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If you'd like to ski Scotland, then there are a few points to bear in mind about the nature of the experience. I started this page for the 2009 season, updating it as time went by. Looking back, I can draw no conclusions except how unpredicatable each ski Scotland season can be. For 2012? I'm saying nothing until it happens.
Right, I've been on skis on Cairngorm, Glen Coe, Nevis Range, Glenshee and the Lecht. I've carried skis up into Coire Odhar, near Ben Lawers, where there is no mechanised uplift now but was once a popular ski area. Anyway, I had a beautiful sparkling crisp afternoon's skiing. I've also lugged the old planks high above Glen Muick near Ballater looking for snow. Then l've lugged them all the way down again, not having found any.
More memories of ski Scotland - but using cross-country skis - include the trip round Ben Lawers in Perthshire and across a frozen Loch na Chat (in retrospective, quite a stupid thing to do). I've been on the Carn Mairg range to the north, with its broad ridge ideal for a day's trek - see picture below. I've reached the top of An Socach near Braemar on ski. And I've slithered around the Pentlands and the Lammermuirs near Edinburgh.
(Above) Looking south from Carn Mairg, above Glen Lyon,towards Ben Lawers. This was a great day to ski Scotland, even with x-country skis with no steel edges. (I fell over a lot.)
(Above) The Pentland Hills with the winter sun going down. A good depth of snow for a cross country excursion and another aspect of ski Scotland - an easy excursion with a starting point on the edge of Edinburgh
Once, just once, a long time ago, being determined to make an important appointment, I abandoned the car one snowy afternoon in Edinburgh and skied across the Meadows, down The Mound, and through Princes Street Gardens. I had to take off the skis at the west end of Princes Street because I kept bumping into pedestrians.
Then there were the continental trips to St Anton, to Meribel, to Montgenevre, and summer skiing above Tigne. And there is the permanent reminder of skiing that sets off the alarms at airport security checks - the large metal plate below the knee - the result of not checking the bindings on an old pair of skis. (I'd rather not talk about it.) But, it seems to me that there is ski Scotland and there is skiing on continental Europe. And they are completely different sports.
If you read your WH Murray (sometimes described as the 'doyen' of Scottish mountain writers), you'll find that in a chapter of his book 'The Scottish Highlands', about the development of skiing in Scotland, he remarks upon the unreliability of snow conditions. For example, after World War I, there was a succession of snowless winters until 1929.
Then the winter snows returned and in the 1930s, the aforementioned Corrie Odhar, west of Ben Lawers, became quite a centre, with a small engine-powered tow eventually installed there, postwar, along with one south of Braemar in Glen Clunie. (You can see that one marked on old one-inch Ordnance Survey maps.) Then, in the 1950s, the first permanent uplift was built by the Scottish Ski Club on the north side of Meall a'Bhuiridh, Glen Coe, and ski Scotland was set to go.
Next, a whole lot of development agencies, as well as private companies stepped in and skiing took off in the 1960s. There were some crazy schemes. I'm also just old enough to remember seeing bits of pipes and other works on a hillside near Mar Lodge, west of Braemar on upper Deeside, the remains of an abandoned ski development in the early 1960s. Imagine - thinking that the low south-facing slope there would hold snow, even with their fancy snow-making equipment. But though Mar Lodge was a failure long ago, the end result was the eventual development and expansion of five other centres in Scotland. (I sometimes think that old definition of marriage, that is, the triumph of hope over experience, applies to skiing in Scotland as well.)
(Above) Ben Vorlich and Stuc a' Chroin from the Knock Hill, Crieff. Taken on a January day when Scotland's ski centres must have done great business.
What could be easier? You're on the highest main road in Scotland (see caption below!) and at the highest point - around 2200ft (670m) there's a vast carpark gouged out of the moor, with lifts and tows on both sides of the road. You can clomp off in your ski boots and join the queues. OK, these plateau-lands hereabouts are not much over 3000ft for an average height but Glenshee boasts the biggest network of lifts in Scotland, so if it snows you've got a lot of choice.
It's small and friendly, its runs are conveniently short as it's the lowest of the developments and it generates the fiercest loyalty of the Scottish ski places, perhaps because it's friendly. When Cairngorm closes because of high winds, skiers descend on these dull brown domes and it gets very busy but friendly. It always promotes itself as a friendly place for beginners and intermediates. Did I mention it was friendly?
