Category Archives: Scotland

Snowboarding in Scotland: When it’s good, it’s very, very good…

GlensheeWhenever I go snowboarding in the Scottish mountains, I’m reminded of a nursery rhyme that my Grandad used to recite about a little girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead, that went: “When she was good, she was very, very good. But when she was bad, she was horrid.”

I’m quite sure it was never intended to be an analogy for skiing and snowboarding in Scotland, but it pretty much sums it up perfectly!

Glenshee ski areaUntil a couple of weeks ago, conditions had been frustratingly horrid, with storms and hurricane force winds that not only made winter sports impossible but blew away the snow and caused loads of damage. However, things eventually took a turn for the better mid January when a band of high pressure moved in and the weather calmed down enough to allow the ski areas to repair the damage, clear the roads and groom the runs. By the weekend of 17th January all five Scottish ski areas were open and people flocked there in their masses to enjoy fantastic snow and clear blue skies.

Glenshee cafeHaving been unable to go that weekend, and taken to the snow on my mountain bike instead, I was desperate to get up there before conditions deteriorated again. We had a small window of availability on Tuesday and Wednesday, and after checking the forecast, Wednesday seemed to be the better option.

snowboarding Glenshee

Photo: Philly Waygood

It was a lovely morning when we left Edinburgh and it stayed that way all the way to Glenshee. The journey up is usually fraught with anxiety over just what you’ll find when you get there. Will the road be open? Will it be too windy for the lifts to operate? Will there be enough snow? Will we be able to see anything?! Even if it’s forecast to be good when you leave Edinburgh, it can have changed completely by the time you get there, which, on occasion, has resulted in an about turn at the Spittal of Glenshee, or sooner.

Fortunately the road was completely clear and the metre high wall of snow lining it was an indication that we ought to be ok on the snow front. The weather was also unusually calm with patches of blue sky visible, so all in all things were looking good. This was confirmed when the ski area came into view, and not only did most of the lifts seem to be operating, but the slopes were bathed in sunlight. Phew.

Butchart's Coire GlensheeAlthough the weather was good, except for a bit of a fresh breeze, which was nothing compared to how it can be, we soon discovered that we were unable to get over the back to Meall Odhar, Coire Fionn and Glas Maol, presumably because there wasn’t enough snow cover. It didn’t matter though as the snow was so good everywhere else, and the slopes were nice and quiet. We spent most of our time over at Butchart’s Coire, and in a way it was a bit of a blessing in disguise as I’d normally just do a couple of runs on that side before heading over the back. It was great to explore Butchart’s properly and discovered Butchart’s Gully, an awesome natural boardercross, Glensheewhich I didn’t even know was there!

We rode all afternoon, loving every minute, until the descending sun started to turn the mountains a glorious shade of pink. On the way back, we stopped off at the Bridge of Cally Hotel for a wee après drink and reflected on what a great day it had been. There’s no doubt that skiing and snowboarding in Scotland can be a little hit or miss, but like the girl with the little curl, when it’s good, it’s very, very good.

For more photos head to the Riding Switch Facebook page or Instagram

Highs and lows in the Scottish mountains

IMG_5767Skiing and snowboarding in Scotland is like a bag of Revels (what box of chocolates doesn’t tell you exactly what you’re going to get?) You might get a toffee or it could be a coffee*, but more often than not you’ll get the whole bag. I’ve made the journey up from Edinburgh twice in the past few weeks and had so many Revels, I’m still buzzing from the sugar rush.

With all the snow that’s been falling in the Scottish mountains, I’d been desperate to get up there for a shred. Reports of more snow than Whistler and pictures more reminiscent of the Alps than the Highlands were pretty hard to resist. So, when Dan and I found ourselves with a couple of days to spare that didn’t appear to coincide with a tempest, we decided to head to Nevis Range where conditions looked like they were going to be best.

IMG_5768As we left the house at 6am(ish) I couldn’t shake the sinking feeling in my stomach that we were heading for disappointment, but tried to remain optimistic and put it down to the early start. That’s the problem with riding in Scotland. The weather is so unpredictable that conditions can change in the blink of an eye and even if it all looks good when you leave, by the time you get up there it can be a very different story.

As we drove north it started to snow and got increasingly heavy the further we went. However, as we approached Nevis Range the snow ceased and cloud parted to reveal snow covered mountains bathed in blue sky and sunshine. We could hardly believe our luck and headed up the gondola as quickly as possible. Not long into our ascent, the gondola started to sway and the sinking feeling returned to my stomach. As we exited the gondola station we were hit by what felt like, and probably were, gale force winds, which did their best to wrestle our boards from our hands.

