When people talk about “night skiing” they usually have something relatively sedate in mind: a few floodlit laps of a freshly groomed piste, perhaps as a way of working up an appetite between après-ski snacks and a carb-heavy evening meal. For Inverness-based skier Peter MacKenzie, however, it means hiking to the top of Aladdin’s Couloir – the notoriously steep and narrow gully in Coire an t-Sneachda near the CainGorm Mountain ski resort – then clipping into skis, strapping on a head torch and leaping into the abyss.
MacKenzie’s new film Great Days in a Bad Season, screening this weekend as part of the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival, features some dramatic footage of him and a few friends jump-turning into the darkness on Aladdin’s. Apart from the little halos of light directly surrounding the skiers as they make their descents, the rest of the mountainside appears completely, impenetrably dark. I ask him if it’s as treacherous as it looks.
“You’d be surprised actually,” he says. “Headtorch skiing I would say is a lot easier than skiing in Scottish flat light, and I mean that most sincerely – you see the bumps in the terrain and the shadows give you good definition.”
There’s only one Aladdin’s wipeout recorded on the film – thankfully not a serious one – and it’s followed by some incongruously French swearing. It’s not often you hear the words “zut” and “alors” in the Cairngorms. MacKenzie explains that he was up there with two French friends who live and work in the Highlands: Gaspard Meric, carpenter and cabinet maker, and his girlfriend Agathe Habold, an art restorer.
“Agathe is from Grenoble and Gaspard is from near the Pyrenees,” he says. “They had skied in Scotland but they had never skied a Scottish couloir before. We were waiting for the conditions and the conditions never seemed to come... and then finally they came.
“This was actually the second time I’d skied Aladdin’s at night,” he continues. “Gaspard saw the photos from my earlier trip with [professional ski photographer] Hamish Frost and went ‘Wow, Peter, I really want to go and ski this Scottish couloir!’ So I said, ‘Well, the best time is right now because you never know how long the conditions will last – why don’t we just go on Tuesday night?’ He was dead keen so that’s what we did. Agathe is actually a really hot skier but as you can see in the film she takes a bit of a tumble. It was quite windy, and the snow conditions were quite variable.”
Given the film’s title, you might expect it to have been made last winter, famously snow-starved as it was, but no – MacKenzie says it was actually filmed during the uninspiring-but-by-no-means-disastrous 2015/16 season.
“The thrust of the film is not really to say that we made the best out of a bad situation,” he explains. “The thrust of the film is to say that we went out to have a good day on the hill. I think that maybe all Scottish mountaineering is in that same sort of vein – that if you go out there for a good time in good company then even if the conditions don’t really give you what you planned, there’s still adventure to be found.”
The toughest day shown on the film, MacKenzie reckons, was a ski tour on Ben Nevis with his friend Calum Macintyre. The Corries Challenge freeride competition at the Nevis Range ski centre had just been cancelled due to high winds, but the duo decided to head out anyway and see if they could find something worth skiing.
“All day we’d been fighting against rain and terrible snow and just going ‘Oh, it’s not working,’ he remembers, “but then the final ski down was genuinely first-rate – fresh snow at the top, spring snow at the bottom.”
This particular segment ends with an amusing clip of MacKenzie hopping his way down a three-foot wide strip of snow with grass on one side and a rocky outcrop on the other – keeping on skiing, in other words, well beyond the point where most people would probably have taken off their skis and started walking back to the car. Is it a point of pride for him to squeeze every last turn out of each run? “I wouldn’t say it’s a point of pride,” he laughs, “but I would say it probably comes with the delusion – it comes with the sickness!”
Great Days in a Bad Season is screening as part of the Saturday Night Extreme Session on 3 February, as part of this year’s Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival, which runs from 3-4 February. For more information, visit www.emff.co.uk