Ski mountaineering sounds extreme, but needn’t be. Ian Sherrington from Glenmore Lodge explains how skiers can access some of Scotland’s finest backcountry
Photograph: Ian Sherrington
First published in Winter 2008
The growing popularity of ski touring and mountaineering has seen skiing return to its origins as an efficient means of travel, rather than just a way of careering down mountainsides. More and more people are now moving beyond the safety net of patrolled ski areas, with the Cairngorms a particular hotspot thanks to hills that are perfectly shaped for skiing.
The British desire for adventure is renowned the world over and ski mountaineering is a sport in which we have something of a tradition. This year sees the centenary of the Alpine Ski Club, the oldest ski mountaineering club in Britain, and probably the world.
Those lucky enough to have toured on skis often say that it is the most complete and satisfying way to travel in the mountains. But it is a sport in which you still earn your turns. For a start, you need a degree of hill fitness to help glide your skis to more remote summits. And, given the wildness of the Scottish mountains in winter, you also need the skills of a winter mountaineer to navigate efficiently, avoid avalanche and survive tough conditions.
But for those hardy teams of tourers that head for the hills, the challenges of the terrain and the use of personal skills only add to the satisfaction of a grand day out. The rewards can be great, with stunning views and the thrill of creating virgin tracks in remote mountain areas.
Of course, ski mountaineering can mean different things to different people. It can be an afternoon stroll up a local hill with a cruise back down for tea or a big adventure with friends in truly remote backcountry. It can be a great work-out, or a heart-stopping challenge. But above all, it is a sport for life and there is always a new challenge for those who seek it.
The sport offers an alluring marriage between winter mountaineering and skiing that has held many tourers enrapt, including one of the founders of the modern sport, Arnold Lunn. â€œThe night was cloudless and the full moon had risen, revealing a delicacy of tone and texture in the snows which tends to vanish under the glare of the sun,â€ he once wrote. â€œOur tracks down the pass stood out against the shimmering background. The snow thrown up showed as a faint blur beside the dark line etched by the ski.â€
The sport offers an alluring marriage between winter mountaineering and skiing
And the attraction remains today, with the only difference being that the sport is now more accessible than ever. Modern, shaped skis have helped many learn how to make effortless turns on the piste. The same shape has been adapted for use off-piste and forms the basis of todayâ€™s backcountry touring skis. As a result, skiers are able to venture off-piste much earlier in their development.
There is no reason why someone who competently skis parallel on intermediate runs should not make fledgling tracks beyond the groomed slopes. The trick is to do so with an experienced team who can introduce you progressively and within your capabilities. Similarly, for those who are not mountaineers, you should go with those who are. Friends, courses and clubs can all help make your first experience of ski mountaineering one that will have you hooked for life.
Up and down
So, how do ski mountaineers get around? Much of the equipment used for the sport is adapted to meet the needs of both winter walking and skiing. The boots are like a downhill ski boot, but with a mountain boot sole that provides flexibility for walking. To walk uphill, the ski binding releases at the heel and flexes at the toe. Meanwhile, a re-usable â€˜skinâ€™ is applied to each ski, enabling them to slide forward but not backwards.
Once kitted out, ski tourers are able to glide close to the surface, leaving tramlines up the hill while walkers wade through deep hollows. Once at the summit, tourers remove their skins, lock down the heels of their bindings, tighten their boots and it is back into ski mode.
When it comes to location, the Cairngorms are perfect hills for skiers. Accessed from Aviemore via the ski road, the starting point for a tour is already at 650m and so is more likely to hold snow through the winter. The high plateau of the Cairngorm National Park offers the largest area of arctic mountain landscape in the UK, often providing consistent touring possibilities even during these times of erratic snow cover.
A classic tour from the ski area car park will see you onto the plateau in a little over an hour. And as the views to the south reveal themselves, you can gaze across Loch Avon to the granite tors of Beinn Mheadhoin, and beyond to Deeside and Lochnagar.
The hard work having already being done, groups can then choose from a variety of routes. The big day out would be to head for Ben Macdui â€“ Scotlandâ€™s second highest peak at 1,309m â€“ and ski some of her slopes.
Although vast, these mountains are wonderfully shaped for skiing; their flanks are rounded with open slopes at good skiing angles, while an abundance of open gullies facing a variety of directions ensures there is always fresh snow to be found. The trick is to work out where.
Although vast, these mountains are ideally shaped for skiing
For those of you that make it to Ben Macdui, you will have reached the heart of the Cairngorms. Although popular, during midweek you can still find yourself sharing the plateau with only a handful of fellow adventurers. If they are also on skis, say hi â€“ it might be me. This is after all the UKâ€™s finest ski touring area.
Ian Sherrington is a Senior Instructor and Head of SkiÂ Mountaineering at Glenmore Lodge, Scotlandâ€™s National OutdoorÂ Training Centre. www.glenmorelodge.org.uk