Frozen fenceUndeterred by the breeze, we strapped on our boards and headed up the only couple of tows that were still running. Once we were headed downhill it was fine and other than a few patches where it had been wind blasted, the snow was great. The views were also stunning and we thanked our lucky stars that we were at least able to see where we were going. Sadly that wasn’t to last and the weather closed in after a few runs which lead us to seek refuge in the café.

Needless to say the café was packed but there were still plenty of hardy souls out there braving the winds, driving snow and bad vis; not least the ski school kids who were being ushered out into the wilds while their parents looked on from the warmth and comfort of the café.

IMG_5922The wind did die down a bit as the afternoon went on and we got some good runs in the limited area that was open.

The next morning it looked like it was going to be another clear day and when we pitched up at the ticket office we were told that there had been loads of snow overnight, the wind had dropped and the slopes were looking great. However, in the time it took us to get our gear out of the car, conditions had deteriorated so much that they’d had to close the gondola. It’s a frustrating scenario that’s been all too common this season.

Our trip to Nevis may have promised many a toffee Revel that turned out to be coffees but the opposite was true of our trip to Glenshee a week or so later.

IMG_5936Predictably enough the promise of light snow and a bit of sunshine that had been forecast the night before had changed to rain and fog by the morning, but as we were already up and ready, we decided to make the journey all the same.

We’d barely crossed the Forth Bridge when the fog started to set in, which didn’t bode well for the rest of the day, but we kept going, ever hopeful of the chance of toffees.

The fog lingered for the entire journey until we got to the Spittal of Glenshee where miraculously it lifted, taking our spirits with it. By the time we got to the car park it was drizzly and overcast, but it was at least mild and, most importantly, still.

The visibility wasn’t the best for our first few runs and we needed wipers for our goggles, but we were just happy that the snow was good, if a bit heavy, and the whole area was open.

IMG_5920After a few runs on the lower slopes we headed up to Glas Maol in the hope that the drizzle might be snow up there. As we suspected, it was loads better, and although we couldn’t see much on our first run, the snow was incredible so it didn’t matter.

As we rode up the Glas Maol tow for the second time, the unthinkable happened.  A glow started to appear in the sky and by the time we got to the top, the sky had completely cleared to reveal the huge bowl in all its splendour. The ride down was among the best I’ve ever had in Scotland and by the time we got to the bottom we both had massive grins on our faces. Sadly we only got a couple of runs like that before the cloud closed in again as quickly as it had lifted, but by then we knew where all the fun hits were and which bits to avoid. We did see a few people accidentally send themselves off the cliff half way down though!

IMG_5931As the afternoon went on, the cloud lifted and sun broke through again periodically but rarely stayed that way for more than a few minutes at a time. It did brighten up again right at the end of the day though allowing us to enjoy our last run in a spectacularly lit, empty bowl. It’s always good to finish the bag with a toffee although it always leaves me wanting to open another one straight after!

Conditions may be a bit hit or miss in the Scottish mountains at the moment but it’s going to be amazing when we get a period of high pressure and settled weather. And with the volume of snow that’s up there, we should still have loads of time left to enjoy it!

*My favourite Revels are toffee and least favourite coffee. Please substitute your own preferences accordingly.

For more pictures check out the Riding Switch Facebook page.

A strange season

Finally, fresh snow in the Alps!

Finally, fresh snow in the Alps!

It’s been a funny old season so far in Europe, and not in the laugh out loud sense of the word. Loads of early snow in November got people excited about the prospect of another great snow season, but other than a dump over Christmas and New Year, conditions have been pretty spring-like on the whole.

Forecasts for fresh snow have kept coming, only to be pushed back or diminish in substance. Things were starting to get pretty desperate but fortunately the Alps received a big dump of snow on Monday night, which has revived not only the slopes but spirits too.

Dan Tignes Jan 14 rockThe mister is out in Tignes at the moment and the fresh snow has quickly turned his grumbles into gloating. Not sure what’s worse! I am, of course, just jealous as it looks amazing, and certainly a far cry from the footage of sketchy conditions that he was sending me a few days ago, which was infinitely more bearable.

However, it’s not all good news. Unfortunately this cycle of snow followed by prolonged periods of thaw that we’ve experienced so far this season, combined with a weak layer of hoar frost that formed in November, has resulted in an extremely unstable snowpack and one of the highest avalanche risks in years. There have already been at least 20 fatalities and as many injured in avalanches throughout the Alps and we’re only a matter of weeks into the season.

