Scotland's best backcountry skiers and boarders prepare to take on '˜Lawers of Gravity'

All eyes will be on the pistes of PyeongChang in South Korea this weekend as the 2018 Winter Olympics get under way, and Scots glued to their TVs for the duration should have more to cheer about than usual this year as a very respectable number of athletes from hereabouts have been announced as members of the British Ski & Snowboard Team. As we sort-of predicted in December's Scottish Ski & Board supplement in Scotland on Sunday, when we profiled them as 'Winter Olympics hopefuls,' downhill skier Alex Tilley from Torphins in Aberdeenshire and halfpipe skier Murray Buchan from Edinburgh have both made the cut, as have downhill skier Charlie Guest and the cross-country skiing trio of Andrew Musgrave, Andrew Young and Callum Smith, all of whom are alumni of Huntly Nordic Ski Club, which has clearly been doing something very right in recent years.

Last year's Lawers of Gravity event had to be cancelled due to lack of snow, but there was nothing wong with conditions for the 2016 event, held on the slopes of Meall nan Tarmachan PIC: Roger Cox

While these athletes are psyching themselves up to compete in front of a global audience measured in the millions, however, some of their free-skiing contemporaries will be back home in Scotland, preparing to take part in a slightly more modest but (I would argue) no less compelling contest, for which the total number of spectators – not including judges and mountain rescue personnel – can typically be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Taking place in the Ben Lawers Range on the north shore of Loch Tay on Sunday, the Lawers of Gravity is the first event of three in this year’s Scottish Freedom Series. Freeride contests, as regular readers of this column will be aware, are ones in which skiers are given a start point and an end point on an untracked bit of mountainside and told they can ride anywhere they like between the two, launching themselves off any natural features they might happen to find along the way. The judges watching at the bottom use a fiendishly sophisticated system to decide who wins, but as space is tight (and as I’d be lying if I said I understood it all properly) let’s just say that, as a general rule, a fast, bold descent in which jumps are landed and tricks pulled will score more highly than one in which a skier or boarder scrapes their way slowly and conservatively to the bottom. Thanks to the explosion in popularity of backcountry skiing and snowboarding in Scotland in the last decade or so, the current crop of elite freeriders are an extremely talented bunch, so a day watching them take it in turns to interpret a steep, craggy section of mountain is always time well spent.

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Last year, thanks to winter forgetting to happen properly, all four of the planned Freedom Series events had to be cancelled. The lack of action last season clearly hasn’t killed people’s enthusiasm for these events, however, because the three contests in this year’s series – the Lawers of Gravity, the Corries Challenge at Nevis Range (3 March) and the Coe Cup at Glencoe (24 March) – are already fully subscribed.

Riders approach the competition face at the 2015 Lawers of Gravity event on Meall nan Tarmachan in the Ben Lawers Range PIC: Roger Cox

Without wanting to jinx anything, it looks like conditions should be OK for this year’s Lawers of Gravity, too. True, there’s been a bit of a thaw since the epic snowfalls of early January, but at time of going to press it’s still looking good and white up there.

“There’s still quite a depth of snow in the gullies,” confirms Iain Ramsay-Clapham of Snowsport Scotland, whose job it is to make the Freedom Series happen each year – a Herculean feat of cat-herding for which he should surely be awarded some sort of medal. “A lot of the flats have been stripped of show in this poor weather, but it looks like the forecast is half-promising.”

Whatever happens at the Lawers of Gravity, the next two stops on the Freedom Series menu are both mouthwatering prospects – the Corries Challenge will see riders taking it in turns to drop into Nevis Range’s good-enough-to-eat Back Corries, while the Coe Cup, Scotland’s original freeride event, sees them tackling the deliciously steep terrain around the resort’s notorious Flypaper. And this year, for the first time, the Freedom Series will have a spectacular grand finale: the day after the Coe Cup, the top five male and top three female riders in the series will hike beyond the Glencoe resort boundary and go head-to-head on the slopes of nearby Creise in a winner-takes-all showdown. The world won’t be watching, but when it comes to events like this, it really is the taking part that counts.

For more information, visit www.freedomseries.wixsite.com/freedomseries (The contest was moved from Saturday to Sunday on 9 Feb due to changing weather forecast.)

Euan Larter, competing in the 2016 Lawers of Gravity event on Meall nan Tarmachan PIC: Roger Cox
Katie Small, on her way to winning the women's open ski category at the 2016 Lawers of Gravity PIC: Roger Cox
Riders approach the competition face at the 2015 Lawers of Gravity event on Meall nan Tarmachan in the Ben Lawers Range PIC: Roger Cox
Euan Larter, competing in the 2016 Lawers of Gravity event on Meall nan Tarmachan PIC: Roger Cox
Katie Small, on her way to winning the women's open ski category at the 2016 Lawers of Gravity PIC: Roger Cox