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Anyone who is Scottish and a skier and, most importantly, skis in Scotland, will know all about the gamble that involves trying to plan ahead. Scotland is quite clearly not like mainland Europe, where both snow and good weather tend to be both frequent and consistent. Sometimes, like the situation just a day or so ago, there is plenty of snow in Scotland, so much in fact that the roads are impassable and no-one can get to the ski centres. At other times, the snow is there but so is the wind and this too makes skiing impossible. Then there are the thaws. This time last year Scotland was basking in lovely summer sunshine, the snow retreated and so did the skiers.

But there are occasions when everything comes right. Mid February this year was one of those times.

When we booked our children into ski school at the Cairngorms for the February half term, it was November 2012 and we knew we were taking a big chance. It was so far out that there was no way we could predict what sort of weather would be around three months later. There could be snow but terrible weather, or blue skies but no snow.

Archi eSkiing smallThen we arrived to find sunshine, no wind, plenty of snow and the best conditions I have ever experienced in many years of skiing in Scotland.

To say it was ‘Alpine’ does not do it justice: it felt better than that. So good was the weather, on the back of decent snow falls, that almost everyone there suddenly found themselves too hot.
Everyone had dressed for a day in the Scottish mountains in February only to find themselves sweating in the sunshine and having to take one, or two, layers of clothing off: it was that good.
What I didn’t realise was that the ski school at Cairngorm is right at the top of the mountain. The slopes are gentler there, the snow tends to be thickest and it is in range of cafes and facilities – pretty important when there are hundreds of children around – so it tends to make sense. But the winds are worst up there too which can make it difficult for the youngest ones learning to ski.

The winds can be severe. Indeed, the chances are that when you step out of the funicular station, you’ll be hit by a blast that is almost always enough to fling stinging snow in your eyes and sometimes fierce enough to knock you off your feet. But this year, for those few days in mid February, it was glorious and, for children who are just starting out, that was crucial.

It can’t be fun learning to ski – what with all that stop-start, falling down, picking yourself up again routing – in strong and biting winds. So the absence of any wind and the presence of glorious blue skies was fantastic: indeed, it was as it was supposed to be.

As it was half term, the ski centre was packed with children but the staff dealt with everyone swiftly, efficiently and good humouredly. If there was one feeling that characterised the three-day visit we had there it was of an easy family friendliness.

I have never skied in mainland Europe but those who have said that the atmosphere can sometimes be a little cold, a little intolerant of learners. But, at Cairngorm at half term, there were so many learners, so many children and so many in ski school that everyone else just eased up and went with it.

There was the odd selfish boarder barrelling down oblivious to all but themselves and paying little heed to struggling children who needed room and consideration but everyone else just went along with what was.

There were skiers who weren’t that happy with the conditions though. Several were grumbling about the ice – and they bad a point. Glorious sunshine and no fresh falls of snow did affect the slopes. The snow melted on the top then turned to ice overnight, leaving the runs very icy in the morning. But when they had been pisted by a number of skiers through the morning, they did improve.

The White Lady, for instance, was closed for most of our second day because of ice so, while the conditions were perfect for learners, they were perhaps not ideal for everyone. We had two days of glorious sunshine then, on the third day, the wind picked up and it became like the old Cairngorm once again. Visibility went down to a few metres at the top, it got cold and distinctly less pleasant.

By this time, though, the ski school children had learned enough to be able to cope with the slightly bigger and steeper slopes half way down the mountain, away from the worst winds at the top.
The only problem now is, however, that our children think that skiing in Scotland is always about blue skies, sunshine, beautiful conditions and no wind – oh, do they have a lot to learn.

Painted haveli in Nawalgarh <em>Picture: Michael Clarke</em>

Painted haveli in Nawalgarh Picture: Michael Clarke

By Elizabeth McQuillan

Christmas is the silly season for a great many people, where all normal rules of engagement with the family go awry. Pressures are brought to bear by feuding divorcee parents, overbearing in-laws and sundry ageing relatives to cooperate, fit in and accommodate until the temporal artery pulses with the stress.

If you want to escape the clutches of extended family, and do a selfish runner, it’s actually not too late. Here are some alternative ways to give Christmas the Vs, and go off and do your own thing.

