At a recent meeting of the Scottish ski industry’s high heid-yins there was a discussion about key moments in the 2017/18 season – the events that had done the most to help raise the profile of Scottish snow-sliding. As you’d expect, the presence of homegrown athletes like Murray Buchan and Alex Tilley in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang featured prominently, as did the impact of the early March cold snap better known as the Beast from the East, which contributed mightily to Scotland’s ski resorts enjoying their most prosperous season in five years.
But another happening under discussion was something nobody could have predicted: Conall Strickland’s spectacular backflip off Buttress Rock at Glencoe during the Coe Cup freeride event at the end of March, which was subsequently viewed by thousands of people online on a variety of different platforms and from a variety of different camera angles. What better advertisement for skiing in Scotland, after all, than a bright, cloudless day, a steep, gnarly mountainside covered in fresh snow, and a fearless young skier spinning slowly through the air as if he belonged up there?
Given that Scotland has only been holding freeride contests for the last six years, it’s pretty remarkable that a piece of footage recorded at one of these still-niche events should now find itself being mentioned in the same breath as freak weather events and the Winter Olympics, but it’s perhaps a sign of how the ski industry in general has started to shift its focus, and of how well-placed Scotland is to take advantage.
Ten years ago, freeride contests didn’t exist in Scotland, or in most of the rest of the skiing universe for that matter. Backcountry skiing – that is, hiking up hills under your own steam with the intention of sliding back down again – has a long history here (before the first ski lifts were built, everybody was a backcountry skier) but the idea of a contest in which people are scored purely on how stylishly they interpret a given section of wild, unpisted mountainside is relatively new.
The now well-established Freeride World Tour didn’t begin until 2008, and even then it only had four events, in Tignes in France, Verbier in Switzerland, Sochi in Russia and Mammoth Mountain in California. Scotland, however, was a relatively early adopter of the format thanks to Glencoe owner Andy Meldrum, who established Scotland’s first freeride contest, the Coe Cup, in 2012. Other events soon followed, and by 2015 Scotland had its own freeride contest circuit, the Freedom Series, headed up by Iain Ramsay-Clapham of Snowsport Scotland. Last year there were contests in the Ben Lawers Range beside Loch Tay, in the Back Corries at Nevis Range and at Glencoe, where the Coe Cup and a special Freedom Series finale event took place on consecutive days.
This year’s contest dates have now been announced, and the 2018/19 series looks much the same as last year, with the Lawers of Gravity event taking place in the Ben Lawers Range on 9 February, the Corrie Challenge at Nevis on 2 March, then the Coe Cup at Glencoe on 23 March followed by the SFS Final on the slopes of Clach Leathad, “over the back” from Glencoe, on the 24th.
In terms of both the numbers of athletes taking part and in terms of the numbers of spectators, these are still tiny events. Just 30 male skiers and 12 female skiers contested the 2018 Freedom Series, along with 14 male snowboarders and three female snowboarders. At the Lawers of Gravity – a mobile event that involves a lot of hiking – it’s usually possible to count the number of spectators (not including judges and mountain rescue personnel) on the fingers of one hand. The events at Glencoe and Nevis are a bit more spectator-friendly, but not much.
As demonstrated by Strickland and his backflip, however, the beauty of these events is that they don’t require huge numbers of people either taking part or watching live in order to make an impact. All you need is a couple of well-positioned cameramen and a large social media following (which resorts like Glencoe now have) and – shazam! – you can reach a huge audience without having to worry how you’re going to transport them all to a remote mountainside in the middle of winter without creating some kind of health and safety apocalypse.
It’s hard to estimate how many backcountry skiers and boarders are out there now, largely because many people will ski the resorts when conditions are average and only head into the backcountry when there’s been a dump of fresh snow, but the industry consensus is that the increase in the popularity of backcountry skiing over the last decade looks set to continue: an article in US business mag Forbes earlier this year described it as “skiing’s hottest trend.” Scotland already has five conventional ski resorts, but thanks to its open terrain and its “right to roam” laws, it can also be a backcountry skiing paradise when the conditions are right. Hybrid ski holidays, combining both on-piste and off-piste skiing, make sense here; and, should the Scottish ski industry choose to promote itself in this way in the future, the folks at the Freedom Series will certainly be able to provide plenty of visuals for any marketing campaign.