Thanks to the Beast from the East 2017/18 was a fantastic season for Scotland’s ski centres, and photographer Stevie McKenna was on hand to capture it in all its glory. Interview by Roger Cox
Photographer Stevie McKenna might just have the best gig in Scottish snowsports. Every winter he gets paid by ski-scotland, the marketing body for the Scottish ski industry, to tour the nation’s resorts, capturing them at their absolute best. His work is then used in the resorts’ own publicity material and also made available to any publications (including this one) that might want to cover Scottish skiing. Over the years he’s been responsible for some of the most memorable shots to appear in the pages of Scottish Ski & Board, but last winter, when Scotland was blessed with an abundance of both fresh snow and blue-sky days, he took things to another level. His 2017/18 portfolio was so packed full of jaw-dropping shots that selecting just a few of them to fill these pages was an almost impossible task.
McKenna describes his relationship with ski-scotland as flexible and informal and it needs to be, because of the vagaries of the weather.
“Over the last ten years we’ve developed the relationship to the point where I pick the phone up or send an email on a Friday afternoon going, ‘hey guys, it’s looking better in the west than the east so I’m going to go to Glencoe this weekend,’” he says. “We really just make it up as we go along.
“At the start of each year there’s a brief for what’s new at each resort, or what they’re looking for in terms of marketing shots. Last year, for example, Glencoe, CairnGorm and The Lecht were all looking for pictures of Snowfactories when they were in place, so I’d set off with that in mind and I see how things developed.”
Ironically, although three of the Scottish resorts trialled Snowfactories last season (see feature on pages 8-9), as it turned out there wasn’t much need for them. It was already shaping up to be a good season before the Beast from the East made its presence felt, and the fallout from that meteorological tantrum gave Scotland its best snow winter in five years.
Was there a point at which McKenna realised that the 2017/18 season was going to be something a bit special?
“The point when it really hit home for me was when we got the red snow warning in the Central Belt back in February,” he says. “That was when the police started saying ‘Don’t travel, don’t go to work.’ Meantime I was talking to friends all around Glasgow thinking, ‘right, where can we go and get some shots around about the city centre?’ We ended up going to Spiers Wharf, up behind the canal in Glasgow, and it honestly felt like you could’ve been in Helsinki or somewhere like that. The snow was coming down hard, there was a foot of fresh snow on the ground and it was so light and fluffy. At that point I was like, ‘OK, this is something special, this isn’t just a good season, this is one that will live in the memory for a long time to come.’”
One of the most spectacular days McKenna shot last year was Easter Sunday, when he travelled to CairnGorm for an early start. That day’s shoot resulted in both the image on the cover of this magazine, and the shot on pages 10-11.
“We got there early,” he remembers. “I knew it was going to be busy because it always is at CairnGorm during the holiday period. The conditions were perfect for that first hour-and-a-half so I just banged out as many shots as I could of people coming down the Ciste Gully and the West Wall.
“They’d actually pisted way over to the East Wall that day, so there were a couple of runs over on that side of the gully as well. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen CairnGorm in that kind of condition.”
The steep, unpisted Back Corries at Nevis Range offer some of the most awe-inspiring lift-served skiing in Scotland, and McKenna was there in February to capture the timeless shot of snowboarder Rhys Crilley powering down Winger Wall that appears at the top of this page.
McKenna often takes a couple of models with him when he shoots, and Crilley is a regular – to the extent that, during a really good year, multiple wardrobe changes are required to give the shots a bit of variety.
“The idea,” says McKenna, “is that I can take somebody like Rhys with me and say ‘OK Rhys, this is the sort of shot I’m looking for here, so I need you to ride down from here, through here, do something at this certain point and then stop, and then I’ll go another 200 yards further down and we’ll do something else.’ Rhys and I got to the stage where I literally had to go through my wardrobe of old jackets and go, ‘right, what jacket have you not worn yet this season?’ just because we had to mix it up a little bit.”
There was still so much snow on the hills by the time the cold snap abated and spring finally made an appearance that some of the resorts were able to remain open well into May. The main image on the previous page shows skier Stiubhart Dean playing in the Canyon at Glencoe, with Rannoch Moor in the background doing its best impression of the Nevada desert.
“That was the last day of the season for me,” says McKenna, “the 6th of May. It looks like Stiubhart’s coming out of a halfpipe but all we did there was just build a little lip round the back of the Main Basin T-Bar.”
The image below the one of Dean was also taken at Glencoe, and shows a group of skiers and boarders preparing to tackle the infamous Fypaper, one of the steepest in-bounds runs in Europe.
“That day the forecast was for cloud-free Munros,” says McKenna . “When we got up to the top of the Access Chair it was still cloudy, but when we got on the Cliffhanger Chair we broke through the cloud. It was just one of those magic days.”
McKenna didn’t spend the whole winter behind the lens. The shot at the bottom of this page shows the photographer himself, camera gear safely stowed in his backpack, about to drop into Diagonal Gully, just behind the CairnGorm Mountain ski area, with a frozen Loch Avon far below.
“I had so many people getting in touch with me after I’d taken that shot going “Right, next time you do that we want to come too,” he remembers.”
Based in Motherwell, McKenna first learned to ski when he was “six or seven,” but he fell in love with snowboarding after taking a lesson at Glenshee in his early 20s. The 39-year-old first started photographing skiing and snowboarding around 15 years ago, shortly after Bearsden got its new Snowflex slope. “I went along to see it and took a camera with me so I could get some photos,” he remembers. “The guys there then became guys that I would ride with.” Commissions for snowsports publications including Fall-Line, Whitelines and The Reason duly followed.
It may sound idyllic, but shooting skiing and snowboarding in Scotland isn’t always a dream gig. The anomalous 2016/17 season was the worst that many people can remember, and it was a particularly hard year for photographers, who don’t just need good snow but good light conditions as well.
“That was certainly the worst year I’ve ever done,” says McKenna. “I only had two-and-a-half days shooting, and one one of those days I actually split the day – I spent the morning at Glencoe, then jumped in the car and spent the afternoon at Nevis Range, just to get as many photos as I could. But last year though... last year made up for it!” ✱