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Watching my brother-in-law-to-be, all 19 and a half stone of him, slide gracefully across the piste, I began to wonder if spending my stag weekend skiing in the Cairngorms was such a great idea.
Ordinarily, seeing a pal skiing makes me feel warm inside because it generally means I'm skiing too, and I love a bit of snow action I do.
This time, however, was different. Surreal almost.
My impending newest relative did slide gracefully, being the accomplished skier he is.
It's just that he was going diagonally backwards, uphill, looking as bemused as it is possible to look when you're wrapped up like a polar explorer.
We'd flown as a group of 6 from Luton to Inverness with easyjet, and were meeting a further 2 of our party at the house we'd rented for the weekend. They'd flown from Manchester with BMi, on an aircraft that still relied on propellers to get airborne.
Our flight felt like a short hop, a mere hour and 5 minutes, and the village of Kingussie, our base for the next 3 nights, was a further 40 minute drive down the A9.
All very easy. It's hard to get lost when you only have one road to follow. Their flight was even shorter, but felt like a lifetime, and Kingussie in the dark is very dark indeed. It's apparently very easy to get lost even though you only have one road to follow.
Given the weather conditions in the fortnight building up to the weekend, where the whole of London became wedged in their houses, buried in 4 inches of deep, unrelenting snow showers, we were all hopeful of an enjoyable weekend of solid UK skiing. Flying smugly in the face of the doubters who spurn Scotland to hop over to the much more snow-sure Alps, Pyrenees or Dolomites for their annual ski holidays.
For two excited weeks, I was on all manner of webcam sites looking at snowbound roads, white-out mountain conditions, and full car parks.
Upon arrival, it appeared there had been an overnight thaw of epic proportions. Sure, there was snow here and there, but the roads were clear and every field we drove past was green and brown. Not white, not like they should be.
From our party of 8, we had 4 experienced(ish) skiers and boarders, 3 complete beginners, and one who'd broken himself a week earlier slipping on the now fast disappearing ice.
For the beginners, I'd pre-booked ski lessons with www.theskischool.co.uk, at a pretty reasonable rate of £40 per person for a full day (4 hour) group tuition. In France, they would probably have ended up in a mixed group of 12. Here in Scotland, their 'group' was just the three of them, technically making it a private lesson. I forgave the basic design of their website when I found out the class size. They also handed out £23 for a beginners lift pass and £16 for equipment hire.
For those of us who didn't require lessons, equipment hire was £18 for Skiis and Boots, and a lift pass was £29 for one full day, and the more consecutive days you purchase, the cheaper it became.
As we would soon discover though, getting a single day riding the mountain is in no way guaranteed.
We were in the Cairngorm mountain range, where they have a fantastic funicular railway that runs every 10 minutes or so to get you from the Ranger Base Ticket and car parking area to the very top Ptarmigan station in an impressive 10 minute ride.
The funicular will carry up to 120 at a time standing room only in winter, or 60 seated in summer.
We'd had to wait from 1000am until 1200 midday for the funicular to re-open due to high winds. One gust over and above 60mph on the top of the hill closes the railway for an hour for health and safety reasons. Not even the offer to wear a day-glo jacket and hard hat would change their minds.
We got to the top in-between the gusts, but as soon as we stepped out of the carriage, we were being told to climb back aboard as the winds were hitting 70 - 80 mph.
I'd not proposed to my girlfriend, chosen a best man, helped organise a stag party, booked a house, got on a plane, travelled several hundred miles, hired a car, got fully kitted out, driven up a mountain and ridden a funicular railway just to be told that I can't slide down at least once.
A short conversation with one of the rangers, and we found out that it was "nae advisable aye" to attempt to ski down, and if we did, it would be "at yae oon risk aye"
This was all the encouragement we needed. "Not advisable" means "not impossible" and "at your own risk" means "See you at the bottom. Probably."
As we stepped out into the most severe weather conditions I've ever experienced, 80mph gusts create horribly horizontal hailstorms, three of us hunkered down for protection, whilst Will, my brave intrepid brother-in-law-to-be, attempted to set off down the piste.
Only to find himself going up the piste instead. The rest of us did follow, like wintery zombies, until we were sheltered from the worst of the wind.
Our group eventually made it to the bottom, to discover all lifts were closed for the rest of the day, and were told to claim a half day refund for the lift passes.
Getting a refund out of the craggy old lady at the ski store wasn't as straight forward as it should have been.
Had we bought our lift passes in the ranger base station, where you catch the train from, we would have been entitled to a refund in cash on the mountain there and then. Because we pre-booked our passes on the advice of the leathery shop lady to "avoid the queues" of which there were none; We had to go and battle for £10 each refunds from the Cairngorm Mountain Shop in Glenmore from whom we'd hired the equipment and bought the passes.
In future, I'd definitely pre-book the ski lessons to guarantee availability, but for lift passes, it's worth getting them on the mountain so that refunds in the event of lift closures are easily obtained. This would probably explain the queues when there are some.
So, Day one was a blow out for 4 of us.
The beginners didn't use a lift pass, and stuck to the slopes at the bottom. This also entitled them to a £23 beginners lift pass refund, and their experience was none the worse, as the slopes were quiet, and the wind was nominal at the base.
