Arguably the most exciting development in Scottish snowsports in the last decade or so has been the uptick in the popularity of backcountry skiing and snowboarding and – growing out of this – the cluster of annual competitions that have come to be known as the Scottish Freedom Series. Overseen by Iain Ramsay-Clapham, development and education manager at Snowsport Scotland, in recent seasons the series has typically consisted of three contests: the Coe Cup, held on the Flypaper at Glencoe; the Corie Challenge, held in the Back Corries at Nevis Range; and the Lawers of Gravity – a true “hike and ride” event which – depending on conditions – can be held on any one of the mountains in the Ben Lawers Range, on the north shore of Loch Tay.
In contrast to traditional skiing competitions, these events aren't about who can get down the mountain fastest, but rather who can tackle a given area of unpisted mountainside with the most style, skill and creativity. Once a "contest face" has been decided, a start gate is installed at the top, a finish gate at the bottom, and then it's up to the skiers and boarders taking part to interpret the terrain in between in any way they wish.
I've been lucky enough to cover several of these events for The Scotsman over the years, and – when the snow conditions and the weather conditions align – the results can be fascinating to watch, with riders making use of every last bump and hollow in the mountain to maximise their scores. Of course, this being Scotland, Mother Nature isn't always in a cooperative mood, and the series has suffered its fair share of postponements and cancellations. Last season, however, was particularly disappointing in this respect, as all three events had to be scrapped: the Lawers of Gravity because there wasn't enough snow, the Corrie Challenge because of a storm and the Coe Cup because of newly-introduced Covid-19 regulations.
Although it has built up a significant following, with events in recent seasons drawing as many as 70 competitors, the Freedom Series is still very much in its infancy, with its origins in the first ever Coe Cup in 2012. It's understandable, then, that at a virtual meeting last week the series organisers were keen to get the momentum going again this year, in spite of the very obvious challenges posed by the pandemic.
Various different options were discussed on the eight-way call, which as well as Ramsay-Clapham featured head judge Rob Grant and starter Alex Mackenzie. One possible solution discussed was to aim for a single, multi-day event right at the end of the season, and the pros and cons of cancelling the series completely were also debated. In the end, though, the committee decided to take an optimistic approach and move all three contests back to the tail-end of the season, in the hope that by then restrictions might have been eased enough to allow them to go ahead. The Lawers of Gravity, originally slated to take place next weekend, is now scheduled for the weekend of 27 and 28 March, the Corrie Challenge for 10 and 11 April and the Coe Cup for 24 and 25 April.
There are caveats, however. A statement put out by the Freedom Series stipulates that these events will only run if "1) Scottish Government regulations on travel and sporting events permit, 2) The organisers consider there to be minimal risk in terms of spread of infection and 3) The organisers consider there to be minimal risk in terms of reputational damage to the SFS in going ahead."
"Shunting the dates is one thing," explains Ramsay-Clapham, “but putting in those three criteria was for all of us the most important part of the communication. It gives us plenty of scope, if we're uncomfortable in any way, to cancel, but at least it's as optimistic a view as you can take."
With various sporting events planned for 2021 already cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions, what were the key factors in deciding to keep the Freedom Series alive, at least theoretically?
"The key thing for us is that we don't gather a huge number of people,” says Ramsay-Clapham. “The largest the event has ever been is 70. Added to that, it's not an event where we bring anyone together in close proximity in any way. So we believe that the risk of infection spread at the event is very low.”
So, while it would be fair to say that this year’s Freedom Series is on a somewhat shoogly peg, there is at least still a chance that some or even all of the events could run. For that to happen, though, existing government regulations would have to be relaxed. “We know at the moment it's a no [to staging an event],” says Ramsay-Clapham, “but government regs don't tell you if it's a no in April, they don't tell you it's a no at the end of March, so therefore that gives us a window – possibly – of opportunity.”
For more information on this year’s Scottish Freedom Series, visit www.scottishfreedomseries.co.uk
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