Taken from Whitelines Issue 91 October 2010
Words: Tristan Kennedy
I look upon Switzerland as an inferior sort of Scotland.”
– Sydney Smith, Clergyman and Author (1771-1845)
It’s only 8 o’clock at night, but it could easily be two in the morning, such is the intensity of the silence that surrounds us. I walk around the solid stone walls of the old house once more, feeling the panic rising in my throat. As I peer through the curtained windows, I can see a light on somewhere, but it looks like there’s not a living soul inside the hotel we’re supposed to be staying in. My voice sounds increasingly desperate, even to myself: ‘Hello? Is there anybody there?’ Trying to make light of it, I turn to my companions Ed and Dan, with whom I’ve made the long drive from London.
“I feel like we’re in Withnail and I. We’ve come on holiday by mistake!”
They laugh, but nervously and not for long. No-one’s saying it, but all of us are beginning to suspect that we might be spending our first night in Scotland out in the open.
This was not a situation I felt comfortable with, to say the least. We’d been lured northwards by tales of a record-breaking season and photos of locals enjoying pow that would have made the Japanese jealous. On top of that, this weekend was supposed to be the Vans Dawn of the Shred competition, and rumour had it that the organisers had taken advantage of the epic snowfall to create the biggest kicker ever seen in the UK. But it was one thing looking at photos on a computer down in London, and quite another making the trip up to Aviemore to stand around in the cold Scottish night.
Scotland had always seemed an unlikely destination for a snowboard trip to me anyway. I mean, for starters, it’s in the UK, and as much as I love our little island, it’s not a place I usually associate with epic snow. And call me an uneducated southern fairy, but to my mind the Scottish Highlands have always been about long dark nights and unforgiving weather. In my head, this was a land of craggy cliffs and even craggier locals, where hardy auld men eked out a living disturbed only by the occasional group of masochistic city folk hiking and ‘getting away from it all’. My previous experience of the remoter regions of Scotland – several rain-soaked camping trips to the Western Isles as a teenager – hadn’t done much to dispel this notion, while friends and family who’d sampled the delights of Scottish snowboarding previously had sent back similarly foreboding stories of patchy snow, gale force winds and driving rain. What I’m trying to say is, there’s a reason why I’d always pointed my nose southwards or westwards when heading out on shred missions. And to be fair, my Scottish friends hadn’t done much to sell it to me either. None of these thoughts were improving my mood as we stood around in the dark outside the guest-house wondering what to do.
Getting locked out was at least partly our own fault. Myself and Dan (our photographer for the trip, and the proud owner of the finest moustache since Flashman) had left London later than we meant to. Ed, Whitelines’ esteemed editor, had meanwhile flown direct from his home in Cornwall to Edinburgh, where he’d taken the chance to have a catch up with Scott McMorris, sink a few beers, and send gloating texts down the motorway to us. By the time we’d picked him up, had a cuppa and driven through the picturesque outskirts of Edinburgh, the sun was already setting. As we headed out to Aviemore in the gathering gloom, it was obvious I was right, at least, about the remote nature of the Highlands. The landscape, already noticeably emptier when we’d crossed the border a few hours before, was becoming increasingly rural. Winding our way through heather-covered hillsides, with very little traffic to hinder our progress, I felt like we were travelling further and further from the overcrowded and bustling Britain that I knew. The countryside was almost old-fashioned in its remoteness here – proper Monarch of the Glen stuff. It didn’t take too much imagination to picture wild, kilted clansmen striding across those hills in days gone by, hunting wolves, stags, or any Englishman foolish enough to stray across the border.
But all this romanticising – so easy to indulge in the warmth of the car – seemed pretty foolish now. Faced with the prospect of a night in the open, the familiar aggravations of London’s non-stop culture began to seem suddenly attractive. Come on, there was a competition up the mountain the next day, surely there had to someone about? And anyway, wasn’t Aimee Fuller, who we were staying with, supposed to have arrived already? Eventually we gave up. Hungry and seemingly homeless, we decided the only thing for it was to try and find a local pub that was still open. Perhaps, if we were really lucky, they’d know our landlord’s mobile number. That is, if he even had a mobile!
