Backcountry Scotland | A Guide To Skiing And Snowboarding
Here's our big guide on everything there is to know about ski touring and splitboarding in Scotland
If you’ve been stuck at home without skiing or snowboarding in Scotland this winter your social media feed will have made for torturous viewing. Cold temperatures, light winds, blue sky days and powder snow have been a surprisingly frequent occurrence in Scotland, ironically coinciding with a time when we can’t travel.
I don’t live in the highlands, I feel your pain. Fortunately local skiers have been making the most of the snow and it hasn’t gone to waste! I, like many others, have sought out fields and small hills finding creative ways to link up modest ski tours in the lowlands.
“Torridon, Glen Shiel and even Skye have had skiers and snowboarders in their mountains”
The pictures from the North have kept on coming. Torridon, Glen Shiel and even Skye have had skiers and snowboarders in their mountains. Meall a’ Bhuachaille became a tree skiing paradise in January with a backdrop hard to beat anywhere in the world. This is visually stunning content that has inspired newcomers to the British Backcountry skiing scene. More viewers than ever have become awakened to the possibilities of skiing in the UK, and in particular Scotland.
The reality is often a lot harder going than the pictures and videos make out. Conditions are fickle, the weather can be harsh. You need to be in the right place at the right time. When you are, it can be an incredible place to ski and snowboard.
If you don’t have snowy mountains (or even hills) in your local area then this guide to help prepare you for when restrictions are finally lifted. While I’m aware there’s also some superb terrain south of the border, I’ve never had the pleasure to ski in England and Wales, so will stick to what I know – Scotland!
What To Expect
Mountain conditions are constantly changing. It’s great to take inspiration from others, but ensure you do your own research and planning to give yourself the best chance of finding snow and favourable weather. It also helps to lower expectations. Think of the day as a journey and any good downhill as a bonus.
In a single outing it is quite possible you will come across every type of snow: firm wind pack; rough neve; breakable wind slab; sunbaked crust; slick ice; wind slab; and even possibly some fabled Scottish powder.
In short, you need to be able to ski everything and read the terrain ahead of you. Often on courses we teach people the importance of a round shaped turn, ensuring any unpleasant snow is taken tip first and the ski runs forward through it, while a quick rotation of the skis would cause the ski to become caught in the crud causing the skier to be catapulted to the ground. Don’t worry we’ve all been there, but best remember your helmet.
A strong upper body ensures that you aren’t over-rotated when the ski or snowboard sinks under the surface and wants to continue the curve of the turn further than you had planned. On piste you may enjoy committing fully to the outside ski or the edge of the snowboard, creating a powerful turn from early on.
A gentler approach is needed on catchy snow like sun crust. Spread your weight more evenly and imagine you are riding across egg shells, trying not to break through. Manage these issues and you are on your way to being able to tackle most snow types, then even the most marginal day can become a pleasure.
Technique is only a small part of your skill set however. The number one priority should be navigation. Accidents happen when you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Visibility can deteriorate in an instant in Scotland. Regardless of conditions currently overhead, or how favourable a forecast is, you need to be able to navigate confidently in poor visibility.
“Visibility can deteriorate in an instant in Scotland”
Expect change. Many will choose to rely on GPS but even with advances in battery quality I still believe you need to be able use a map and compass. The good news is these skills can be learned and practised anywhere, and there is a wealth of material online to help you.
As well as changes in visibility it is important to never underestimate the wind. Even the most confident skier can be turned into a mouse when a 40mph is blowing ice in their face and the ground is so scoured that it’s hard to hold an edge. Hopefully this only happens as you pass over a bealach (saddle/col), or on a summit, or a plateau, or on route to somewhere more sheltered with better snow.
Be mindful of your group, the psychological aspect of this situation can ruin a person’s confidence.
Those are the hard times, but when you get it right it truly can be as good as anywhere. I have skied cold dry powder snow down wide open slopes, charged down corries in forgiving spring corn and jump turned my way down steep gullies on grippy confidence inspiring windpack. All this with the never ending deep purple, green and blue colours of the Highlands below.
“To have a good day you will need to put a bit of work in”
In the Alps you get accustomed to the vertical walls of rock, snow and ice surrounding you. Here you are up on a stage, with the vista stretching out forever ahead.
The final thing to expect is that to have a good day you will need to put a bit of work in. This is good news, it’s what gives the sport more depth than just visiting a resort where most things are controlled and prepared for you.
