As we wound our way into the increasingly rugged landscape the setting sun cast the surrounding landscape a fiery shade of orange. At the first glimpse of snow on the Scottish peaks, Kenny Rogers’ ‘The Gambler’ began to play on the car stereo; no other tune could have been more apt. To get the goods in Scotland is much like playing poker: as Kenny crooned, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, Know when to walk away and know when to run.” For this trip I’d been folding for at least 3 years, just playing the blinds but getting nothing but 9s and 3s from the reports. Now, finally, I’d got dealt pocket aces and it was time to go all in.
All photos: Sami Tuoriniemi
Scotland played a pivotal role in the formative years of British snowboarding, as the snow-covered Mecca to which the early pioneers gravitated before the days of cheap airfares arrived allowing grunts on budgets to venture further afield. Onboard had wanted in on the Highland fling for a long time, but in recent years the term fickle didn’t come close to describing Scotland’s winter weather. It’s not unusual to have decent conditions one day, only for it to rain the next, and to assemble a crew and do a trip you need a timeframe of workable conditions that runs in weeks, not days.
At the Brits last year, sharing a brew with Aviemore’s favourite daughter Leslie McKenna, she lowered her voice and whispered conspiratorially to me, “Scotland’s got shed loads of snow. It’s the best it’s been in years and Cairngorm will be open till May…” Two weeks later I’m crossing the Firth of Forth Bridge, heading north from Edinburgh to the Caingorm Mountains and the town of Aviemore. In tow I have Onboard photo ed Sami and Swedes Chris Sörman and Tobias Karlsson; I must confess I was thinking: “How the hell did I manage to convince this lot to come to Scotland?” Well, all three like poker, that’s for sure.
The Scottish landscape is stunning, with rolling hills covered in pine and heather and split by the odd bubbling brook, becoming more craggy as you venture further north. In many ways it is reminiscent of Scandinavia, which isn’t surprising as until fairly recently (in geological terms, anyway) it was part of the same landmass. The illusion, of course, crumbles once you see clusters of stone crofts, spired mansions and castles that are distinctively British. “It looks just like out of a book,” remarked Tobias; it was hard to disagree.
Aviemore was to be our destination, and not just because Leslie had the hook-ups. I’d been reared reading the exploits of the pioneering British riders and the mischief they’d made in this small town and its resort. Guys like Simon Smith, Steve Crampton, Darren Williamson, Al Flemming, Gus Gillard, Jeremy Sladen and Tony Brown had spent whole seasons there in the early 90s, with Al and Gus even starting a the fabled Acid Snow boards down the road with a grant from the Prince’s Trust. Though they made few boards, the local pub landlords were certainly stoked with the funding and stories like this contributed to the legend of the area. For years I’d wanted to make my pilgrimage, now we were rolling into the small town just as the sun was setting in a picture perfect deep blue sky. The McKenna connections had come good and we’d secured accommodation at the salubrious Coylumbridge Hilton set in a 65-acre woodland estate. Not only this, we’d got passes organised and we also got to meet her ski patroller boyfriend, Euan, who was not only a sound guy, he’d prove an invaluable help in making sure everything ran smoothly on the mountain.
The next morning, after the first of many artery-clogging but oh-so-welcome full English breakfast – a culinary joy that the Scandi’s were a little horrified by – we drove the 5 miles up the winding road to see what the Cairngorm resort had to offer. We’d arranged to meet local ripper Angus Leith (who when not home travels with the GB team) and fellow Scottish boy done good Ben Kilner. Without these two showing us around, we would surely have been lost.
The first glimpse we had of the ski area proper was through the windows of the funicular that takes you from the car park to the top of the resort and the ‘Highest Restaurant in the UK’ (albeit at a mere 3600 feet (1097m)) where keen ornithologists swarm in an effort to spot the elusive Ptarmigan from which the eatery takes its name. The best thing about this 8-minute ride is the driver’s running commentary, jovially talking passengers through the conditions, the weather forecast and even cracking the odd joke. I can’t imagine the cranky inbreeds that pass for the Liftwaffe in much of Europe providing such a service any time soon. This sense of genuine hospitality would be repeated in all we met in our time in Scotland.
After a couple of laps off the train, I was struck by how Cairngorm reminded me of Riksgränsen – a spider’s web of snaking runs that are super narrow compared to the motorway pistes of central Europe, with an abundance of rickety old fences scattered about – though the way the icing sugar snowline capped the verdant green lower slopes recalled a miniature NZ. The locals seemed to be able to discern different runs like ‘The White Lady’, ‘The Slot’, and ‘Gun Barrel’, but to me it was a slightly confusing mass of interwoven trails that we ollied, buttered and bonked our way down. There was certainly plenty of snow left, albeit a tad cruddy, and our shot-scoping eyes noted plenty of the antiquated relics of ski resort technology that looked good for jibbing.
We were told that the groundwork for a monster booter had been started so we went to check it out. The huge pile of snow certainly looked big enough, but sadly the spot they’d decided to place it would have meant the mother of all flat landings or some serious cat hours to make it work. As the boys waited for the cat driver to show up and impart the bad news, Ben and I hiked up the ridge behind us to get a look at the Cairngorm backcountry and the infamous ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ chute. Arriving at the summit, with the wind howling at our ears, we were greeted by a view towards some full on gnarly terrain. The resort proper consists of more rounded hills than jagged peaks, but here was some stuff that looked like it had been cut and pasted from Jeremy Jones’ scrapbook. Serious lines and chutes peppered with cliffs and rocks bowled round to the right and looked to offer a decent challenge to any serious freerider. As Chris and Tobias don’t quite fall into that category we clipped in and rode into a little powder bowl to reconvene with the rest of the crew. It was hard not to be stoked to be able to kick up a spray in Scotland.
