Five minutes ago the mountain was bathed in warm spring sunshine, as were the nearby peaks of Ben Lawers and Beinn Ghlas, but now wet flakes the size of 10p pieces are swirling in on a brisk nor-westerly, and it’s hard to see more than a hundred metres in any direction. Looking back down the hill, I can no longer make out the loch, or even the thin squiggle of the single-track road that brought us here. All I can see is a long line of skiers and snowboarders, heads bowed, gear strapped to their backs, slowly slogging upwards into the blizzard.
It’s the morning of the inaugural Lawers of Gravity freeride competition – the final event of the 2015 Scottish Freeride Series (SFS). Due to the less-than-optimal forecast (heavy snow showers and 40-55mph winds) the event was almost abandoned at the eleventh hour. With warmer temperatures starting to eat away at the snowpack, however, Snowsport Scotland’s Iain Ramsay-Clapham has decided to press ahead; a few hours later, we’ll all be very glad he did, but right now the whiteouts are a concern.
Freeriding, for the uninitiated, is perhaps the purest form of snowsliding competition. There’s no set course as such, just one flag at the top of a challenging section of mountainside and another flag at the bottom. As long as competitors start at the first flag and end up at the second they can do pretty much whatever they like in between. Big jumps, big drops or simply flowing through the contours of the mountain with power and style – it all helps to score points from the judges sitting at the bottom of the slope, binoculars pressed to their eyes, scrutinising your every turn.
As the riders assemble at the top of the competition area the sun comes out again, allowing them to roam around, plan their descents and examine possible take off and landing spots. There’s another quick snow flurry, as if to spruce up the playing surface, and then boom – the visibility suddenly improves and the first of the competitors, snowboarder Laura Donaldson, comes hurtling down the face.
The women’s snowboard category isn’t the most hotly contested of the day – Donaldson comes first in a field of one – but had anyone who took part in the previous SFS events at Glencoe and Nevis Range been there to offer a challenge, she’d definitely have given them a run for their money.
Things are tighter in the men’s snowboard, but Robbie Paton is still a clear winner, linking together swooping carves and outlandish spins and generally looking like he’s having more fun than anybody else on the hill.
As it’s late in the season, many of Tarmachan’s naturally-occuring launch-pads have lost their snow, and appear as grass-covered islands. That doesn’t stop the top riders in the men’s skiing category from incorporating them into their runs, however, straight-lining over turf for five or ten metres in some cases before dropping off small cliffs to get back onto the white stuff. In the end it’s desperately close between expert turf-hoppers Jamie Adcock and Felix-Franz Prankl, but Adcock just shades it over two scored runs, with a combined total of 590 points to Prankl’s 587.
In the women’s ski, meanwhile, Katie Small combines strength and precision to devastating effect, posting a score of 506 points, which would have seen her beat all but the top three men.
Unlike the other events in the SFS, in which the contest areas are accessed by ski lifts, the Lawers of Gravity is a true hike and ride competition, and the participants seemed to enjoy both the format and the terrain.
“Tarmachan’s definitely got a lot more features [than the other FFS contest sites],” says Paton, after celebrating his win. “The only thing is getting the time to do it, and getting the conditions to do it. But we had a great hike up there today – Tarmachan’s great fun to walk up and the whole area’s just fantastic.”
“There are lots of implications to having a hike and ride event,” says Ramsay-Clapham, “but having a hike in at the start definitely adds something. I think there’s so much scope to do more.”
• For results from this year’s Scottish Freedom Series, see freedomseries.wix.com/freedomseries