At times this season, discussing snow conditions at Scotland’s ski resorts has felt a bit like stepping into a weird parallel universe where everything’s been turned upside down.
The ski areas are usually desperate for more of the white stuff, particularly as spring arrives and the mercury starts creeping in a northerly direction. But this year, several of the centres find themselves with too much snow – so much, in fact, that it’s actually been impeding their operations – and so “thaw” isn’t anything like the dirty word it once was.
Take, by way of illustration, a wonderfully surreal conversation I had with Andy Meldrum, owner of Glencoe Mountain Resort, one Monday morning in late February.
“We’ve been reasonably lucky over the weekend,” he told me, “we’ve had 48 hours of rain which has brought the snow level down a bit. Two of the lifts are still buried, though – the Wall T-bar and the Main Basin – we’re still working on digging them out. The only ones running at the moment are the Poma and the Cliffy and even the Cliffy needed two-and-a-half hours this morning with two groomers digging it out.”
It’s hard to think of another time when anyone involved in skiing in Scotland would have described 48 hours of rain in February as “lucky”. Perhaps back in 1994, when the radio masts on the top of the hill at Glencoe were covered, but even then, Meldrum reckons, there wasn’t as much snow as they’ve got now. Those towers have been extended since ’94, and this year they’ve been buried for a while.
You’d think that these unprecedented amounts of snow would at least be good news for the Coe Cup freeride event, about to be held for a third year and evidently going from strength to strength, with nearly 100 entries already for just 80 places. But even here, Meldrum faces a few unusual dilemmas.
For a start, the steep, gnarly part of the mountain known as the Flypaper where the contest is usually held isn’t quite as steep or as gnarly as usual: there’s so much snow on it that features like Buttress Rock, which competitors typically use as a launchpad for dramatic aerial tricks – have been completely filled in, and the volume of snow also means that the slope is a little less steep than usual. So, unless there’s a monster thaw between now and next Saturday, when the Coe Cup begins, Meldrum says he will probably have to move the event to a different area.
“We might have to look for an alternative off the back of the mountain, or between the Flypaper or the Spring Run,” he says, “but it’s a good problem to have. And all we have to do is put a couple of poles at the top and a couple of poles at the bottom, so we can move the start and the finish wherever we like.”
That last comment is a reference to the fact that, unlike, say, a slalom race, which follows a set course, freeride events like the Coe Cup give competitors freedom to ski a sizeable area of the mountain in any way they choose. It’s not about who skis fastest, but who skis with the most style and imagination – which perhaps explains why the format is becoming so popular with participants and spectators alike. No two runs look the same, as everyone searches for something a little different to impress the judges.
Last year, the Coe Cup was made an official qualifier event for the Freeride World Tour (FWT) which sees professional athletes hucking and spinning their way down seriously intimidating bits of mountain in places like Chamonix and Revelstoke. And because points picked up at Glencoe can now help skiers and boarders trying to make it onto this “dream tour” the competition is becoming increasingly international. This year, Meldrum says, he has received applications from Sweden, Russia, Mexico, Germany, New Zealand, the USA and Croatia.
It’s interesting to speculate what some of these athletes will make of Glencoe, but when they all return home and tell their friends about the place they’ve just skied – a place where there’s so much snow that the lifts and ski huts are all buried for months on end – Scottish ski tourism can only benefit.
For more information about this year’s Coe Cup, visit www.facebook.com/CoeCup