Skiing Scotland

Glenshee, Scotland – When hiking in Switzerland several years
ago, we had the unusual experience of our Swiss guide, Ruidi, giving all affirmative
answers as “Aye” rather than “Yes” or the German “Ja.”  It turned out
that he had been married to a Scottish woman and had been a ski instructor
in Scotland for several years. I had no idea that there were any ski instructors
in Scotland, and when I asked him how the skiing was, all replied that it
was “Not like in Switzerland, but very unique and interesting.”  That
response stuck with me for many years, and when a tourist brochure announced
the Braemar Telemark Festival  for March 10-12, 2000 at the Glenshee
Ski Area in Scotland,  I envisioned a great opportunity to see what Ruidi
had been talking about.


I  landed  at Prestwick Airport, south of Glasgow, to what
the pilot called the usual -“windy and wet” – and as I drove northeast
towards the Central Scottish Highlands, I began to think that the whole
thing was just a joke that Ruidi and the Scottish Tourist office were playing
on me. Perhaps like that other legend of the Scottish Highlands, Brigadoon,
the snow in Scotland appeared once every 100 years and then disappeared
without a trace.

Glenshee trail map

Glenshee trail

As I left Perth and drove north on A93, however, the hills began to
look like real mountains.  Ten miles from the Glenshee Ski Area patches
of snow began to appear up high in steep gullies. The road began to exhibit
the serious curves of a mountain road; the sheep on the side of the road
were munching on grass that was covered with the remains of a light dusting
of snow. At the top of the gap, Glenshee Ski Area stretched across two
mountains on either side of the road. Twenty-six lifts covered the four
peaks, but whereas everything had been “complete” (meaning covered with
snow and open) just four days earlier, a disastrous warm spell had left
only two or three northeast-facing trails skiable. Since chairlifts tend
to shut down often when a calm day has 30 MPH winds, most lifts in Scotland
are surface lifts. In addition to snow on the slopes, therefore, we needed
snow on the uphill tracks to get us to the slopes that were complete.

I continued past the ski area, down the other side of the gap to Braemar,
“An award winning tourist town” as the sign said. The village is very quaint
and charming with two small streets, a few well cared for shops and lots
of B&Bs. The Braemar Telemark Festival began life in July ,1998 when
Rob Edmonds from Braemar Mountain Sports, the local mountain shop, decided
that it would be fun to have an end-of-the-season party for both his clients
and those of Adventure Scotland, an outdoor guiding and teaching organization
in the area.

It is probably surprising to most people outside of the United Kingdom,
but there are a lot of backcountry skiers and climbers in Scotland and
the Braemar area in the Central Highlands is a mecca  for these activities.
When there is snow, the lifts to the top of the ski area take you to high
ridges which lead to steep gullies and numerous out of bounds ‘coires’
(pronounced correes) which is the Scottish term for glacial cirques or
bowls. With the ample winds, a lot of snow is blown into the coires creating
substantial cornices with a real danger of avalanches. Though the areas
look funky with their pomas and t-bars, there is some serious skiing to
be had with just a little bit of out-of-bounds traveling.



The first Braemar Telemark Festival was held in March 1999 and was attended
by about 250 people, and more than 350 of the available 400 places had been
booked for 2000. Dave Latham, who runs Adventure Scotland, is a professional
event organizer and the festival reflected that expertise. I walked into the
Victoria Hall, which felt very much like the town hall of my rural upstate New
York home, and a woman sitting in front of a computer had my packet and laminated
registration card with my picture waiting for me. Tables had sign-up sheets
for both on-snow and off-snow activities for Saturday and Sunday morning sessions.
I was given an instruction sheet  for the mountain race that suggested
thatI carry things like a bivouac sack, rescue whistle and survival rations.
I began to wonder what I was getting into.

The large number of sponsors that filled the town hall further reflected
the organization’s professionalism. There were booths from Scarpa, Garmont,
Marmot and LifeLink as well as several local outdoor companies. Mountain
Equipment was offering free demos of their outdoor clothing to all festival
attendees and also outfitted all of the instructors.

Everyone was very apologetic about the lack of snow and assured me that
the previous Friday had so much snow that the road which I had just traveled
had been closed. I assumed that we would be following the off-snow program
and counted on at least some good hiking;  maybe I could rent a mountain
bike and I might hear some entertaining avalanche stories.  To my
great relief, Dave Latham blew a big airhorn and announced that we were
going with the on-snow schedule. As long as there was any snow, we were
going to ski.

