When good snow and sunny days align, steep gullies and secret powder stashes can make Scotland’s skiing truly world class
You’re not a real skier unless you’ve skied Scotland. Fact. Wind screaming into your face and ice scraping under your skis makes you a better skier. The bad days are bad, but the good days are epic, and there have been a lot of good days in recent years. The past two winters have seen Scotland pull in record-breaking amounts of snow, with resorts staying open well into May, and opening up swathes of delightful touring. But Scottish resorts themselves can offer up ski brilliance too.
Far-reaching views await you at Cairngorm |Photo Steven McKenna
Aviemore is the gateway to many a skier’s Scottish winter, being situated 20 minutes from Scotland’s most popular ski spot, Cairngorm Mountain Resort, and served by a sleeper train from London which conveniently arrives in time for first lifts. From the top lift, the Cairngorm National Park opens out in front of you; glens, lochs and forest in every direction… if the visibility is good.
If you want Scotland at its finest, you need to leave it as last minute as possible, keeping an eye on those unpredictable Atlantic weather fronts. If you catch the right conditions, the sidecountry potential can be legendary, with steep-sided gullies and ever-changing terrain shaped by strong winds. The pistes themselves expand out from under Cairngorm mountain itself, across two bowls and 12 lifts, offering up classic descents like the White Lady, a nice red, or the rolling M2 blue, plus a terrain park. Things are set to get even better as new operators Natural Retreats plan to inject £6.2 million over the next five years, including two new lifts for 2015/16. Local ski instructor Nigel Wells shows us around.
BEST RUN FOR A WARM-UP
I catch the funicular railway up to the Ptarmigan at Cairngorm Mountain and take a nice steady blue run just to ease myself into the day. From there, I’d ski via the Traverse onto the slightly more challenging Coire Cas to freshen up.
FOR A DAY AWAY FROM THE LIFTS
The whole of Cairngorm Mountain is open to tourers, so you can skin up the slopes (avoiding the middle of the pistes, of course), taking the route from the car park up the Fiacaill ridge onto the plateau, then descending back around into the ski zone.
If you want to use lifts as well as skins, a touring pass, including two uplifts, costs £10. To really push yourself you can do a trip to Ben Macdui, the second highest mountain in the UK, which accesses some brilliant rolling terrain. This is only for experienced backcountry skiers and you have to understand the avalanche safety report before heading off.
From Cairngorm Mountain Resort lift-accessed backcountry abounds | Photos Natural Retreats
THE BEST THING ABOUT THE AVIEMORE IS…
The peace. People come to the Cairngorms to chill out and embrace the good vibe that being surrounded by the mountains gives you. It’s the best feeling!
DON’T LEAVE WITHOUT…
Trying the other ski areas such as the Lecht and Glenshee (also in the Cairngorms National Park). Each resort offers something totally different – different wildlife, varying beautiful scenery and impressive mountains. Try them all to find the best fit for you.
THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT SKIING HERE IS
People say it’s more difficult to ski in Scotland than abroad due to ‘bad weather’ but I simply don’t agree. I think skiing in Scotland gives you more confidence and more skills as the conditions do vary. The saying goes “learn to ski in Scotland and you can ski anywhere in the world”: I think that’s true. In my mind that’s why Aviemore local Alain Baxter earned a bronze medal in the 2002 Olympics.
WHAT’S AVIEMORE’S BEST KEPT SECRET
Nearby Glenmore Forest is the perfect place for cross country skiing. Depending on snowfall there are various tracks cut through the forest, taking in Badaguish, the south side of Loch Morlich, with excellent views as you cruise past Meall a’Bhuachaille. Cross country allows you truly to appreciate the Scottish countryside and immerse yourself in the forest. The silence, compounded by the compacted snow, can be deafening.
As well as alpine skiing, the Cairngorms are home to fine cross country tracks
FOR MOUNTAIN BITES
The Ptarmigan restaurant at the top of Cairngorm Mountain is the obvious choice for me. It’s the highest restaurant in the UK at 1097m and there’s a full and varied menu, plus awesome views.
FOR CHEAP EATS IN TOWN
After a day on the slopes I enjoy anywhere that serves a lot of carbs so pasta and pizza are good for me, but there are plenty of options in town: an American Diner at the Hilton Coylumbridge, the Royal Tandoori for an Indian, and the Pizzariach for Italian.
FOR A SPLASH OUT DINNER
To really treat myself I go to Ben Macdui’s Inn on Aviemore’s main street. There’s traditional Scottish fare, and I nearly always opt for the langoustines.
FOR AN APRÈS-SKI TIPPLE
The main street in Aviemore is lined with great bars and has a brilliant atmosphere with hotspots including The Winking Owl, Ben Macdui’s and the Cairngorm Hotel. It’s easy to follow your nose and duck into different places because everywhere is lively once the season kicks off! FL
- Pistes: 23
- Lifts: 12
- Blue 19
- Red 7
- Black 2
Day lift pass: £34.50