Planning Your Scottish Ski Tour
The majority of your planning should happen before you arrive on the mountain. You also need to be flexible. Not only do you need a plan for your route, and have a good understanding of the weather and snowpack; you also need other options and locations in case the forecast changes.
This may sound time consuming but all the information is out there if you know where to look. The best place to start is to visit the ‘Be Avalanche Aware’ website, but here is the process I go through each week in case it’s helpful:
Follow MET office updates right up to the last minute, even during the morning you are travelling. Be willing to change location but remember to let someone know your chosen route and expected return time.
The other part of planning is to decide what terrain you are comfortable tackling as a group, and what equipment you wish to take. This can be tricky when starting out and it is recommended for your first outings you join an organised group (see courses and clubs in the links at the end of this article). Some of the factors that will influence your route choice might include:
What do the members of the group want to get out of the day, and is it possible to achieve these as a group, or does there need to be compromise? Have this discussion before you are on the hill.
Is there one group member who is leading the group and do they have the skills to do so?
Do you have escape routes? Are there key points on the tour where decisions need to be made, or cut off times met?
Are you going to stay on the front side of the mountain, where escape back to the car park is straightforward, or are you committing to going off the back of a mountain where you will rely upon your equipment, navigation, decision making and fitness to get you back home again?
How steep are you willing to ski / snowboard? Is the snow pack safe on a steeper slope? Look at contour lines on the map but remember large amounts of snow can actually increase slope angle. Consider using a resource such as Fatmap which overlays the slope angle and aspect onto a three dimensional map.
If you set out to ski a gully do you have other options if it is not in condition? Are you going to climb it first to check? Do you know if it has a cornice at the top and is it stable? Can you transition between crampons and skis and vice versa on a steep slope?
In Scotland it is common that the top of the gully will be very steep so be careful not to climb yourself into trouble. Stop before you get onto something you wouldn’t be comfortable to ski.
Can you self arrest using an ice axe if it goes wrong? Can you make a controlled jump turn in a narrow corridor? If entering from the top would it be safer to use a rope? Is there anyone else below you?
Equipment To Take on a Scottish Ski Tour
The terrain will dictate the equipment you carry. As mentioned before, the mountain is ever changing and it is not uncommon to come across short sections of tricky ground which weren’t expected in your original plan.
For this reason I tend to carry everything I might need without letting my bag get too heavy. My current equipment list for Scottish ski touring includes the following (please note that it is my job to lead ski touring groups and it is not necessary to have such expensive kit, it is also possible to stay in areas where some of the following would not be necessary.)
We’ve linked to an OS Map location for many points of interest. To make full use of these links, this article is best viewed on a desktop or laptop.
This depends on the freezing level, precipitation and wind direction / speed. If the freezing level is low then virtually any mountain or hill could become a viable option. When it is around say 600 metres (which is fairly common) then you are looking at higher starting points. Some of these are listed below.
Good For: Mellow ski tours with easy access directly from the A9. The possibility of staying on the front side of the mountain. Multiple summits possible for those fit enough.
Time of Year: January – March
Parking: The car park near Balsporran Bed and Breakfast offers good access to several Munros. This can fill up during the weekend when there is good weather so please park considerately if you are travelling in a large vehicle.
Geal-charn is one of the best introductory ski touring venues, especially the NW descent into Coire Beul an Sporain. A more interesting descent is the west side which takes you almost to the shore of Loch Ericht with stunning views down to Ben Alder across the water. If you wish to venture further then you could do a lot worse than plan a trip out to Beinn Udlamain, taking in A’ Mharconaiche on the way home.
Good For: Sheltering from Easterly and South Easterly winds. Occasional tree skiing when the snowline is low enough. Mellow terrain.
Time of Year: January – March
Parking: The parking is a short walk along the road from the start of the trail. In winter it is normally quiet, unless the weather is good on a weekend.
The north facing stream lines off Meall Dubhag known as Tom, Dick and Harry offer good sport after both a SW and SE wind. Coire Ruadh, on the NW side of Carn Ban Mor allows for a longer descent, again following streamlines that collect snow from crossloading. If the snow has been coming in from the SW it is worth checking out the short descent from the 783 spot height which heads NE into Coire Ruadh.
The Cairgorms are great for early season adventures while you wait for other venues to come good. Endless terrain and possibilities from blue run gradient to steep narrow gully descents.