Wandering down on to the road, we were relieved to see the lights of the Old Bridge Inn a mere stone’s throw away. The pub looked friendly enough from the outside, but I was still half-expecting a welcome worthy of the League of Gentlemen… Yet as we pushed the door open and felt the warm blast of noisy air hit us, it was obvious that nothing could have been further from the truth. The pub was packed with a mixture of holidaymakers and locals all chatting happily away together and tucking into what smelt like amazing food. Instead of a cantankerous old landlord, the faces behind the bar were young, smiling and welcoming – a group of twenty-something mates who ran the pub together. A brief enquiry revealed that Alex, the friendly owner of the guesthouse and chalet complex, was in fact sitting at the very same bar! Our problems solved, we sat down to enjoy the excellent Old Bridge Inn special of Hogget Stew, washed down with pints of the local brew Trade Winds. All was well with the world, and as I fell asleep that night in the comfortable Chalet Ptarmigan, I kicked myself that I’d let my imagination run away with me. This was going to be a good trip after all.
It didn’t take too long to picture wild, Kilted clansmen striding across those hills in days gone by, hunting wolves, stags, or any Englishman foolish enough to stray across the border.”
When the next day dawned bright and sunny, it looked like I was right – where was the rain and high winds I’d been told about? In fact, we would later learn that on April 10th 2010, Aviemore was officially the hottest place in the UK! As we headed up the hill things just got better. The drive up to Cairngorm Mountain, the resort served by the town of Aviemore, is simply stunning. As you meander around a series of hairpin bends, the valley floor unfolds beneath you, offering views to rival anything you’d see in New Zealand. And there was the snow we’d been promised! It wasn’t just a few patches either – tongues of the white stuff extended a long way down the hill, licking along the edges of the approach road well before we got to the carpark. There was so much that we could barely see the famous fences built to stop the snow blowing away. In some places they were nearly buried, and everywhere they looked out of place and unnecessary.
Stepping out of the car and into the sunshine, we met the rest of our crew: Laid-back Aviemore local Angus Leith was the lynchpin of the group, combining the roles of host, guide, park shaper and rider effortlessly, and without ever seeming to get stressed about anything. He took our borderline racist jokes about haggis, highland ‘coos’ and deep-fried heroin well within his stride. He’d generously given a bed to two other visitors the previous night – WL advertising manager Craig Scrivener and his friend Sam Nelson. This pair were our very own Cheech and Chong, a comedy duo whose love of shredding was tempered only by their need to stop regularly for a smoke. To this motley crew were added Aimee Fuller, the bundle of bubbly blonde enthusiasm who we’d found fast asleep in our chalet the previous night. She’d woken up before all of us that morning, keen to head up and get her shred on. Martin Robertson, another Aviemore local, was equally enthusiastic and refreshingly willing to ride pretty much anything going. UK scene stalwart Scott McMorris completed the company. Of course, this being the UK, people were free to join us and drift off as they pleased, but the core of the crew stayed constant.
It quickly became obvious that Gus, our guide, was pretty key not only to our crew but to Cairngorm as a whole. People shouted out cheery greetings to him as we walked across the carpark, and everyone on the mountain seemed to know him. In fact, everyone seemed to know everyone – young, steezed up shred-dogs chatted easily to grey-haired ski instructors as equals, and we saw very little of the agro that can sometimes characterize lift-pass queues elsewhere on sunny days. In fact, the whole mountain had an old-fashioned friendly feel not dissimilar to the one we’d found in the pub the previous evening. The lifties by the bottom of the rickety T-bars and pomas rarely check your ticket, smiling at you trustingly over their books as you shuffle into place. As we headed up the funicular on that first day, someone had filled in the timetable board so it read: “Next train: SOON.”
