Scotland: 10 Best Beginner's Ski Toursby Stuart & Alasdair Buchanan Feb/2014
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Fancy the idea of Scottish ski touring, but unsure where to start? We asked Alasdair and Stuart Buchanan, who run the website skitourscotland, to detail some good introductory routes. Here are their recommendations.
ki touring is by far the best way to explore the Scottish mountains when there's snow on the ground. In the right conditions, you flow over the ground, covering the terrain with ease, to be rewarded by fantastic descents on untracked snow. Skiing also transforms otherwise unremarkable hills into downhill playgrounds containing (with luck) that elusive Scottish powder.
Unfortunately, more than any other winter mountain activity, ski touring requires particular conditions to be at its best. There's the quality of the snow itself (enough to cover the rocks, not too hard, not too wet) and the weather too, while visibility can often turn what would be a great descent of beautiful s-shaped turns into a series of face-plants as you go from neve onto wind-slab and back again. We never said it'd be easy.
"You flow over the ground, covering the terrain with ease, to be rewarded by fantastic descents on untracked snow"
As an entry into the sport for Scottish touring novices, here are 10 of our favourite tours, ordered from the easiest to the most challenging. Any such list is bound to be subjective and seen through the eye tinted by conditions on the day. So don't be disappointed if you have to carry your skis for hours to reach a patch of hoar-frosted heather in a white-out. That's all part of the joy of ski touring in Scotland! When it all comes good there's nothing better.
A'Chailleach lies in the Monadhliath massif, north of Newtonmore. As anyone who has gazed out from a claggy Cairngorm to the sunlit white slops of the Monadhliath will suspect, the area seems to get better weather and often better snow cover than the higher massif of the Cairngorms.
The hill itself is a great one for beginners: there's a good track that makes reaching the snowline easy, the slopes themselves are fairly gentle, and there's even a bothy half way up for a lunch stop.
The tour starts at the end of the road in Glen Banchor (NN 692 997), goes up the Allt a' Chaorainn and then breaks up the slopes of A'Chailleach itself to reach a col and then the summit. Return by the same way.
For those wanting more exercise, the tour can provide a good starting point to reach various of the other munros on the Monadhliath plateau.
A'Bhuidheanach Bheag - Drumochter Pass
Drumochter Pass offers a wide range of touring options on all aspects of slope, so you can decide where looks best (or least avalanche-prone) when you arrive. A'Bhuidheanach Bheag is a wee Munro on the east side, just after the end of the dual carriageway from the south. The route is straightforward, short, and the gully system to the north (Allt a' Chaorainn) provides a moderately steep descent for those so inclined. The tour can be lengthened by continuing across the plateau to Carn na Caim, either descending to the north (having left a car there previously), or returning the way you came.
Difficult: Easy, though navigation on the plateau can be a challenge in bad weather.
Ben Macdui is probably the quintessential Scottish ski tour, and very popular both for the quality of the touring and the reliable late-season cover. Early in the season the south-westerly wind scours the plateau and dumps the snow in the northern corries. In contrast, in April or May you may have to walk with your skis all the way up to the plateau, but still have good cover all the way to the summit.
From the main Cairngorm carpark, go up the Fiachail a' Choire Chais on ski or foot. Then simply traverse around to Coire Domhain and the top of the Goat Track, and take an undulating route to the summit - an absolute joy on Nordic skis. The return is just as lovely: A fast schuss towards Cairn Lochan, then a steeper descent to Lurcher's Meadow, going as fast as you dare to reach Lurcher's Gully without stopping. Lurcher's Gully itself often contains consistent snow at a very flattering angle. The it's a matter of picking your way towards the car park.
No mention of ski touring on Ben Macdui would be complete without mentioning The five 4000ers: a classic long tour that takes in Cairngorm, Ben Madui, Angel's Peak, Cairn Toul and Braeriach. And if that sounds too easy, Roger Wild added Beinn Mheadhoin, Bein a' Bhuird and Ben Avon to complete a tour of eight munros in 22 hours last year.
Beinn Heasgarnich lies in Glen Lochay, near Killin. Its northeast-facing corries tend to hold snow well, and it benefits from being able to start on a tarmacked road that climbs to 500m between Glen Lochay and Glen Lyon. If the snow level is high the tour is quite short, but it can be lengthened by descending the west slopes towards Creag Mhor which provide a nice little descent, followed by skinning back to the summit.
