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Published: January 17th 2010
I thought I'd chronicle a few days of snowboarding here in Bonnie Scotland for posterity in years to come. It's not every year we get snow like we just had in the last few weeks, and who knows what the following years will bring,,, the demise of skiing in scotland, or a shift in gulf stream and a new beginning?
So we had about a foot of snow just at the back of Edinburgh, in the Pentland hills, usually the home of ramblers and mountain bikers, but for 2 weeks boarders and ski mountaineers were to be seen in the mix. I made it up on 4 separate occasions, one of which was after work, i.e. at night time. The snow conditions at from half way down to the bottom were perfect, a good foot of fluffy powder snow. Up to was a bit wind blown but still good in pockets.
I can recommend parking up at Swanston. From there it's possible to board right back to down to the car park across the golf courses on either side (albeit it's not very steep by this point, but you can use the tee markers as jumps!). Hike up to
the top of the Caerketton crags (the steep bit just to the west of Hillend) takes about 45 mins from that car park. Best to follow the path to the right at the signpost once you get out the gorse bushes and ascend more gradually in an adjacent valley up to the saddle, before a short hoick up to the summit. There are paths down through the crags on your board for the brave, however below the crags there's a lot of scree which wasn't quite covered up by the snow we had. The first time down I hung around for an hour in a white out blizzard before giving up and descending just to the east of the really craggy bit unable to even tell which was up or down till half way when suddenly I came out from the clouds. 2nd time I got luckier and the cloud just cleared as I was sitting at the top. Third time I went for a line further west between rocky crags and took a tumble - very ungraceful, before hitting the scree, hmmm maybe a helmet would be a wise investment?! That bit was steep, 40 degrees or so.
In the end the best runs I found were of Allermuir hill. The vertical descent you can eek out of the hill if you head north is actually nigh on 300m, ie. almost twice what you get if you go to the Lecht. The south side was a great steep slope (35 degrees maybe), great snow, perfect. Head for the meeting of fences at the left and then wade out. Snow was really deep, and really hard walking, almost killed me. Heading north descend slightly to the right down the initial steep section, then across the flat clinging as high as possible. Avoid the first gully which is steep-sided but full of gorse bushes near the bottom (also has a stream to navigate) and head right coming over a steep lip into a second smaller gully. This is more gentle and had amazing snow. A lazy red powder run. It meets up with the other gully at the bottom with just a few gorse bushes to navigate (makes a change from fir trees or heather!). Head right uphill on the path for 5 mins takes you back to a point where you either hike up again, or board to the
car-park on a wee path through the gorse. Great!
The last time up was at night time. I took my powerful cycling torch fully expecting it to be pitch black up there, but the lights of the city reflecting off some high cloud totally lit the place up. For the descent I put the torch away. Could this be a new sport?
Well that weekend I took a day off work and headed up to Cairngorm to meet Grant. It's been 20 years since i've been skiing in Cairngorm. My recollection is of ice, wind, chapped lips, chapped face, rain, whiteout all in one and long queues. This time things were different. A perfect blue sky day with hardly a breath of wind. There was a 'wee' 25 min hike up from the lower car park to the upper as it was already pretty full by the time we made it (after a coffee stop in Aviemore, to get over my lack of sleep and a 6.30am start from Edinburgh). I was impressed by the funicular. They can really pack people in there. It looks like you'll be queuing for ages, but in fact it runs every 5
mins or so and fits 120 people a time! You definitely get quite friendly with people in there. Well we did the East Wall of the white lady, cut up but still powder, and a bit here and there, before hiking to the top of Cairngorm itself. Further than it looks. 150m vertical and takes best part of 30mins slog. The top was amazing, white blanket in all directions. Board of the top down to Coire Cas, steep and nice, 35-40 deg. Did it again! Coire na Ciste was tempting us all day, except it was closed (along with all the other gullies that side) due to avalanche risk. Well come the last run of the day a few people were doing it, and as our car was conveniently parked up at the lower car park right at the end of the run we went for it. What an amazing run, of untouched powder all the way. We stayed high into the 2nd gully, and then kept up out of the coire for the last bit. The slope down there was 45 degrees - that was an avalanche risk for sure. Probably the best run I've ever done in Scotland.
I have to say it beats the descent at Glenshee of Carn Aosda to the main road.
The next day we headed north of Inverness to Ben Wyvis, via a public toilet that was frozen, i mean completely frozen (i wouldn't want to be there when what i left thaws out!). The snow depth at the bottom was evey bit as much as at Cairngorm. At the top it had lost a lot, and got a bit icy. It was my first backcountry boarding expedition in real mountains (Grant had done one before in Spain) and it was tough going. Well a mountain is steep, and the hike up Ben Wyvis in particular is straight up (it's an isolated mountain). Strap an unwieldy board on you back, then factor in snow that sometimes you can stand on and other times you plunge through made it super tough. The cloud dropped in and out, but as we reached the top of the main pull, it was clear and we had a great view to Little Ben Wyvis. The north faces had been blown bare, but the south faces were deep in snow. We checked out a slope there. Grant wasn't
up for it. 45 degrees plus. The snow looked great, but maybe wise - I suspect there was enough snow for an avalanche and that was the slope where it would have happened. We pressed on for the summit. A mile and a half along a flat ridge now in white out with a bitter wind. Just as we reached the summit the wind mysteriously dropped. Time for a frozen sandwich. Then clouds started to swirl and we could see blue sky. We decided to head north for a sunny south-west facing slope we'd seen on the ascent. Initially the route was ice scraped and tough. Then we got on to a steep bit, which was grippy but hard snow. We could see across a gully to the slope in sun and wisely edged across to it. From there was a great carving descent. Alas we'd missed the really steep bit of it. The last wee bit took us into a shallow river bed which we raced down for sometime before eventually running out of steam. Slight problem - according to Grant's work procured GPS we were about 2 miles from the trodden path we'd come in by, and knee
deep in powder. I estimate it took 3 hours from that point to get out. At first it seemed fun, but by the end as it was turning to night we were both utterly exhausted. There were deer tracks (the deer had dug out heather in places to eat) which helped a lot, then a lone set of cross country ski tracks to follow down one of the most beautiful streams you could imagine. Every rock in the stream bed was covered in a foot or so ball of snow. I was trying hard to appreciate this despite wondering if i was about to collapse from fatigue. There were a couple of hairy moments crossing the stream, including one when the snow I had been standing on decided it wasn't actually solid ground (despite me standing on it fine for a minute or more) and my boot plunged through into icy water. Miracle - my new Burton boots are waterproof! 😊
So back to Inverness, and an evening of playing cat with (and being liked on the nose by) Alba, Grant's wee and very cute daughter.
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