Roger Cox: Off-piste skiing is about to get easier

Kenny Biggin pictured at the top of Grotto Rush from his 'ski Mountain Guide'. Picture: Contributed
Kenny Biggin pictured at the top of Grotto Rush from his 'ski Mountain Guide'. Picture: Contributed
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MUCH fuss is made about the quality of the off-piste skiing in the Back Corries at Nevis Range, and rightly so. If Mother Nature plays ball, and you’re blessed with good snow and decent visibility, you can have the run of your life here.

To the uninitiated, however, this part of the mountain can seem both intimidating and confusing. Take a drag lift to the top of the ski resort and follow the signs across the wind-blasted summit plateau of Aonach Mor, and after a couple of minutes you’ll find yourself standing on the edge of what feels like a cliff. Somewhere beneath your feet, your piste map will tell you, are runs called Chancer, Backtrack, Yellow Belly and Winger Wall, but there are no signs telling you where they begin because they’re deliberately unmarked trails or “itineraires”. Welcome to ski-where-you-like country, where lines on the map are only as prescriptive as the serving suggestions on cereal packets. Here and there you might see tracks disappearing into thin air where other skiers and boarders have dropped in, but the chances are the slope directly beneath your feet will be obscured by a cornice, so you won’t be able to see the first 15 or 20 metres of their descent. The only way to figure out what it’s like down there is to take a leap of faith and slip-slide over the ledge...

For the last couple of seasons the ski patrollers at Nevis have been running so-called Back Corries Workshops, which aim to educate skiers and boarders about how to get the best out of this fabulous yet underutilised resource. These courses are invaluable as a way of working out the lie of the land in a safe, controlled way, but after a few trips “over the back” most worshippers of the steep and deep will find their eyes starting to wander elsewhere – because Nevis Range is surrounded by some truly jaw-dropping freeride terrain. The Back Corries aren’t the final word in off-piste skiing in this neck of the woods – they’re just the beginning of the journey.

Making your first steep descent outwith the ski resort boundary can feel like a big step up in effort and commitment, however, and for many it will prove a step too far. But that could be about to change, thanks to a new guidebook to the Nevis area by local ski guide Kenny Biggin, out next month.

Compiled over many years, Scottish Offpiste Skiing and Snowboarding: Nevis Range and Ben Nevis is an exhaustive guide to the myriad backcountry descents available in this area. Starting with the routes that can be accessed from the Nevis Range lift system, it goes on to give detailed descriptions of scores of other runs on nearby mountains, ranging in difficulty from the relatively mellow South Face of Aonach Beag to seriously challenging climbing routes like Gardyloo Gully and Good Friday Climb on Ben Nevis.

Obviously the folks at Nevis Range will be delighted about the publication of Biggin’s book, but will there also be a few locals worried about their secret spots being overrun by powder-hungry tourists? Biggin doesn’t think so.

“In general I’ve had nothing but good feedback,” he says. “I think people are really looking forward to it. Of course there will be the odd person who feels that things should stay secret and pristine with nobody there, but the flip-side of it is that this gives them information about a whole load of new stuff that they probably wouldn’t have done if the book hadn’t come out.”

Biggin says he’s skied the majority of lines in the book himself, “and the ones that I haven’t done I’ve tried to find the person that has done them and get as close to a first-hand account as I can.”

There are handy graphics telling you the aspect of a given route and whether it requires you to use ice axes or a climbing rope to get in, and each one is rated on a scale of 1-5 for difficulty, with really serious descents graded X. Biggin says he thought “long and hard” about his scale, and then about how to grade each run.

“I’m sure the grades will cause all sorts of debate,” he says, “but that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it?”

• Scottish Offpiste Skiing and Snowboarding: Nevis Range and Ben Nevis by Kenny Biggin, £18.95, is published next month. Pre-order from www.skimountain.co.uk