By my count the Scottish Freedom Series turns five this year, so on Saturday, as the nation’s best backcountry skiers and snowboarders prepare to take turns launching themselves down a gnarly slab of unpisted mountainside somewhere on the north shore of Loch Tay for the 2019 Lawers of Gravity event, they will also be preparing to launch the fifth season of the SFS. True, Scotland’s first ever freeride ski and board contest, the Coe Cup, was held on Glencoe’s fearsome Flypaper way back in 2012, so you could argue that the SFS was really born then. However, the first time there was a proper series with multiple events was 2014, when there were contests at CairnGorm, Nevis Range and Glenshee as well as Glencoe. The series also ran in 2015 and 2016, it took a year off in 2017, when the Canadians stole all our snow, but it was back with a vengeance in 2018, as the Beast From the East dished up stellar conditions for the tail-end of the season.
Saturday, then, is as close to a fifth birthday as the SFS is going to get, so it seems like a good time to catch up with Kinlochleven’s Katie Small, who has consistently dominated the women’s skiing division with her smooth, powerful style, winning the series title for the last three years on the trot.
Watching Small ski in the SFS, two things immediately stand out. First, she always seems to be having a blast, and is often to be seen grinning to herself at moments when most skiers would be gritting their teeth. Second, she always looks completely solid at every point during her run. Even strong skiers can occasionally seem as if they are inches from disaster when skiing fast over steep, uneven terrain. Small, by contrast, makes big drops and full-throttle turns look effortless. It’s not just that she doesn’t fall – watching her ski, it’s hard to even imagine her ever falling.
Asked what she thinks separates her from the rest of the SFS field, it’s not surprising that she brings up the almost uncanny way she is able to remain glued to the mountain:
“I think the difference between me and the rest is maybe just that I’m a bit better at staying on my feet,” she says. “Or maybe it’s just my age and experience.”
At 42, Small is certainly one of the older competitors in the SFS, but then freeriding is a discipline where age and experience count for a lot. In contrast to, say, downhill ski racing, where the goal is simply to hammer down a pre-determined course as quickly as possible, in freeriding, skiers can pick any line they like between a start gate at the top of a designated contest zone and a finish gate at the bottom; the aim isn’t to be the fastest down, but to ski the available terrain with style and skill. It’s skiing as an art form, in other words, a test of how well competitors are able to read and respond to the mountain. In order to make sense of the complex, unfamiliar terrain at the Lawers of Gravity event, some riders spend a lot of time carefully studying the contest face on the climb in, occasionally peering through binoculars in order to be able to see certain features in detail. Small, however, tends to rely more on instinct. “A lot of the time you plan where you’re going to go on the way up and then end up somewhere else on the way down,” she says. “I sometimes see things on the way up that I think I’d like to aim for, but I don’t always end up there.”
Small has been skiing in Scotland for most of her life. “I started skiing at Glencoe in the Appin Ski Club when I was about eight or nine,” she says, “and we got taught to ski properly. We did a little bit of racing – nothing major, I was never that good – but I guess that’s just carried through. And then I just picked it up again in the last ten years or so, since my kids’ve got old enough to ski themselves. I guess if you learn to ski at Glencoe – or anywhere in Scotland – then you can ski anywhere.”
Small is hoping to take part in all four of this year’s SFS events, but her new day job as an ambulance technician means this might not be possible. If she is able to ski the whole series, however, she identifies Amy Marwick as the most obvious challenger for her crown. Marwick didn’t ski the first two events of the 2018 season, but she won the last two. “If she’d been there for the whole season I think she would probably have beaten me,” says Small. “She’s pretty darn good.”
That said, the atmosphere on the SFS tends to be on the laid-back side of relaxed, with all the competitors cheering each other on. “You’re just so stoked when someone’s had a good run,” says Small, “and you’re gutted for them if they have a crash. It’s total support from everybody – the atmosphere’s brilliant. I think that’s why we all keep coming back.”
The Lawers of Gravity contest will takes place on 9 February somewhere in the Ben Lawers Range (the contest site will be decided based on conditions on the day.) For more on this year’s Scottish Freedom Series, visit www.scottishfreedomseries.co.uk