Captains Courageous in India
Riding in Rajasthan has to be about as far away from a traditional Yuletide that you can get. Assuming you have the funds, and can sit a canter (if you don’t know what a canter is, then this trip isn’t for you), spend your days riding on Marwari horses to explore ancient forts, marbled palaces and carved temples.

Special mounts, the Marwari are an indigenous breed descended from the splendid war horses that served the ruling families and warriors of feudal India, from the beginning of the country’s history.

Up to six hours in the saddle each day might leave your backside a tad raw, but it’s got to be worth it to view the wildlife and to experience the culture and colour of rural India.

Christmas Day is spent riding to Nawalgarh and visiting the frescoed havelis, with Christmas dinner and an overnight stay in the Roop Niwas Palace. Bonnie, Arun and Vipin are the friendly and knowledgeable guides who make the trip special.

Unicorn Trail’s Christmas Ride in India is £2,929 per person (based on two sharing), and there is still availability on the 2011 departure (21 December – 3 January).

Stac Pollaidh <em>Picture: Anne Burgess</em>

Stac Pollaidh Picture: Anne Burgess

Hot tubbing in the far north-west
Take the kids, and the dog, to the wilds of Achiltibuie, breathe in the salty air and feast on the dramatic Wester Ross scenery. If it’s chucking it down, you don’t even have to step outside, as the architect-designed glass-fronted cottage offers uninterrupted views to the Summer Isles, and the Cuillin of Skye beyond.

Pull on a pair of walking boots and scramble up Stac Pollaidh to work off the plum pudding gut. Or don’t. Alternatively, send the kids out to hunt for chocolate Santas while you imbibe your favourite Christmas tipple reclining in the gurgling outdoor hot tub.

Underfloor heating, a wood-burning stove, sauna and integral entertainment system (TV in each room) should ensure the festive holiday is cosy, intimate and not lacking in luxury. And not one relative in sight.

If you’re still not sure, consider this: the famous Summer Isles Hotel and bar is within easy staggering distance.

Stac Polly cottage (sleeps eight) is available from 21 December for a week. The normal rate is £1,595, but with a cheeky £399 reduction to Caledonian Mercury readers, that’s £1,196.

Sri Lankan turtle <em>Picture: Aidan Jones</em>

Sri Lankan turtle Picture: Aidan Jones

The only gift is a portion of thyself
A lot of folk out there could do with a bit of a hand over the festive period. Close to home there are projects to help the young, elderly, the disadvantaged and the homeless, and each would leap at the chance of some support.

Missing the 4,000-calorie turkeyfest, the gruelling soap-special TV and the family disputes for one Christmas, in order to help others – surely that is embracing the real spirit of things?

If you are blessed with the holidays of an academic, take a month out over Christmas and really give yourself over to a challenge. Outreach International has a few interesting voluntary posts that need filling:

● Care for children at a day centre helping street children in Ecuador, while their parents work on the rubbish dump.

● Volunteer for Coastal Animal Conservation in Mexico. Work with vets, collect injured animals from the beach and generally do as asked.

● Phnom Penh Orphanage in Cambodia could do with some bright and fun individuals to teach the kids English, sports, football and dancing.

● A turtle conservation project in Sri Lanka is perfect for anyone interested in getting involved with marine conservation. Volunteers are needed to patrol the beaches, marking and recording turtle nests. They also teach the local people and tourists about sustainability.

<em>Picture: Vacacion</em>

Picture: Vacacion

MacSki – and a wee dram or two – over Moray way
Who needs France, Italy, or Austria to enjoy a good festive ski break? Take Hillview, a luxury holiday home that nestles next to the Glenlivet whisky distillery: pleasant, uncramped accommodation with an ample sufficiency of bedrooms for 12 inebriated friends to lay their heads after a tasting session. Add the Cairngorm and Lecht ski resorts, and you have a perfect MacSki holiday.

The absence of guaranteed snow should not detract from the overall enjoyment. Most fair-weather skiers are happy to forgo sleety whiteouts, sheet ice and neck-breaking rocks, windburn and hypothermia on the mountain.

Aviemore is only 30 minutes’ drive away and has a selection of pubs and eateries to ease the disappointment if there is no white stuff. Dog-sledding (using a wheeled contraption when there is no snow) through the woods, a squadron of B52s in the bar, reindeer to feed on the hillside and a Christmas Eve torchlit procession through the town all give that authentic ski holiday experience.