And why shouldn't a wee ski Scotland place talk itself up? Blow me if The Lecht isn't claiming to have the highest main road in Scotland now, as this snip from their website shows. Call me picky, but technically, they're the second highest. The Cairnwell Pass at Glenshee beats them by a whole 85ft (26m). Honest.
Actually, this is another place that skiers from the west of Scotland in particular are prepared to defend. 'Aye', they say, 'if you can ski on the ice here, you can ski anywhere.' I remember hurling myself over a slope so steep that I couldn't see where I was going to end up. To be honest, I haven't skied here for a few years, though.
Catch Scotland's only funicular for a high level shopping experience - over 1000 metres above sea level. In fact, it's the highest shopping experience in Britain. Then there's the Ptarmigan Restaurant, named after a bird much disturbed by skiers. Get married up there. Organise a corporate function or a ceilidh. Oh, and bring your skis with you, just in case.
This development near Fort William will deposit you at the highest point reached by uplift in Scotland. Part of the way up is by Scotland's only gondola system. You've got to hand it to these Venetians with their stripey jumpers and straw hats. They're nothing if not tenacious, having to paddle all that way uphill. Nearby Fort William markets itself as Scotland's Outdoor Capital. The Indoor Capital niche is presumably still available for some other enterprising Scottish town.
This is a high-level picture of the ski centre at Glenshee, dated 15 April 2007. The Picture is taken from almost the summit of Creag Leacach. The car park is directly above the black dog's nose. No, I can't see any snow at all. However, 2008-09 was better, while 2009-10 AND 2010-11 were just amazing. 2011-12 was patchier - which all goes to show how difficult it is to predict anything!
All of the Scottish ski developments have diversified in one way or another, and are understandably preoccupied with making some money out of their chairlift, funicular or gondola at other seasons. Nevis Range has Scotland's longest downhill mountain biking track for instance. The Lecht has mountain bike runs as well now, under the banner of 'Lecht 2090' - the figure either being the height of the carpark in feet or possibly the date when they next expect snow. (WRONG! You can see this bit of copy goes back to 2009!!) Anyway, it looks like a lot of fun. They also feature the frequently misspelled 'Deval Karts'. These are four wheeled buggies, like go-karts without the engine, that go careering downhill in a cloud of dust, accompanied by happy screaming. I like it when you see them written as 'devil carts', which make them sound even more daring.
As mentioned above, Cairngorm (whO preFer to bE knOwn as CairnGorm) trundles its train as a tourist attraction all year, snow or not, while the obliging gondoliers at Nevis Range are very busy carrying mountain bikes up the mountain and it's a great resource in consequence. (OK, that's just a wee joke, please don't write to me abut this.) Actually, there seems to have been some branding at one or two of the skiing places by adding the word 'mountain' after the development name - CairnGorm Mountain, GlenCoe Mountain and so on. Presumably this is to make it absolutely clear what type of terrain it's best to ski on.
Should you bother coming to Scotland to ski (or snowboard, obviously)? My answer is a resounding 'I don't know'. Frankly, I wouldn't want to have the responsibility of giving you advice. Ski Scotland? I've had my face frozen off while sitting in chairlifts in freezing winds. I've fumed at the length of queues in places. I've scared myself witless on icy slopes and I've seen what's inside some of those pies they sell. And I've clattered over the heather and struck sparks off the stones in the ever-shrinking piste - a word that my spell checker so wants to change to 'pasta'. But I've also enjoyed great views, seen a few windless blue days and had some laughs (though mostly at the operators' optimistic descriptions of the ski conditions).
So, check the ski Scotland weather forecasts closely, and be prepared to go at a day's notice. You never can tell. I'm just relieved I got to the end of the page without mentioning global warming. Hmm. Think on balance I'll just book a devil cart.
But is it gonna snow this year?
Now, you’re not really expecting me to make any predictions here, are you? Remember that the original page, with its not-so-subtle implications that it’s never going to snow again in Scotland, was written about two months before the best skiing season for years: 2009-10. (And it's been a devil cart of a job keeping it up to date ever since. Glad I'm not in the ski Scotland predictions business.)
And since this occasional entry can be no more than a snapshot, I suggest you keep an eye on the Cairngorm webcam. Because, just like last year, there's a lot of autumn birdy activity, incoming wildlfowl from the Arctic mostly, that suggests another hard winter is likely. I’m going to keep the cross-country ski-boots handy, just in case.
Up to date ski Scotland information here.
More facts about Scotland here.
Or here's the mountain weather:
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Scotland in Three Days