Skiing in Scotland
This piece first appeared on the OS GetOutside site January 2019. Permalink: https://getoutside.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/guides/skiing-in-scotland/
When considering skiing, you most likely think of Chamonix, powder, St Anton, après ski, Whistler, and unaffordable/post-holiday credit card sadness. But what about Glen Coe, Cairngorm, or Scotland’s very own trois vallees: Glenshee? Ptarmigan anyone?
Scotland is clearly not the place one traditionally thinks of when contemplating a skiing holiday, however with bumper snow years in recent memory and the explosion of downhill skiing’s sister sport, ski touring, Scottish skiing offers something for everyone and is well worth consideration.
What’s so special about skiing in Scotland?
Well firstly, it’s the ease of access. Driving easily to all 5 major ski resorts is a big advantage over continental resorts, which means you can leave planning until the last possible moment to fully assess the snow conditions before venturing north. Secondly, the variety of skiing in Scotland is almost unparalleled. Sure, the summits might only be 1,000m compared to 3,000m+ in the Alps, but…
… there are few Alpine resorts that concentrate downhill, ski touring, winter climbing, kite skiing and ski mountaineering into such a small area
Lastly, there’s something special about skiing in Scotland that you can’t quite put your finger on.
It might be the fact you’re skiing at home, where everyone speaks a language you can just about recognise; it might be the novelty of skiing in sunshine, a whiteout and horizontal rain in a single bullet hard ice run.
Whatever the attraction is, let’s take a look at where you should head this winter to get the best of Scotland.
Infamous! The single best day of snow I’ve ever had has been on the Lecht. I’ve skied most European resorts, the north face of Mont Blanc and Vallée Blanche, yet the Lecht, with its new snowmaking facilities and unique position as the most northerly and most easterly of Scotland’s ‘resorts’, is often worth looking at, even if it’s only a stop off on the way to Cairngorm.
Downsides are the small size of the ski area with a £32-day pass, and the frequent road closures at the snow gates in bad weather. If you’ve only ever skied at overseas resorts, The Lecht will be a shock to the system!
Cairngorm mountain is a great place to learn to ski with fairly reliable snow, plenty of hire skis and a dedicated ski school to get you quickly snowploughing. Skiing has been a regular feature at Cairngorm since the 1960’s, and consequently is very developed in comparison to the Lecht, but also suffers from being exceptionally busy. The resort garners many mixed views, with conservationists disappointed at the resorts construction of a monorail which runs up the centre of the resort.
The advantage of the monorail is that you can still ski in high winds when other resorts must close their Poma tows, however at £37 per day for an adult ski pass, this luxury isn’t the most affordable option. A final big selling point is the proximity to Aviemore, which is the closest you get to an alpine resort in Scotland. The best run on the mountain is the Corie Cas head wall from the summit of Cairngorm; if you’re a confident skier, this is a good intro to off piste.
Sitting as the oldest ski resort in the UK, the Glencoe Mountain has some fantastic heritage and a vista even some European ski resorts would envy.
There are cheap midweek day passes standing at £25, whilst weekend prices are £32. This is relatively good value for the 20 runs which have a good spread for all abilities. Whilst the resort misses out on the scale of Glenshee, there is still plenty to go at with the potential for touring, and the ability to quickly change plans and tackle Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor. Glencoe is relatively remote without the accommodation offerings that Aviemore offers, but thanks to its proximity to Glasgow, Glenshee is a fantastic option for heavy snow days.
At £35 for a day pass, Nevis Range is the second most expensive resort in Scotland, but for good reason. This resort, based on the mountain next to Ben Nevis, caters for beginners, piste crusers and expert skiers alike. The main part of the resort has 25 runs and a good number of lifts including a gondola to speed skiers up the mountain. There is a great ski school, good ski hire and several other activities such as sledging to keep the whole family happy.
The main draw of Nevis Range for many however is the easy access to off piste terrain. Runs such as the Summit Gully from the top of Aonach Mor allow good skiers the chance to explore the back side of the mountain, whilst off-piste runs within the patrolled area such as Chancer in the Back Corries allow piste skiers to push their comfort zone a little further thanks to the Braveheart Chairlift. Aside from the expected queues on blue bird days, there’s not much to criticise with Nevis Range.
If the snow is good, this is one of the best skiing areas in Scotland, with the bustling metropolis of Fort William conveniently close for accommodation and supplies, but not too close to spoil the view.
Posing as the three valleys of Scotland, Glenshee is a phenomenal ski resort, often attracting 2,000 people on a blue bird Saturday. Despite the high number of skiers that flock to the mountain, the vast terrain that can be covered means that skiers tend to spread out and it’s generally possible to find a clear run on all but the busiest days.
Glenshee is good value at £32 for an adult pass, and with 22 lifts and 36 runs, is the largest ski area in the UK. There is a ski school for beginners, a hire facility and a couple of mountain restaurants. For those looking for a little more adventure in both their skiing and their skis, Braemar Mountain Sports offers the best selection of hire skis in Scotland, including the latest touring and ski mountaineering equipment.
As for the best run on the mountain, I can only narrow down my favourite two: first is the 1.2-mile Glas Maol red run which is often a good way to get away from the crowds. For expert skiers, the face of Carn Aosda straight down to the A93 offers fantastically steep and occasional technical skiing.
But there are only five Scottish resorts I hear you say! Whilst technically true, Scotland in recent years has become an absolute hub of ski touring. If you head to the top of Glas Maol on a blue-sky day in Glenshee, you’re almost guaranteed to see a line of tourers heading over to Cairn of Claise and beyond into the deep eastern Cairngorms. And so, the sixth resort is Scotland back country as a whole.
You’d need a whole book to write about this, but here are my top Scottish highland runs for those looking to explore Scotland by ski this winter.
Glenshee to Cairn of Claise
Descent via Carn an Tuirc, back to Glenshee sinning up the roadside: A classic ski tour with very gentle gradients and the option to get a ski lift at the start of the day to cut an hour off the ascent. A perfect tour for beginners.
Easter Balmoral to Lochnagar
Descent via Cac Carn Beag’s north face: A long tour, but with good snow, Lochnagar offers a perfect descent which more than makes up for the long slog up.
Cairngorm summit to Ben Macdui and return
Optional descent via Stob Coire an t-Sneachda: Another classic, you’ll find many tourers at the top of Ben Macdui on a fine day. On the return journey, there’s the option of a gully shot down Aladdin’s Couloir, a 20-degree slope before heading down to the car park.
Finally, in bumper years, the Mamores offer fantastic skiing. For experienced skiers, skin up to the Mamores ridge, assess the avalanche risk and conditions, then charge down the best-looking face; with the north side of Am Bodach being particularly appealing.
A final footnote: whilst Scotland doesn’t suffer from crevasses or seracs like some of the higher glaciated European resorts, there is still danger. Any skiable slope poses an avalanche risk when it’s loaded with snow and Scotland is sadly no different in this regard. If you go out skiing on off-pisted terrain, always be aware of the avalanche risk and know what to do should the worst happen.
And finally, no matter where you’re skiing on the mountain, please always wear a helmet.
While you’re here, why not see what it takes to climb Mount Everest? https://www.matthewdthornton.com/blog/how-to-climb-mount-everest/