Available from 21 December for a week, the normal rate of £1,699 has a Caledonian Mercury reader discount of £425, so getting 12 folk in at £1,274 makes it a comfortingly cheap MacSki week.

Plane Castle

Plane Castle

Lock thyself in a tower – and dine like royalty
Eschew the whole business of pleasing the family at Christmas and lock yourself away in a keep for the duration. No, really, just get holed up in a stone tower for a whole week and have a fantastically romantic and indulgent time of it.

The Tower at Plane Castle, to the east of Stirling, is a medieval set where you can indulge your medieval fantasies, run around naked in a veil and circlet and joust without risk of intrusion. So much more festive, and fun, than a double-whammy of Eastenders.

Or, I suppose, you could sit in your 13th-century tower and watch the Queen’s speech and read a book.

Best of all, dine like a king and queen at the refectory table in the Great Hall while the carved stone fireplace spits and roars with flame, or head up the spiral staircase to the battlements, and inspect your policies together. From here you can view the Ochils.

Available over Chrismas, the tariff is in the region of £1,600, Friday–Friday.

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By Val Hamilton
CairngormIt started with a very Good Friday. Cairngorm had perfect conditions of fresh consistent snow, blue skies, sun and just enough cool breeze to prevent the snow (and the skiers) from getting too hot and slushy. Saturday and Easter Sunday required faith in forecasts that low morning cloud would disappear – and lo, in the afternoons, it did, with more sunshine and even better snow.

Then came the frustration of Monday and Tuesday – looking benign enough from indoors, but with a fierce hot gale and poor visibility such that no lifts were opened. The funicular did run for non-skiers, inevitably causing some controversy, but there is a difference between a brief foray from the Ptarmigan restaurant to the viewing platform and battling against the elements outside on the pistes.

The snow loss at lower levels on Monday was astonishing: complete cover disappeared in a few hours of hair-dryer-blast. It was like watching a timelapse film. However, there is still enough depth to allow skiing to both car parks, with the off-piste Coire Laogh Mor, east of Coire na Ciste, being the highlight for many and providing a different descent each time it is done.

Notwithstanding the Monday no-show, it was an excellent holiday weekend from the commercial point of view. Over 6,000 skiers, boarders and funicular users paid for their pleasure during Easter: 2,080 on Good Friday, 1,757 on Saturday and 2,180 on Sunday. Overall, for the whole of the 2009/10 season, CairnGorm Mountain Ltd (CML) had hosted 125,336 skier days by close of play on Easter Sunday. This compares with just 61,622 during 2008/09.

“These latest figures set us on course for a grand finale to double last year’s total of 65,000 skiers for the season by the end of April,” Colin Kirkwood of CML told the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald.

“This has been the icing on the cake of a bumper season – the best for 15 years – and it is far from over yet. For the first time in many years the resort has made a healthy profit from its winter operation, and although one good season does not transform the business, it does enable the resort to create a reserve against less good winters in future years.”

Talk of there being skiing for several more weeks sounds reasonable, although it will be interesting to see how demand holds up. CML believes there is sufficient cover to provide skiing every day until the early May public holiday, with hopes of weekend skiing right through May.

That remains to be seen, however, as demand might fall away despite the kind weather and the flattering spring snow. Although April can bring great conditions, many skiers switch off after Easter. Other hobbies start to appeal – golf, watersports, hillwalking – and there are all the mundane home-and-garden tasks put on hold for the previous four months.

To counter this, CML is putting initiatives in place to keep skiing at the forefront of people’s minds, and the first of these was an evening session on Thursday. “A number of lifts will remain open until 7:30pm,” said the website, but in the event just three draglifts were open, the funicular didn’t run, and there was no way – short of skinning – to the top of the mountain.

Even though the take-up for the £10 evening tickets was impressive (“between 50 and 75”), it felt like an opportunity missed. One ski ambassador, marshalling the lift queue, acknowledged this. “Many people have said they were disappointed at how few lifts were open,” she said.

Visitor satisfaction is easy to obtain when the sun shines, but in the more normal conditions of a grey skies and a drizzling, chilly evening, more effort is required.

by Val Hamilton

Sastrugi

In Strathspey, most of the ground remains snow-covered. Friends email from further south, telling of time spent in the garden, when here a trip to the compost bin is a major undertaking.

