Pack crampons and nerves of steel as extreme skiing comes of age in Scotland, writes Roger Cox
Question: when is a winter climbing route not a winter climbing route? Answer: when the person climbing it gets to the top, puts on a pair of skis and goes hammering all the way to the bottom. Then it’s a ski run.
Extreme skiing in Scotland is a relatively recent development, but it’s a sign of how far it’s come in the last few years that there’s now a market for guided ski tours of the super-steep gullies on Ben Nevis – albeit still a fairly modest one. A couple of weeks ago, Chamonix-based mountain guide James Thacker announced that he was taking bookings for a “Ben Nevis Ski Weekend” in early April 2016. Within a matter of days the first four places had been snapped up, and, with a ratio of four skiers to one guide as his goal, Thacker had to enlist the help of his friend and fellow guide Andy Nelson (better known as deputy leader of Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team) in order to open up more slots to meet demand.
Just to put this in perspective, it was only in the 1970s that ski instructor Harry Jamieson first set Scotland’s extreme skiing ice cookie rolling in earnest, tackling hairy lines in the Cairngorms that had previously only been seen as climbing routes. And it wasn’t until the 1980s that ski descents were recorded in the four main Grade I gullies on Ben Nevis: Tower Gully, Number Three Gully, Number Four Gully, and Number Five Gully. Some of these routes are likely to feature on Thacker’s itinerary in April, conditions permitting – which, when you think about it, is pretty incredible: less than 30 years ago they were right at the very limit of what the best skiers in the country were capable of; now, there’s a commercial guiding operation offering paying customers the chance to ski them.
Not that Thacker is planning to take anybody too far out of their comfort zone. When I call him at his Alpine HQ to talk about the new Ben Nevis trip, he’s keen to stress that skiing the Ben doesn’t necessarily have to involve the more heart-in-mouth gullies – although one or two of those are certainly on the menu.
“Of course, what we do will depend on the people who are there,” he says. But if the people in the group are keen, there is the potential for some very serious skiing.
“What I’d really like to do,” Thacker says, “is, on the morning we arrive, walk into the CIC hut [the group’s accommodation for the night], dump our kit, and then head up into Coire na Ciste, the central coire there. That’s a really good opportunity to maybe go up into Number Three Gully and ski it, then head up into Number Four and, if there’s good weather, potentially go up to the summit and then ski Number Four.
“That then gives us the second day to go up into Observatory Gully, or indeed to go and do something in another location – it really depends on the conditions. Although inevitably we talk about the gullies, there’s a huge amount of terrain around there that will hopefully be holding snow.”
Thacker first had the idea to offer a weekend of guided skiing on the Ben when he visited with his partner Alison Culshaw, also a ski guide, in May this year. One of the highlights, he says, was tackling the heavily-corniced Number Two Gully. “You come to this really narrow slot about half-way down,” he says, “it’s very atmospheric.”
Thacker is aware those on the Ben Nevis weekend will likely be more confident on skis than in crampons, and one or two of the ascents – notably Number Three Gully – will involve a good deal of exposure.
“I started skiing as a climber,” he says, “so I’m quite comfortable to take off my skis in fairly steep places and put on my crampons, whereas perhaps the opposite is true if you’re used to being on an edge on skis or on a snowboard – I suppose it’s what you know.
“[For the ascent of Number Three Gully] we can skin for a little bit, but the gradient is such that you don’t get very long on skins and then inevitably there’ll be some boot-packing. I suppose that’s where having a guide comes in – on that terrain I can safeguard people with a rope, because people might be quite confident on skis but actually less confident on foot.”
Whichever lines they end up skiing next April, the people who sign up for Thacker’s course will be in for the adventure of a lifetime. And who knows? If the bookings continue to flood in, perhaps there will be a more extensive programme in 2017.
• For more on the Ben Nevis Ski Weekend, visit www.offpiste.org.uk/trips/ben-nevis-ski-weekend