A piste of the action: Woman sets record by skiing in Scotland in every month

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SHE has skied on melting snow patches and fresh powder, dodged rocks and reindeer, and even beaten cancer to achieve her goal. And last week Helen Rennie set a new record by skiing on Cairn Gorm mountain for 12 months in a row.

• Calendar girl: with the help of her friends, Rennie kept a photo record of her unique achievement, which was all the more remarkable as she was recovering from cancer at the time

Helped by last winter's heavy snowfalls and the longest ski season in Scotland for 20 years, Rennie, a geography teacher from Inverness, joins a handful of skiers who have managed to ski the mountain every month on the calendar and is believed to be the first woman to achieve the feat.

She has taken to the mountain in all weathers, even under a blazing hot summer sun in July. Last Wednesday she skied a 500-metre-long patch of snow to an area of the mountain known as the Ptarmigan tow top.

"I've loved every single one of them," she said. "There were days in the winter where I was skiing on freshly powdered snow, which in Scotland is not that common and is just superb. But then again, at times like that it's also very cold and windy and you have lots of layers on, whereas standing in a pair of light trousers and a light top in the basking sun skiing on a snow patch has its own merits. It's a different kind of pleasure."

Lesley McKenna, the two-time Olympian Scottish snowboarder who represented Team GB in snowboard half pipe at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, said she was blown away by Rennie's achievement. "I think it's amazing what Helen's done," she said. "I'm quite jealous. It's pretty special to be out there under the sun on a bit of snow when there's nobody there, with just skis or a snowboard. I can totally understand the appeal of trying to ski every month of the year."

Rennie, 56, first attempted to ski 12 months in a row in 2007 but faced an unexpected setback when she was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer.

"In September of that year I realised I only had one more month left to get the 12, but on the only snow day in October I was sitting in Raigmore Hospital in Inverness waiting to see my surgeon after a cancer diagnosis, and I wasn't able to carry on," she said.

Despite having two courses of chemotherapy in the winter of 2007, Rennie continued to ski when she was out of hospital, and in early 2008 she underwent major surgery to have part of her oesophagus removed.

"I was back on snow two months after surgery," she said. "I wasn't skiing the way I normally would, just very gently, but I was absolutely delighted. I'm just a positive person and this was my little goal - to get back out and ski."

Rennie, who has been a ski ambassador for CairnGorm Mountain Ltd for ten years, practises off-piste skiing, meaning that for much of the season she skis outwith normal ski runs, walking to the areas where she is skiing with her skis on her back rather than taking a lift.

Paul Easto, managing director of Wilderness Scotland and a keen off-piste enthusiast, said it is a trend that is on the increase.

"I think the appeal of off-piste is that it takes you away from the crowds and into the mountains proper, and more and more people are starting to realise it's just an incredible way to experience the mountains in winter," he said. "And if you get good snow then so much the better. It's an amazing feeling to be sliding down untracked snow."

Richard Eccles, a retired army major from Nethy Bridge, holds the record for the longest number of consistent months of skiing in Scotland, having skied every month for 34 months in 1994-1995. However, off-piste skiing and snowboarding is not for the faint-hearted and has significant risks attached to it.

"The biggest danger is unstable snow conditions, which a lot of the time means avalanches, and lots of things like the temperature and the humidity of the sun can affect even how your ski or snowboard sticks to the ground," said McKenna.

"Then you have the other extreme of sheet ice which can be pretty dangerous, and of course there's the weather itself, which is always unpredictable."

A spokesperson for CairnGorm Mountain Ltd said: "We let people get on with it. If there were large numbers of them going out it could be a possible cause for concern but in many ways they're not very different from mountaineers who walk from the car park and can go anywhere they like on the mountain. I don't think we're particularly encouraging or discouraging it, but we're not unhappy to see it."

Last year's record snowfall, along with snow last week, has led to a rush on tickets for this year, with CairnGorm Mountain Ltd reporting an increase of almost 20 per cent in season ticket sales on previous years.

"There is a high level of expectation because we had such a fantastic season last year," said the spokesperson. "However, there is a persistent concern about the effect of global warming for all Scottish ski resorts. Despite having a bumper year last year, in 2006 we had our worst season ever. Sadly, that is more representative a picture of the snow on the mountain in Scotland."

Rennie, who has had no further health problems since her surgery in 2008, says that having achieved her goal, she will continue to ski as much as possible. "I just take each day at a time, as I know I'm incredibly lucky to be here," she said. "As long as I'm well enough to ski, I'll do so, and if there's snow on the mountain I'll be there to try and ski it."

n ecowing@scotlandonsunday.com