The Angry Corrie 40: Jan-Mar 1999

TAC 40 Index

Ski it while you see it

I've often wondered why TAC doesn't major in Nordic skiing. Quite apart from the joys of the downhill run, snow-covered peaks, blah blah, there's the opportunity for fairly pointless debates about the merits of different waxes, Alpine camber versus Nordic camber, three-pin versus cable bindings, and release bindings versus lightweight-but-broken-ankle bindings. There's also the chance to seriously annoy the Cairngorm Chairlift Company by skiing down "their" pistes when the penguins have all gone home for the day. Altogether, it seems that a TAC piece on Nordic skiing is overdue.

Lots of hillwalkers turn to Nordic skiing after one trudge too many through knee-deep snow on Moine Mhor; recently, lots of Nordic skiers have been reverting to hillwalking after skiing mud and heather in Lurcher's Gully. More than one walker (including TAC's Ed) commented that the heavy snowfalls of last winter must have allowed the skiing of hitherto unassailed Munros. Alas, no, it doesn't work like that: nice fresh snow with no base is almost as horrible to ski on as to walk through. Now spring snow, that's different; that's when walkers toil and skiers telemark past with cheery words of encouragement, but sadly last year provided mostly Type A snow (fresh), with any Type B snow (spring) confined to a remote corrie of Ben Avon at about half past three on a Tuesday in March with no skier within ten miles. Was there any spring snow if there was no-one to ski it?

But I digress. TAC38 had a seminal piece on when-is-an-ascent-not-an-ascent, a concept well known to Nordic skiers. Consider this: in May 1988, two of us camped by the Garbh Uisge Mhor under Beinn Macdhui, and climbed to the top something like ten times over the course of the weekend, with the object of skiing off in various directions. Ten ascents or just one? Now, as it happens, we reached that campsite by walking and skiing, but if we'd taken the chairlift up Coire Cas, had the mandatory vile pie in the Ptarmigan Restaurant, gone over Cairn Gorm, and then skied/walked to Macdhui, would that have qualified as an ascent of the latter? Certainly not an ascent of Cairn Gorm, but I think the Macdhui case is arguable. Mind you, I think most things are arguable. (No they're not - Ed.)

One of my skiing chums claims to have skied over 100 Munros, using entirely subjective and user-friendly rules such as "Well, it feels like a ski ascent." Under close questioning, he admits there are occasions when he can ski up a hill using skins but can't ski downhill because the snow is so awful (our old friend, Type A), and yet he claims this as a skied Munro. Huh! I have another chum who'll ignore a hill well-plastered with eminently skiable snow in favour of one with a pale grey ribbon which lets her claim a new skied Munro. Double Huh!!

So, Nordic skiing sounds just the thing for a jaded peak-bagger looking for a fresh challenge. The first thing is to get your head round the terminology, so let's start with the biggies: is this activity cross-country, langlauf, Nordic, ski-touring, or ski-mountaineering? There's a good deal of overlap, but in Scotland at least, langlauf means forest tracks (swish/swish or shuffle/clump depending on prowess and snow cover), whereas the others are less specific and tend to be used interchangeably. Ski-mountaineering is often taken to mean SMC members on Alpine-cambered skis finishing off a tour with a relaxing run down the March Burn, but gear has evolved so much that there are very few places inaccessible to Nordic skis - so I tend to describe what I do as Nordic ski-mountaineering, a much more precise definition than simply "ski-touring".

And what does "Alpine-cambered" mean? Basically it means flat-bottomed: a ski designed purely for downhill running and turning, as opposed to a Nordic-cambered ski designed for touring, but which can be flattened into a reverse camber to allow the ski to turn. All clear? Good, because it gets more complicated. A recent trend has been to market Alpine- cambered skis to the Nordic touring population, on the grounds that ski-touring in Scotland is oxymoronic, most folk skin up the hill and ski down, so you might as well have the skis that will best get you down the hill. There's something to this, but it overlooks two things:

(a) Alpine-cambered skis are heavy and need heavy boots to turn them. Said boots are notoriously uncomfortable, especially when walking in to the foot of the snow;

(b) Good ski-touring is possible in Scotland, especially after mid-March, and shuffling over the Moine Mhor in Alpine- cambered skis spoils a perfectly good day.

So my vote still goes to skis with a Nordic camber, even though they're harder to turn except in the elusive Type B snow. These skis have full-length metal edges, and bindings which grip the boot at the toe, thus permitting the even more elusive telemark turn. Some people compare this stance to genuflecting, but for a child of the sixties such as myself, the best point of reference is Robert Crumb's "Keep on Truckin'" poster. It's a very weird posture, damned impressive if the turn comes off, entirely risible if it doesn't. Some of my chums eschew this turn; others use nothing else. Most of us aspire to the latter, but settle for mixing Alpine turns (stem, stem-christie, parallel on a good day) with strange contortions vaguely resembling a telemark when no one's watching. Some stoics settle for stem turns with a bent trailing leg, which they declare to be a Scottish telemark - our national turn. Fair gie's your hert a twinge.

It is possible, in exceptional conditions, to ski most of the Munros, although most folk would draw the line at the Cuillin: three-pin on the In Pinn? I think not. Favourite areas are the high Cairngorms, the Mounth, Meagaidh, and the Perthshire hills, especially the Lawers group. There are lots of possibilities north of the Great Glen, especially Wyvis, the Fannaichs, and bits of Affric/Cannich, but as a recent import to the Highlands I'm still exploring the options. Seana Bhraigh, anyone? In theory, Corbetts are available for skiing, but snow cover needs to be pretty extensive to justify going for the lower hills, even though a hard winter can give marvellous touring over the moors and bogs. The snow tends to blow off ridges into burns and coires (you've probably noticed this), so touring often involves following cornices and ribbons of snow along the tops in the hope of a good run down. On days like that, in thick mist and with the usual heady brew of wind/rain/sleet/thunder, skis can seem like excess baggage. But there are wondrous days too, days of hot sun, soft snow, unbroken snowfields and endless telemarks before settling down with a cold beer and a glowing face. Skiing is definitely a TAC-friendly activity.

Donald Shiach

TAC 40 Index