Walking anywhere is difficult, with ice on pavements and deep snow on paths – but high pressure prevails, the air is still and crisp, and there is a risk of taking the world-class views for granted.

Even in these settled conditions, the snow varies daily. As David “Heavy” Whalley said in a highly entertaining mountain safety talk at the Aviemore Mountain Café last week, check the weather and avalanche forecasts, but use your eyes and ears to assess what is actually happening from the moment you set off for the hills. This was one of many commonsense observations made in a presentation which was part of a series organised bythe Mountaineering Council of Scotland.

Whalley’s wisdom stems from 37 years in RAF Mountain Rescue and from evidence accumulated as compiler of Scottish mountain accident statistics. Even my usually critical husband Graham, an ex-rescue team member himself, could find nothing to disagree with in Whalley’s advice and comments.

Last weekend was an example of the need to switch on senses and react to the conditions encountered. The weather patterns looked similar for Saturday and Sunday – sunny, calm, relatively warm – but the reality underfoot was very different.

On Saturday, not fancying the early start required to get a space in the Cairngorm car park, I opted for a ski-tour from home using traditional Nordic touring skis and leather boots. The snow was soft and soggy but deep enough to bear weight, and progress was slow but easy.

My plan had been to head across the moors south-west of Nethy Bridge to Ryvoan bothy, but a set of ski-tracks from the previous weekend was beguiling and I followed them uphill. The snow texture was perfect for fishscale skis – these have a pattern cut into the base to allow grip when ascending. Soon I was approaching the ridge between Craiggowrie and Meall a’ Bhuachaille, and only minor effort was required to reach the crest and the views of endless white mountains.

The heavy snow meant a slow descent. A more confident skier could have pushed off straight down the hill, but – aware of my solitary status – I made long, gentle traverses with step turns to change direction. Not exciting or dramatic, but wonderfully peaceful and relaxing.

With confidence high, the prospect of a Sunday tour of Cairngorm’s northern corries with Graham and our friend Geoff was appealing, but there had been a harder frost and ice in the car park was an indication of conditions ahead. The snow was firm as we set off towards Lurcher’s Gully, and it was not 9am when we put on skins – no grip from fishscales now – to begin the climb to the plateau. We assumed the surface would soften as the sun broke through the early high cloud.

The sun did not break through. Not only did the snow remain unforgivingly solid, it had frozen into the wind-sculpted ripples known as sastrugi – beautiful formations fringed with ice tassels like a vast candlewick bedspread. Desperate terrain to ski over.

Although the cloud was above the summits and macro-navigation was no problem, the light was so flat that, at the micro level, it was impossible to make out the aspect of the slope – or, at times, even to know if we were moving. As Whalley had suggested, ears were giving as much information as eyes, as we reacted to the change of sound from our ski bases.

For the second day running, long, angled traverses were the only safe means of descent. After a final steep climb from Coire Raibert, it was a relief to reach the bustle of Cairngorm summit. The passage of numerous walkers, skiers and boarders had churned the route back to the ski area, allowing a few cautious turns. The ease of return down the pistes reminded us of why this resort-skiing lark had developed in the first place.

cairngormA report by the Public Audit Committee at Holyrood, published today, has severely criticised the operation of the Cairngorm funicular railway.

The funicular was opened under private management in 2001, but has had a complex and chequered history in terms of spiralling costs, underwhelming passenger numbers, quirky operating procedures and environmental concerns. The spring of 2009 saw it taken into public ownership, courtesy of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the Scottish government’s development agency for the area. HIE had, until that point, been landlords for the railway’s operating company CairnGorm Mountain Ltd (CML).

The change of ownership appears not to have signalled an upturn in the railway’s fortunes, however. HIE stands accused by the Holyrood committee of “failing to scrutinise the financial health of CML, not taking into account the potential effects of climate change or the risks associated with construction of the project, and failing to re-examine assumptions made in the original business case about visitor numbers”.

The committee states that more than £26 million has been spent on construction and providing support to CML, an overspend of £11.2 million on original estimates. It describes CML as having been in a “weak financial position”, such that “the company’s losses have created a call on public resources which was not foreseen”.