No doubt the easy-going feel of the place has a lot to do with the size of the resort. Despite being the biggest in Scotland, with 30kms of pistes and more than 10 lifts, the mountain at Aviemore never feels massive. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its fair share of epic terrain – the headwall and the territory around the back feature some incredible couloirs. But as a resort it could never be confused with the slick, regimented, and nakedly commercial operations of the French or Austrian Alps. And since you’re not sharing the pistes with hoardes of people of every nationality, or being hosted (read: tolerated) in town by the locals, this relaxed feeling grows. The cars in the carpark all have familiar UK plates, the currency’s the same, the food and language are the same (except that everything’s deep fried!). It’s all just very easy, and knowing that these are our mountains, and this is our snow, is a pretty special feeling. It’s like easing yourself into a comfortable old armchair. A bit tatty around the edges, sure – it’s certainly not like those smart Ikea numbers – but its shabbiness is reassuringly familiar. You can let it all hang out.
A cheery bloke with an easy smile and a sarcastic steak, Rod’s commentary was unconventional to say the least: ‘That’s a double shifty snorkel badger!’ he shouted.”
Pulling off the road on our way back down, we found ourselves walking through a grove of trees onto a sandy beach. This was Loch Morlich, Aviemore’s equivalent of Lake Wanaka – a stunning dark blue gem halfway between the town and the mountain. Despite the fact that we’d been riding just a few miles away, it was hot enough for people to picnic in the late afternoon sunshine. Angus later told us that the sand had in fact been shipped in, but the fact that you could be shredding one minute and sunning yourself on a beach the next was still pretty amazing. As Dan cooed over the soft evening light and began snapping pictures, Cheech and Chong sparked up a spliff to celebrate the find. Though we were well outside the summer tourist season, it was hard to imagine how such a massive space could ever feel crowded.
The same remoteness had struck me earlier when we’d stopped to take some portraits at a bare carpark halfway down the mountain, surrounded by the rusting hulks of bulldozers. On one side, a disused chairlift still snaked its way up the hill, its seats hanging forlornly from the cables, slowly gathering moss and birdshit. In an Alpine resort, surely a lift like that would have been roped off, ready to be replaced with a shiny new quad chair that could take thousands of tourists higher up the mountain at eight times the speed. Even elsewhere in the UK, security guards would have boarded the place up and slapped warning signs across it, or at least put a stop to the impromptu game of ‘Toss the Caber’ which Ed (inspired by our location) had started with an old telegraph pole. Yet here there was no one to be seen, and no apparent rush to close the area off; there was easily space enough just to leave the lift sitting there as an obstacle for passing snowboarders like us to climb on and throw stones at.
By the end of the first full day, I felt right at home – my disorientated unease of the night before a distant memory. Of course, this may have had something to do with the prodigious amount of beer we’d consumed at the Dalikfodda after-party that evening, but I like to think that the atmosphere of Aviemore had helped swing it. There was an over-riding friendliness to pretty much every aspect of our stay.
OK, so on that first day the matey atmosphere was helped by the fact that half of the UK snowboard scene had turned up for the occasion. When we arrived at the edge of the park people were unhurriedly setting up decks, surrounded by a sea of Monster cans. Vans rider Chris Chatt was holding court, gesticulating with his crutches and telling anyone who’d listen that they should be playing metal instead of dubstep; TSA’s Jeremy Sladen had driven up with Jamie Nicholls for the contest; and Dalikfodda’s Ian ‘Thr’Ashmore and Schoph were there to preside over the face-melting thrash metal that made up the evening’s entertainment. Wandering over to the side of the park we found Jenny Jones enjoying the sun on a deckchair, resting up after winning her third X-Games gold.
I was faced with excruciating prospect of watching the dignified old man I’d been chatting with the morning before clean up my shit.”
The weather definitely played its part in the good vibes, as did the riding. The kicker, at least 60-feet of flat from lip to the knuckle, had lived up to its billing as the biggest ever seen on these shores. It stood shimmering in the sun, like a greased up bodybuilder with a pituitary problem, daring riders to get involved. Thankfully, a lot of people had turned out for occasion. More than 50 had registered for the comp, and though not all of them were throwing down off the big one, they were all getting stuck in. As the likes of Jamie Nicholls and Scott McMorris dropped in alongside local lads, an easy-going, almost family-feeling prevailed. In some cases people actually were family. Rod – the local legend who seemed to be organizing not only the comp, but the park-shaping as well – had roped in his sister Natasha to send the riders down from the top. And when it became obvious that an MC was needed to help liven up proceedings, up stepped Rod again. A cheery, twenty-something bloke with an easy smile and a sarcastic streak, Rod’s commentary was unconventional to say the least: “That’s a double shifty snorkel badger!” he shouted, making up trick names as he went. “You, young lad, had better step up. I know your older brother and your mother, and neither of them are going to be proud if you take that kind of speed into the kicker again.” The banter continued all day. “Oh and there’s a lovely frontflip to Manfred!” Manfred, Rod explained for the visitors, was the name of a local skier who has a penchant for landing on his face.