Dan Tignes Jan 14

Today in Tignes

There has been much debate over whether or not people should be venturing off piste at all this season, and while it may seem a little extreme and premature to be making such sweeping statements, there’s absolutely no doubt that any forays off piste should be treated with extreme caution.

Until yesterday, with such little fresh snow around, the off piste hasn’t really looked all that enticing anyway, but it’s when fresh snow comes to snow starved slopes, not to mention snow starved riders, that the real danger arises. The temptation is to hit the fresh pow hard to make up for lost time, but it’s easy to forget that under that fresh stuff is a layer of bullet proof snow, and lurking further below that is particularly unstable layer that’s already been responsible for an inordinate number of deaths. As avalanche expert Robert Bolognesi described it: “It is as if there are ball bearings under the more recent snow. The layers have not adhered to each other”. For more info on this check out Peter Hardy’s article in the Telegraph.

Breck Jan 14

Current conditions in Breckenridge. Yeah, whatever.

The overriding message is be very careful out there. If you’re determined to venture off piste, make sure you know what you’re doing; are with people who also know what they’re doing; and that you’re all properly equipped. And there’s no point just carrying a transceiver – you need to know how to use it! Lecture over.

Of course, on the other side of the pond they’ve got the opposite “problem” of extremely low temperatures and shed loads of snow. Great if you’re in the mountains, but possibly not so much if you’re trying to go about your daily business in New York.

And Scotland’s actually not looking too bad either. It’s the resorts on the west that are faring the best (that bit closer to North America, I guess!) and there are some stunning pictures emerging from Nevis Range. The Scottish mountains are no stranger to strong winds but recently they’ve taken a real beating. Storms have caused damage, prevented uplift and blown away precious snow in the ski areas, but fortunately it seems to have calmed down now and is looking pretty good.

Nevis Range Jan 14

Nevis Range looking awesome

I’m planning to get up there soon, but in the meantime the relatively mild weather in the lowlands has meant that I’m managing to get in plenty of mountain biking, which is helping to curb my cravings to shred.

The next trip is to Bansko in Bulgaria in a couple of weeks, where I’ve been invited by British run chalet company, Snomads. Unfortunately they’ve also been cursed by a slow start to the season so I’m crossing fingers for a miraculous turnaround in the next fortnight! Who says it’s all about powder anyway? 😉

Over to you…

How’s your season been so far? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

Back on board at Val de Shee

When I set myself the challenge of getting back on the slopes (post broken arm) before the end of the season, the last place I thought I’d achieve it was in Scotland, in April!

Glenshee 8 Apr 2013I’d been drooling over photos of amazing conditions in all the Scottish ski areas, which had been appearing persistently on my Facebook page over the past couple of months. But having been told that my arm still wasn’t properly mended, I was resigned to the fact that this was probably the closest I was going to get to the Scottish slopes during what has been an incredible season.

However, as photos of fresh powder, blue skies, and competition-sized parks kept coming, and spring showed no sign of making an appearance, I started to feel optimistic that I might indeed manage to get a piece of the action.

IMG_2791So, when I got the go ahead from the surgeon that my wrist had mended, I got planning a trip straight away. We headed up to Glenshee on 8th April, hoping to experience some of the great conditions that have been so prevalent, but also equally prepared for type of hostile conditions which have greeted us on arrival all too many times.

Fortunately we were in luck, and as we climbed the final stretch from Bridge of Cally to the base area, there were more patches of blue sky to be seen than grey, and the sun was even gracing us with its presence. The appearance of the sun at this time of year usually heralds a deterioration in snow conditions, but with the exception of a couple of icy patches on the Cairnwell side, the snow was excellent throughout the area, with loads of soft stuff and even some powder.

Glenshee 8 Apr 13I had never experienced conditions like it in Scotland before, and even my parents who’ve been skiing in Scotland for over 40 years said the same. My boyfriend, Dan, who’d spent a week in Tignes a few weeks earlier, declared it to be better than anything they’d had there during the entire week. Admittedly they did seem to have a particularly bad week in Tignes, but it was a pretty good accolade nonetheless!