In straitened economic times, with public purse-strings being tightened across all areas, this does not make for happy reading for those involved in one of the biggest and most high-profile Highland projects of recent times.

“We find it unacceptable,” said committee convener Hugh Henry MSP, “that HIE did not review its business case before construction began to ensure that the project was proceeding on a realistic basis and the risks to public funds were minimised.”

The need for a major rethink of how the funicular is marketed and run is clear from the report, which urges HIE “to ensure that its future business plan for the facility is founded on accurate performance information and that rigorous financial-control measures are adopted”.

The funicular arose out of concerns in the early 1990s that the existing chair-lift infrastructure at the Cairngorm ski centre was in need of major modernisation. By 1997, well into the planning stage, construction costs were estimated at £14.8 million. Between them, HIE and Moray, Badenoch and Strathspey Enterprise contributed £9.4 million (63% of the total cost). The shortfall was covered by the European Union, to the tune of £2.9 million, and by CML, which took out a £2.5 million bank loan. CML was also required to pay land rent to HIE.

Construction began in 1999 and the funicular opened for business on Christmas Eve, 2001. After a promising start, passenger numbers dwindled, as highlighted by today’s report: “HIE used visitor number estimates in its business case for the project and took advice from independent consultants. However, these figures were not revisited in the light of new evidence which suggested that numbers were in further decline. In the funicular’s early years, the numbers were broadly achieved but have declined in more recent years.”

CML suffered massive financial problems in the early part of the decade, with losses peaking at £1.8 million in 2002 and £1.2 million in 2003. Since then, however, the situation appears to have stabilised, with profits recorded in three of the past five years (£28,000 in 2005, £32,000 the following year, and £174,000 in 2008). The report picks up on this, asking “why HIE had taken the decision to take the company over at a time when its financial performance had seen some recent improvement.”

Exactly how HIE responds to the criticism, and how the funicular develops over the coming years, remains to be seen. The report insists that “the new business model for the funicular must be founded on a realistic assessment the future viability of the facility”, and that “HIE is absolutely clear about the extent of its financial support for the facility and that this support is not open-ended.”

Despite the current excellent skiing season – albeit with snow levels so deep that access roads have been blocked and the funicular closed for some of the time – many of the issues for the years ahead relate to summer-season use. As noted by Douglas Yule, operations director at HIE, “The challenge for the future is how to increase the numbers of non-skiing visitors throughout the year, given the uncertainty of snow and skiing conditions.”

For some, the funicular remains the great white hope of Scottish trade and tourism in Strathspey. For others, it has always been an expensive white elephant. Some in this latter camp will surely have noted this week’s other Cairngorm-related news story – the ski centre having, for the first time, pre-emptively triggered avalanches on the Coire Cas slopes – and mused that the explosives could have been moved a few hundred metres to the north and put to better use.

By Val Hamilton

After more than a month of whiteness, it was a shock to wake midweek to large expanses of grass. Not exactly greenery, more a grubby mustard, but certainly evidence of a rapid thaw.

For weeks now, the shining, snowy hills have been beckoning. Normally nondescript areas such as the Hills of Cromdale and the low lumps west of Grantown on Spey have caught the eye, begging to be skied over. Skier, climber and runner Andy Hyslop (who once held the record for the fastest time along the Cuillin ridge) was among those who did not resist the call.

My own philosophy, based on solid opportunist principles, has always been to ski the lowest available snow, and there has been more than enough at all levels in Strathspey. Every year, even in the mildest winters, there are days when you can ski-tour in the Scottish
mountains – but it is rare to have this huge choice of gentler, Norwegian-style terrain at your feet. The chance to tour from the
door, along sheltered forest tracks and across usually uninviting moorland, had an immediate appeal.

As a result, for the past month, most trips have been local, rarely climbing above 500 metres, although growing longer as the powder consolidated and the trees stopped their unnerving shedding of overloaded branches. It has been an extraordinary, memorable experience. And yet, as the conditions persisted, there was a nagging sense that perhaps the boundaries should have been pushed a little further, with more challenging trips, despite the avalanche warnings and dodgy roads.

However, as soon as tarmac reappeared, the decision was confirmed as the right one. The higher hills are still covered, the depth of snow at Cairngorm remains impressive, as shown by Alan MacKay’s pictures on
Winterhighland, and it looks as though there will be weeks of mountain-touring available.

