In a tale of two stories we asked Alistair Todd, chair of the Ski Touring Advisory Group, an organisation which advises Mountaineering Scotland on all aspects of ski touring, to show us some of his favoured Backcountry ski spots in the Scottish Highlands. Alistair has ski toured throughout Scotland for over 25 years and has a number of first descents to his name including the Tower Double on Ben Nevis in 2013. Having skied over 84 Scottish Munros we couldn’t think of anyone better placed to share an insight into the highs and lows of ski touring in Scotland. Accompanied by established outdoor photographer Hamish Frost, Alistair headed to the hills to share his passion for chasing storms, skinning up and skiing back down again.
Situated off the north western edge of Europe, Scotland is a storm seekers paradise where fierce winter storms continually race in off the Atlantic crashing into a wall of mountains. Throw in the influence of the gulf stream to the west and a cold Scandinavian air mass to the east and it’s a recipe for wild weather, massive temperature variations and occasional days of frost, clear skies and light winds when Scottish ski touring comes into its own.
“Scottish Highlands... where hundreds of mountains sit ready to be skied on.”
In the right conditions, ski touring can be enjoyed throughout the country from the Southern Uplands through the Central Highlands and up into the Northern & NW Highlands. Most years the Pentland hills on the edge of Edinburgh and the Campsies outside of Glasgow briefly transform into powder paradises, but for reliable conditions the Scottish Highlands are where the majority of the action is found and where hundreds of mountains sit ready to be skied on.
Every year Scottish ski tourers expectantly hop onto the winter roller coaster commencing in November and ending sometime in late April or early May. The only guarantees are the emotional highs and lows as winter arrives and then disappears again in quick succession. Conditions can change overnight from the amazing to the non existent and the best days frustratingly often land midweek.
“Conditions can change overnight from the amazing to the non existent.”
Hitting it right on a good weather day is therefore a mix of luck and good planning, whilst being in the right place at the right time to enjoy a great ski day involves even more luck and a lot more planning. Maps are poured over, prevailing wind direction and snow activity monitored, the weather and avalanche forecasts analysed, summit weather stations checked for temperatures and wind speeds, social media reports inspected and sympathetic bosses tapped up for next day holiday requests.
Winter 2019/2020 has been one huge roller coaster with excellent conditions in early November quickly replaced by a stormy December with a couple of failed winter kick starts before a record warm and wet January destroyed the snowpack. February however changed everything with a series of giant Atlantic storms bringing in wave after wave of progressively colder polar maritime air and accompanying heavy snow. Webcams started to show rapidly improving conditions with the snow line dropping as continuous snow pelted the west coast hills.
North West to Sgurr a’ Mhaoraich nr. Knoydart
With the snow improving, plans began to be pulled together, mountain conditions checked out and gear packed in readiness for a weather break. Finally, after 6 weeks of storms, a lull was forecast before the next system, storm Dennis, was due to arrive. With recent snow having been piling into the west coast a decision was made to head NW to Sgurr a’ Mhaoraich (English pron: ‘SKOOR uh Vuh-reech’) located on the edge of Knoydart. Al Bird was quickly enlisted, a call from a friend in Inverness brought a third person on board and several members of the Inverness Backcountry Snowsports Club announced they were keen.
“...we rounded the final corner to see a skyline of snow plastered peaks – game on!”
Thursday arrived and the drive west in a perfect dawn heightened the enthusiasm, tempered slightly by still unknown snow conditions. However, after negotiating a twisting snow covered 8 miles of single track road, we rounded the final corner to see a skyline of snow plastered peaks – game on!
Boots were quickly done up, kit was checked, avalanche transceivers switched on and a short ski carry saw us to the snow line. All around the jagged west coast peaks of Knoydart and SW Ross lay pristine in their winter coat and looking very like a scene from Northern Norway. Perfect snow underfoot was matched by an overhead sun which didn’t just put in a rare appearance but positively beamed down on us encouraging a rapid ascent. A ridge line was quickly reached and the views opened up. Loch Quoich lay far below, to the SE the massive whaleback of Ben Nevis dwarfed surrounding peaks, to the north the Glen Shiel hills glittered in their winter finery and ahead the wildness of Knoydart reared up in a succession of steep peaks and ridges.
Freezing winds which had been on the other side of the ridge now tugged at our clothing and extra layers were quickly donned. Increased exposure to the wind also meant icy patches and sastrugi which combined with the ridge tapering to a narrow spine, temporarily forced attention away from the views to the ground underfoot. Some of the group opted for an easier approach and we briefly split into two coming back together higher up the ridge where a cliff band meant further careful route assessment.
Ladhar Bheinn to the islands of Eigg, Rum and Skye
The impact of the storm cycle was clear as huge snowdrifts threatened to bar our way and care was needed to thread a delicate line through the cliffs. A few final moves around a rocky corner and the summit cone came into view 200m away. A quick ski across and we were rewarded by one of the finest views in the Highlands. Out west the eye was taken down the sea water fjord of Loch Hourn and out past the spectacular mountain of Ladhar Bheinn to the islands of Eigg, Rum and Skye. The Skye Cuillin sparkled in the distance whilst in all directions snow covered peaks dominated the skyline.
