It was an unseasonably warm February morning when I set off with Jamie, fellow snow-hunter, in search of a mountain that still had a reasonable covering of the white stuff. Just a couple of months earlier, there had been so much snow that I had snowshoed around central Edinburgh, but since then, warmer weather had descended upon Scotland, and the snowline had rapidly retreated back up the mountains.
With a hefty amount of gear, including snowshoes, hiking poles, and avalanche transceivers, we set off from Scotland’s capital, heading north, up and in to the Highlands. We had no set plan. If we saw a mountain that looked liked it had enough snow to ride, we would stop, climb it and ride it. However, it was sometime before any snow was sighted at all. The thaw had really done its damage and we began to worry if we’d find anything rideable. But as we drove further north along lonely lanes, past cold lochs and through tiny hamlets, we began to see evidence of winter on the mountain peaks, and our spirits rose.
We eventually decided on Ben Lawers, one of the highest mountains in the southern Highlands at 3983ft. Over two hundred years ago, a group of men had spent a day building a giant cairn to artificially increase the mountain’s height to the magic 4000ft figure; sadly, their efforts were ignored by the map makers. Nevertheless, Ben Lawers was tall enough to still have a head and shoulder of snow present today, and that’s all we needed.
Pulling in to the car park and gearing up, we felt heavily over-dressed. The mountain was flecked with patches of snow on its upper half, but other hikers were equipped just with crampons and small day packs whilst we were laden down with snowboards, backpacks and heavy boots. Feeling slightly coy about our seemingly excessive gear we were shouldering, we set off in the late winter sun, following burns than ran over rocks and cut through peaty bogs and marsh.
The Scottish Highlands are famed for their harsh and changeable weather. Arctic storms can scream down in an instant. It’s not at all uncommon to experience bright sun, rain, sleet and mist in a single day, even during summer. Fortunately, today it was a fine sun that warmed our backs as we began to climb, enjoying the views over Loch Tay as we went.
After about one hour, we reached the snowline and switched to the snowshoes. I was excited to be testing out my brand new pair of MSR Lightning Ascent shoes. I must admit that I had been guilty of believing that one pair of snow shoes was little different from any other. How wrong I was. Compared to my old Stellar Hybrids, these things were like a pair of Lamborghinis! The racing yellow-coloured frames were not the only similarity. The beautifully engineered frames were sleek, light and fast, biting into the hard snow and floating over the sugar crystals with ease.
The biggest benefit was the four-strap binding system. My old Stellar bindings had often loosened mid-stride but the MSR’s held my feet in perfectly. And then there was the nitro boost – the ‘ergo Televator’ – a small bar which flicks up to support your heel and makes taking on steeps as easy as walking up stairs. Whilst my old shoes’ frames had rounded-tube edges, the MSR’s frame is cut from a solid section of metal with teeth that resemble those of a Mako shark. The result was incredible traction in hardpack across the steep slopes.
After pausing briefly for lunch in a sheltered hollow, we made the final dash for the top. As we neared the peak, the wind began to build. At the very top we had to crouch to avoid being blown over – having a snowboard attached to your back like a sail doesn’t exactly aid your aerodynamic profile! However, we make it ok, although we don’t hang around for long. The wind is sharp and steals our body heat quickly, once we stop moving.
We switch snowshoes for snowboards and begin our brief, but surprisingly fun descent. The sugar snow is untouched, and this ‘poor man’s powder’ is great fun to ride. It’s an excellent, though all-too-short experience, and we’re left wanting more. Indeed, Jamie has never used snowshoes before, and is so enamoured with the experience that he insists on re-attaching them and climbing back up for a second run. Seeing as the sun is still shining, and we’re in no rush, I agree, and we snowshoe up again, this time stopping a little shy of the peak.
Again, we fire down, making wide arcs on the corn snow, but alas the ride is just not long enough so as we near the end of the snowline we decide to see if Scottish moss can be ridden. It turns out –it can, and surprisingly well! We hop from patch to patch of snow, cruising over the wet grass which links each area of snow, and manage to get much further down the mountain than we imagined would ever could.
Eventually, the slope flattens, and we come to a halt. The boards go back on our packs, and we hike back down to the car park, reaching the car just as the sun just begins to lower itself behind the mountain.
Even though it’s still only February, it’s the last ride of the season. The snow came and went early this year. But as we drive back towards Edinburgh all I’m thinking about is the next chance to get my MSRs out again.
Bring on next winter.
Sam Baldwin is the author of For Fukui’s Sake: Two years in rural Japan – for more information see: ForFukuisSake.com.