Ski tour of the Campsie Fells
With Covid-19 lockdown restrictions on-going, yet with a desire to satisfy our love of skiing, Hubby G and I looked to our local hills for a fun adventure. The Campsie Fells lie in East Dunbartonshire (our local authority area) and neighbouring Stirlingshire.
We decided to see if we could ski from Crow Road (B822), accessing the hills on a snowy-icy track from the roadside at around 310m, via Holehead weather radar, Holehead summit and Earl’s Seat to reach Dumgoyne and Glengoyne Distillery on the A81. It is a part-traverse of the Campsie Fells and if you wanted to you could extend it to Meikle Bin to the east.
What are the Campsie fells?
Located in central Scotland, the southern side of the hill range sits within East Dunbartonshire, while the eastern and norther edges fall in Stirlingshire. The hills overlook the villages of Strathblane, Blanefield and Lennoxtown to the south; Killearn to the west; and Fintry and Strathendrick to the north.
The name is taken from one of the individual hills in the range called Campsie, which means “crooked fairy hill” from the Scottish Gaelic “cam”, meaning “crooked” and “sìth” meaning “seat”.
Earl’s Seat is the highest point of the Campsie Fells at 578m.
It is the Campsie Fells that are claimed as the birthplace of Scottish skiing after William W Naismith, of Glasgow, skied the area and became the first person to ski in Scotland in March 1892.
Another interesting fact is that The Monty Python film, The Meaning of Life, used the Campsies as a location, standing in for Natal during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.
Ski tour recce in the Campsies
The day before our traverse, we did a shorter recce ski tour from Crow Road to the radar station. Once higher up, we realised that a ski tour across the hills might be possible.
We skied back down the track, making plans for a longer trip the following day.
Ski tour in the Campsies
On Saturday we again started on the Crow Road at a height of 310m and on a track at Campsie Muir. Because it is relatively high and also on the colder, northern side of the Campsies, there was still snow to the roadside even days after the last snowfall.
The track at Campsie Muir leads to a radar station. Holehead radar, or Holehead weather radar, is named after the hill on which it is sited. There is a trig pillar at Holehead marking a height of 552m.
Apparently, Holehead weather radar replaced the former radar on Corse Hill, which was removed from service after the installation of the Whitelee wind farm farm project, near Eaglesham, and the danger of interference from the rotating turbine blades.
Although we could have walked the snow-ice covered track to the weather station – many families and couples were doing did just that – it was also possible to ski. Thanks to the “skins”, which you stick to the base of back country skis, it’s possible to ski uphill.
G and I enjoyed a mostly gentle ascent to the radar, with only one short section of steeper incline. It takes about 35 to 40 minutes of average ski touring speed to reach the radar.
Nearby, you can see Holehead trig pillar.
To find out more about trigs read about Trig bagging.
From Holehead to Earl’s Seat
The snow on the top of the Campsies was what I would call typically Scottish. There was just about enough snow in most places to cover heather, grass and rocks but there were still sections where the vegetation and natural obstacles were sticking out. We decided it was skiable with care.
Brilliantly, we also spotted the lines of two other back country skiers and we were able to follow their trail. This helped immensely for about a third of the ski to Earl’s Seat because the snow was already flattened. Of course, we checked to make sure we were skiing in the right direction but once satisfied we enjoyed following the tracks.
We skied west towards Hart Hill at 522m and thoroughly enjoyed the sense of doing something different and away from other people. The views beneath a blue sky were amazing.
Our aim was to stay as high as possible and to reduce the overall need to ascend and descend the undulating hill range.
Thankfully, the two other skiers had the same idea and we were able to make great progress on gentle ups and downs.
In the distance we could see the skiers and as we began a short descent, before crossing one of many burns, we finally met them. The friends had turned back without reaching Earl’s Seat because they were needed by their families for an afternoon outing.
We chatted for a while and one of the men told us about his great aunt and late great uncle who met while skiing in the Campsies in the 1950s. Back then, it was more common to have heavier and more consistent snowfall in Central Scotland.
Breaking the ski trail in the Campsies
G and I continued to follow the ski tracks already made, but soon afterwards we reached the point where the other skiers had turned back. From here, the going was much slower as we took it in turns to be the lead skier.