“An adrenaline fuelled descent beckoned...”
An adrenaline fuelled descent beckoned so lunch was quickly eaten, photos taken, boots cranked up, helmets and goggles pulled on and the best descent lines scoped. The descent, whilst often the most enjoyable part, generally only takes up 10% of a typical ski touring day which to downhill skiers always reliant on lifts, is often a source of puzzlement. Such is the joy of touring, skiing new hills and new lines, and crucially escaping the crowds.
“Such is the joy of touring, skiing new hills and new lines, and crucially escaping the crowds.”
The wild winds had done their job dropping plenty of fresh powder into an east facing gully which quickly took us into the wide open slopes of Coire nan Eiricheallach where perfect easy angled snow led us effortlessly back to the cars. A perfect sunset reflecting in loch Quoich ended a perfect Scottish ski touring day.
“A perfect sunset reflecting in loch Quoich ended a perfect Scottish ski touring day.”
Creag Meagaidh 35 miles west of Aviemore
Fast forward to the following week and storm Dennis with winds of over 120mph in the Cairngorms had by now tracked east, flooding England and offloading huge amounts of snow over Scotland. With the weather again pausing to catch breath another top day was in the offing so five of us agreed to head to Creag Meagaidh, a popular Central Highlands ski touring venue 35 miles west of Aviemore. Forecasts suggested an early return of bad weather so we opted for a pre dawn start to make the most of the day.
Alarms went off at 5 and by 6 we had set off, head torches on and skis attached to rucksacks for the 15 minute carry to the snowline. Dougal, Al’s ski dog, bounded along enthusiastically knowing there was snow fun to come whilst a brightening glow to the east heralded the new day.
“Creag Meagaidh is a complex mountain with many subsidiary summits, corries, ridges and huge cliffs.”
Creag Meagaidh is a complex mountain with many subsidiary summits, corries, ridges and huge cliffs. Route choice is therefore critical so our approach up the centre of Allt Bealach a’ Choire was carefully chosen to give quick height gain whilst being safe from possible avalanche risk. Once at the snow, ski bindings were checked, skins attached and the kick and glide rhythm of the ascent commenced.
Dawn chased us up the mountain, however flat light and ragged clouds already lowering over the summits to the west confirmed the weather was closing in quicker than forecast. We moved up on ever improving snow cover, amazed at how much had fallen in the preceding few days. The amount of snow now rivalled that of the big snow years of 2010 and 2014 and with the dry packed powder underfoot, anticipation of a great day was tempered only by concerns about the worsening weather.
“As we gained 900m, windspeeds accelerated with blowing snow forming great clouds of blinding spindrift”
A brief clearing allowed the sun to come out but as we gained 900m, windspeeds accelerated with blowing snow forming great clouds of blinding spindrift hurrying in waves across the surface. Goggles were put on, hard shell layers were zipped up, Dougal donned his dog jacket and we kept close together as visibility worsened. The contrast with the amazing weather experienced just a few days earlier could not have been greater.
“...visibility came and went as the cloud descended onto the summits...”
Before long we had crested the ridge and were exposed to the full force of the wind. Cloud levels continued to build and visibility came and went as the cloud descended onto the summits before lifting again. A quick stop to enjoy the view down into the magnificent Coire Ardair before we pushed on again, all in our own world as the wind and spindrift limited opportunities for chat. The snow came on, slowly at first but as the cloud lowered and the winds continued to rise a full scale blizzard threatened.
Whilst Al clothed Dougal in the dog equivalent of a hard shell jacket, we gathered round and decided what to do. Carry on into the rising wind and worsening weather with the summit still two km away and involving some serious navigation or turn back and enjoy the descent whilst the light still allowed us to see what we were skiing. An easy decision to make!
Skins were hurriedly removed, boots tightened and a quick discussion was had about the descent line. Dougal decided it for us as his ear flapped up pointing us back down our ascent route.
“...we picked our way across a short steep section and fearful of an all too easily made navigation error…”
Gingerly we picked our way across a short steep section and fearful of an all too easily made navigation error, we carefully moved in line back towards the top of Allt Bealach a’ Choire. Dougal led on until we reached the edge of the Coire where he moved to the rear in anticipation of the chase. Cloud levels continued to drop and in poor light we skied down on a perfect but otherwise poorly defined surface.
Dougal continued to work us hard and we were soon below the clouds looking down on a kilometre of perfect snow taking us towards the cars. All too soon the fun was over, skis were back onto the sacks and a short walk had us back by early afternoon.
The contrast between the two days is typical of Scotland; weather governs everything. However, for the aficionado's with the stamina, patience and ability to drop everything when conditions come good, ski touring in Scotland is an experience not to be missed.
Mountain Weather Forecasts
Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS)
Met Office Mountain Weather Forecast
Scottish Avalanche Reports
Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS)
Summit Weather Stations
Aonach Mor (adjacent to Ben Nevis)