We all drove up to the mountain and as we drank our cups of mulled wine
at noon on Friday, the Braemar Telemark Festival officially began. 
Afternoon ski passes were available for 5 pounds Sterling (about $8.00
US) and we began what was a familiar theme for the weekend:  shouldering
your skis and plodding through the mud in your plastic Scarpa telemark
boots to get to the snow. About 150 vertical feet up a snowcat track was
the Cairnwell Café,  the main base lodge for the slopes on
this side of the road. On the cafe’s porch, volunteers were  loaded
with a pair of demo skis or boots from Braemar Mountain Sports for the
20 minute climb to the base of the Butcharts t-bar, which was the only
lift running. The walk was interesting, crossing some shaky snow bridges,
jumping back and forth across a stream, strolling through heather and navigating
through very black and boggy areas of mud. Sheep grazed peacefully between
the patches of snow, oblivious to the human activities around them. 
Eventually we arrived at the t-bar and sure enough, it was the real thing:
a skiable slope!

A view down Butcharts, the only complete slope open on Day One

A view down
Butcharts, the only complete slope open on Day One

A view up the Butcharts t-bar at Glenshee Ski Area

A view up the
Butcharts t-bar at Glenshee Ski Area

The run was a typical intermediate slope with a bit of a pitch on the
top, followed by a gradual runout back to the lift.  At the bottom
where people gathered to chat and reboard the lift there existed a minefield
of sticky, black, muddy puddles, but lining the lift shack were piles of
free demo skis and boots. The reps even helped you put them on and didn’t
seem to mind the conditions that you were skiing on.

A mist hung in the air and I had to clean my glasses whenever I got
off the lift. The snow was of a nice spring consistency and it felt great
to really be skiing. The lift operators did yeoman’s work with snow shovels,
filling in the frequent gaps in the t-bar track.

Many of the other skiers wore leather boots and skied on equipment that
I had started on in the early 1990s. Others, including a group of 5 Norwegians
imported for the weekend, were skiing on the latest equipment from Tua
or K2. The theme for the afternoon was “‘Wobbly Skiers’ Convention,”‘ that
the more experienced skiers would help out the somewhat wobbly. In addition
to the learning factor, this also added to the social aspect of the event
as it provided a means by which to talk to strangers. I spent some time
helping a fellow named Gerard who had just come back from Antarctica, where
he had been the cook at the research station for the summer and had done
some ski touring on the continent’s windswept snow.  Many of the participants
were not strong downhill telemark skiers, and were mainly interested in
touring. As I looked out from the top of the lift , I could see endless,
treeless ridges and coires, most of which only had patches of snow now,
but appeared provide endless days of exploration when cover was good.

A rainbow appeared over the bare slopes across the road, and the afternoon
ended at the Cairnwell Café bar for some après-ski conversation. 
All I heard again and again was about how much snow there had been just
a week earlier. There was talk of a long hike into a coire that was sure
to have snow, but this conversation only proved that the Irish have no
monopoly on Blarney; nobody was about to walk six miles for the possibility
of some snow.


Friday evening promised an informal Tele-Social evening with live music at
the Invercauld Arms Hotel. On the menu appeared Haggis, Neaps and Tatties at
3 pounds 50 a plate. Tatties are mashed potatoes, neaps are whipped turnips
and haggis is oats and barley cooked in a sheep’s stomach. It looked like three
piles of mush in different shades of brown, but the price was right and people
seemed to be enjoying it. Entertainment was provided by a band named “‘Scapegoat,”
four young lads (they looked to be barely 17) from Aveimore, a small town down
the road.  One player’s father sat in the front looking very proud, and
the boys really did a good job on rock standards like “Lola”‘ and “Back in the
USSR.” It was when the drummer picked up his fiddle and moved to the front,
however, that things really went wild. They played long numbers of traditional
Scottish music, and since there was not enough room for the full Scottish dances
it quickly turned into a wonderful free-for-all with everybody swinging each
other by the elbow and generally bouncing off the walls and each other until
well past midnight.

Former world telemark champion Mareuf Mobeuf

Former world
telemark champion Mareuf Mobeuf 

Saturday morning was earmarked for Teleworkshops. The sign-ups from
the previous day had been typed into more than 25 class lists, and the
designated instructors waited for their pupils at the base of the Glenshee
Ski Area. The whole thing was very well organized and surprisingly punctual,
especially considering the activities of the previous evening. I was in
the advanced telemark workshop and our instructor was Mareuf Mobeuf, 1997
World Telemark champion and current Norwegian national telemark coach. 
He was of course a very impressive skier, but had a very easygoing manner
and was a good teacher. Heroic efforts by the Glenshee lift operators and
innovations such as plywood boards over open streams coupled with a lot
of snow farming to produce a track wide enough for one skier on the main
Cairnwell t-bar. After a short traverse and picking your way through a
small rock garden, you arrived at the Race Track area which was much steeper
than Butcharts.