The process was tiring and laborious because the snow-covered heather meant that with each step there was the potential to be suddenly halted -and face planted. If we did not lift and slide our skis forwards, the ski tip ended up embedded in the bouncy vegetation – and, subsequently, we would face plant or fall to the side.
Normally when ski touring you can enjoy a push and glide forwards on more compacted, or deeper, snow with each step but in the “very Scottish” conditions we had to work much harder to stay upright.
Other obstacles included peat bogs, iced mud bogs, streams and fences. We also faced a very long climb to the summit of Earl’s Seat from the east.
However, the rewards were plenty. The views all around and across to several hill and mountain ranges were fantastic. The low winter sky gently and rosily lit the snow-topped peaks and for most of the day we enjoyed a bright blue sky.
The contrast of the green valleys and white hills and mountains was truly beautiful.
There was also a great sense of achievement of being able to ski in local hills. While we would have loved a trip to the Scottish Highlands to ski, or to the Alps or Rockies, we were enjoying an adventure very close to home.
In addition, I have long been keen to do a traverse of the Campsies but I had expected it would be on foot. I had been told that the ground can be extremely boggy in places and I have never felt fit enough to run all the way across.
On this occasion, we did not ski the easterly Camspies’ summit of Meikle Bin but we will save that for another day.
From Earl’s Seat to Glengoyne
Finally, we reached the trig pillar on Earl’s Seat and we were suddenly surrounded by other people. Many walkers had chosen the beautiful day for a hike to the highest point in the Fells. No one else had arrived on skis that day.
G and I stopped for a flask of sweet tea and a sandwich before we contemplated the descent and route to Glengoyne Distillery.
There are two options as you head further west on the Campsies and as a runner I would normally choose the more northerly path. It includes more ascent and descent but it is usually less boggy.
But with snow cover, I decided to ski the more southerly route. There was a short descent and so we removed the skins from our skis. Locking down our boot heels on the skis, we took off and hoped for some enjoyable skiing.
The inconsistent snow cover and the generally wet and heavy snow meant it was more of a “survival skiing” descent. I fell a couple of times but I still enjoyed the novelty of skiing over areas of the hill that would normally be treacherous bog and mud.
After a short ski we reached another flat section, where we stopped and reattached the skins. Releasing our boot heels, we set off in ski walk mode again.
By this time, both of us were tiring but we knew we had only around another hour to ski. Several ups and downs took us to a couple of cairns and then we could see the distinctive outline of Dumgoyne at the western end of the Campsies.
The path of snow had been flattened by numerous walkers and while it wasn’t perfect for skiing, it was far better than having to break the trail ourselves.
The final descent of Campsie ski tour
We met another two skiers at a cairn close to Garloch Hill. They had skinned up from Killearn, at the foot of the fells. As we removed our skins, we chatted about our day’s adventure.
The skiing on the descent was fairly brutal. We had to stay mostly on the narrow ice-snow trail made by the walkers because the snow cover on the heather was not sufficient to made wider and more sweeping turns.
We skied over ice, tried to avoid rocks and stones and made small and tight “survival” turns, while all the time feeling our skis and teeth clattering. Another option would have been to attach our skis to rucksacks to walk off the hill but we wanted the full ski touring experience, even if it was sketchy and tricky.
Many walkers commented and cheered as we skied by and we both grinned and laughed as we headed downhill. I let out more than a few squeals as I faced yet another seemingly ridiculous stretch of icy slope or obstacle.
Finally the patchy ice and snow ran out but not before G attempted to ski heather and then fell over!
Please note that G and I are experienced off-piste skiers, so while the conditions were not the best we were capable of navigating the difficulties. At no point did I feel so out of control as to be dangerous or foolhardy.
We stopped to attach our skis to our packs and then walked slowly down the steep southern slope of Dumgoyne. Thankfully, back country ski boots have plenty of sole grip and despite feeling top heavy with the skis on our backs we made it with only one slip and fall.
When we passed various walkers, they asked what we had been up to on skis. When we explained they seemed amazed and occasionally inspired.
Walking back along the roadside with skis on our back was very odd and we commented that an apres-ski bar for a beer was all that was missing from a truly brilliant adventure in the Campsie Fells.