Roger Cox

Seafarers’ Sketchbooks: historic journals capture drama of life on the ocean wave

For as long as humans have been adventuring, it seems, we have had an innate desire to communicate our experiences to others when we return home. “We would not take a sea voyage in order never to talk of it,” wrote the French mathematician and scientist Blaise Pascal in 1669, “and for the sole pleasure of seeing without hope of ever communicating.” These days, of course, there’s a whole chunk of the tech industry which caters to modern-day adventures wishing to share their exploits with the world: from gadgets like GoPro cameras and selfie sticks right through to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the denizens of Silicon Valley are labouring night and day to ensure that no heroic gap year bungee jump need ever go unrecorded again. In the past, however, men and women journeying to far-off lands had to resort to simpler means to record the things they saw, thought and felt, and in many cases the medium they chose was the humble notebook or sketchbook: portable, more-or-less indestructible (as long as you’re able to keep it dry) and infinitely adaptable. And as demonstrated by The Sea Journal: Seafarers’ Sketchbooks, a new book by Huw Lewis-Jones, paper and ink has another significant advantage over the tech toys of today: it encourages the user to concentrate on the things they see around them, rather than constantly putting themselves at the centre of the story.

Dunbar Surf Life Saving Club - just one of the organisations which will benefit from the new centre at Belhaven

Scottish surfing makes its mark with state-of-the-art ‘huts’ near its finest waves

Surfing, famously, is a sport that leaves no trace. In 10,000 years’ time, when archaeologists from another galaxy land on our planet and start looking for signs of what went wrong with human civilisation, it’s entirely possible that they will discover the crumbling remains of mighty football stadiums in cities all over the world, but they’d be doing well to find much physical evidence of surfing.

Skiers at the start gate of the 2019 Coe Cup, including the eventual winner of the male ski category, Rob Kingsland (yellow jacket)

Coe Cup 2019: A battle of different skiing styles

It’s been a patchy year, to put it mildly, for the Scottish Freedom Series, Scotland’s competitive backcountry skiing and snowboarding circuit. The first two events of the season, at the Ben Lawers Range in February and at Nevis Range at the start of March, had to be cancelled due to lack of snow, and for a while it seemed as if the third and final stop on the tour, the Coe Cup at Glencoe, might go the same way. In the end, though, Mother Nature offered a miraculous little weather window on Saturday, sandwiched in between a whiteout on Friday afternoon and gale force winds on Sunday.

Things are looking up in the west: a pisting machine at Glencoe following the recent heavy snow. PIC: Glencoe Mountain

Scotland’s ski resorts gear up for a strong end to the season

For much of the northern hemisphere, this winter has been a veritable snowpocalypse. In North America, snowfall records have been tumbling from sea to shining sea. At the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in British Columbia, the season got off to a dream start with 384cm of fresh snow in December – just a shade over the long-standing December record of 380cm, set all the way back in 1994. There were huge numbers recorded at resorts all the way down the Rocky Mountain chain and in the Sierra Nevada too, notably at Squaw Valley in California, which was hammered by a record-breaking 800cm of snow in February. Even the usually fickle east coast resorts have had a good year, thanks to the polar vortex conditions that paralysed much of the Midwest in late January and early February.

Tideline Feathers by Angie Lewin

From Picasso to Jarman: new book lifts the lid on the endless appeal of pebbles

What is it about pebbles that some people find so fascinating? For the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, their appeal seemed to lie in their connection to the infinite, or, at least, the as-good-as-infinite vastness of geological time: “We must be humble,” he wrote in his famous long poem “On a Raised Beach”. “We are so easily baffled by appearances / And do not realise that these stones are one with the stars.”

A still from Ode to Muir PIC: Teton Gravity Research

Ode to Muir: US snowboard legend Jeremy Jones tips his hat to Dunbar’s lad o’pairts

It took me a while, but this week I finally got round to watching Ode to Muir, the latest film from big mountain snowboarding legend Jeremy Jones, released last autumn. As the title suggests, the project is inspired by the writings of John Muir, the lad o’ pairts from Dunbar who, after his family emigrated to the USA in 1849, first fell in love with the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada and then devoted his life to trying to protect it. Footage of heart-in-mouth snowboard descents interspersed with some of Muir’s most memorable quotes – what’s not to like?