Mareuf took us through our paces from the basic positions to reverse
telemarks and even skiing backwards while executing telemark turns. The
Race Track area had perfect corn snow, and while it lasted it was true
hero skiing. The combination of the sun, soft snow and skiing in a gang
psyched you up for just ripping fast turns down the fairly steep slope.


The author's pack is ready for his "Berserkebeiner"

The author’s
pack is ready for his “Berserkebeiner” 

The single chair on Cairnwell Mountain

The single
chair on Cairnwell Mountain

The Mountain Race was scheduled for Saturday afternoon. On the schedule
been a tradiional “Birkebeiner” re-enacting the rescue of the Prince of
Norway, though cut down from the traditional 90 kilometers to10. We were
to ski up to the top of the Cairnwell Peak (about 1000 vertical feet),
down the other side, around a lake, then up a smaller peak (Carn Asoda)
and ski down to finish in front of the Cairnwell Café. Unfortunately,
more than 80% of the planned course was completely devoid of snow, but
that was not going to stop the intrepid Scottish telemarkers.  They
found a thin line of snow leading up the front of the Carn Asoda (starting
several 100 feet above the Cairnwell  Café). We would go down
the other side to the lake (not around it) and then come up a shoulder
of Cairnwell to finish skiing down the Race Track slope. The starting area
was a big muddy trail and as people shouldered their packs with skis strapped
on I didn’t think anyone would take this race seriously. (Luckily, Braemar
Mountain Sports had graciously lent me some skins and sold me a rescue
whistle so that I did not feel totally unprepared.)  I have often
heard that other telemark festivals call their race a Berserkebeiner, but
after what I experienced for the next 40 minutes I think Braemar has earned
exclusive rights to that term.


As I slogged through the mud in my T2 plastic boots, with the wind tugging
on my ski tips and the heel pieces of my bindings bouncing against my head,
most of the competitors started running up the hill.  I began to see
the advantages of leather boots, as plastic is good for going downhill
but not for running up through peat bogs. The race leaders had their skis
on in a flash and began skinning up the hill. Those without skins skied
up the heather on the side of the snow to prevent sliding backwards. As
we climbed I noticed that I was dead last and though I passed some skinless
herringboners near the top, they quickly passed me as I struggled to remove
my skins and put my skis back on.

We traversed across the top of the Butcharts t-bar and it looked pretty
bare down the backside, but about halfway down there were some patches
of snow.  We put on our skis and linked the patches of snow by some
quick schusses through patches of purple heather. As long as you did not
hook your tips in the thick underbrush you could really slide across it
until you hit the next patch of snow. From the lake it was a long scramble
through ankle-deep heather with skis on your shoulder (unless you felt
like re-attaching them to your pack). Once you hit the top of the hill
it was a pleasure to actually ski down the Race Track, but with worn out
quads from the climb up those smooth telemark turns from the morning did
not materialize.

Dominic McAdam from Aveimore completed the course in about 25 minutes;
I passed about 8 people with my fine performance skiing the heather and
finshed 35th out of 45 in about 40 minutes.  McAdam had skied in leather
boots and not used skins, and though he was very strong he was definitely
not the bodybuilder type that usually win these kinds of races.  At
the party that night, he was at least on his 4th beer by the time he was
awarded his Garmont plastic boots for a prize. Dominic was very typical
of a lot of the Scottish telemarkers: a strong backcountry skier who had
an easy-going attitude about his athletic achievements.

I spent the rest of the afternoon recovering and exploring the top of
Cairnwell. A single chairlift (usually closed by the wind) went up from
the parking lot to almost the summit. As I walked to the top the wind must
have been blowing 50 miles an hour, so I stayed just long enough to see
some amazingly steep gullies and bowls on the surrounding mountains.