The best thing about this tight-knit community was how welcoming it was to outsiders. Arriving back at the park to grab my bag for the last run down, I found the T-bar was closed but still running. I begged the liftie to let me grab one of the empty lifts so I wouldn’t have to hike all the way up the hill. To my immense surprise, she smiled: “Aye, sure, go fer it.” Here was someone who didn’t know me from Adam offering to stay a little bit later at work just to make my life easier. As I rode up, I remembered the countless times I’d been told to lump it and walk it by French lifties, and gave thanks that people in Aviemore were a little bit different.
No-one summed up this Aviemore attitude better than Angus, our host. For starters, as I mentioned before, he seemed to know everyone. And when I say everyone, I mean literally everyone. At one stage, he hailed a passing snowcat and jumped in the cab to help the driver with their shaping. On the second day, when local legend Leslie McKenna and her mates took us on a backcountry hike in an attempt to shoot an epic couloir, we ended up miles away from anyone, and yet we still managed to run into one of Gus’ many mates – a chap called Mikey – who proceeded to offer our crew a spliff and a wee dram from his hip flask. Even the lass in the Happy Haggis, who served us our umpteenth portion of chips and a “well posh” deep fried mars bars (apparently it’s “posh” if it’s got ice-cream with it!) was someone Gus had gone to school with. As well as giving Cheech and Chong a bed for the first few days, Gus and his family then hosted myself, Ed and Dan once our stint in Chalet Ptarmigan had finished. Despite the fact that neither of Angus’ parents were born in Aviemore or even in Scotland, their house – a welcoming jumble of skate decks, old snowboards, pot plants and didgeridoos – seemed to fit the place perfectly. Many mothers would have a heart attack if three slightly-unshaven strangers wanted to drape their dripping snowboard kit over their nice clean radiators, but Angus’ mum didn’t bat an eyelid.
Young, steezed up shred-dogs chatted easily to grey-haired ski instructors as equals, and we saw very little of the agro that can sometimes characterize lift-pass queues elsewhere on sunny days.”
Gus also went out of his way to help us. Right from day one, as he watched the sun go down over the valley, our photographer Dan had been determined to do a sunset shoot on the big kicker. Initially we’d hoped to do it on the second day, but a lack of organization and our hellish hangovers from the Dawn of the Shred after-party had counted against us. By the time we got round to it at the end of day three the clouds had finally descended, and were blanketing the mountain in a thick fog. If we were to shoot at all, we desperately needed a way for Dan to get down to the carpark and retrieve his flash setup. Trouble was the funicular had closed. A brief word from Angus with one of the ski patrol was all it took to solve the problem. Whisking Dan off on his snowmobile, he carried him all the way down to the carpark and back again, dropping him off at the top with a smile and a wave. Unfortunately, even this act of kindness proved unable to save the dream of the sunset shoot. The fog (which we’d hoped would lift) had soon enveloped the park in a thick blanket of pea-soup, rendering any kicker riding suicidal. Thankfully the riders managed to find a rail they were happy to hit, and despite the fact they couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of their face, Martin, Angus, Aimee and Scott manned up to perform for Dan’s flashes anyway.
But the easy-going Aviemore attitude wasn’t exclusive to the Leith family. Alex, the landlord who ran our chalet complex, was a tall, dignified gent with silver hair and a stern-sounding voice. As I smoked outside the chalet to ease my hangover on the second morning, he told me about the town, adding with obvious pride that with its reputation for skiing, cycling, and even curling, Aviemore had produced more Olympians per head of population than anywhere else in the UK. On the third morning, as we were due to leave, Scott McMorris came in with a worried look on his face, and said in his Edinburgh brogue:
“Erm, guys, who was last in the downstairs toilet, cos there’s a wee jobby just waiting outside the front door.”
