A retired Inverness teacher has set a remarkable record by skiing in Scotland every month for a whole decade.
When Helen Rennie, 65, began her ambitious bid at the Cairngorm Mountain ski centre in November 2009, she recalls a “brilliant winter of snow”.
The snow stayed in the mountains for many months afterwards and, as late as September and October, Helen was still finding snow patches to ski. She decided then to continue skiing every month for as long as she could.
“But I never imagined I would still be finding snow to ski for 120 months in a row,” she admits.
Helen, who is married with two grown-up children, learned to ski in 1977 at her local ski centre, Cairngorm Mountain, but she always used the ski lifts.
In 2000, while working as a voluntary ski ambassador for the resort, another ambassador introduced her to ski touring.
Helen says: “I realised then that snow lasted longer than the lifts ran and I started going up to the remaining snow after the lifts had closed.
“I became fascinated with where the snow patches lay and I regularly skied one in Ciste Mhearad, to the east of the Ptarmigan tow lift at Cairngorm. I was still skiing there in spring and through the summer of 2007.
“I then thought it would be a good challenge to try to ski for 12 months, having started in November 2006 when the slopes opened for downhill skiing.”
Helen managed 11 continuous months but early in October 2007 she was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, and hospital appointments stopped her from going out in the fresh snow that winter.
After successful treatment at Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, and feeling fortunate to have survived, Helen resumed skiing in 2008 but she was still too weak to carry her skis for touring.
She says: “By 2009 I felt strong enough and that winter and into 2010 there was a brilliant ski season. Cairngorm even ran a tow at midsummer in 2010.
“I’d been at the Cairngorm Mountain opening day in November 2009 and there was so much snow I was still skiing the following July, August and September.
“I realised that if I skied in the October that would be a year. There was actually a good fall of snow that month and since then I’ve just kept it going.”
Helen, who taught geography until retiring last summer, reveals that the hardest months to find snow are September and October – particularly in recent years.
She says: “My favourite snow patch at Ciste Mhearad is where most of my summer skiing is done.
“It’s not that far from the Cairngorm Mountain carpark and lasted into September for six of the 10 years. In 2014 it lasted until November and in 2015 until the following year.
“But in 2017, it melted in July. That August I had to walk about 10.5 miles in search of a tiny patch of snow on the north top of Ben Macdui. It was the smallest patch I’d ever skied on and I had to hang my skis off the back of it so I could make a turn.
“The patches are found high up in shaded hollows and gullies usually facing north or east, and sometimes have only enough snow left for a couple of turns.”
In the Septembers of 2013, 2017, 2018 and 2019, there was a lack of snow on the Cairngorm plateau, too, which saw Helen heading to the mountain of Aonach Beag, near another ski centre, the Nevis Range.
She says: “To ski the snow patch, I took the year-round Nevis Range gondola to the top station and then made a six-mile round trip on foot while carrying my skis. There’s a col between Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag, from where I descended a steep scree slope to the patch. I was well out of my comfort zone.
“In 2017 and 2019 the patch was small, very icy and covered with rocks that had fallen from the rock face above.
“A friend came with me and used a garden rake to soften the patch and remove some rocks.” Although Helen has witnessed a variation in the amount of snow in Scotland, in the past three years there has been noticeably less.
She says: “The snow hasn’t accumulated because after it snowed the temperature rose so a lot melted.”
Her record-breaking achievement happened in “rather wet conditions” at Marquis Wells, just below the summit of Cairn Gorm.
The snow was thin but she managed some turns.
“It has been touch and go at times,” she says, “but amazingly I have always found a patch or had fresh snow when I needed it.”
Helen has thoroughly enjoyed the skiing challenge and has no plans to stop.
She says: “Skiing is always new and exciting because it’s never the same two days running. The snow cover and texture, the terrain and weather make it different. Some days are more challenging than others.
“I like ski-touring local hills, as well as Cairngorm, but also the hills of Drumochter and at Slochd pass.
“I love finding unskied areas away from the runs and I also enjoy patches in summer because the snow is lovely spring snow, which is my favourite. By then, the weather is warmer so I can wear lighter clothes.
“I’m usually alone, too, so there’s a good chance of seeing wildlife and skiing safely is totally absorbing, so any worries I have just disappear.
“I’ll continue as long as I am able to.”