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.
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.