As the last to utilise the facilities, I was slightly alarmed. I became more than slightly alarmed once I’d looked at the drain outside the door and realised what a “wee jobby” actually was. It turned out that five snowboarders sharing a small apartment for three nights had been too much for the Victorian-era plumbing in the old house. My post-breakfast visit to the toilet, it seemed, was the straw that broke the camel’s back, unleashing a brown apocalypse. I was then faced with the excruciating prospect of watching the dignified old man I’d been chatting with the morning before clean up my shit. But while we spent the morning wincing with embarrassment as we hopped over the bubbling stream, Alex was perfectly cheerful about the whole thing. And far from being glad to see the back of us as we loaded out bags for a quick getaway, his wife Jude came out to chew the fat and wave us off!
On our final morning, the thick cloud still squatting over the mountains made us realise that we had in fact been very lucky with the weather. There was little point in heading up. The riders I’d met at the park the day before who’d joked, “Aye, it’s always like this,” had unfortunately been joking. Yet Aviemore had one last surprise up its sleeve: just before we left, the sun came out long enough for us to grab some shots of Gus and his younger brother Fergus skating Johnny Barr’s mini-ramp. It was the perfect end to a memorable spring shred, and as we drove off afterwards towards a night on the tiles in Edinburgh (thanks Scott!) I looked at the sun-dappled landscape with a fresh perspective.
I’ve been across the border plenty of times before, and a lot about Scotland fitted my expectations. We’d eaten chips every single day of the trip; we’d had a deep-fried Mars bar. Even the snowboarding side, which I hadn’t experienced before, seemed in some ways to fit with what I’d thought: the highlands did feel remote, Cairngorm is a bit wild, and Aviemore does seem reasonably quiet. Somewhere in my southern mind, however, I think I’d expected all these to be disadvantages for visitors. Instead, the opposite is true. Far from creating an insular attitude, or a ‘local-spot-for-local-people’ outlook, the small size of the place mean it has a friendly, open and trusting vibe, and people possess an almost old-fashioned kindness. We didn’t find any hardy auld men eking out a living, and coming up to the highlands wasn’t masochistic. What we found was purely and simply amazing fun snowboarding. And, whatever the weather, I want another dose of that next year.
50 YEAR STORM – Scotland’s Epic Season
Late last year, just as Glencoe was put up for sale for the umpteenth time and newspapers across the land were sounding the death nell for wintersports in Scotland, along came mother nature with an unexpected surprise. A huge storm barrelled into to northern Britain and dumped foot upon foot of snow onto the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands. At Britain’s highest pub, the Tan Inn, a group of new year revellers enjoyed a three day lock-in thanks to the weather, while people in London – commuting to work on the tube with their daily copy of the Metro – were glued to the ongoing tale of a housewife from Sutherland who drove eight miles from her remote home to buy a Christmas turkey and got stranded on the other side for two weeks, leaving her husband home alone at for the holidays with nothing to eat but baked beans. There was so much snow, in fact, that Cairngorm Mountain actually had to close for several days (much to the anger of many skiers and snowboarders, who couldn’t understand how too much snow could ever be a problem for a resort).
For Aviemore locals, the winter of 2009/10 would prove to be one of (if not the) best winter in living memory. Right through until March, the snowline extended way down from the resort to the town itself, meaning powder days and urban rail sessions were a constant theme. Over the back of Cairngorm Mountain, freeriders were taking advantage of bottomless freshies to score epic descents of the steep chutes known as Aladdin’s Couloir and Jacob’s Ladder (which is where these photos were taken). As the snows receded through late March and April, slushy spring conditions replaced the powder, and riders were able to jib fences, hop heather and enjoy a great park for many weeks longer. Having opened on 28th November, Cairngorm Mountain finally closed its lifts to weekend skiers on 6th June! All this while the Alps were enduring a meager year of snowfall, and over in Canada helicopters were flying snow into Vancouver for the Olympic Games.
Everyone who rode Scotland last winter – both locals and visitors – were amazed at just how good the riding on our doorstep can be. If mother nature obliges again this year, perhaps a few more of us will think twice about booking that flight to Geneva…