Roger Cox: Freeriders should thank Scottish forebears

Dave Biggin on the slopes
Dave Biggin on the slopes
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Another Scottish freeride event, another bluebird powder day. I wonder if any skiers resident in the Alps, having seen pictures of the Corrie Challenge at Nevis Range last weekend, have started looking into timeshare options in Fort William...

Originally scheduled to take place on Saturday, the contest – the fourth and final event in the 2016 Scottish Freedom Series – was moved to Sunday at the last minute to take advantage of a promising forecast. It turned out to be an inspired decision by Snowsport Scotland’s Iain Ramsay-Clapham and his team, not just because of the sun, but also because it allowed competitors to take full advantage of the 10cm or so of fresh snow deposited during the previous day’s storm.

Summit Gully, the designated contest face, which lies towards the western extremity of the off-piste paradise known as the Back Corries, can rarely have looked so inviting.

In terms of results, there were no big surprises. In the men’s ski category, Dave Biggin finished off a dominant season with yet another first place finish – his fourth in four events – and a clear series win, while in the women’s ski, Katie Small chalked up her third win out of four, making her the series winner by a similarly emphatic margin.

The ever-stylish Robbie Paton finished second in the men’s snowboard, just behind Steven Fletcher, giving him enough points to top the overall rankings, and in the women’s snowboard category, Joanne Slater’s victory was also enough to secure a series title.

Freeride contests may still be relatively new in Scotland – it’s only four years since Andy Meldrum set the ski-where-you-like ball rolling with the inaugural Coe Cup at Glencoe – but there has since been a real surge in interest – some 79 athletes took part in the Scottish Freedom Series this season, and the overall standard has improved noticeably. It will be exciting to see how things develop next year.

At Nevis Range, lying just to skier’s left of Summit Gully, is another run known as Spikes. Most skiers and boarders planning their route at the top probably assume the name has something to do with the rocky ridge that separates it from Summit Gully, but it is in fact named after Nevis Range founder Ian “Spike” Sykes, whose new book In The Shadow of Ben Nevis (Baton Wicks, £12.99) provides a candid and often hilarious account of how this magical ski area came to be built, in the face of both huge logistical obstacles and surprisingly fierce opposition.

I still can’t decide which of the anecdotes I like best: the one about an (empty) gondola cabin falling off the cable on Christmas Eve 1989, shortly after it was installed, bringing the whole operation to a standstill and leaving several late-night revellers including a pair of 80-year-old ladies swinging in the darkness, or the one in which a grinning senior politician came within a few inches of being decapitated by a helicopter at the resort’s grand unveiling. Suffice to say, In The Shadow... is a rattling good yarn, and that’s before you even get on to Sykes’s life-saving work with the Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team and his climbing adventures in the Alps, the Yukon and elsewhere.

To find out about Spike’s first experience skiing Spikes, however, we must turn to Scottish Offpiste Skiing & Snowboarding: Nevis Range and Ben Nevis, by Kenny Biggin, brother of Dave. “Originally known as ‘Spike’s Fright,’ he writes, “this route got its name in the early 80s when a few folk had hiked up with skis to investigate what the skiing would be like if a new resort were to be built here. Very few people had skied the Back Corries at this time but Spike took a look over the edge and thought ‘Hey, that looks OK that does!’ His buddies (including fellow Nevis Range directors Ian ‘Sudsy’ Sutherland and Ian Milton) had their doubts, but encouraged him nevertheless. Full of confidence, Spike jumped off the cornice and proceeded to be the first person to tomahawk down the slope – much to everyone’s amusement.”

A few weeks ago in this slot I wrote a review of a new Scottish ski film called Late, in which a talented crew led by Aaron McLean and Rob Kingsland braved apocalyptic weather to ski spectacular lines all around the Highlands. Tragically, McLean was killed in an accident in the Alps last month, and today and tomorrow his friends will gather at Glencoe, both to host the Junior Coe Cup and to pay tribute to a great character and a great skier. The event is organised by British Freeride, the junior freeride coaching initiative McLean co-founded.