Whatever way you get down, snowboarding or skiing to the shores of Loch Avon is a must for any Scottish touring fan. The trip out to Macdui combined with a descent into the Lairig Ghru, and then back up to return one of the Northern Corries is a big day but achievable for most fit tourers.
This can be extended further to include a round of the 4000ers by crossing the Lairig Ghru and visiting Cairn Toul, The Angel’s Peak (Sgor an Lochain Uaine) and Braeriach as well (and is possible as a two day option camping at Corrour Bothy). Coire An t-Schneada offers superb gully skiing even late into spring although the terrain is steep and exposed, and can be busy with climbers.
Time of Year: November – May
Parking: If you don’t mind a few extra vertical metres it is nice to start in the Coire Ciste car park and keep away from the busy ski centre car park. There has been talk of this one day becoming a parking area for camper vans, as a way of taking pressure off the car parks around Loch Morlich which even in winter are busy at night.
Please bear in mind that parking overnight beyond the snow gates might mean you get stuck if the weather deteriorates. Wind transported snow can close the road quickly. The higher access point is the ski centre car park but the Snow Factory snow making machine currently runs on a diesel generator making it a noisy, smelly place to park. If you do park here please pay a car park donation and make a purchase in the cafe.
The east side of Cairngorm consistently has good snow cover and is the easiest descent to Loch Avon, via the Saddle, if the snow allows. Even half of this descent is worthwhile and there are lots of variations. Similarly the south side of Cairngorm can be an excellent mellow ski when the snow has collected in the hollows. This is often used as a higher starting point for Ben Macdui where one of the longest descents in the area heads down it’s South side following All Clach nan Taillear.
A note about ski resorts: If you choose to start a ski tour from a ski resort car park please remember to access the area responsibly. This means keeping away from ski lifts, machinery and not interfering with resort skiers and snowboarders. If the resort is closed there will still be hazards. Lift cables may have been blown off pylons and be buried beneath the surface. Piste Bashers may be using winch cables, or moving snow above you. Vehicles may have churned up the snow on your descent path.
Please also check with the resort regarding their parking policy, they may have a separate area for visitors not purchasing a ticket or there may be a donation box.
Braeriach has every sort of skiing you could possibly ask for. It’s a big day out often accessed using mountain bikes to get to Glen Eanaich. This is a monster of a mountain with numerous Coires all of which have had ski descents down their faces and gully lines. There are mellow options too, including the descent back to the Glen itself.
Time of Year: February to May
Parking: Although it is possible to park in the very pretty, and slightly higher, car park near Upper Tullochgrue this is not suitable for large vehicles. There is another more accessible lay-by on the ski road at the start of the trail.
Further out, Coire Gorm holds late snow even on it’s flatter slopes. It’s also possible to visit Loch Coire an Lochain by skiing around the West side of the crags. On the return to the Glen the steep skier’s eye will be drawn toward Sgor Gaoith opposite which holds some of the longest and finest gully skiing opportunities in the country (when in condition).
Glensee is great for mellow ski tours with short challenging sections if desired. It’s packed full of long, multi-descent routes and easy access from the high road.
Time of Year: January – March
Parking: The South side of the Ski Centre car park, away from the ski lifts. There are other options on either side of the car park further down the hill, but they aren’t well suited for larger vehicles. In the past a ski tourers pass has been offered which gave three uplifts (useful to get out to Glas Maol)
Better touring is found out towards Glas Maol. The descent back into Coire a’ Bhathaich is terrific and offers easy access back out to the road, if the snow is low enough. Similarly to the North there is a good descent into Garbh-Choire. The route can be extended by skinning all the way around to Carn an Tuirc for a more interesting gradient slope. The return would be a skin back up the side of the road, or a lift if you are fortunate enough to have access to a second car (or can get someone to pick you up).
Ben Lawers is easily one of the best venues for snow sports in the country, with a high car park giving quick access to a huge variety of terrain and multiple summits. Easy touring, open bowls, multiple descents, variety of aspects, some moderately challenging terrain if you seek it out.
Time of Year: February to the end of March, although keep an eye on January storms.
Parking: The National Trust Car Park is most suitable for larger vehicles, although the car park further up the road is a better starting point for Meall Nan Tarmachan.