A BEAST IS BIRTHED
Hitching a ride with the cat driver Adam, a laid back, pony tailed Scot, we headed to the Vans Park off the Ptarmigan draglift. Though small, it had enough rails to keep the local jibbers stoked, and a small kicker, all kept in shape by Jonny Barr and his crew. The spot is where a lot of snow builds up through winter, allowing the park to stay operational until the season’s bitter end, though usually by this time of year all that’s left is a moribund patch. In spring 2008, however, there was still heaps to work with, and the lay of the land looked perfect to build a decent sized jump. With Euan smoothing things over with the ski patrol, work got underway on the beast. Though Adam had not built many kickers of this size, he’d just returned from a course in Canada and, most importantly, was keen to listen to the riders’ input. Leaving him to push the snow, we checked out some more spots before treating the Swedes to some more gourmet British cuisine – fish and chips.
The kicker was taking shape nicely when we arrived the next morning. ‘Too many cooks’ and all that, so we decided to divide and conquer: the riders stayed to help the kicker’s construction while Sami and I went to shape a spot for the afternoon. Aware of the notoriously fickle nature of the Scottish weather– not to mention ever-changing forecasts – there was a sense of urgency to make the most of the clear skies we’d been dealt.
After the Swedes had come down and hit the spot we’d got ready (a wall drop over a fence that, being right by the funicular, caused some consternation until, again, Euan cleared it for us), Ben let us know that the kicker was good to go – at 15m with 18m to the sweetspot it was more or less unprecedented for a kicker in Britain, confirmed by the bulging eyes of the restaurant staff. However, although the locals called it a calm day for Cairngorm – Euan had been up earlier in the season when winds were nudging 170mph – there was still more than a little wind blowing over the ridge and Sörman and Tobias weren’t up for gambling with the gusts. The excitement of having a kicker like this in their backyard was too much to prevent Ben and Angus having a pop, though. “Can you believe that there’s a jump like this, in Scotland?” beamed Angus before dropping in and stomping 7s to the props of the Swedes. Our crew were not the only ones to take note of the good conditions; Jonny Barr bagged the cover of The Times with a shot from the week before we arrived, the headline boasting that conditions were better than Europe.
The next few days would see us repeat our approach to the beginning of the trip: always aware of the necessity to get things dialled ASAP in case the weather changed, we’d jib, waterslide, drop and shred our way around the resort hitting anything we thought would work (and some that wouldn’t) in between sessioning the kicker when the sun was out and the wind more favourable. We’d encounter colourful locals – from stoked kids to a guy who was still wasted and upon discovering Sami was Finnish claimed he must be ‘a weapon on a snowboard’ – and would, all in all, luck out with the weather. As the days went by I began to form an impression of the place that was hard to shake – that the Cairngorm resort seemed like a benevolent aunt: always warm and welcoming, but had seen better days and was not quite turning heads like she used to. From speaking to the locals there was a feeling that certain improvements could, and should, be made to improve the snowboard scene there and they’re actively working to implement these. But times have been tough on the old dear of late.
Being at a low altitude means the Scottish resorts are among the first to feel the effects of climate change and they’ve certainly suffered financially recently due to less frequent snowfall coupled with the reduction in prices of flights to more alpine areas. With uncertainty over the future, improvement and investment may come slowly, if at all. Though this winter bucked the trend, in that it had more consistent conditions and attracted regular punters from Scotland and beyond, time will tell what future winters have in store.
BREAKING THE BANK
After a day off, hunting the mythical monster of Loch Ness, our final day of Scottish shredding was blessed by bluebird, light winds in the park and saw the Swedes stomp a succession of 7s and 9s on the booter, accompanied by Scottish riders from near and far who’d got wind of the construction. Though we wanted to build something in the backcountry the snow had by now become a little baked and the wind too strong out of the sheltered Ptarmigan area, so with kicker sequences in the bag we negotiated patches of heather and rock on the way down to the lower carpark. With May just days away it seemed that this phenomenal winter in Scotland was finally coming to a close. Skipping our last chance for a deep-fried Mars bar in the local chippie, we instead were directed by Angus to a local skier’s place where he’d constructed a backyard rail park out of scavenged metal and strips of Dendex. Though we didn’t ride it, it certainly looked like some of the pioneering spirit of yesteryear was still alive and well in Aviemore.
With any luck, the conditions of last winter will be repeated on a more frequent basis and allow the scene to once more flourish in Aviemore as it used to. Time will tell. The stoke of the local riders to be able to ride a decent-sized jump deserves to be repeated and hopefully the resort sees the value of it too. Of course, it all depends on getting enough snow. All in all, our Scottish odyssey was a success and I recommend it to anyone wanting something a little different from their snowboarding. When the conditions are on, the terrain can offer up riding that compares with the rest of Europe, but with a totally different vibe to the chalets and Euro techno of the Alps. Sure, we’d missed the rare delicacy of a bluebird Scottish powder day the week before we arrived, but there was plenty of snow to work with, plenty of good times and even the odd drop of whisky.
To round things off nicely, as we started the drive back to Edinburgh for a morning of wandering round the ancient capital, the weather turned Scottish on us. It pissed it down. We didn’t care though; we were leaving the table with our pockets stuffed full of chips.