As I write, the snow is falling again. The view is back to white, and if I can ski in the forest again this weekend, that is where I will
be.

By Val Hamilton

After more than a month of whiteness, it was a shock to wake midweek to large expanses of grass. Not exactly greenery, more a grubby mustard, but certainly evidence of a rapid thaw.

For weeks now, the shining, snowy hills have been beckoning. Normally nondescript areas such as the Hills of Cromdale and the low lumps west of Grantown on Spey have caught the eye, begging to be skied over. Skier, climber and runner Andy Hyslop (who once held the record for the fastest time along the Cuillin ridge) was among those who did not resist the call.

My own philosophy, based on solid opportunist principles, has always been to ski the lowest available snow, and there has been more than enough at all levels in Strathspey. Every year, even in the mildest winters, there are days when you can ski-tour in the Scottish
mountains – but it is rare to have this huge choice of gentler, Norwegian-style terrain at your feet. The chance to tour from the
door, along sheltered forest tracks and across usually uninviting moorland, had an immediate appeal.

As a result, for the past month, most trips have been local, rarely climbing above 500 metres, although growing longer as the powder consolidated and the trees stopped their unnerving shedding of overloaded branches. It has been an extraordinary, memorable experience. And yet, as the conditions persisted, there was a nagging sense that perhaps the boundaries should have been pushed a little further, with more challenging trips, despite the avalanche warnings and dodgy roads.

However, as soon as tarmac reappeared, the decision was confirmed as the right one. The higher hills are still covered, the depth of snow at Cairngorm remains impressive, as shown by Alan MacKay’s pictures on
Winterhighland, and it looks as though there will be weeks of mountain-touring available.

As I write, the snow is falling again. The view is back to white, and if I can ski in the forest again this weekend, that is where I will
be.

By Val Hamilton
Friday 8 January 2010 is already becoming legendary in the annals, or at least on the blogs, of Scottish skiing. The perfect conditions that day raised hopes for a great season, but in the fortnight since then it has been more like business as usual, admittedly with plenty of snow cover remaining.

And if you open it, they will come. Car parks are full by first light, ski-hire equipment runs out, and the lift queues can be nearly as long as the pistes. First, of course, you have to reach the car park: no great problem at Glencoe and Aonach Mor, but a real challenge for Cairngorm, the Lecht or Glenshee.

For weeks, it seems, Cairngorm staff have been battling drifts of concrete-hard gale-driven snow in an attempt to open the link road to the foot of the funicular. The fruits of their labour, or more often lack of them, can be seen on the Cairngorm Youtube. Now, though, the staff have given up and are running two-way traffic on the old road, so we have to hope that drivers are being careful.
Although much of the snow is still there, conditions have returned to normal-for-Scotland: rock-hard snow with wind or low cloud, or
occasionally both. But there is a very firm base and it is not yet the end of January, so with a few overnight snow showers (as happened this weekend) and a little more sunshine, this could still become one of the great Scottish skiing seasons.

Cairn Gorm. Picture: <a href=

Cairn Gorm. Picture: Roy.Susan

Val Hamilton is loving what she sees on Cairngorm ski slopes

The headline on the Cairngorm Mountain website in early January 2010 read “Probably the best skiing in the world”. This is pushing at the bounds of the Trade Descriptions Act but you cannot knock the sentiment and enthusiasm.

It has certainly been a mighty fine skiing season so far this winter, and this is remarkable because the list of requirements for a good day’s skiing is lengthy. It starts with excellent snow both in quantity and quality: skiers have as many words for snow as do the Inuit, most of them derogatory – crud, porridge, boilerplate – but thigh-deep powder is not a phrase which occurs often in the Scottish context.

Then there must be no wind, to allow you to ski in a straight line and to keep the temperature bearable; and blue skies, not just for the delight of lapping-up the sunshine, but so you can see any subtle changes in the snow and fall over less often. Further considerations in Scotland, where the infrastructure is far from Alpine or North American, are clear access roads and all lifts working. When all these factors coincide, you get a rare skiing experience.

