IMAGINE a ski resort where real-deal backcountry terrain is just a five-minute stroll from the top of the highest lift. A place where a long, curvaceous ridge offers access to a series of steep-sided bowls which, because they’re sheltered from the prevailing wind, are often stuffed full of deliciously soft powder snow.
Think I’m talking about Canada? Austria? Patagonia? Nope. This is a description of the Back Corries at Nevis Range – the best-kept open secret in Scottish skiing.
Accessing this freeride paradise really couldn’t be easier. From the top of the Summit button tow, which deposits you close to the top of 1221m high Aonach Mor, you simply follow some marker poles over flat, slightly rocky ground until you come to what looks like the edge of a cliff... and that’s it – you’ve arrived.
In spite of this ease of access, however, many people will choose to end their backcountry adventure at this point. Why? Because that thing that looks like the edge of a cliff more-or-less is the edge of a cliff. Not only that, if the wind’s been blowing snow over the top of the ridge, a cornice will probably have formed – a fragile snowy overhang jutting out into space. If you want to ski the steep and deep that lies beneath, you must first negotiate this frosty diving board, and that, for a lot of skiers and boarders, will be a leap of faith too far.
In some places on the cornice, even when you stand as close to the edge as you dare, you still can’t see the first four or five metres of the slope directly beneath your feet. Drop in here and you can never be sure whether the first thing you hit will be soft, forgiving snow or rock-hard nevee. And then there’s the risk of avalanche: steep slopes like these are prone to sliding, particularly after heavy snowfall, and nothing triggers an avalanche quite as effectively as an out-of-control skier landing full force on an unstable section of snowpack, closely followed by a chunk of broken cornice the size of a Land Rover.
As a consequence of all this, the management at Nevis find themselves in a bit of a quandary. Obviously they want to encourage competent skiers to enjoy the world-class backcountry playground conveniently located within their resort, but at the same time they want to prevent gung-ho beginners from hurling themselves off the aptly named “Lemming Ridge”.
The short-term solution will be a change in the classification of the runs in the Back Corries. Currently they are mostly marked as reds and blacks (which suggests they are just like normal pisted ski runs) but soon they will all become orange “itineraries” – a name used in the Alps to denote a ski route that, although passable, is left more-or-less in its natural state, with all the hazards that implies. The team at Nevis also have a longer-term solution in mind, and that is to educate intermediate and advanced skiers and boarders about how best to deal with the dangers inherent in riding this part of the mountain. To this end they have set up a series of Back Corries Workshops, led by senior members of the ski patrol team, and, along with Scotsman photographer Alex Hewitt, I had the chance to try one out at the end of January.
Our instructor for the day was Nevis’s Head of Ski Patrol, Jeff Starkey. Sometimes on courses like this, the people in charge might be tempted to skip over the details in a bid to maximise skiing time; Jeff, by contrast, was extremely thorough. In an initial hour-long briefing session in the Snowgoose restaurant, he gave us a comprehensive introduction to the kind of preparation you should do before venturing into the backcountry, from how to relate weather and avalanche forecasts to the terrain you’re planning to ride, to making sure all your kit is functioning as it should. Then it was over to the transceiver park to practice locating buried avalanche victims – well, buried transceivers anyway.
Transceivers look a bit like old-fashioned mobile phones and they emit a pulsing radio signal that can be picked up by other similar devices. If you’re wearing one when you’re buried by an avalanche and the people you’re skiing with have transceivers too, they should be able to find you and dig you out in less than the 15-odd minutes it’ll take you to suffocate. Without transceivers, though, any would-be rescue party will be reduced to playing a pointless game of “Er, OK guys, where did we last see Bob?”
The transceiver park at Nevis has several units hidden beneath the snow which instructors can switch on and off from a central control unit to simulate single or multiple burials. Our group of five took it in turns to search for “victims”, our transceivers beeping more and more excitedly the nearer we got. Once the distance readings on the transceivers were down as low as we could get them, we started poking around in the snow using telescopic probes.
With great conditions reported on the back-side of the mountain, you could tell that everyone in the group was desperate to get over there, but Jeff made sure we knew what we were doing before moving on. And who could blame him? If he was caught in an avalanche, it’d be us coming to dig him out.
At the top of the Summit tow, Jeff gathered us together to show us the lie of the land. To the south, swathed in cloud, was the top of Aonach Mor, and almost directly beneath it two runs situated just outside the resort boundary – Summit Gully and Spikes. To the south was the area we’d be concentrating on: the runs around Coire Dubh – technically inside the resort, but very definitely off piste.
After a short walk we reached Lemming Ridge and the first potential drop-in point, leading to a run called Chancer. Jeff demonstrated the best way to approach the edge of a cornice (poking the ground ahead of you with a ski pole to check for any instability) and also explained the advantages of being roped to a companion while performing this risky-looking procedure.
The drop-in to Chancer looked sketchy, with the first section completely hidden from view, so Jeff took us a little further down the ridge to the entry point for Back Track. Here you could see what you were aiming at and the “after you” politeness that had prevailed at the top of Chancer quickly changed into a “lemme-addit” mentality as everyone scrambled to get ready to go.
The first few metres were still tricky – a high-speed traverse across a steep, scraped, icy face – but after five or six seconds of barely-controlled acceleration the roar of ski or snowboard edge on ice gave way to the soft hiss of powder, and you could relax into a string of satisfying turns.
Even 36 hours after the last snowfall, there was still plenty of fresh snow here, and we made the most of it, whacking great spumes of spray into the air on the cruise around the side of the hill to the Rob Roy traverse, which in turn took us back to the Snowgoose Restaurant.
After a very brief lunch stop there was still time for one more lap, and this time Jeff took us down Cascade, where the snow was even better – not just lighter and fluffier but also completely untracked. It was nearing the end of a busy Saturday, there were hundreds of skiers on the front side of the mountain, yet this beautiful little powder stash hadn’t been touched. If that isn’t a good enough reason to attend one of these workshops, I don’t know what is.
Back Corries workshops at Nevis Range cost £25 per person. Booking in advance is essential, as limited places are available. Transceivers, shovels and probes will be supplied, although participants are encouraged to bring their own if they have them. The next two workshops are scheduled for next Saturday 25 February and Sunday 4 March. For more information, see snowsports.nevisrange.co.uk/Back-Corrie-Workshops.asp
• Gallery pictures by Alex Hewitt