High noon last Saturday, and the cream of Scotland’s backcountry ski and board fraternity are gathered on the summit of Meall nan Tarmachan, on the north shore of Loch Tay, preparing to contest the 2016 Lawers of Gravity freeride event.
The thick fog that shrouded the mountains of the Ben Lawers Range earlier in the morning has almost completely burned off now, and all that remains is a small, solitary white cloud, which is wafting its way sedately along the opposite side of the loch. When people say things like “on the right day, the skiing in Scotland can be as good as anywhere in the world,” this is the kind of day they mean.
High winds and variable visibility meant that last year’s inaugural Lawers of Gravity event could only take place on the lower slopes of Tarmachan; this year, however, there will be two scored runs on two different sections of the mountain: the first on the open, snow-stuffed bowl to the south-east of the summit, the second in the maze of gullies and turf-traps on the slopes below. Competitors can take whatever line they choose, and the judges will score them on how well they ride it. Go big, says the freeride rulebook, and you’ll score big – unless you fall, in which case you won’t score very much at all; and this equation of risk vs reward is clearly on the minds of the competitors as they scope out the upper face, weighing up the various options.
There are three possible ways to drop into the steep top section: a fairly gentle shoulder to skier’s right which offers the easiest entry but no scoring potential; in the middle, something that looks like a cornice from below, but is actually more of a lip, although there’s still scope for a little air time; and to skier’s left, a good-sized cliff which looks to have a four or five metre drop directly beneath it. Several people are examining this last, potentially contest-winning feature very carefully, so evidently it’s going have a role to play in the action to come.
The snowboarders go first and collectively they seem to have decided to play it safe, avoiding the cliff and aiming instead for either the shoulder or the lip (although “safe” is a relative term on a 45 degree slope). Joanne Slater, the lone female boarder, attacks the top section with plenty of speed but is undone when she sinks an edge into the soft spring snow. Robbie Paton, winner of last year’s men’s snowboard category, tries to launch off the lip but takes a tumble on the landing, although he recovers well. Kerr Mackinnon, last year’s second-place finisher, is a little more conservative off the lip than Paton, but he lands cleanly and goes on to link some strong turns before mixing things up with an unexpected wall ride just before the finish, riding up the left hand side of the gully for a few metres, hopping a swift 180 as the snow starts turning into grass under his board, and then riding back down.
Of the female skiers, last year’s winner Katie Small is the only one to tackle the lip and she negotiates it like a pro, then hammers down the remainder of the face as if it’s an easy blue run. When it comes to the male ski category, however, it seems almost everyone wants a shot at the cliff. Rob Kingsland comes within a whisker of making the drop, but loses a ski to the soft snow and goes head-over-heels down the slope below. Wipeout of the contest? Nope, he’s outdone almost straight away by Euan Larter, the next skier to drop. Like Kingsland, one of Larter’s skis gets bogged down in the slush on landing, sending him rag-dolling downhill at an alarming speed. Mid-tumble, he misses a rock by a matter of centimetres – a lucky escape.
Next up is Dave Biggin. He hits the cliff with plenty of pace, lands cleanly, and then bleeds off the speed with a string of huge, powerful turns. It looks like a winning run and he backs it up with a strong showing on the tricky second section of the mountain, skiing over a couple of metres of grass at the bottom in order to drop off another, slightly smaller cliff right in front of the judges. He wins the men’s ski category, with Mackinnon first in the men’s snowboard and Small first in the womens’ ski.
“There was a bunch of us looking at the same take-off,” Biggin says of his first, all-important cliff-drop, “and I was lucky to be going later in the running order. I watched a couple of guys crash, so I knew the snow was a bit sticky. After that it was just a case of a few nice turns and that was pretty much it.”
See? Freeriding’s easy – if you have nerves of steel and thighs of iron.