars dotted about all over the hill. “Not a bad day in the end” I remark to the stranger that I am sharing the t-bar with. My t-bar companion looks at me like I am a total lunatic : then makes some disparaging remark about the deteriorating visibility followed by a few excuses about the conditions being less than ideal for their liking….
There is no doubt that the lowly mountains of Scotland, with their maritime climate, aren’t ideally suited to skiing. A humble 1000m of altitude ensure that the freezing level frequently oscillates around summit level during the winter months. Add in the Atlantic gales, which produce average wind speed of 35mph+ and long periods of limited visibility, and it becomes clear that conditions for skiing in Scotland are seldom forgiving.
However there is also no doubt that Scottish skiing can, occasionally, be as good as anywhere else in the world. Over the last 15-odd years I have been lucky enough to ski all over the globe in a variety of exotic locations (from Europe to New Zealand, Japan and both North and South America). The honest truth is that I still never get bored of skiing at home on the wee-mountains in Scotland.
Let’s be honest, anyone can fluff their own ego by skiing perfect groomed slopes, or light powder, in the alps. Modern ski equipment has made skiing more accessible than ever to the masses. Fat skis make powder easy, and side cut allows skis to cut through perfectly manicured piste like a hot knife in butter. Yet even with advances in technology the real measure of a “good” skier is someone who can adapt their technique to ever changing terrain and snow conditions below their feet. Someone who can ski the whole mountain in any condition : and the cool thing about skiing in Scotland is that you are continually learning to adapt to whatever challenges the mountain decides to throw your way… There is no such thing as bad snow? Only bad skiers? Skiing in Scotland frequently makes you humble.
It no secret that Skiing in Scotland isn’t always great. Conditions change on a daily, or sometime even hourly, basis. However as soon as you view variable snow as being “part of the challenge” then your mind has suddenly opened. All of a sudden skiing becomes enjoyable over a wider range of conditions – but first you need to flick that mental switch. Who cares if there is a small patch of heather than you need to jump over? Horrifically icy section of wind-blown ridge before you reach the softer snow on the other side? Awkward bumps and heavy snow lower down? Long walk out? A few icy patches? Heavy snow? Little bit misty? No problem : Because the truth is that if you only skied in Scotland when conditions were perfect then you wouldn’t get out the house very much.
Given these challenges it should come as no surprise that the origins of Scottish skiing are distinctly working class. In Scotland the sport of skiing (much like golf) was originally very much a sport of the people. During the post war years of the 1940s and 1950s groups of “weekenders” would escape the industrialised cities and head for the hills. Originally they would walk, climb or canoe however when a few early ski enthusiasts acquired some ex-army skis attention turned to the romantic possibility of skiing. Modern day Scottish skiing as we know it was born on the slopes of Glenshee, Ben Lawers and Glenccoe. In the Main Basin at Glencoe the Clydeside ship yard workers of the Creag Dhu climbing club rubbed shoulders with the doctors and lawyers of the Scottish Ski Club. A work party of “dockers and doctors” was formed to help Philip Rankin achieve his life ambition of building Scotlands ever first permanent ski tow on the slopes of Meall A Bhuiridh. This endeavour required a group of keen volunteers to build the tow themselves at weekends, even carrying the concrete foundations on their backs to the very top of the mountain. The grass roots origins of skiing in Scotland were in complete contrast to the development of skiing in the alpine regions (and the eventual birth of package holidays spearheaded by the Kandahar ski club and its president Sir Arnold Lunn). The sport of Scottish skiing may have changed a great deal in the last 50 years but much of the back to basics enthusiasm remains across the entire demographic of snowsports enthusiasts. From small children race training on the Cairnwell to ski tourers on the Ben Macdui plateau and the 80 year old skiers of Glencoe… all share exactly the same stoic determination to wrap up warm, do battle with the elements and get out on the mountain to ski when ever possible.
Certainly bigger vertical and better snow can be found in the greater mountain ranges of the world. Chamonix, Verbier or St Anton are all great places to ski with their own merits and iconic off piste descents. However when the conditions are right Scotland can also be just as special. Indeed if anything the unreliability of snow and weather conditions makes the opportunistic days grabbed on your own door step even more treasured? Where else in the world would you blend into the lift queue using a pair of 210cm straight skis that have been hiding in your loft for the best part of a decade or an old well used work mans jacket?
Scotland certainly doesn't have a monopoly on small working class ski areas. The ski ethic shared by people who learned to ski in small mountains, with variable weather is always very different to those who have become more accustomed to more forgiving surroundings. Local ski fields, with short vertical descents that get frequently blasted by wild weather certainly aren’t unique to Scotland. Without doubt the Scottish skier has much more in common with the ski ethic found in the small skis areas of Scandinavia or New Zealand? It should be no surprise that such locations attract local enthusiasts, rather than holidaymakers. If you ski regularly in Scotland then you can only do so for the right reasons…. There is no après ski, plush mountain restaurants or neon lit off slope attractions that many punters have come to associate with the sport of skiing. Indeed all over the world small ski areas existed long before snow-sports became a corporate global industry - with modern high speed lifts and swanky ski towns. Despite the fact that they are become rarer non-commercial resorts have always been the real heart and soul of skiing and attract very different crowds to the more mainstream ski regions.
Mountains are meant to be wild places where man adapts to the environment, rather than the other way round…. For sure – Scottish skiing isn’t for everyone. Cairngorm certainly isn’t Courcheval! But such comparisons totally miss the point, even if the mainstream media in the UK don’t understand. Perhaps the “reward to effort” ratio from Scottish skiing certainly isn’t for everyone? However more fool the doubters and critics... Because there is probably some truth in the old mantra that “if you can ski in Scotland then you can ski anywhere”? And just sometimes the sun comes out and the skiing can be as good anywhere….