Baptism By Blizzard; Snowboarding Glenshee, Scotland
Words and pictures by Sam Baldwin
Published March 2007
I have travelled to many far away lands in search of snow. I've been snowboarding through the paper birch studded slopes of Japan, ridden the rails of Canada and the pistes and parks of New Zealand and Italy. Yet, despite being born and bred British, I had never been snowboarding in the mountains of my own native land. That is, until now…
The UK has a number of ski areas, a couple in the north of England (see: Powder in the Pennines: Ski Yad Moss ) which rarely have enough snow to open and five much more well known in Scotland. Those readers who aren't from the UK may wonder why in ten years of snowboarding I hadn't once ridden my own mountains. Well, the problem with the Scottish Ski areas is that the unpredictable snow conditions mean that booking a ski trip to Scotland in advance would be futile. Thus, for those of us living south of the Scottish border, it is normally easier (and often cheaper!) to catch a flight to the more snow sure mountains of the European mainland.
I had been told many things about skiing and snowboarding in Scotland - few of them particularly complimentary. The words "ice rink", "gale force wind", "grass boarding", and "rock skiing" seemed to feature heavily in any description of Scottish ski areas. However, finding myself now stationed in Scotland, I was determined to make the most of the Highlands and see what Scottish snowboarding had to offer through my own goggles.
It was therefore, with fairly low expectations that we set off on a dark January morning in search of Scottish snow. The choice of which ski area to go to was made for us when a quick check on the net revealed that only one of Scotland's five areas was open that day. So, we threw our gear into the car and headed north to Glenshee in the Cairngorm Mountains - Scotland's biggest ski area with 21 lifts, 40km of pisted runs and about 450m of vertical.
Though we welcomed the fact that Glenshee was going to have some snow, it also meant that some roads were blocked, sending us in a somewhat convoluted route, which almost doubled our journey time from Edinburgh to 6 hours. However, we were about to experience our first ever taste of Scottish snowboarding and the excitement of strapping in on home turf overrode the small hassles of the journey.
The Cairngorm Mountains are a beautiful range, especially when coated in snow, and as we drove through rolling hills, farmland and forest, the scenery morphed into a beautiful winter wonderland. As we entered the lower Cairngorms snow cover was looking good. The birch and beech tree groves in the lower lying lands sported a white covering and reminded me of the skiing in Japan . However as we slowly climbed, the trees disappeared, leaving a barren white mountainside, dotted with rocky outcrops.
Despite their relatively low altitude, the Cairngorms are a harsh, rugged and wild range. With no trees for protection, there is little to slow the North Atlantic storms from battering the mountain sides. As we drove on, we saw few other signs of life except a couple of cross country skiers, a large herd of deer high up on one side, and the occasional black grouse that would dart across the quiet road ahead.
Perhaps the single most defining element associated with Scottish skiing is the wind. The bane of Scotland's mountains, it brings in the storms which deposit the snow, but is often so strong the lifts cannot be opened for safety reasons. I thought that people might be exaggerating somewhat about the strength of these gales, but when we pulled into Glenshee car park and the car door was almost torn off by the wind, I instantly believed everything I had heard.
An arctic gale whipped fine crystals of snow into our faces and stung our bare skin. Without gloves, our hands would not have lasted more than a few minutes before the first signs of frost bite appeared. It's easy to understand why so many climbers and walkers perish in the hostile Cairngorm environment every year. However, the wind wasn't the only thing to surprise me - the amount of snow was encouraging and we quickly geared up and bought a ticket costing a very reasonable £8 for the afternoon, as only 3 of the lifts were open.
The irony of riding the "Sunnyside" lift whilst being blasted in the face by gale force winds was not lost on me. Towards the top of the tow the wind suddenly hit you with all its might, and I was glad for the extra hooded top I had put on. However, my clothing did me proud, loyally denying access to the elements, leaving me to enjoy the snow.
The snow conditions varied from almost nothing, to deep powdery drifts. In some places, the snow had been stolen by the wind, leaving little but rocks and grass. I had to laugh as my board grated over stones on wind scoured ground and I involuntary donated large amounts of p-tex to the Gods of the 'Gorms.
But, on the flip side, what the wind had removed from some areas, it have given to others, and thus knee deep wind blown powder had accumulated by the snow fences, and this made for good riding. I had a big smile on my face when I managed to throw up a spray on one run which was officially closed, but covered in deep snow. Scottish powder turns? Och aye!
Though the wind was very noticeable whist riding lifts, for the most part, once you strapped in and began your decent, you forgot all about it. The rolling terrain had an almost boardercross track feel to it in places, with banks and rollers leading to a fun ride. Occasionally, when the wind did hit you, it led to a strange battle of the forces; gravity fighting to pull you down the hill, the wind pushing you up.
The amount of snow that was held in place by the seemingly small and flimsy snow fences was quite surprising, and it made me wonder how much the area would benefit from some tree coverage, which apparently at one time was the case. Indeed, the tree line is said to be well below its potential natural height of earlier times, before the forests were cleared for timber during the 16th and 19th centuries. Now the high deer population means that unprotected saplings are unlikely to reach maturity.
Stepping out of the blizzard into the café at the base of the slope I wanted to try some typically Scottish fare. I thus ordered "stovies"; a mixture of mashed potatoes, onion and meat, with a Scottish oat cake jutting out of the top like a wafer in ice cream, which soon had me warmed up from the inside.
Overall, I was impressed with what I saw. If we had had such good fun when the wind was howling and only three of the 21 lifts were open, then it was obvious that in better conditions, with more terrain available, a very good time could be had indeed.
Thus is the predicament of Scottish ski areas. Good snow and weather conditions combined are said to be few and far between and impossible to predict. One must be "on call", ready to drop everything and run to the hills when the snow is out, the sun is shinning and the wind is down. However, one thing about Scottish ski areas is for certain, and that's that I will definitely be going back for more.
Sam Baldwin is the editor and founder of SnowSphere Magazine and a columnist for Snowboard UK. He has also written for White Lines, The Scotsman, Tribe, The World Snowboard Guide and The Snowboard Journal. View Sam Baldwin's portfolio here.
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