Skiing touring in Scotland can be amazing (in all kinds of ways!). I’ve been learning to love the tough conditions, as well as the beautiful moments. My latest experience came as part of the annual Wild Ski Weekend at Glenmore Lodge, near Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands.
17 things learned on the Wild Ski Weekend
1 The snow can come late – and suddenly in Scotland.
Just two weekends before the Wild Ski Weekend, the snow was almost non-existent in the Cairngorms. The weekend before, the snow had started to fall and I enjoyed some of it on a back country ski tour with Blair Aitken. But it was still a bit sketchy…
Then in the week before the #wildski festival, it snowed a little more and finally it started to properly dump. The Wild Ski Weekend took place on the best snow of the 2019 season (so far).
2 It’s possible to enjoy ski touring even in tough conditions.
While there was plenty of snow, the weather was wild (that’s poignant when it’s a Wild Ski Weekend!). There was heavy snowfall, wind, white outs and areas of sastrugi, ice and river holes.
Yet our Wild Ski group guides and leaders found some great places to ski, in locations where the snow was often powdery and where we could enjoy some superb turns.
We even discovered a few places where the wind dropped to an impressive calm.
And, when the sun broke through the clouds and snow, even for the shortest moment, the world seemed like a very different and most wonderful place.
I think you appreciate the great moments more when you have experienced the tough stuff.
3 You learn more when the skiing is difficult.
I have enjoyed ski touring in fantastic weather and on powder snow. (Here is a day of blue bird ski touring in Scotland.) I do love that. But I learned far more in the one #wildski weekend of tricky conditions than weeks of blue bird skiing.
My group guide, the very knowledgeable and affable George Reid, provided lots of tips and advice on how to ski on unpredictable snow and in challenging weather.
George is a Mountain Guide and holds the BASI Level 3 ISIA (International Ski Instructor’s Award).
I had a number of breakthrough moments and finished each day feeling I had improved considerably.
4 Ski tourers earn their turns.
Ski touring does not traditionally use the ski resort uplifts (although you can buy a single uplift ticket at some of the Ski Scotland resorts).
During two days of Wild Ski touring we skinned many hundreds of metres uphill to be able to ski downhill. Then we skied uphill again! This meant that I felt properly rewarded for our efforts by the downs.
5 Avalanche awareness and ski safety is complicated… but vital.
I have previously attended an avalanche awareness session and I have read about how to decide if the snowy mountains are safe but it’s still a complicated business.
Our small group of skiers requested hat George give us as much information as he could about determining skier safety in the mountains. I learned a huge amount about the various checks one should make.
From correctly reading the reports by the Scottish Avalanche Information Service and weather forecasts to on-mountain checks such as “quick sheer tests” and reading the slope angles, George provided us with a wealth of important information.
6 It’s also vital to know how to do a rescue should the worst happen.
George buried his rucksack and showed us how to use our transceivers, probe and shovel to rescue it. Although I had practised this before it was helpful to be reminded.
Here is no point carrying safety kit if you do not know how to use it.
7 The same applies to a map and compass.
If you can’t use these you will not be safe to navigate, especially in the snowy mountains. Snow and flat light in the hills makes map reading difficult so you should be a competent navigator to stay on track and safe.
8 It’s important to pay attention to the ski brakes.
Earlier on Saturday, George had been telling us his tips for ski touring transitions. This is when you swap from skiing uphill to downhill skiing or vice versa. He had made the point that ski brakes should be engaged when you place your skis on a snowy slope.
I’d listened and made a mental note. Frustratingly, a slight lapse in my concentration towards the end of day caused one of my skis to suddenly take off and slide down Coire na Ciste. I held my breath (and probably squealed) as the ski picked up speed on the slope.
I was lucky that it came to a stop and did not career down one of several large holes in the snow.
I was also fortunate to have the support of the guys in the group who helped me to retrieve my ski. This wasn’t before I managed to step into a deep hole, which filled my ski boot with freezing water, as I descended the snowy gully.
Big lesson learned.
9 I have now skied in some famous places.
Over the years, I have listened to back country skiers talk about great places to ski in the Cairngorms. This weekend, I skied in two of these locations, Coire na Ciste and Lurcher’s Gully.
In fact, I had attempted to ski Coire na Ciste the weekend before but the lack of snow and lots of ice had made me nervous.
