Watching webcams is a serious sport this time of year in Scotland. Lying in bed early on Friday morning, I couldn’t help but wonder what the conditions were like at Glencoe Mountain Resort, one of only five ski resorts in the country. Because while I knew there was enough snow for skiing – you haven’t heard: the Highlands now have better cover than most places in the Alps – I neglected to check the ever-changing weather forecast.
A thumbnail taken on my phone showed streaks of promising white on black rock under a granite gray sky – like a landscape-sized lithograph and a familiar sight for skiers in Scotland. Still, the report spoke of a south-westerly wind strong enough to blow off your pom-pom hat. No lifts are open today despite a good start to the year. It would have to be done tomorrow.
I’ve known this “can-can-can’t” scenario for four decades. That’s okay, though, because even windswept Scotland can match Europe now, resort by resort. At Glencoe, reports suggest the current snow depth is 25cm at the bottom station and 45cm at the top – alarmingly more than French counterparts like Morzine or Mégeve last week, where the slopes were bare.
Lecht ski resort in Aberdeenshire was so busy it sometimes had to stop selling tickets, and the Cairngorm mountain is proof that Scotland’s grey-haired devotees don’t need lifts to stay open. Instead of any hike and the tent cable car is under repair, backpackers enjoy a full lung-blowing day of skiing from the parking lot thanks to clip-on, drop-down skins.
“It’s been a good start to the season,” says Andy Meldrum, Managing Director of Glencoe Mountain Resort, which has just opened the country’s newest ski lift, the Rannoch three-seat chair, to double its capacity.
“Skiing to the top before the end of December is something that only happens once every four or five years. The forecast for next week looks promising for more snow, so we’re optimistic. But this is Scotland and the outlook can change quickly.
The internet will tell you that the Alps have the worst snowfall in years, but that doesn’t take into account the full reality of the situation, says Meldrum. “Higher energy prices have compounded the problem on lower slopes and lower resorts,” he explains.
“I was in Norway before Christmas and some winter sports resorts have reduced artificial snow to keep costs down. It is highly likely that the same strategy was used in the Alps, which meant that the snow layer was thinner. This warm impulse, which resorts would normally be able to withstand, then becomes a problem.”
Scottish history is, to some extent, a history of opportunism – and visitors to the Alps now could learn from it. Skiers wait for the right conditions and then raid the hills, which means there are plenty of players when it’s good, but this creates a boom and bust scenario that is hard to plan for. “We often overstaff or understaff because we don’t know until a few days in advance whether there will be 100 or 1,000 guests,” says Meldrum.
As such, the country’s five ski resorts come with other hazards, even if they remain entirely exhilarating. Rock minefields must be avoided, peekaboo streams jump like bunnies, aggressive snow fence lines must be overcome like an obstacle course.
This is an area full of exclamation marks. And, of course, it can take a long time to get to the top of the slope until a bruised ego – here, skeletal lifting systems are responsible for half the training.
For some, this routine of dealing with conditions of mercilessness is nothing short of a badge of honor. Committed climb mountains with such incredible conviction that you’d think the Highlands really are the best place in the world to ski – despite, let’s face it, the often conspicuous lack of snow. Admitting defeat to heather is never an option.
“Scots are certainly used to skiing on grass and rocks,” says Doug Bryce, British Association of Snowsports Instructor and former Glencoe Ski Club competition organiser.
“My children see obstacles as part of the challenge and fun. Like golf, skiing here is a folk sport rather than a middle-class activity – the original lifts at Glencoe were built by weekenders from the Clydeside shipyard – so it’s a different scene from the touristy early days of skiing in the Alps. Plus, you don’t need 600km of perfectly groomed pistes and a fancy, high-end chalet to have fun.”
Things look even better for those who haven’t had any twists yet this season. While a part-time ski resort such as Braemar near Glenshee has already experienced temperatures as low as -15°C this winter, spring is historically the best time to ski in Scotland – roughly March to early April. And because it’s a social thing, everyone from thriving resorts to accommodation providers to ski schools has flexibility built into their DNA.
“Instead of booking in advance, I recommend a last-minute long weekend with friends or family,” says Bryce. “Freedom has always been the key to getting the most out of the Scottish snow.” Likewise, jumping into a car at eleven o’clock has become an art form.
Appropriately, since snow can seem like a magician’s bloom, the spirit is chasing down storms that have crept into ravines or tracking down drifts that have cowered behind snow fences. Or you just go your way and wait for winter to come, until it finally comes and finds you – impatient and impatient.
Scotland’s best ski resorts
By Stewart Kenny
30 km of pistes accessible via Aviemore on the Cairngorm mountain and stunning views of the mountain range of the same name. Ptarmigan Bowl provides beginners with a view of skiing, while the White Lady and M1 Race Piste are great fun and fast. A short hike to the top of the Cairn Gorm provides fantastic access to the backcountry.
Scotland’s oldest ski resort is also probably the most beautiful. Mount Glencoe, which is located on Mount Meall a’ Bhùiridh, has eight lifts and 22km of trails. Flypaper is one of the steepest routes in Europe. Watch out for the frozen waterfalls below while you’re at the lifts.
Scotland’s largest ski resort, Glenshee offers 40km of pistes and plenty of variety. There are scenic routes for entry-level beginners, and you can go a long way on the blues. The Tiger is a test tycoon route, and a trip to Glas Maol provides great views of the countryside.
The family-friendly resort with 20 km of slopes Lecht 2090 has invested heavily in snowmaking facilities. This is a great ski resort for beginners, with two hikers, plenty of green trails and blues trails available, but there’s also a racing track and freestyle park if snow permits.
Home to 20km of ski runs and Scotland’s only gondola, the Nevis range is not on Ben Nevis but on neighboring Aonach Mor (1221m). The Goose is a gorgeous red course, the views of Lake Eil and Linnhe are incredibly scenic, and access to the backcountry is hard to beat.
For more information on skiing and snowboarding in Scotland, see visitscotland.com/see-do/active/skiing-snowsports