Glas Maol, Cairn of Claise and Cairn an Tuirc
Any tour where you end lower than your starting point and so get some descent for free has to be a good one! This tour takes in three munros with a superb final run at the end of the day. Starting from the Glenshee ski centre, skin up the east side towards Glas Maol, ignoring those whizzing past on the lifts. The final slopes of Glas Maol are invariably icy, so bring an axe and expect to take off your skis. From the summit, follow the broad ridge over Cairn of Claise and then Cairn an Tuirc. The final descent is often on great snow: descend to the north to outflank some scree, then descend a wide, steep slope to pick up a burn system that seems never-ending, leading to a path, a bridge over the main river, and the road. Stash the skis, and hitch back up the road to collect your car.
The plateau to the east reaches all the way over to Broad Cairn and Lochnagar, and it's easy to extend the tour to Tom Buidhe, Tolmount, or even a one-way tour via Lochnagar to Ballater.
Glas Tulaichean lies at the head of the Spittal of Glenshee. Starting from the Dalmuzie Hotel (who may charge for parking, and a fine place of a post-tour tea/beer/whisky), the tour simply ascends to point 827m (NO071742), before a gentle descent and the summit ridge. The main descent follows burn lines to the ruin of Glenlochsie Lodge at an easy angle, from where you can pole along an old railway line back to a well deserved pint. How civilized!
Sgor Gaoith lies on the edge of the Great Moss, and offers a fine, more alpine style tour with a steepish descent, and it's west facing corries are sheltered and hold snow well. From a small carpark just off the Glenfeshie road, about 2km past the glider field (NH852012), a good track leads up into the corries, and the snow. he route to the summit is straightforward, though watch for cornices. Descend the same way. If snow cover allows, in the lower section you can take a descending traverse to the north all the way back to the car.
The Great Moss (Moine Mhor) extends to the south and east, and the tour can be extended to cover a variety of additional munroes over the rolling terrain.
Dollar Law or the Pentlands
Length: As long as you like
Ascent: 400 - 1200m
Dollar Law and the Pentlands are on this list to illustrate that touring doesn't require high mountains. The rolling grassy hills of the Scottish Borders, Ochils, Penines etc. receive a surprising amount of snow, often to a low level, and can offer some great accessible touring given the right conditions. And lest you think that the descents can't be up to much: the summit slope from Dollar Law is comparable with the White Lady on Cairngorm in steepness and length, while I've done tours in the Pentlands with 1200m of descent. All that's required is a big dump of snow, and the opportunity to make the most of it while it lasts!
Dollar Law can be reached from Drumelzier on the B712 near Broughton, via Pykestone Hill and Long Grain Knowe. The Pentlands lie just to the south of Edinburgh and could hardly be more accessible.
With its mix of cliffy corries and rolling plateau Creag Meagaidh is one of the great mountains of Scotland, and its snow holding potential makes it an ideal ski venue. 'Meggy' can be toured as a straightforward there-and-back-again route via Puist Coire Ardair, or a longer circular tour right around Coire Ardair, taking in the neighbouring munros of Stob Poite Coire Ardair and Carn Liath as well. Either way, the scenery is fabulous, and the main descents can be spied out from the car park. But take note: The summit plateau of Creag Meagaidh itself has some sharp edges and careful navigation is required in poor visibility.
The east coast Munro Ben Wyvis is one of the classic ski tours in the Northern Highlands with superb views, only marred by the low starting altitude. Starting from Garbat on the A835, the route ascends to Tom a' Choinnich and from there along the broad ridge to Glas Leathad Mor. For here there is a choice of descents - the coire to the south east which does a dog-leg back west, or the steeper direct route to the west which is known to be prone to full depth avalanches due to the grassy nature of the terrain. That's one to avoid during a thaw.
Alasdair Buchanan is a Trainee British Mountain Guide. He passed the UK Summer Assessment in the autumn and is planning to take the Scottish Winter Test in March 2014. Climbing and skiing have taken him all over the world, but he returns to Scotland every year looking for another elusive perfect day. Alasdair offers bespoke guiding, coaching and instruction in Wales and the Peak District from April til November and in Scotland from December until March. You can email him to discuss your guided ambitions.
Alasdair is supported by Arc'teryx and Facewest.
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