It seems hard to imagine now, with Scotland’s ski resorts reporting snow depths in metres rather than centimetres and people posting pictures of buried ski lifts all over the internet, but back in the mid-Noughties it looked as if skiing in this country was on the verge of becoming extinct – at least as a commercial concern, if not as a private pastime. At some point during this rather depressing period I interviewed Nevis Range’s head of press Heather Negus about the challenges facing the Scottish resorts – “diversification” was a big buzz word back then; you don’t hear it quite so much now – and one thing she said that really stuck in my head was a line about how skiing habits had changed in the space of a generation.
Historically, she explained, skiing in Scotland was more of a spring activity – the snow was still lying on the hills in March, April and May, and the weather was less hostile than in the middle of winter, so this was considered the optimum time to go for a slide. Latterly, though, she said it seemed as if the general public had decided en masse that skiing was solely a winter activity, and at the first sign of warmer temperatures and longer days they would swap their skis for golf clubs. This change had led to a heartbreaking late-season occurrence at Nevis Range: the occasional closure of the resort, not due to lack of snow, but lack of customers.
To the savvy skier or snowboarder, this shift in people’s skiing habits, combined with the fact that we currently have more snow on our hills than at any time since the end of the last Ice Age, should be a cue to reassess how to approach the remainder of the 2013/14 season. After all, last season the resorts were open until May; with significantly more snow this year, it’s not inconceivable that the lifts could still be running as late as June. Conventional wisdom says you should get it while it’s good, so many will see the recent snow bounty as a reason to rush to their ski resort of choice as quickly as possible, but I reckon the way to get the best out of this season is to be patient. Mentally, you should probably write off the rest of this month – March too – and here’s why.
One of the most frustrating things about this season so far has been the wind. Sure, the hills are plastered in apocalyptic amounts of snow, but since the turn of the year almost every weekend (which, let’s face it, is when the majority of us get to go skiing) has seen yet another battering from yet another angry storm system hurtling in off the Atlantic. I’m no John Kettley, but once weather patterns like this are established they usually seem to last for a while, and sliding downhill can be quite a challenge when there’s a 50mph wind blowing.
Even when the wind stops, for the next few weeks it’s likely that the slopes will be busier than usual thanks to all the media coverage that’s been devoted to Scotland’s bumper snowfall. So the lift line you’re in will be made up of all the usual suspects plus loads of extra people who have seen all the snow on the telly and headed for the hills.
I know it sounds a little counter-intuitive, but try thinking of the 2013/14 ski season as kicking off in April and running until the end of June. Instead of spending February and March battling the crowds and the wind, use them to get your head down and start planning how you’re going to maximise your time on the snow once the sun’s come out and everyone else has started playing golf.
At time of writing, Glencoe, CairnGorm and Nevis Range are reporting snow depths of 2.85m, 2.5m and 2m respectively, and – if the long-range forecast I’m looking at right now is even half accurate – by the time you read this those numbers will be bigger. Even if we get a freak heatwave in the middle of March, all the snow we have now is going to take a long time to melt. True, soft powder snow is fun, but soft spring snow is also fun. And so is skiing in a T-shirt, and so is having a ski resort almost entirely to yourself.
I could be wrong about all this, of course. The snow could all be gone in six weeks and I’ll be left with nothing but a lot of free weekends in the spring. But if I’m right... well, I’ll see you on the hill in April, when the real ski season gets underway.