Scotland’s ski resorts may be smaller than those in the Alps and the Rockies, but they offer most of the same basic ingredients: lifts to get you up the mountain, pistes to slide around on and somewhere warm and dry to enjoy a medicinal drink afterwards. Everything else, as they say, is details. There is one thing they don’t offer, however, something which is freely available in most of the rest of the skiing universe, and that’s tree skiing.
True, back in the 1960s, the short-lived Marr Lodge ski centre in Braemar promised tree skiing (not to mention “Continental gaiety and up-to-the-minute comfort,” according to the promotional literature) but sadly it only survived for two disappointing seasons before its backers pulled the plug. And yes, there are some great places in Scotland to go off-piste tree skiing, notably Ryvoan Pass in the Cairngorms, a long-standing favourite of the ski instructors working at nearby Glenmore Lodge.
If it’s lift-served tree skiing you’re interested in, though, you’re out of luck. Between them, CairnGorm, Glencoe, Glenshee, the Lecht and Nevis Range offer pretty much every kind of ski run you can think of, from carefully groomed beginner slopes to gnarly, unpisted steeps, but if you turn up expecting to spend all day bouncing in and out of mature, evenly-spaced pines, well, unless you inadvertently wander way, way off piste at CairnGorm and find yourself skiing through the trees beside the access road, you’re likely to be disappointed.
Soon though, it might finally be possible for Scottish skiers to enjoy lift-assisted tree skiing without hiking for miles or buying a plane ticket, and the man we all have to thank for this breakthrough is Anjo Abelaira, head honcho of the Lowther Hills Ski Club in Dumfries and Galloway.
Long-suffering readers of this column may remember that Abelaira first featured all the way back in 2014, when he announced his intention to offer the only lift-served skiing in southern Scotland on the slopes of 725m Lowther Hill, near the village of Leadhills. Fastforward four years, and the progress there has been impressive: the ski club now has two rope tows, it recently signed a 25-year lease on the land it uses and a new ski lodge is under construction, which, depending on the weather, could be finished before the end of this season. It has even started offering floodlit night skiing on its lower slope.
Next, Abelaira plans to plant some 3,000 trees in and around the main ski area on Lowther Hill. In time, these should grow big enough to offer skiers protection from the wind and also improve the snow-holding qualities of the existing runs by stopping snow from being blown off them during storms. And yes – some of these trees will be planted with a view to creating what the North Americans like to call “gladed skiing.”
“We’re planting native trees,” says Abelaira. “If we’d wanted something quick-growing we would have gone for Sitka spruce, but we have the funding for native trees and that’s the direction of travel in conservation circles. We’ll look pretty much like the ski resorts in New England, with rowan, aspen, Scots pine... and we’ll also be recreating how the uplands in the south of Scotland looked before they were deforested.”
Having taken advice from Woodland Trust Scotland, the club decided to plant a mixture of downy birch, silver birch, rowan, grey willow, eared willow, sessile oak, hawthorn, alder, aspen and Scots pine. It all sounds very romantic, but Abelaira is realistic about the height the trees will reach and the time it will take for them to grow.
“These kinds of trees don’t grow fast,” he says, “particularly in upland areas where they grow at an even slower rate. They are never going to be all that big up there on the hill, at between 600m and 700m. It’s going to be like an Icelandic forest – so human height, more or less – and it will take between ten and 20 years for the trees to get up to around two metres.”
Still, the benefits of even pint-sized trees flanking the existing ski slopes are obvious. “Hopefully when we are old and the trees are tall enough they will have snow-holding properties,” he says, “and they will also act as a windbreak, so they will make the skiing experience up there a bit more pleasant.
“The [upper rope tow] currently serves three slopes, but there will be another area – a fourth slope, if you like – where you will be able to ski between the trees. But again, it’s going to take a little while before we get there.”
Don’t expect to go tree skiing on Lowther Hill anytime soon then, but the novelty of carving turns around rowans and aspens in southern Scotland should be worth the wait.
To help with the tree planting or to donate to the project, visit www.skiclub.lowtherhills.com