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Thrills and chills… Go wild on the slopes on an off-piste Cairngorms adventure

© Ed SmithSkiing off piste
Skiing off piste

Looking upwards from the ski-base station at Cairngorm Mountain, I peer through low cloud at high, snowy slopes. The landscape is pristine white and promises the excitement of making tracks in the fresh powder.

At the same time, the terrain is a featureless blanket against a blank light-grey sky. There is a forecast for strong winds on the summits with a potential for avalanches.

While skiing is one of my favourite activities, I’m aware that ski touring off-piste in Scotland’s acclaimed backcountry environment can pose hazards.

My emotions, as I pull on ski boots and step into my ski bindings, swing back and forth between excitement and anxiety. This is why I signed up for two days of instruction as part of the Wild Ski Weekend.

The annual gathering is based at Glenmore Lodge, near Aviemore, and offers skiers of different abilities the chance to improve their ski touring skills and safety knowledge. There are three levels – Discover, Learn and Adventure – as well as women-only groups.

I’m one of four in the intermediate “Learn the Wild Side” group, which is led by George Reid, a mountain guide and a member of the British Association of Snowsport Instructors, Level 3.

George actually seems delighted with the conditions. As the five of us start to “skin” uphill, he says: “It’s great that we have fresh snow and, anyway, we shouldn’t always let the weather put us off because we can assess the conditions as we go.

“We’ll learn more thanks to the different challenges we are likely to be presented with. And I expect we’ll ski great routes and, hopefully, a couple of excellent gullies, too.”

The advantage of the weather is that few other people have chosen to ski. Thrillingly, it feels like we are the only five people in this part of the Cairngorms.

We take our time on the climb, chatting and getting to know each other, stopping every so often to remove or add layers, depending on how hard we are working.

George also shows us how to view the mountains for potential dangers. He stops and plants his ski pole deep in the snow to check the slope angle.

Next, we learn how to cut an arc of snow – known as a “shear test” – to reveal layers of snow and to assess their stability. We also look at the way the snow has been blown into deep banks by the wind, where snow has turned to ice and where snow holes have formed above flowing streams.

As we climb, we build a real-time picture of the snowy terrain to add to the reports gathered from the Met Office and Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS).

George says: “We’re hoping what we see backs up what we believe to be the case, but we can’t assume.”

For short spells we are treated to wider vistas of the mountains as the sun breaks through the clouds.

As well as the ups, there are also the fabulous downhills. Stripping the skins – strips of fabric – from the base of the skis, we switch the boots and bindings from walk-mode to ski-mode and slip down through silky smooth fresh snow.

With a clear view, it’s a joy to make easy turns in an area called the Aonach Bowl. Yet minutes later we face another test, to ski in the tricky flat light of cloud cover. George tells me to relax so that my legs “smooth out” the bumps and he shows me how to plant my pole on each side to make shorter, snappier turns.

I try to follow his expert ski line and trust that I’ll flow through the fluffy white stuff rather than career into a rock or a riverbed. When we reach the lower part of a slope, we simply re-attach the skins to the skis, release the boot heel to the walk-mode and climb again.

Heading on to Ciste Gully for a descent towards the base station again, George points out the higher, steeper slopes above us that are often avalanche-prone. Today, the reports have indicated they will be safe.

I return to the lodge for an evening of ski talks and films, food, drink and socialising.

The next day, the weather has changed and, with higher temperatures, the snow on the ground is heavier. An SAIS report reveals a higher chance of avalanches on some of the steeper slopes we skied below the day before, so we head to a different part of the range. George says: “The beauty of Scotland is there is usually somewhere to ski whatever the conditions. But you do need to know where the safer areas will be on any given day.”

We leave the Cairngorm base car park and head west. The target is Lurcher’s Gully. We skin up, ski down, practise transceiver skills, do sheer tests, have lunch and repeat until the sun begins to set.

A final thrill comes as we ski to the base again and we pass by Britain’s only free-ranging herd of reindeer.

Over two short days of wild and challenging Scottish skiing with a guide, I realise I’ve learned more than I have previously over weeks of skiing in perfect on-piste conditions.

Essential Kit

  • Touring-specific skis, bindings, boots (hire or buy)
  • Skins
  • Ski poles
  • Waterproof shell jacket and trousers
  • Thin, lightweight gloves for ascending
  • Insulated ski gloves or mittens for descending
  • Helmet
  • Ski goggles
  • Snow shovel
  • Snow probe
  • Transceiver

Know The Lingo

  • Ski touring – exploring snowy slopes, ski-walking uphill as well as skiing downhill.
  • Skins – lengths of grippy fabric that attach to the base of the skis to allow you to walk uphill.
  • Skinning up – ski-walking up snowy slopes.
  • Off-piste – snow-covered areas that have not be groomed smooth.
  • A white out – when thick cloud, mist or snow prevents clear vision on the snowy slopes.
  • Avalanche transceivers – emergency locator beacon for finding people buried under snow.
  • Sastrugi – Sharp irregular ridges formed on a snow surface by wind erosion.
  • Shear test – Testing the snowpack by hand.