The Volcom hoodie, the peaked Billabong beanie, the artfully sagged jeans... at first glance, extreme skier Jamie Johnston looks... well... much as you'd expect an extreme skier to look while off-duty. When I first met him at an Edinburgh cafe the other week I was half-expecting to be greeted with a flurry of incomprehensible hand gestures and for his every sentence to be punctuated with the word "dude". But appearances can be deceptive.
Johnston may only be 21, but he is already immensely knowledgeable about the history of Scottish skiing and impressively eloquent to boot. A final-year geography student at Edinburgh University, he's writing his dissertation on the failed Mar Lodge Ski Centre at Braemar and he explains with quiet intensity how, with a few significant tweaks here and there, it could have survived a lot longer than the couple of seasons it managed back in the mid-1960s. You get the impression that, were he charged with getting the resort up and running again tomorrow, he'd probably make a pretty decent go of it.
And at a time when the "Google Generation" is frequently criticised for not bothering to commit facts to memory because it can find out anything at the swipe of a smartphone screen, Johnston is refreshingly in command of his stats. Altitudes, temperatures, the number of days the West Wall Poma at Cairn Gorm operated last season (58) as compared to the number of days the old chairlift system there could have operated had it still been functioning (177) – it's all filed away neatly in his noggin.
It's this attention to detail, you sense, that makes him such a remarkable backcountry skier. Johnston has tackled some of Scotland's most challenging descents in the past few years – some of them little more than thin ribbons of snow plunging down intimidating cliff faces – but he freely admits to having turned back on occasion when he sensed the conditions weren't quite right. Instinct? Or perhaps all those facts, all contributing to a detailed bigger picture, helping to keep him alive.
Johnston grew up in Inverness, just an hour's drive from Cairn Gorm, and it was there he cut his teeth, under the tutelage of seasoned regulars including last week's Four Seasons star, Helen Rennie. Since 2003, when he first started wandering off-piste, he has run a popular website, highland-instinct.co.uk, featuring forums, webcam and details of his exploits, and now he's making his first foray into film.
During the epic winter of 2009-10, Johnston started committing some of his and his friends' more hair-raising antics to video, and the results are contained in Wake, a 13-minute film which will receive its premiere at the inaugural Scottish Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Festival at the Old Bridge Inn in Aviemore at the start of April. There are gutsy lines on classic routes such as Jacob's Ladder and Aladdin's Couloir in Coire an t-Sneachda near Cairn Gorm, but also shots of less well-known skiing locales such as the Black Spout on Lochnagar and Boar of Badenoch in Drumochter Pass.
"That was a good one," he says. "Every time I've been up and down the A9 I've always thought 'if that was (filled] in it'd be amazing'. Then one day I was driving past with my friend – it was late in the day and we had no intention of stopping off but I just looked up and went 'it's in' and pulled into the lay-by. I think the whole thing was done in about an hour and 45."
When I ask him why he does what he does, Johnston becomes momentarily, uncharacteristically, unable to express himself: "I suppose in skiing like in life, there'll always be ... I don't think people are necessary content with humdrum or ..." he trails off. "I'm sorry, I'm not making this very clear." A little later he whips out his smartphone and reads me something he wrote on the subject that sums it up perfectly:
"Why? Because everybody gets itchy feet. When you've reached a level you're satisfied with, you need to push it to new places you've probably never considered before in order to keep facing new challenges."
It'll be interesting to see what kind of challenges Jamie Johnston sets himself next.
This article was first published in The Scotsman, 26 February, 2011