Saturday night was filled by the Telemark Ceilidh (pronounced kayley),
or dance at a marquee (meaning big wedding tent) at the Braemer Castle.
We gathered at the town hall, and as we filed out we were handed torches
that had been soaked in kerosene and then lit. The mandatory bagpiper led
the way as about 300 telemarkers (including at least 50 men in kilts) with
150 flaming torches walked the ¾ mile to the castle. We doused our
torches as we entered the pine forest surrounding the castle, recently
restored and the real deal with high stone walls, towers and turrets. The
tent was very elaborate the meal consisted of less traditional food: no
haggis, just chicken and rice with lots of beer. Scapegoat started off
the evening, and this time there was plenty of room for Gay Gordons, jigs
and reels that these people seem to have been born knowing how to do. As
Scapegoat gave way to SkyHook (a band from Aberdeen that only did Motown
songs), a sweaty, pasty Scotsman gave his rendition of songs by Aretha,
Otis Redding and James Brown,  I wandered around the tent, and found
myself talking to Kerr Blythe and Leslie Beck, both of whom had been World
Cup alpine skiers for Great Britian and after switching  to telemark
had been ranked in the top 10 in the world. Both of them emphasized the
fun aspects of being a British skier: “Its not like those Norwegians, who
can do it and earn a living, I would go there and drink until the bar was
closed and then beat them the next day,” said Kerr. Leslie had started
skiing on a dry slope in England and found it especially gratifying that
the British team was just there for fun and still did well. As I made my
way back to town in the pitch black, a Scottish accented Tina Turner version
of Proud Mary emanated from the marquee and I was very happy that I had
come to Scotland.


Since this was my first trip to the country, I decided to skip the Sunday events
at the telemark festival (dual slalom and fun race) and head over to the ski
resorts on the West coast en route to the airport. I had heard that there was
more snow in the west this year.  Half of the people that I spoke with
suggested that I go to Glencoe, in the valley of the 7 Coires just north of
the famous Loch Lomond.  I ended up driving past Glencoe near the end of
the trip, and I stopped in pouring rain to take a look. The area has a 2600-foot
vertical drop when everything is open, but there were only patches of white
between the parking lot and the top of the first lift.  The bare slopes
looked very steep and from what I could see the upper slopes are also fairly
steep. At only a 90 minute drive from Glasgow, this will bear investigating
on a subsequent trip.

The other half suggested Nevis Range in the shadow of Ben Nevis, the
highest mountain in the British Isles at about 4300 feet. I was told there
were great back bowls and it seemed the more scenic drive so I went for
it. The route took me through spectacular hills and lakes and I arrived
at Nevis Range around noon. A half-day ticket was only 11 pounds and though
there was not much snow down in the parking area, there seemed to be a
lot further up the mountain.


Nevis Range trail maps

Nevis Range trail maps
Nevis Range trail

Since Nevis Range is just about on the coast, the base is only 300 feet
and you can never ski to the bottom. There is a gondola that takes you
from the parking lot to the skiing. Legend has it that the lift was built
in an area where a witch was burned at the stake in the 12th century and
perhaps that is why it is always an adventure trying to get up the lift.
(It may also be the constant 30-50 m.p.h. winds coming off the nearby sea!)
I had an average trip and the lift stopped just three times on the way
up. Thanks to the melting snow, It was about a 500 yard walk to the base
of the quad chair that took you up to the Snow Goose, a broad, fairly steep
open slope in a gully that truly collected a lot of snow. It held great
corn with lots of nice spring bumps. Getting to the snow from the top of
the quad involved crossing a stream and rock field that had been covered
by the kind of mats that they use on dry slopes. When people want to ski
they come up with ingenious methods for overcoming obstacles.

The real skiing at Nevis Range, however, is in Coire Dubh, a giant bowl
now serviced by the Braveheart chairlift. It requires three lifts after
you ride the gondola to get to the summit, and then you have to find your
way through a massive cornice to get into the bowl. The clouds had lowered
as I approached the summit, so I was happy to be accompanied by a lift
operator who acted as my guide. From the top of the summit button (poma)
lift we took off our skis and negotiated a bare moonscape until we found
a single traverse through the massive cornice. “They push that cornice
over every morning with the piste machines, but it keeps getting built
up anyway,” he told me.

With the clouds in place, entering the bowl was very disorienting. There
were no landmarks other than the top of the Braveheart chair 200 feet down
the bowl, and you could not tell how steep anything was. I traversed in
and then made some turns down a fairly steep slope in wonderful corn snow. 
Unfortunately, the Braveheart chair was not running (parts, not wind this
time) so we could only ski the top of the bowl and then had to traverse
out, but we got to ski some more of the steep sides of the bowl on the
way to the Rob Roy lift. The lift operator told me it was knee-deep powder
throughout the bowl the previous weekend. (Where had I heard that before?)
To get back to the Snow Goose we had to ride the world’s slowest chair
lift which chugged directly into the ever-present west wind.

Skiing the Snow Goose later in the afternoon, I pulled my binding out of one
of my skis to finish the weekend as it had begun: walking through sheep pastures
with plastic boots on my feet and skis on my shoulder.

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