Sunday 8 March 2020

Getting used to skiing again as the weather changes

Cairn Lochan

With the fine weather of the last week due to break Friday night I set out for a day in the snow and, I thought, sunshine and calm. I took skis as I knew there was plenty of snow. I haven't skied that much in recent years due to low snow cover and, I must admit, laziness. Snowshoes are so much easier - no need to take them on and off to cross snow free areas, no problem to carry on the pack, no need for special boots that are hell to walk in. For many years I've reckoned that if I wasn't going to be on skis most of the time then I'd take snowshoes. With complete snow cover down to car park level I had no excuses this time. Skis it would be.

Cairn Lochan

In the car park another ski tourer was unloading her gear. Her skis made my old ones look like matchsticks. They'd been regarded as wide when I got them, but that was twenty years ago. I wondered, not for the last time, what it would be like to use such wide skis. I'd put climbing skins on mine back home so was soon heading up to the Cairngorm Plateau. The sun was warm, the air still. Hat and gloves were soon shoved into pockets. To the south-west Cairn Lochan was sharp and clear. I hoped to cross the summit, maybe even go on to Ben Macdui.

My plans changed with the weather before I reached the Plateau. A strong cold wind came out of the west. Cairn Lochan became hazy, the sky overcast. The weather was changing sooner than forecast. 

'Good to see real skis', a climber descending commented. Appreciation for my old skis! I was pleased.

I decided I would go with the wind not against it, east over Cairn Gorm, not west to Cairn Lochan. Where the broad ridge steepened near the top my skis started to slip and I had to side step up, using the metal edges to bite into the hard snow. I could do with new climbing skins, I thought. I'd has these for many years. Since my first trip to Yellowstone with Igloo Ed in fact, when I'd bought them in an outdoor store in Boulder, Colorado.

Walkers on the Cairngorm Plateau

Looking back I could see Cairn Lochan disappearing into the mist. Walkers crossing the Plateau enhanced the sense of vastness I always feel up here. Soon I too was in the mist, visibility vanishing. Light snow fluttered down. The Cairngorm Weather Station loomed up, snow and ice encrusted.

Cairngorm Automatic Weather Station

The building gave some shelter from the bitter wind, a place for a snack and a hot drink. Several others arrived. Climbers with ropes and harnesses and crampons, ski mountaineers with those wide skis again. One stripped off his climbing skins. They looked twice the width of mine. I could climb anything in those!

As I drank my hot ginger cordial (a wonderful drink for warming up) and ate my flapjack I looked up at the fantastic rime ice decorating the weather station tower. Three skiers took off into the mist. I contemplated my skis. Keep the skins on, I thought, at least until out of the mist. I didn't feel confident.

Skis ready and waiting

As on other occasions skiing downhill with skins on was awkward, the skis slipping then grabbing in stop-start jerks. I should have remembered. The skins came off and suddenly the skis felt free, sliding across the snow unencumbered. I let them drift down with me to the top of the ski tows of the Cairngorm ski resort, taking wide sweeps across the slopes linked by slow gentle turns.

The ridge on the far side of the pistes was wind-scoured and rocky. I'd be walking a fair bit if I descended that way. For the first time in many years I decided to descend the runs. At first I was cautious, tentative, clumsy, but as I descended my muscles remembered and turns started to flow and feel natural. Snowboarders and alpine skiers raced past me, but then they always had. I've never been a fast skier. Touring requires care, especially solo. When I finally removed my skis I felt pleased. I could still ski. I must go out on them again soon.

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