‘Our Skiing is as Good as Anywhere in the Alps’: Are Scotland's Slopes Really As Good as France?
Is this the UK's best-kept secret?
Words and photos by Ellie Ross
It’s just gone 9am, and Saturday morning is already shaping up nicely. An empty piste, carpeted in pillow-soft powder, unfolds beneath me as I snap on my skis under a perfect blue sky.
In the distance, peaks painted white with snow are bathed in the first rays of sunlight. Inhaling a lungful of crisp mountain air, I launch myself down my first run of the season.
The wind whips my face as I pick up speed, carving satisfying turns into the pristine slope and spraying a trail of snow behind me. I whoop like a giddy kid before swooshing to a stop at the bottom, heart pumping and ready to do it all over again.
This winter Scotland has been blessed with an epic amount of the white stuff.
And the best thing about all this? I haven’t schlepped all the way to the Alps, but am much closer to home - in the Scottish Highlands.
Cairngorm Mountain Resort, where I’m spending the weekend tearing down the slopes, is ideal for a last-minute ski fix.
Sitting high at an altitude of 3,600ft, it’s the most snow-sure of the five Scottish resorts (generally opening first and closing last) - and this winter it has been blessed with an epic amount of the white stuff.
Unlike a trip to the Alps, getting to Cairngorm Mountain couldn’t have been easier.
With just two days to spare, I wasn’t going to waste precious piste time checking in for a flight or taking a long transfer. Instead, one Friday night after work, I simply boarded the Caledonian Sleeper train in London.
After bedding down in my own berth, I nodded off in England and woke up, just before 8am, in Aviemore, a 20-minute drive from the slopes.
If the weather hadn’t played ball, there is plenty to do in this Highland town, where I base myself at the Macdonald Aviemore Resort.
Hiking, mountain biking, canoeing, whisky tours, clay pigeon shooting and dog-sledding are all on offer - you can’t imagine that much variety in Continental resorts.
Luckily for me, the weather is - like my mood with the prospect of two days’ skiing ahead - extremely good.
By 9am, I am in my salopettes and taking the first funicular train up the mountain from the bottom of the ski station.
As well as off-piste, Cairngorm Mountain has 18.5 miles of runs to suit all abilities, and a network of 11 drag lifts.
To get my bearings, I spend my first morning with Jim Cornfoot, Cairngorm land manager and senior ski patroller.
Jim - who has been working in these Highland hills for 23 years - learnt to ski aged three on a golf course in Aviemore and is now teaching his son to do the same.
“Let me introduce you to the White Lady," he says as we glide over to one of the resort’s most famous slopes - a red run with beautiful views of Loch Morlich in the valley below.
En-route, we pass a flat section of perfect corduroy, where a toddler is nailing his snow plough, trailed by an instructor.
“The mountain plateaus at the top so we have a big beginner area up here on good quality snow," Jim says.
Cairngorm is the only place in the UK with a half pipe cutter
“And over there," he continues, pointing with his ski stick, “is where our new freestyle area will be."
In June, Cairngorm was taken over by Natural Retreats, the company that operates sustainable accommodation and leisure facilities from Cornwall to the US.
They have committed to a five-year, £6.2m investment plan at Cairngorm in a bid to attract both tourists and top athletes.
Part of this is investment has gone towards the freestyle area, with new rails and jumps, designed with Team GB snowboarder and Cairngorm local, Jamie Trinder.
“Cairngorm is the only place in the UK with a half pipe cutter," Jim adds. “And there are plans to open a training facility, to help develop future gold medallists."
The resort has also raised its game on the food front, thanks to its new restaurant, The Storehouse, at base station.
You can ski to the door and fill up on fresh, locally-sourced dishes, from a £14.25 platter of salmon, mussels and smoked cheese to £6.95 tuna or haggis paninis.
Back on the mountain, I chase after Jim as he flies down the White Lady, carving perfect turns that wouldn’t look out of place on Ski Sunday.
We pass a man skinning uphill with his dog by his side, and a handful of riders - but we pretty much have the piste to ourselves.
Pausing halfway down, Jim points out ridges on the snow, and explains that they are caused by high winds.
But he and his team use the extreme conditions to their advantage - they spend the summer putting up wooden fencing between the pistes to stop the snow blowing away. This simple but effective technique means the winter season lasts longer.
“Conditions change quickly here," Jim says. “But if you check the weather and pick your days, our skiing is as good as the Alps."
The next day I discover just what he means. The breeze picks up, transforming the summit to a wispy white place and briefly mugging me of most of my sensory indicators.
If you check the weather and pick your days, our skiing is as good as the Alps.
But as I dip below cloud level, I’m rewarded with endless, silky snow, and even less people than the day before.
Climbing aboard my Sunday night sleeper train back home, I feel the satisfying ache of tired ski legs after two full days on the slopes.
So next time I need a weekend getaway that’s more affordable than the Alps and right on my doorstep, I’ll head for the Highlands.
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About Ellie's Trip:
The Caledonian Sleeper Train will be operated by Serco from April 1 2015. To book tickets, visit sleeper.scot.
A Cairngorm Mountain Resort (01479 861 261; cairngormmountain.org) one-day lift pass costs £34.50 for an adult, £20.50 for under 16s and £25 for seniors and students.
Double rooms at the Macdonald Aviemore Resort (0844 879 9152; macdonaldhotels.co.uk) start at £76prpn B&B.
Ellie’s ski jacket and salopettes were provided by Patagonia