Last winter, Scotland saw some of its best skiing conditions since the fabled Big Freeze of 2009/10, but due to Covid restrictions not everyone was able to take advantage. For most of the season, non-essential travel more than five miles outside of local authority areas was verboten, so the snow-sliding community was subject to a postcode lottery: those with skiable terrain close to home were laughing; those stranded in the flatlands, not so much.
For skiers based many miles from the mountains, the next-best-thing to being there was living vicariously through the social media posts of the lucky few who had Munros on their doorsteps. Later this month, however, there’s a chance to go one better with an immersive, big-screen look at the bountiful conditions enjoyed in the Highlands, courtesy of the annual Winter Opener event hosted by the folks at British Backcountry.
Taking place at Assembly Roxy in Edinburgh on 19 November, the evening will begin with a presentation from Olympic snowboarder Lesley McKenna and photographer and journalist Hannah Bailey, introducing their new Wandering Workshops. These aim to use splitboarding as “a tool for mindfulness and exploring sustainability” and thanks to some stunning images of McKenna freeriding around the Cairngorms last winter captured by her partner Euan Baxter, they should be able to put on one helluva slideshow.
There will also be a taster screening for How to Ski Scottish Steeps – a new series of instructional videos featuring steep skier Iain Innes and Andy Townsend, Head of Snowsports at Glenmore Lodge. Those looking for tips on how to move safely through the backcountry will find much that’s of interest; those who just want to gaze longingly at last season’s once-in-a-decade snow conditions should find plenty to enjoy in the luscious cinematography of Hamish Frost and Brodie Hood.
If there’s one thing in the Winter Opener programme that promises to encapsulate the good, the bad and the downright weird of the 2020/21 ski season, though, it’s the premiere of Grounded, a feature-length ski film by Will Gardner and Charlie Wood.
The story focuses on four friends who grew up skiing and snowboarding together in Scotland, and who for various reasons find themselves back in the Highlands as the pandemic brings normal life to a grinding halt. Two of them – Rob Kingsland and Cameron Wood – are based in the west, near Glencoe, and the other two – Findlay Farquharson and Joab Matthews – are based in the east, near Braemar. The film ping-pongs between their perspectives as they embark on a series of backcountry adventures, revelling in moments of powdery perfection but also rejoicing in some grim, rainy slush-bashing. There are eerie shots, too, of deserted ski lifts at Glencoe and Glenshee, as the pandemic causes the ski industry to shut down.
The film’s first action sequence is everything snow-starved Lowland skiers dreamed of last February, as Farquharson (on skis) and Matthews (snowboard) trek up into some densely forested hills just outside Braemar to ride powder so deep it makes the trees look almost cartoonish. Somewhere out there, in the furthest reaches of cyberspace, I suppose it’s conceivable that there might be better footage of tree skiing in Scotland, but in a decade and a half of writing about snowsports for this paper – and several years as a judge for the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival – I’ve never seen anything that comes close to this. Even though it’s snowing heavily, the filmmakers manage to get a drone into the air, so we’re treated to some breathtaking aerial shots, as well as follow-me-down footage shot from Farquharson’s helmet-cam. It’s the up-close camerawork, though, that really makes this scene: Farquharson ripping huge turns through the kind of feather-light snow people pay thousands of pounds to ski in Japan; Matthews launching beautiful, slow 180s and enjoying the softest, fluffiest of landings. The amount of calories expended to get these results – both on the part of the riders and the cinematographers – must have been well into lumberjack territory, but the results are truly special.
Grounded isn’t scared to show the flip-side of the Scottish skiing experience, however, and the next chapter finds Kingsland and Wood slogging their way up to a deserted Glencoe ski area in howling wind and driving rain to see if they can find any snow worth sliding around on. As Wood puts it: “When in doubt, build a booter” so they get a jump made and spend the afternoon working on their backflips – often with catastrophic results, but hey, the film seems to say, a horrible day’s skiing is always better than a day sitting at home.
As the season progresses, the good natured game of east vs west one-upmanship continues, and I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to say that things improve significantly for Team West. Will this winter be half as good? Grounded offers the tantalising promise that it might be.
A message from the Editor
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription at https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions