28 February 2010

Ski Scotland? You Bet!

So yesterday, I took a day trip with the Edinburgh University Snow Sports Club to Glencoe, one of Scotland's five ski areas.

The Glencoe ski area is located on a peak bordering Rannoch Moor, just outside Glen Coe proper. The area is understandably more famous for its hiking (and its massacre) than its skiing. But this weekend, the Glencoe ski area had more fresh snow than anywhere in Europe--and as you can see, the avalanche risk was high.

(In fact, there was an avalanche in an uncontrolled area on the peak--we saw the rescue helicopter come in. Both skiers involved survived. I stuck to the controlled areas, thank you very much!)

Overall, I would rate the experience of skiing in Scotland as odd, but intriguing. First, I had never known there were parts of Scotland that looked like this.
That's just below the peak, looking across at Glen Coe proper, Glen Nevis, and Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in the British Isles) in the background. If, before yesterday, you had shown me that photo and told me it was Colorado, I would have believed you. You see, the tree line in Scotland is much lower than elsewhere, which makes everything look like it's at a much higher altitude than it really is. There are a number of reasons for this--wind; the high latitude, which makes the valleys that much darker and colder in the winter; prehistoric deforestation, which caused soil erosion and removed the woods that acted as windbreaks (for those curious about climate change, look no further than Scotland for evidence of one of the world's earliest man-made ecological disasters).

But the eye is also tricked in the photos above by problems of scale. It looks like Colorado, on the slope as well as off, but everything's actually a little bit smaller. Very disorienting.

Unfortunately, these scale problems apply to the snow, as well. Despite its being one of the snowiest winters on record here in the UK, there simply wasn't all that much of it on the slopes. It certainly wasn't enough to make up for the lack of snow-making and grooming equipment: you'd frequently find yourself in knee-deep snow one minute, then dodging bare spots the next. It's no wonder Glencoe has a reputation for being kind of dangerous!

You can see it in these two photos: tons of snow, but bare spots visible even from the bottom of the hill.
The lift system was also . . . vintage. Glencoe has two chairlifts--one two-seater access chair from the valley floor to the plateau, one one-seater from the plateau halfway up the remainder of the peak. The rest of the lifts are poma lifts or t-bars, which in my experience are almost entirely extinct in North America. These lifts basically hook in behind you so you can hold on as they drag you up the hill. They're exhausting: not only do your arms tire out from all the clinging-for-dear-life, they also mean you spend every minute of your time on the slopes on your feet, so you never get to rest your legs.

All of this is a bit strange to me, because there's not much keeping the Glencoe hill from being a great (and challenging!) little ski area. The same goes for Scottish skiing in general: Scotland definitely has a wealth of skiable terrain, plus enough snow and enough cold weather to support a New-England-style resort (ie, mostly groomed trails on largely man-made snow), with the added wrinkle of being entirely above the tree line.

So why isn't there more skiing in Scotland? Part of it has to do with location: the Scottish Highlands are tough to get to in the winter, even from the Scottish Lowlands. For most people in the UK, it's easier to hop on a plane to France and ski the French Alps. As a result, the Scottish resorts have to keep things cheap to attract skiers--but because of the lack of infrastructure in the Highlands, most basic goods and services are more expensive in the Highlands than in the Alps. This is probably part of the reason why all the facilities at Glencoe date from the 70s.

The same geographical concerns that keep UK skiers out of the Highlands also discourage European skiers. But here the problem is worse: Scottish skiing can't undersell Poland and Bulgaria, and isn't any easier to get to for most Europeans. The unpredictability of the weather in the Highlands is also a problem--without artificial snow-making and extensive grooming, the Scottish resorts are frequently closed for long stretches of the season (though this year they've more commonly had to close because of too much snow blocking the roads).

Finally, environmental concerns also limit Scottish skiing. Take another look at that picture from above:

There simply aren't a lot of places in the UK that look like that, so most of them have been protected since the 1970s. I'm not complaining: in Colorado or in the Alps, you can afford to defile a few pretty alpine valleys with massive ski resorts. Here, not so much--and especially because the lack of forestation makes erosion that much more of a problem.

Anyway--that's my Scottish skiing rant. As for the skiing itself, yesterday was a very satisfying day. Certainly better than the alternative, which was not skiing at all this year. And I was completely blown away by just how incredibly beautiful that stretch of the country is in the winter, which is something I might not have known if I hadn't ventured out to Glencoe. But on the whole, Scottish skiing doesn't seem very beginner-friendly--or generally user-friendly for that matter, and I can't really blame British skiers for dashing off to Europe for their fix!

Plus, now I can say I've skied in Scotland.


  1. Hi! I discovered your blog through AAR and have been lurking for a while (hope you don't mind!) - it is always interesting reading!
    So I live smack in the middle of the Alps and as a person with first hand experience with the skiing circus (as we say over here) I think that skiing resort in Scotland sounds very charming indeed. It seems to keep the environemental impact of slope skiing to a minimum. I see a lot of skiing resorts in the summer and it is not pretty, not to mention the fact totally bad for plant life, envirenement etc.
    T bar lifts are still quite common in Europe in general, we certainly have a lot of them around here even in very well developed skiing areas.
    From what I know, Scotland has a lot of potential for backcountry skiing..... anyway, I will stop my babbling now. ;)

  2. Yeah, they do heliskiing here in Scotland, and also occasionally some ski-touring. What I don't understand, though, is how their season could possibly be economically viable. I mean, it's just so short and so unpredictable. The skiing industry here really seems to be supported mainly by die-hard locals who still do a substantial amount of their skiing elsewhere. (And curious expats like myself, I guess.)

    Glad to hear you enjoy the blog. I must admit, I'm a bit envious--I'd love to live in the Alps!