Just getting to the start line of the Lawers of Gravity freeride contest is a challenge in itself, writes Roger Cox
If the weather plays ball – big if, I know – then today could be a landmark day for Scottish skiing. By dawn, some of the country’s best off-piste skiers and snowboarders will already be on the road, en route to the Ben Lawers hills on the north shore of Loch Tay. At 9:30am, they will gather at the dam car park at the foot of Meall nan Tarmachan, an incongruous little gaggle of brightly coloured puffer jackets and beanies, and there they will find out if the conditions are right to press ahead with the Lawers of Gravity freeride contest – the second of four events that make up this year’s Scottish Freedom Series, and the only one that can truly be said to be off the beaten track.
If there’s enough snow, and if the snowpack is stable enough, and if the visibility’s OK, and if it isn’t blowing a hoolie – if, if, if – then the skiers, the competition judges and the safety team will start hiking. They will cross over the dam to the other side of Lochan na Lairige, and then begin a slow, steady slog uphill. After an hour or so, the group will reach a false summit about two thirds of the way to the top of the mountain and here they will gather to decide what happens next: do they want to push on to the top of Tarmachan, and ski the steep, critical lines there first, before tackling the easier-angled lower part of the hill? Or, if things are looking sketchy – if the visibility’s poor, or the weather’s closing in, or the avalanche risk is looking worrisome – would they prefer to compete on the lower slopes only?
This was the dilemma facing competitors at last year’s inaugural Lawers of Gravity event, although in the end it really wasn’t much of a dilemma. Thin snow cover made some of the available lines off the summit treacherously narrow and rock-strewn, and event organiser Iain Ramsay-Clapham of Snowsport Scotland unambiguously voiced his concerns before putting it to the vote. In the end, only a couple of the more experienced skiers and boarders expressed a desire to carry on to the top; the majority plumped for two laps of the lower slopes, and so that’s where the contest was held.
It was still a great day, with a mellow vibe and some state-of-the-art skiing and boarding, but there was also a sense, as the athletes slowly trooped back down the hill in the warm, late afternoon sunshine, of unfinished business – a sense that the event had only partially lived up to its potential.
The Lawers of Gravity is significant because it’s arguably Scotland’s first true backcountry freeride competition. The other three events that make up the Freedom Series – at Glenshee, Glencoe and Nevis Range – are all bona fide freeride events, in the sense that they offer competitors a range of steep, unpisted terrain on which to impress the judges, but they are all held on slopes adjoining ski resorts. The competition areas themselves may not necessarily be within the ski area boundary (although some are) but competitors can use ski lifts to get most of the way to the start line, and all the facilities of a major ski centre are reassuringly close at hand. The Lawers of Gravity, by contrast, takes place a very long way away from anywhere. If something goes wrong here, ski patrollers on skidoos will not be buzzing to the rescue. Riding well in this context has as much to do with getting to the bottom of the hill in one piece as it does with landing big, flashy manoeuvres.
The other thing that makes the Lawers of Gravity contest unique is the size of the potential playing field. For the time being, Meall nan Tarmachan seems to be the competition area of choice, but the organisers have permission to run the event on any of the hills in the Ben Lawers Range. Beinn Ghlas, Meall Corranaich and Ben Lawers itself could all provide an array of steep, testing terrain and are all relatively accessible. Some of the others might be more of a logistical challenge due to the distances involved, but what price a hike-and-camp-and ride contest in – say – the crater-like amphitheatre of Meall a’Choire Leith?
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The first thing is to see if a Lawers of Gravity event can be held successfully using the full height of Meall nan Tarmachan. That, in itself, would set a fantastic precedent for years to come. Then, once it’s starting to feel as if all the possible lines on Tarmachan may finally have been exhausted, perhaps the organisers can start looking at the neighbouring hills.
For more information on this year’s Scottish Freedom Series, visit http://freedomseries.wix.com/freedomseries