“When are you having your ski mountaineering meet ?”, the new meets secretary said.
“What ski mountaineering meet ?”, I asked innocently: it was the first time the concept had been mentioned.
“Come on, don’t piss me about. You’re going to lead a ski mountaineering meet, and I want to know where and when you’re having it, NOW !”
After I’d retrieved my jaw from my knee, I tentatively suggested a couple of dates :
“No good ! Thats so-and-so’s meet that weekend.”
It eventually came down to the last weekend in February and then the difficult question – where ? I thought I’d better have somewhere fairly well south, or no one would turn up at all, but somewhere fairly high or there’d be no chance of snow. Glenshee was out, since half the Pennine seemed to be going there at Easter anyway, so all I could think of was Ben Lawers – at least the walking is good if there wasn’t any snow !
The year advanced through January and even the alps hadn’t any snow, let alone Scotland – what chance a skiing meet now ? But its a well known fact that Pennine meets always happen exactly as planned, and by mid-February the storm clouds were rushing in to ensure success. Snow on most of the previous ten days ensured a reasonable covering and lots of frantic phone calls got some sort of support for the meet. On Friday night Mike Thomas and myself met up in Killin, as arranged, and proceeded to execute beautiful telemark turns. The only problem was that we were still driving at the time, looking for somewhere to camp.
Next morning in Glen Lochay we decided that since we couldn’t get up the Ben Lawers visitor centre road the previous night, it wasn’t even worth a look in the new snow, so a local venue for the day’s skiing was chosen – Meall Ghaordie. We set off along the road, until a track led up to the SE ridge of the hill. Wet, soggy snow kept sticking to my skins slowing progress in the poor visibility. Exciting patches of windslab on the upper slopes kept us wending between rocks to minimise the risk of avalanche. Higher still and the wind ensured that rocks were impossible to avoid, but eventually the summit “windshelter” and trig point appeared.
Like most Munros, this one had a superb view of the first ten yards of the way down, but very little else.
Retracing our tracks as closely as possible involved a fair bit of kick turning or falling over (or in several cases, both at once), but below the cloud life got a little easier. Unfortunately, the completely flat lighting meant that you couldn’t see bumps in the terrain, so both of us skied over invisible three foot drops and into invisible chest high snow drifts. By choosing snow thick enough to ski, but thin enough to have odd bits of grass showing through, we began to adjust to the conditions, and were just getting confident when Mike started shouting at me as I skied towards him. I looked up from the snow to see what was up, when I felt the ground dropping away – and skied neatly over a ten foot high cornice into a snow drift in the bottom of a stream bed – luckily quite unhurt. Some difficulty was experienced in getting up in deep snow whilst laughing hysterically, but once done, we were fairly soon down in the valley and back to the cars. The weather was just above freezing and showing no signs of improvement, so we retreated to the local café.
Andy Nichols and Jill Gates turned up in the pub, and meet strength doubled immediately with this strong nordic skiing contingent. Beer was swilled and Andy and Jill set out to lead us to an excellent camping spot whose location they knew exactly. Two or three increasingly sheepish trips up Glen Lochay later, they pulled into a layby with just enough room for one car and vanished into the woods. Mike and I retreated to our own spot, profoundly unimpressed. We had noticed, however, that the sky had gone promisingly clear and the temperature was dropping.
Sunday morning dawned cold, crisp, clear and sunny and the nordic team declared that they would ski the entire length of Glen Lochay to Ben Challum, and promptly set off to do so. The Alpine team ummed and aahed and decided that four or five miles on the flat to start probably wasn’t what they were good at, so set off for Ben Lawers itself. The visitor centre road was just as impassable as before, with the added complication that there were now a dozen or so vehicles finding this out, so we ended up parked on the main road half way to Lawers village. This proved to be a good starting point and we were soon steaming (quite literally) up the sunny south-facing slopes of Ben Lawers on excellent snow.
Higher up the odd patch of crust was met as we diagonalled up to the right to the SE ridge. At the col, a superb vista opened up over Lochan nan Cat with views to Beinn A’Ghlo and the Eastern Grampians, as well as the Eastern hills of the Lawers group itself.
The upper part of the ridge proved just a bit too steep and rocky, and a hundred feet or so had to be climbed carrying the skis, but we were able to ski the final section to the summit cairn, arriving just ahead of a number of walkers. The rest of the panorama to the north now unfolded, showing us the Cairngorms and the Ben Alder massif, while further west we could see Ben Nevis beyond the Mamore forest, and further again, the view swept round to the Blackmount, Ben Lui and South to Ben More and Stobinian.
Rather than retrace our upward route, we now skied down west on steep ground to the col (with a convincing demonstration of the headplant as a rapid stop from AERW). Then up another ridge to Beinn Ghlas, which itself is an excellent viewpoint for Ben Lawers.
Time was now advancing, but the snow was still in excellent nick for a swooping descent of almost three thousand feet to the main road. It was only a short walk back to the cars, and quite uneventful apart from a passing car wrapping its aerial round my skis at high speed. It failed to knock me over, but seemed to have given the front seat passenger a nasty shock, and caused the driver acute embarassment !
The Ben Challum team achieved their objective, but did not return down the valley until after dark. Skiing by Petzl headtorch is apparently quite entertaining ! The nordic team continued to ski for a few more days while the alpine contingent returned south, in my case back to the New Inn.