What a difference a few weeks can make. As recently as early February, it seemed as if Scotland’s first post-covid ski season might be a washout, with nothing to show from all those optimistic snow dances apart from a modest dusting of white stuff in early January. At that stage, just getting the ski resorts open seemed like a lot to ask, never mind getting any competitions run. By the time the financially-critical February half-term rolled around, however, Mother Nature had come to the rescue with some memorable blue sky powder days, and over the last few weeks there has even been some competitive snow-sliding to shout about.
Sadly, the mid-February snow bounty didn’t arrive in time to save the Lawers of Gravity – the first event in the Scottish Freedom series of freeride ski and snowboard events, traditionally held in the mountains around Ben Lawers and particularly close to this writer’s heart, as he’s spent many happy hours over the years yomping from one soggy vantage point to the next trying to take pictures of it.
Originally slated to run on the weekend of 10 and 11 February, the initial decision to postpone the contest for a week due to "lack of depth of snow across the face and the fact that the snowpack is still very soft right through to the ground" would have come as a surprise to precisely no-one.
However, for a few tantalising days it seemed as if it might still go ahead on the weekend of the 19th and 20th. There was certainly plenty of snow in the very mixed forecast, but also plenty of wind, and in the end – although a relatively calm Saturday morning seemed possible – the event organisers took the view that there wasn’t enough existing snow cover to guarantee a safe contest. (As we now know, that Saturday morning weather window did indeed come to pass, but given the magnitude of some of the aerial manoeuvres we’ve seen on the SFS in recent years, the decision not to run was probably the safest one for all concerned. Nothing sends shivers down the spine quite like seeing an athlete land heavily only for the snow to give way underneath them.)
Anyway, fast-forward a couple of weeks, to the weekend of 5 and 6 March, and the second stop on the tour – the Coire Challenge – was able to go ahead in the Back Corries at Nevis Range under blue skies and in firm but contestable conditions. Due to a combination of covid-related cancellations and adverse weather and snow conditions, this was the first time this particular contest had been able to run in almost four years, so it was something of a relief to see it making a return. Liam Swanson and Francesca Lee won the men’s and women’s ski categories respectively, with Jonathan Tweedie taking out the men’s snowboard. Celebrating her 20th birthday on the hill, meanwhile, Hannah Coleman found herself the only competitor in the women’s snowboard category, and so, following her inevitable first place finish, she carries a commanding 100-point lead into the final event of the series, the Coe Cup, due to be held at Glencoe in early April.
Freeride contests are all about downhill performance – the style and flow with which competitors can link turns and aerial manoeuvres while riding down an unpisted section of mountainside are what counts. In Ski Mountaineering contests, however, the "up" is every bit as important as the "down", as contestants race over an undulating course.
Scotland’s own ski mountaineering series, SkiMo Scotland, is taking a break this year, but the Dynafit British SkiMo Championships still went ahead as planned at Glenshee on 12 March. The course climbed from near road level to the Carn Aosta hut at 795m and from there to a point near the top of Carn Aosta, at around 900m, before dropping down to the valley again. One lap of that would be more than enough for most weekend skiers, but the SkiMo athletes raced over four, travelling a thigh-shredding 13km and completing roughly 1200m of lung-busting ascent.
Ultra-distance runner Donnie Campbell stormed around in one hour and 32 minutes and 11 seconds to win his first British title, edging out second placed Jonathan Turnbull by 35 seconds. In the women’s category, meanwhile, Ursula Catton cruised home in one hour, 45 minutes and 27 seconds, almost eight minutes ahead of Emma Holgate in second. The weather ranged from blizzards to thunder and lightning to monsoon-like rain, so just imagine what the winners’ times would have been like on a bluebird day.
For more on the Scottish Freedom Series, see: https://www.facebook.com/scottishfreedomseries/
For more on the SkiMo Scotland Series, see: https://www.skimoscotland.co.uk/
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