Many Scottish skiers will tell you that their best days’ skiing ever have been at Cairngorm. One reason for this may be that most regulars feel that they deserve such days as a reward for time served battling against the wind and sometimes rain, peering through the cloud, skis grating over rocks, plus miserable hours spent on the A9 or – even more frustrating – in a queue at Loch Morlich.

So, expectations are kept in check, but when a day like 8 January 2010 comes along with all conditions as good as you could wish, it becomes one of the Great Days of Cairngorm skiing, when all is well with the world. On the hill and in the cafes, there was a tangible sense of well-being and camaraderie, an awareness that we were all lucky to be there. There was also a shared sense of realism that the magic would be broken if we returned at the weekend. It is good to share a magnificent day with a certain number of like-minded people, but there are limits.

The obvious alternative with such extensive snow cover is to go for a walk or a ski-tour elsewhere but this is not so easy. While main roads are gritted, many side roads have only been dug out by farmers and, although drivable, there are few passing places and almost nowhere to park. A shovel is essential equipment. Once out of the car, progress across virgin territory is near-impossible. The depth of uncompacted snow makes walking other than in tracks “exhausting to futile” in the words of the Cairngorm mountain ranger, and even ski-touring is astonishingly hard work.

There is a considerable avalanche risk, too. The lack of wind has led to deceptive conditions with inviting smooth slopes that mask instabilities below. Lower down in the forests, the weight of snow and frozen sap is causing pine trees to shed branches with heart-stopping rifle-shot cracks. It is unnerving to revisit tracks made the previous day to find half a tree lying across them.

With no end to the freeze in prospect, patience and limited objectives are the keys to making this almost certainly the best skiing season ever.

Cairn Gorm. Picture: <a href=

Cairn Gorm. Picture: Roy.Susan

Val Hamilton is loving what she sees on Cairngorm ski slopes

The headline on the Cairngorm Mountain website in early January 2010 read “Probably the best skiing in the world”. This is pushing at the bounds of the Trade Descriptions Act but you cannot knock the sentiment and enthusiasm.

It has certainly been a mighty fine skiing season so far this winter, and this is remarkable because the list of requirements for a good day’s skiing is lengthy. It starts with excellent snow both in quantity and quality: skiers have as many words for snow as do the Inuit, most of them derogatory – crud, porridge, boilerplate – but thigh-deep powder is not a phrase which occurs often in the Scottish context.

Then there must be no wind, to allow you to ski in a straight line and to keep the temperature bearable; and blue skies, not just for the delight of lapping-up the sunshine, but so you can see any subtle changes in the snow and fall over less often. Further considerations in Scotland, where the infrastructure is far from Alpine or North American, are clear access roads and all lifts working. When all these factors coincide, you get a rare skiing experience.

Many Scottish skiers will tell you that their best days’ skiing ever have been at Cairngorm. One reason for this may be that most regulars feel that they deserve such days as a reward for time served battling against the wind and sometimes rain, peering through the cloud, skis grating over rocks, plus miserable hours spent on the A9 or – even more frustrating – in a queue at Loch Morlich.

So, expectations are kept in check, but when a day like 8 January 2010 comes along with all conditions as good as you could wish, it becomes one of the Great Days of Cairngorm skiing, when all is well with the world. On the hill and in the cafes, there was a tangible sense of well-being and camaraderie, an awareness that we were all lucky to be there. There was also a shared sense of realism that the magic would be broken if we returned at the weekend. It is good to share a magnificent day with a certain number of like-minded people, but there are limits.

The obvious alternative with such extensive snow cover is to go for a walk or a ski-tour elsewhere but this is not so easy. While main roads are gritted, many side roads have only been dug out by farmers and, although drivable, there are few passing places and almost nowhere to park. A shovel is essential equipment. Once out of the car, progress across virgin territory is near-impossible. The depth of uncompacted snow makes walking other than in tracks “exhausting to futile” in the words of the Cairngorm mountain ranger, and even ski-touring is astonishingly hard work.

There is a considerable avalanche risk, too. The lack of wind has led to deceptive conditions with inviting smooth slopes that mask instabilities below. Lower down in the forests, the weight of snow and frozen sap is causing pine trees to shed branches with heart-stopping rifle-shot cracks. It is unnerving to revisit tracks made the previous day to find half a tree lying across them.

With no end to the freeze in prospect, patience and limited objectives are the keys to making this almost certainly the best skiing season ever.