New freeride event tests the mettle of Scotland's best backcountry skiers and boarders

It usually takes something a bit special to win the Coe Cup, the annual freeride ski contest that's been held at Glencoe Mountain resort since 2012, and this year Conall Strickland certainly went the extra mile, landing an enormous backflip to claim first place in the men's ski category. After making a smaller drop at the top of the competition face '“ Glencoe's notoriously steep Flypaper '“ Strickland bled off some speed with a couple of quick turns, pointed his skis towards a ten-foot high rock outcrop and then, as the ground disappeared from underneath him, launched into what looked like (but almost certainly didn't feel like) a slow, graceful arc, allowing his skis to rotate all the way over his head before thumping back down onto the snow.

View of Clach Leathad (Creise) taken from the top of the Glencoe Mountain ski resort PIC: Iain Ramsay-Clapham

“Claiming” during freeride competitions – that is, celebrating after landing a manoeuvre – is usually frowned upon, casualness being a vital component of perceived coolness, but given the magnitude of his trick, nobody could have resented Strickland’s double fist-pump as he rode safely out of the landing.

Although it began as a standalone event in 2012, the Coe Cup is now part of a season of freeride contests overseen by SnowsportScotland, collectively known as the Scottish Freedom Series. Unlike downhill ski races, where the goal is to be the fastest to travel from A to B, freeride contests are more about aesthetics – competitors are presented with a section of steep, snowy mountainsides, unpisted and unmarked, and they can choose to ride any line they want between the flags at the top and the flags at the bottom, picking up points for things like style, flow, and the difficulty and magnitude of the tricks they perform along the way.

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This year’s Freedom Series consisted of three tried-and-tested events: the Lawers of Gravity, held on the slopes of Meall nan Tarmachan in the Ben Lawers range; the Corries Challenge, held in the Back Corries at Nevis Range ski area; and the Coe Cup. For the first time in its history, however, the series then culminated in a new experimental “SFS Final,” held the day after the Coe Cup in the terrain “over the back” of Glencoe. The top five male and top five female ranked skiers in the series, along with the top four male and top two female snowboarders, were invited to take part in a one-run-only contest starting about half way along the ridge between Meall a’Bhuiridh (the hill occupied by the Glencoe ski resort) and nearby Clach Leathad.

Series organiser Iain Ramsay-Clapham explains the logic behind the change: “It’s the first time we’ve run the SFS Final but I think it’s been a success,” he says. “By having two events on Coe Cup weekend, the weighting and importance of that weekend is really significant, in that someone can come to that weekend and win two events and therefore get two lots of series points – in other words, it can really influence your overall position in the series ranking.

“We deliberated over making it a clean sheet, making the winners of the finals the winners of the whole thing, but then we decided that actually that wouldn’t be a winner of the series, that would just be a winner of that event, and therefore you’re not recognising consistency and performance over the whole series.”

In some categories, like the men’s ski, the outcome of the series was decided in the final: after his Coe Cup win, Strickland’s third place finish scored him just enough extra points to take the overall crown. In others, such as the women’s ski, it was more of a formality: multiple series winner Katie Small was already so far ahead of the pack by this point that she could have snowplowed all the way to the bottom of the hill and still won.

Competitive considerations aside, though, what the extra event really adds to the series is yet another spectacular arena in which the best backcountry skiers and boarders in the land can push each other to new levels of performance. The vast amphitheatre between Meall a’Bhuiridh and Clach Leathad has a serious big mountain feel to it – more so, arguably, than any of the other venues on the tour. And as Ramsay-Clapham points out, the face eventually selected for the final event was just one of a number of options that could potentially be reached from the same ridgeline in future. One contest area he has his eye on is at the east end of Clach Leathad, where competitors could either ski an obvious open face directly beneath them or “peel way out to their right to a long, long face that’s really quite steep.” Roll on SFS 2019.

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