It did actually feel like we could be in the Alps. There was so much snow that the wooden snow fences, so characteristic of Scottish ski areas, were practically buried, leaving us with only the odd patch of exposed heather to remind us that we were indeed in Scotland. Even the banners at the end of the runs urging overzealous skiers and boarders to slow down read ‘Ralentir’, which we decided must be due to them having got some cheap cast offs from France rather than a need to cater to the sudden influx of visitors from the continent.

Glenshee 8 April 13In fact, there were hardly any visitors at all. We’d had the luxury of timing our trip to avoid the school holidays and the weekend crowds, so the slopes were practically empty.

Just as we were getting carried away with our comparisons to skiing in the Alps, we received a rude reminder that we were most definitely in Scotland. Out of the blue, the weather changed dramatically, and in the time it took to take the Glas Maol Poma from bottom to top, it went from being clear and still, to a full on storm with practically zero visibility. The flat ridge at the top of Glas Maol, with its warning signs to one side and fencing to the other, is not the best place to find yourself in those kind of conditions, especially with hardly anyone else on the slopes. Fortunately though, the storm passed as quickly as it had set in and, after a treacherous traverse, we ended up having another great run down.

Later on, sitting in the Bridge of Cally Hotel bar sipping an après beer, sun streaming in the big bay windows, we once again started to make associations with being in the Alps. Until, that is, Dan interjected with a valid point: “It’s nothing like French après. The beer is way better!”

Glenshee revisited

Although I’m Scottish, have lived most of my life in Scotland and made my first tentative turns on the slopes of Glenshee as a child, I’m ashamed to say that, until this week, I hadn’t ridden in Scotland for many years.

Throughout my teenage years we chose to drive for approximately 24 hours from Edinburgh to the French Alps rather than 2 ½ hours to the closest Scottish ski area of Glenshee. But that was a time when snow in the Scottish Highlands was in short supply and it was rarely worth the trip up. A far cry from the stories my parents tell of skiing there every weekend of the season when they were students.

Glenshee last weekend

However, the past few years have seen a very timely turnaround in fortunes for the Scottish ski industry, which until then, had been on the brink of collapse. Winter 2009/10 was an epic season where they received record levels of snowfall, and last year wasn’t far behind. Only time will tell what this season has in store, but it certainly got off to a good start.

Typically enough, it was as soon as I decided I’d had enough of dreary British winters and headed overseas in pursuit of perennial powder, that the snow gods decided to revisit my homeland. And while I was experiencing  periods of abnormally low snowfall in Colorado and the Alps, Scotland was being hammered with the white stuff. Oh the irony.

So, having recently moved back up to Scotland, I was determined to hit the hills at the earliest opportunity. And I didn’t have long to wait as, once again, the Scottish ski season has got off to a great start. Despite Hurricane Bawbag’s best efforts, all five of the Scottish ski areas were open for business by mid December and last weekend conditions were fantastic, with fresh snow and blue skies.

Glenshee on Monday, 19 December

Obviously I chose to make my pilgrimage on Monday once the weather had started to close in again. Black ice had caused chaos on the motorways resulting in the journey taking twice as long as usual, but these were to be my first turns of the season and the first in my homeland for years, so there was no way I was turning back!

It was snowing heavily by the time we arrived at Glenshee but (unusually for Scotland) there was no wind. Visibility wasn’t great but with all the fresh snow on the slopes, it really didn’t matter.

Glenshee piste map

Most of the area was open and we had a great afternoon ripping it up. I’d forgotten just how extensive it is. It may not be Les Trois Vallées, but with 40km of pistes spanning 2000 acres and 4 mountains, it certainly beats the snow dome!

Had it not been for the distinctive snow fences and ubiquitous Scottish accents, we could easily have been in an alpine resort, although I am prepared to concede that a combination bad visibility, patriotic blinkering and rose tinted goggle lenses may well have helped me reach this conclusion.

However, nationalistic biases aside, there’s no questioning the fact that when conditions are right, Scotland’s mountains offer fantastic and hugely underrated terrain for British skiers and boarders. Unfortunately, when it takes the same amount of time to travel to the Alps, where conditions are much more reliable and everything is on a much greater scale, it’s a no-brainer for the majority of Brits.

But those North of the border have five excellent ski areas at their disposal and thanks to the run of good seasons, the areas have been able to invest more in making improvements to their infrastructure and facilities.

Unfortunately conditions have started to deteriorate since the beginning of the week due to the increase in temperatures, but the Scottish Highlands will still be the only part of the UK experiencing a white Christmas this year. And with any luck Father Christmas will have brought more snow and colder temperatures with him from Lapland!

Happy Christmas everyone!