Take a right from the top lift at Glencoe Mountain Resort and you will quickly be confronted with one of the greatest views in Scottish skiing. The rugged bulk of Buachaille Etive Mòr, often called Scotland’s most beautiful mountain, overlooks the deep valley of Glencoe, just around the corner from the “007 Skyfall road”. The panorama then leads past the Devil’s Staircase, on the West Highland Way walking route, and round to Rannoch Moor, one of Europe’s great wildernesses, a sprawling peat moor dotted with lochans and ringed by rolling hills.
This is a glen hailed in guidebooks – and one that snowboarders and skiers in the UK can access in the atmospheric glimmer of winter at a fraction of what they would pay for a trip to the Alps or North America (weekday lift pass £30, £35 weekends), making it a budget option – with a much lower carbon footprint, too.
Admittedly, the snow conditions are unpredictable, and before getting to those outstanding views at the top of Glencoe last season, I did have to take a fair few gusts of hail to the face. But this is Scotland, and the weather is as much a part of the experience as the Highland views, the local humour, the cosy pubs and the whisky stops.
I’d decided to drive up to Glencoe for the day from Edinburgh after a friend sent a flurry of envy-inducing photographs the weekend before, showing bluebird conditions and perfect snow. Lowlands turned to Highlands after I passed Loch Lomond – and the snow conditions had thankfully held, too. I spent the day on rugged red and mellow blue runs with views so beautiful I could almost hear the Visit Scotland violins. And the odd spot of icy rain? Well, it was just another reminder that a hot chocolate stop is never a bad idea.
“The advice we always give is to come slightly later in the season,” says Andy Meldrum, managing director of Glencoe Mountain. “In December and January it can be quite wild. By late February, the weather tends to have settled, and we usually ski right through to the end of April.”
There are five main ski resorts in Scotland. The Cairngorms are home to Cairngorm Mountain, where pistes looking back over Loch Morlich and Caledonian forest are easily accessed from Aviemore. Then there’s Glenshee, Scotland’s largest resort, with around 40km of pistes, and the Lecht, a great option for families and beginners.
On the west coast, the Nevis Range, is on Aonach Mor, a mountain neighbouring Ben Nevis and home to Scotland’s only ski gondola. Then there’s Glencoe, where a new chairlift will almost double capacity this season, and the White Corries cafe is now up and running after the previous one burned down on Christmas Day 2019.
The resorts can be reached within a two-hour drive of Aviemore, so it’s feasible to base yourself there and decide where to go depending on the snow conditions that day.
Glencoe is perhaps the most beautiful. The uplift soars over frozen waterfalls, and on the other side of the resort to Buachaille Etive Mòr – a jagged pyramid of a mountain, like a child would draw – is Flypaper, the UK’s steepest in-boundary ski run, and the excellent Spring Run red piste.
“You often have your own playground,” says Meldrum. “It’s nice and quiet, and we don’t piste over there, so it can feel as if you’re skiing in the backcountry when you’re really still in-bounds.”
On the way to the Spring Run is a sign saying “expert skiers only”: it’s covered in stickers and appears to be being slowly blown over by decades on a mountaintop. Perhaps this does put some off, because the run is often empty, leaving plenty of space to speed down the steep, scenic slope. On Flypaper though, it’s safest to ignore the views – because you’ll be staring down a formidable 40-degree piste. Safely navigated, both of these runs connect back to the gentle blue and green runs lower in the resort, plus the main lifts and the mountain cafe.
Where skiing in Scotland perhaps struggles is when making an apples-and-oranges comparison between it and the mega-resorts of Europe and North America.
Scott Simon, CEO of Snowsport Scotland, says: “There’s maybe an expectation, if you’re coming from the south of England, that you’re going to be getting a Val d’Isère or a Whistler or a Colorado experience. And you’re not. You’re going to get a Scottish experience – socially, culturally, environmentally, and certainly from a weather perspective.”
Indeed, one of the most common pieces of advice for those heading north is to stay flexible, and ski as part of a wider Highland holiday. Nevis Range is just round the corner from the Ben Nevis Distillery, for example, while from Aviemore, you can visit reindeer herds, stroll the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail in Glenfeshie or catch traditional music in a cosy pub.
The Scottish weather tends to bring out the inner philosopher. Some say that to get the most out of skiing here, you have to be an optimist. “Have numerous plan As, and then pick out the best one according to the weather,” says Simon. Others say that to complain about the unpredictability of the conditions in Scotland in winter is to miss the beauty of the mountains themselves. As Nan Shepherd wrote of the Cairngorms: “The mysteries are in its movements.”
There is one mantra that all Scottish skiers have uttered at one time or another, though, and which Simon proffers now: “On its day, it absolutely stands up there with anywhere in the world.” The problem, he adds, is just finding that day. “You can get champagne powder, but you can also get heather and granite,” he laughs. “That’s the charm. It’s just having the patience, adaptability and flexibility – because all of that variability comes with a lot of opportunity, too.”
An increasing number of skiers would say the best of those opportunities lie off-piste. The past few years have seen a huge boom in ski touring in Scotland, a discipline which involves walking up the mountain on skis with special bindings and “skins” – strips that allow your skis to grip while going uphill. At the top, you take the skins off, clip back in and descend. Earning your turns can be a lot of work, but it also means your route is not decided by where the lifts run. You can go wherever the snow is.
“It makes you respect the lifts a lot more,” says Russell Murray, an Aviemore local who works for active travel operator Wilderness Scotland, and who found a new love for ski touring during the pandemic. “But it’s not all about the downhill. It’s about the journey across wild landscapes, seeing wildlife as you go, and skiing sections nobody has skied before.”
Images of Scottish touring in recent years – puffy powder, blanket-white mountain ranges or lines of snow snaking down otherwise grassy Highland views – ooze adventure, and have confirmed to many what long-time skiers in Scotland already knew – that this remains a country seriously underrated in terms of skiing terrain, even if some will blindly dismiss it.
The skiing in Scotland is as good as anywhere in the world. And when the weather does intervene? Well, the whisky distilleries are never cosier than on a wet and wild winter day.