The �26 million funicular railway at the CairnGorm Mountain ski centre is currently out of action. Work is required to strengthen the foundations.

Should the troubled CairnGorm Mountain ski area be allowed to return to nature?

There are quotes that don’t age well, and then there are quotes that sounded a bit iffy to begin with and which a few years later, with the benefit of hindsight, come to seem downright delusional. Back in 2014, shortly after the luxury self-catering company Natural Retreats took over the running of the CairnGorm Mountain ski area near Aviemore, they put out a spectacularly ambitious-sounding press release. In it, the company’s CEO, Matthew Spence, claimed that they were going to build “the best terrain park in the world” at CairnGorm, and that their long-term goal was for the resort to host the Winter X Games. Spence also promised not only to “nurture, develop and create future Olympians at CairnGorm” (which he could probably have got away with for a decade or two) but also assured the world that “these athletes will win gold medals at the Winter Olympics in 2018”.

"I guess the greatest days are where you're just getting to the limit of your comfort zone." PIC: Philip Ebert

Comfort Zones: new film offers a philosophical take on extreme skiing in Scotland

Your typical backcountry ski film usually contains a number of key ingredients. Firstly and most obviously, it must feature high-level, heart-in-mouth skiing: big, gut-wrenching drops must be landed; sketchy entries into steep, narrow couloirs must be stuck; and high-velocity turns must throw buckets of feather-light powder snow into pristine blue skies. Secondly, there should be an element of terrain porn: in addition to close-ups of the talent, there should also be a few pull-back shots showing the riders in question as tiny specks flying down vast, intimidating sections of mountainside. There should be atmospheric musical accompaniment for the action sequences, of course, perhaps a bit of chat from the stars, and last but by no means least, there must always, always be a crash reel at the end. As the old saying goes, if you’re not falling you’re not trying, and nothing puts all those perfect descents into perspective quite like seeing a few proper, full-on wipe-outs – ideally of the kind that North Americans describe as a “yard sale” as skis, poles and sundry other bits of kit are sent flying all over the mountainside.

Katie Small, on her way to winning the Lawers of Gravity freeride contest in 2016.

“The atmosphere’s brilliant” - freeride ski champ Katie Small on the appeal of the Scottish Freedom Series

By my count the Scottish Freedom Series turns five this year, so on Saturday, as the nation’s best backcountry skiers and snowboarders prepare to take turns launching themselves down a gnarly slab of unpisted mountainside somewhere on the north shore of Loch Tay for the 2019 Lawers of Gravity event, they will also be preparing to launch the fifth season of the SFS. True, Scotland’s first ever freeride ski and board contest, the Coe Cup, was held on Glencoe’s fearsome Flypaper way back in 2012, so you could argue that the SFS was really born then. However, the first time there was a proper series with multiple events was 2014, when there were contests at CairnGorm, Nevis Range and Glenshee as well as Glencoe. The series also ran in 2015 and 2016, it took a year off in 2017, when the Canadians stole all our snow, but it was back with a vengeance in 2018, as the Beast From the East dished up stellar conditions for the tail-end of the season.

Dr Adam Watson in 2012 near his home in Crathes, Abderdeenshire. PIC: Robert Perry for The Scotsman

Scotland is poorer for the passing of Dr Adam Watson, but his wonderful writing lives on

Scotland’s mountain-going community was united in sadness at the end of last month, following the death of the great ecologist and mountaineer Dr Adam Watson, who passed away after a short illness at the age of 89. The writer and broadcaster Cameron McNeish described him as “a giant in wildlife and landscape conservation” and a spokesman for RSPB Scotland hailed him as “arguably the most knowledgeable Scottish naturalist and ornithologist of the last century.” His friend and fellow snow patch researcher Iain Cameron said he was “an irreplaceable man to his family, and to Scottish science.”

The interior of the new Lumen Mountain Photography Gallery in Kronplatz, Italy

Why Scotland should celebrate high culture with a museum of the mountains

This winter, visitors to the Italian ski resort of Kronplatz will be able to enjoy a little extra culture between runs courtesy of Lumen, South Tyrol’s new museum of mountain photography, which has just opened in a stylishly repurposed cable-car building at an altitude of 2,275 metres. Designed by local architect Gerhard Mahlknecht, the four-storey exhibition space will display vintage shots by pioneering lensmen including Joseph Tairraz of France, Jules Beck of Switzerland and Vittorio Sella of Italy, as well as work by contemporary photographers.