This weekend, with far more snow, I managed to ski the whole corrie. It wasn’t stylish and I had a few anxious moments (especially as it was hard to see much more than a few metres ahead) but I did get down by turning my skis.
10 It turns out I have also skied in Lurcher’s before…
I had totally forgotten – and also not recognised – the fact that around nine years ago I skied Lurcher’s Gully when descending from Ben Macdui.
The last time I was a snowboarder, so skis were not my chosen mode of transport on snow. It was also my first ski touring outing and I was exhausted after skiing to Cairngorm summit, then Macdui before the descent. This is my ancient report.
I was gratified to realise that I skied Lurcher’s with far more skill and enjoyment than that first time.
11 Skiing through a herd of reindeer is magical.
As we returned to the Cairngorm Mountain centre on the last day of ski touring, we chanced upon a local herd of “free-range” reindeer.
George suggested we could make a detour to ski among them. We readily agreed and discovered they are quite tame. It was an amazing experience to ski between these beautiful creatures.
12 I need a slightly larger ski touring bag.
I have the Osprey Kresta ski touring pack. It is 20l and it feels like a bit of a squeeze to fit in all my safety kit and spare layers. Admittedly, I do get cold and I am skiing in Scotland so I require extra layers and gloves.
The pack is really comfortable and has lots of great features. But I think I need a pack that is around 30l.
13 I’ve finally worked out how to stay warm on the snowy mountains.
I get cold quite easily in the winter mountains. The problem is that I heat up and sweat when skinning uphill and then, when we stop for a bite to eat or to transition to downhill skiing, my body goes into a bit of a shutdown. I start to shiver and my hands freeze up.
I have found that by adding a too-big-for-me Mammut insulated jacket over the top of all my other layers keeps me warm enough.
I also make sure I have a spare pair of insulated gloves with me and that I wear lightweight insulated gloves as a liner (Rab Xenon gloves are my favourites just now) almost all the time. Bare skin and cold wind makes my fingers almost instantly numb.
George made a good point, too, that if you keep your body warm, wear good quality baselayers and warm leggings under windproof shells, you are more likely to maintain warmth in your hands and feet.
14 The Wild Ski Weekend is far more than just skiing.
As well as ski touring for two days, the weekend included an interesting presentation on “risk” by Phil Ebert, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Stirling; a great film called Comfort Zones (featuring Phil and created by Morrocco Media); excellent food and cake; a night of music courtesy of the fantastic Los Perros, a Scottish band from Ayrshire; a chance to check out the latest ski kit (Julbo, Petzl, Black Crow Skis, Scarpa etc); and to meet new people. I also caught up with people I had not seen for years.
15 The prizes for the best photos in three Wild Ski competition were awesome.
I wish I was good enough to take great photos because I would have loved to win a prize.
16 The women-only groups have proved to be very popular.
Last year, at the first Wild Ski Weekend, there was a request for a women-only ski touring group. This was popular.
This year, demand was even greater and the organisers arranged for more places in female-only guided groups.
I asked one of the women why she preferred to sign up to a women-only group. Megan told me: “I thought the women-only group would feel less intimidating. Although I am a capable skier I am new to ski touring and I was concerned the other skiers might be better or more adventurous than me.
“I thought I would feel more comfortable in a female-only group where the atmosphere is generally less competitive. I have really enjoyed being part of a group of female skiers and I would definitely recommend it.”
My experience as the only female in a group of men (part of one of the Wild Ski Adventure groups) was not in the least competitive. It felt very inclusive and supportive. However, I think there will have been men-only groups that were more testosterone fuelled.
Hubby G was part of a more adventurous Tame the Wild Side group, which aimed to seek out steeper and tougher terrain. He enjoyed his group but I think it would have been a bit full-on male for me!
What I liked about the Wild Ski Weekend was that there was a group for all sensibilities and abilities, including Discover the Wild, Wild Ski Adventure
and Tame the Wild Side, as well as the Black Crows Women’s Session
The feeling of the organisers is that if women are keen for female-only groups then they will arrange this but not at the exclusion of mixed gender groups.
17 Ski touring is exhausting – and I will need to (wo)man up.
My legs were sore after just two days of ski touring. I will need to toughen up for our forthcoming 10-day ski touring trip to Norway.
But at least I know have a great deal more experience – and a valuable resource of tips and advice – to draw on while we are away.
To find out about the Wild Ski Weekend 2020 keep an eye on the Glenmore Lodge website.