There is another car park at the north end of the reservoir which can be used for Meall Corranaiche, but this should only be considered if you know the road and car park are clear of snow and quiet as there may be no way of turning a vehicle around beyond the NTS car park. It is also vital to know if the Ben Lawers road is clear of snow before attempting to drive up, as many vehicles get stuck there every year and block the road for others.
Meall nan Tarmachan has descent options off all sides and the best depends on where the snow has been deposited by the wind. The ascent roughly follows the summer path and the return is directly down from the first ridge.
The cliffy area above the reservoir is to be avoided but some gullies on the south side see regular visitors. When conditions allow there is a lovely mellow descent to be had from below the steps south side all the way down the valley towards Killin.
The north side of the mountain has some terrific skiing but you need to consider how you will return to the carpark.
Similarly Meall Corranaich has multiple aspects that can be descended, my favourite being east towards the old shielings. It is often possible to ski back to the road from this summit which makes for a terrific long descent.
Beinn Ghlas tends to get rather windswept but often holds good snow on it’s east facing side after strong westerly winds. A good day out combines this with a second descent down Ben Lawers South East Face.
Good For: Lift served side country with some challenging steeper skiing a short hike away.
Time of Year: February to April, with late season descents also possible on good snow years.
Parking: The Ski Centre car park has space for large vehicles but please park considerately and remember to pay a donation in the box (£2 per day, £5 overnight recommended). Although the café burnt down last year they have a temporary café and some facilities for customers.
The south east facing slope down towards Ba Cottage is the most mellow sidecountry offering, while further West of this from near the summit there are steeper options. There are some sportier options off both Creise and from the Clach Leathad ridgeline but access is by a rocky scramble from the top of the resort.
Good For: More challenging and serious terrain in one of the most stunning locations in the country.
Time of Year: March and April
Parking: The roadside lay-by is the best option, but at weekends please note this gets busy even in winter.
There are many good gully lines to be skied here (the most famous being Broad Gully on Stob Coire nan Lochain) but they are steep and have numerous hazards. The most enjoyable open line is known as Paradise (East side of Bidean nam Bian, there’s various options here which will depend on where the snow has accumulated). Most winters it is possible to have a lengthy descent towards Coire Gabhail (aka the Lost Valley), twisting and turning around boulders and following stream lines.
For gully skiers Ben Nevis’s Number 3, 4 and 5 are the most commonly skied but the coire below – Coire an Lochain – is also an enjoyable place to ski without entering the gullies.
All of the gullies are serious and hazardous and should not be underestimated. Tower Gully into Observatory Gully complement these with an enormous descent off the highest point of Great Britain down a steep exposed gully. Carn-Mor Dearg has some beautiful skiing down the east facing side into it’s three bowls which are slightly more friendly.
The entrances can often be corniced and steep however. If you wish to ski the south side of Ben Nevis it is possible to park in Glen Nevis and ascend the tourist path, then descend the Red Burn. In the right conditions this could be one of the longest descents in the country and is far less challenging than the North Face when in good condition.
Aonach Mor plays host to the best lift served terrain in the country (although it is unlikely they will open in 2021 for snowsports). The Backcorries of Nevis Range offer incredible terrain for the cost of a ski pass and a bit of pushing / skating back to the resort.
The high starting point can also be used to access surrounding peaks. If we are fortunate enough to have snow from the east then the fabled west face occasionally opens up giving access to alpine length steep gullies looking onto the majestic bowls of Carn Mor Dearg.
Creag Meagaidh offers quick access to the snowline and a huge variety of terrain. And, thanks to the grassy slopes below, you often don’t need a lot of cover for it to be usable. The downside to this is that they are avalanche prone. Coire Ardair has some very steep and serious gully skiing.
Time of Year: February to March (April if you are looking for steeps or gullies)
The simplest descent is down Sron a Choire, although that makes for a short visit. For a much longer journey it is possible to do a full traverse around the outside of Coire Ardair. If it’s possible to skin up to Carn Liath there is some more mellow terrain off the north side, but the return would be back down the ascent.
Blair Aitken is the founder of the British Backcountry social media group and partner in the ski touring course provider of the same name. If you are interested in trying ski touring or are looking to upskill yourself so you can tackle new terrain then please visit www.british-backcountry.co.uk.
Header Image: Pete MacKenzie skiing a steep and exposed Number 2 Gully on Ben Nevis, Scotland. Credit: Al Todd
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