Discover Backcountry: Haggis & Harscheisen: Scotland’s Backcountry Scene
Photo: Blair Aitken
Much has been written about Scottish skiing’s unpredictable snow record but those in the know, those prepared to hike for their lines have always found adventure in the Scottish mountains.
Last winter though was pretty exceptional and snow blanketed the peaks for many months. With the conditions returning to that of the classic Scottish winter, adventurous skiers got the chance to put tracks down many of their bucket list peaks. Along with his Facebook group British Backcountry, Blair Aitken is leading the way inspiring others to explore the rugged Highlands with just their own two legs.
When I left the French Alps to return to Scotland many of my fellow instructors mocked me. You'll be back they said. I wasn’t so sure. I had been ski touring in Scotland every spring and knew there was enough to keep my favourite pastime going at least. One thing I hadn’t envisaged was just how many other people shared my passion. Social media has turned a spotlight on British backcountry skiing and my feeds now contain more updates from the Highlands than they do from the French Alps. Never one to miss an opportunity I decided to see if I could get my old job back again, without having to return to the Alps and face everyone saying, I told you so!
In the summer of 2017 I started advertising Ski Touring skills courses initially at Midlothian Artificial Ski Centre. The idea was to introduce people to the sport as easily as possible, without the commitment of an expensive trip abroad, or the risk of unpredictable conditions in the Highlands. The centre was perfect. We practiced kick turns and line choice on the nursery slope, used the lecture facility for theory and did transceiver searches in the bracken. Then came the finale - a mass ascent of the tow slope complete with transition under the top chairlift station and decent of the main slope.
The Autumn came and thoughts turned to winter. An early snowfall had promised great things on the British Isles and some opportunistic ski tours were made. Lancashire even briefly topped the UK powder skiing charts. My 10,000 members strong Facebook group came back to life and I started taking bookings for winter work. The early snow vanished but the bookings kept coming and soon all my courses were full. I have never wished for snow as much as I did in December, mainly for fear of having to refund everyone! When it did come, the snow did not disappoint.
The 2017/18 season has seen a return to (dare I say it) 2010 conditions. Cold dry powder snow has been skied, on occasion waist deep, and full descents to Loch level have been made. Even more bizarrely, that rare blue-sky weather window that normally presents itself on a Tuesday when you and I are at work, has been making an appearance at weekends!
These conditions have made running courses in Scotland a dream. All but one of my days out with clients have been in forgiving snow, under blue skies. I find myself saying, ͞usually in Scotland this is a problem, but today...
Of course on that one bad day three people got blown over and we were forced to retreat back to lower ground for a skills day, rather than complete our journey. A stark reminder of what Scottish ski touring can be like! Saturday the 20th of January was one of those rare days when the window fell on a weekend. The snow level was also low, so low in fact that even Edinburgh was white. For the regular Scottish skier this means two things: I need to get to the hill, and I’m going to spend a lot of time in queues! True to tradition, Scotland’s mountain roads were jammed solid and its resorts were turned into one long and very orderly queue.
Blair Aitkin skiing powder on the Ben Lawers Range
Meanwhile on Ben Lawers something truly remarkable was happening. 1,000 metres vertical of powder snow had collected on South-East facing slopes and it was possible to skin the full height of Ben Lawers or Ben Ghlass, then ski all the way back down to Loch Tay from either. Under blue skies and with zero wind I should add. I had to keep reminding myself that the town below me was in fact Killin and not Val d’Isere. ͞Is it always like this? asked one of my clients. Eh no, not always, I admitted.
I still work occasional peak weeks in Avoriaz. The mountains are full of cold dry powder snow that is ridiculously easy to access, thanks to one of the most over-developed lift systems in the world. The strange thing is that as excited as I am about skiing when I’m out there, I’m still checking the conditions back in Scotland. They’re not as good, but the hills are still white and there is the promise of what is to come. I value my days out in the Highlands as much as a good day in the Alps.
Like snow itself, ski touring descents are fleeting moments that stay with you. The more preparation and work you put into those moments, the more powerful and memorable they are. I’ve skied some terrific lines in the Alps after short lift served hikes. I know they were good, I’ve got the pictures! But I don’t remember them as well as some of my big Scottish ski tours or dramatic Highland gully descents. There is something special about taking part in our wonderful sport on home turf. And if you’re not convinced, come on one of my ski touring courses and I’ll do my best to show you!’