Day two was a revelation by comparison.
Even though only around 60% of the runs on the mountain were open, the funicular ran uninterrupted all day and the winds only reached 40mph, which felt like being caressed gently with silk gloves compared to the previous day.
We managed to get a highly enjoyable few hours riding the top half of the pistes on the Sunday, which more than made up for the disappointment of the Saturday.
The Ski area on Cairngorm isn't huge, but with 6 long Green Runs, 9 long Blues, 7 Reds and 2 Black, accessed by 11 lifts (sadly all poma and T-bar style - the bain of a snowboarders life) there is plenty to keep intermediate and beginner skiers entertained for a weekend.
The snow conditions weren't good enough to explore any of the off piste areas, being as they were mostly grass and mud with the odd rock or three sticking out.
It did concern me slightly that even just a few days after the heaviest snowfall Britain has seen in two decades, the Scottish mountains can't keep a hold of enough decent snow to open every lift, or even if they had the best snow conditions, the wind closes everything for an hour at a time.
Overall, if you're a beginner, and you want to have a go at skiing without laying out heavily for the cost of an Alpine break, the Cairngorm is a good option. Not great, but good.
If you, like me, like to spend as long as possible skiing on ski holidays, then France or Austria can easily compete on lift pass prices if you find the right resort, whilst also giving a near guarantee of weekly fresh snow, especially in the higher resorts.
Cairngorm does offer a range of alternative activities for those who don't ski or, more likely, when the weather doesn't allow skiing to happen.
On the main road between Aviemore and the Ski Area, we saw Clay Pigeon Shooting, Mountain bike hire, Fisheries, Dog Sledding, Dry Ski slope sledging, and there were lots of ramblers routes around. All of which could entertain a family on a weeks holiday, but the cost of a lot of these activities did seem slightly prohibitive if you were to try one a day, for example.
I’ve skied at Cairngorm several times since the early eighties, and still have a soft spot for it. Perhaps this is because it’s where I first donned skies, whatever, I like it in spite of itself. The main problem with Cairngorm is the wildly unpredictable weather. The slopes are very exposed as they loom over a wide valley and are afforded no protection. This means the snow blows away too often, and conditions can easily become unskiable in a very short period of time. Having done a good deal of solo walking in this area I would say it’s worth bearing in mind that this area has claimed many lives. This includes those who died in what became known as “The Cairngorm Disaster” in November 1971, when 6 teenagers died about a mile from the top of Cairngorm in a blizzard. My point – Treat this place with respect. Last year I was there on what a fellow skier who lived locally described to me as a “good” weekend. This meant that the lifts were open up to about ¾ of the way (horizontal hail and 30 m.p.h. + winds above that) and you could ski to the bottom. There was a lot of exposed rock and sheets of ice, but still enough skiing to make it worth the effort (As long as you don’t live too far away). I believe Scotland is getting less and less snow nowadays, which is a real shame as there could be a decent skiing industry if it weren’t the case. A piste map of Cairngorm can be found http://www.snowboardingscotland.net/res_mapcairngorm.html This is worth taking a peek at if you’re considering skiing here as it shows the different levels of skiing available. Black – Difficult runs Red – Intermediate runs Blue – Easy runs Green – Beginners runs Yellow – Tows The right hand side of the map represents the main ski area, and this definitely the easier and safer skiing if you’re newer to the sport. Re
ds such as M1 (7) aren’t too difficult and the Fiacaill area can provide some interesting moguls and ice. Queueing on this side of the hill is slightly more apparent, but not too bad. The Coire na Ciste area (Tows 10-15) can offer some difficult skiing and should be only tackled after taking advice. For more info about Cairngorm you can check out www.skicairngorm.com, telephone 01479 861261 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, the prices are £20 per day for a full adult ticket. When it comes to choosing somewhere to stay, I'm one of those strange people that actually like the concrete looking village of Aviemore, about 8 miles from the slopes. Known throughout the gentile tourist trade as a crass destination, it's one of the better places to stay if you like something to do of an evening. Last time I was there I stayed in the Cairngorm Hotel, which is a nice friendly, central place with a good bar, drying room and decent sized baths, all for around £25. The food is very edible and reasonably priced too. For more info Tel. 01479 810 233, or e-mail email@example.com There are a wide variety of other places to stay in Aviemore – all of which can be organised at the tourist office at the entrance to the village, and even such luxuries as a Chinese Takeaway, a Littlejohns and a Pizzahut!! Overall it would be a bit silly to decide to come here more than a week in advance, as high winds and lack of snow can soon shut the slopes. One of the disadvantages that Aviemore has when compared to the likes of Glenshee is its location. It’s easy to access from Inverness, but from Aberdeen it’s a bit of a drag, whereas Glenshee is easily approached from either Perth or Aberdeen. Although I’ve recently been very impressed with Glenshee, I’d still like return to Cairngorm sometime - if only to hit the bright lights of the “Legendary” Crofters Bar. This is situated near the dom
inating Stakis Hotel, has an awesome selection of traditional alcopops and if your feet aren't sticking to the floor after half an hour it's a poor night;-)