George Stewart, still sliding at the age of 98

A salute to George Stewart, Scotland’s oldest skier

We are all, apparently, in spite of the stresses of Brexit and the proliferation of Krispy Kreme outlets, living longer than ever before. According to the Office for National Statistics, by the year 2066, 50 per cent of newborn girls and 44.2 per cent of newborn boys should make it to 100. A few months ago, as if to prove the point, a book landed on my desk entitled The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity. The premise was that these days, thanks to healthier diets and better medical care and a general lack of natural predators, we should all now be planning to live to 100, as, for the first time in history, there’s a decent chance we might actually get there. Of course, for many people (read: anyone without several million quid in the bank) such planning will mostly be of a financial nature, and that seemed to be the main thrust of the book. “Does the thought of working for 60 or 70 years fill you with dread?” ran the blurb. Why yes, I thought, eyeing my “to do” list for the day, it does. But if “the 100-Year Life” really is going to become as commonplace as the ONS number-crunchers predict, there are other things to think about too, in particular: what will I do for fun when I hit 80, 90, 100, even perhaps 110?

The North Face of Ben Nevis. The second title published by Cicerone in 1969 was the successful Winter Climbs: Ben Nevis and Glencoe by Ian Clough.

Guide book publishers Cicerone celebrate 50 years of hiking, biking, skiing and climbing

In March 1969, a new publisher called Cicerone, based in the north of England, brought out its first ever guidebook: The Northern Lake District, written by Arthur Hassall. It consisted of just 40 pages, and featured hand-drawn-illustrations, yet it was from this small seed that a very considerable publishing empire would sprout. Now, half a century on, Cicerone has around 400 titles in print, most of them guidebooks for outdoor enthusiasts looking to hike, climb, ski and cycle in wild (and not so wild) locations right across the globe. There will be events to mark the anniversary throughout the year, but first comes a new book, Cicerone: Celebrating Fifty Years of Adventure, edited by Kev Reynolds and with contributions from a whole host of Cicerone authors, which tells the very British story of how the company grew from a passion project started by two remarkable couples into a world-renowned provider of essential adventure travel information.

The Ciste Gully at CairnGorm Mountain on Easter Sunday 2018, about as good as it gets PIC: Stevie McKenna

The pros and cons of CairnGorm Mountain’s £27 million masterplan

I’ve just been watching a very slickly produced short film about the new ten-year, £27 million plan for the CairnGorm Mountain ski area, and – on first viewing, at least – it looks like a skier or snowboarder’s dream come true. If the proposed changes become a reality, two new, super-fast six-man chairlifts will whisk skiers from the current base station to the head of Coire Cas and to a spot at the top of the mountain near the Ptarmigan restaurant, and a number of new pistes will be carved out of the mountainside to link the new lifts to the rest of the resort. The place will be an adrenaline junkie’s paradise in the summer too: newly crafted mountain bike tracks will wind their way down the ridgeline currently occupied by the M2 piste, a zip-wire will zig-zag its way from one side of Coire Cas to another and there will even be a rollercoaster (yes, a rollercoaster!) rumbling down what is now the Day Lodge piste.

Could skiing on Lowther Hill one day feel a bit like skiing in Colorado?

Scottish ski centre plans to introduce tree skiing (and snowboarding)

Scotland’s ski resorts may be smaller than those in the Alps and the Rockies, but they offer most of the same basic ingredients: lifts to get you up the mountain, pistes to slide around on and somewhere warm and dry to enjoy a medicinal drink afterwards. Everything else, as they say, is details. There is one thing they don’t offer, however, something which is freely available in most of the rest of the skiing universe, and that’s tree skiing.

The Ciste Gully at CairnGorm Mountain, Easter 2018. PIC: Stevie McKenna / ski-scotland

The CairnGorm funicular crisis: trying to look on the bright side

Things are looking a bit bleak up at CairnGorm Mountain, and no, I’m not talking about the weather. However, Final Words is a glass half-full kind of column, so this week I’ll be examining some of the ways in which the ski centre’s current travails might turn out to be good news, both in the short term and in the long run. First though, a brief recap of the bad news, just in case you’ve missed it.

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