In recent years, Scotland's most popular ski resort has seen great snow conditions, better pistes and a new snowpark, but is the Cairngorm Mountain Resort a genuine alternative to the Alps?
It feels like I'm following Lesley McKenna, Cairngorm Mountain Resort local and triple Olympic snowboarder, into the abyss. Visibility is close to zero, the wind is howling and wet snow is battering my face. Moments earlier we'd been under blue skies with our jackets off; the day before had also been warm and sunny.
"I'm glad you're seeing it like this," shouts Lesley – about eight times before I hear her, "I didn't want you to get the wrong impression."
We hike on, hypnotised by the tips of our splitboard skis as they stick and slide up the hardpacked slope. A man skis past with his dog, then we see a middle-aged couple skiing down like beginners, though they must have been good hikers to have reached this spot in the first place. People around here seem to have a sense of adventure in their blood. A mountain rescue worker told me later that the most common on-piste injury is a dislocated artificial hip – even the older skiers have no interest in taking things easy.
We've skinned for two hours across the snow, plus occasional sprouts of heather, from the car park at the bottom of the Cairngorm ski station. Before long we reached the summit of Coire Laogh Mor, where the real fun begins. As we struggle to convert our skis back to snowboards for the run down in a snowstorm, I almost lose my vital binding pins in the snow – cue undignfied scrabble – and trying to pack a pair of unwieldy, sticky skins into a rucksack verges on slapstick anyway.
Still, two turns in and we're riding soft fresh snow; a few more and we've dropped below the blizzard. Our view clears and we're facing a stunning Highland scene of glens, lochs and rounded snowy peaks, giving way to green forests and russet heather hills lower down the valley. It's the kind of view that gives you cause to pause between turns rather than making the usual bomb to the bottom.
When Lesley had first suggested a snowboard-touring trip to the Cairngorm, telling me the terrain was, in parts, world class – with chutes, cornices and cliff drops that wouldn't look out of place in a snowboard movie – I was a little sceptical. Especially when warned that we'd need the weather gods to be on our side: aside from the fact that the area can be quite stormy, wind direction has a huge effect on where snow accumulates and which routes are possible, or enjoyable, at any given time.
But I'd also heard Scottish skiing was having a resurgence and was keen to check out Scotland's most-visited resort. Three of the past four winters have seen epic conditions, following a bleak couple of decades when low-cost flights to the Alps combined with poor snowfall had sent all but the true locals to European resorts. Or, as Lesley's dad, William McKenna, who has lived here since the early 1960s, put it, "People got a wee bit better off and the world got smaller."
Cairngorm's first chairlift was built in 1961. Before that, locals, including Lesley's grandfather, Chick Baxter, would hike up with super long skis, leather boots and rat trap bindings, skiing just two runs a day. The resort was at its most popular in the late 1970s and 1980s, when some weekends would see more than 50 coachloads of club skiers descend on the resort.
There were once 11 ski schools here; now there are just two. Prince Charles used to have lessons here – Balmoral is nearby, though his sons have always been more likely to head to the Alps.
Arriving just before 8am in Aviemore, the nearest town to the resort, by sleeper train, I find myself by 9.30am riding a Poma (button) lift up to the restaurant at 1,097m, just below the top of Britain's sixth-highest mountain. I can barely believe how good the snow is and how groomed the pistes, given that hasn't snowed for a few days. It helps that the slopes mostly face north.
Highlight runs include a steep black on the west wall, and the (red) White Lady, as well as Gullies number one and two on the east wall. There are plenty of greens and blues, too. After lunch, we head to the freestyle park, which has better jumps than many European resorts. The local standard is so high I stay on the sidelines. The week before the park hosted a Vans Hi Standard Series snowboarding event. This year, it takes place on 5 April, with new quarter- and half-pipes, created by a park shaper poached from Corvatsch, Switzerland.
Cairngorm Mountain Resort also has some of the best lift-accessed backcountry terrain in the country. We found heaps of fresh snow and scenery as amazing as the silence: we barely saw a soul, even though the resort pistes were actually quite busy.
There's something very cool about skiing a locals' mountain. What it lackd in scale compared with megaresorts, it often makes up for in character: at Cairngorm, some runs were cordoned off with wooden picket fences rather than orange netting. On menus a Scottish flag steers you to local produce, and there's a general lack of the stuffiness that plagues many resorts.
That could be why snowboarding fits in. Many European resorts banned it in the 1980s but it was always allowed here, so animosity between skiers and boarders never developed. The locals have a refreshing approach to the weather – warning visitors to expect sheet rain, fog and icy roads. That said, the mountain does open in most conditions, and the funicular only stops for winds of 75mph or more.
As if to show me just what the weather is capable of, torrential rain closes the mountain on my last day. So we go mountain biking instead, bouncing off boulders and dodging frogs on paths around the kind of misty lochs and hill forts you usually only see in Hollywood biopics. It's brilliant.
Would I suggest you ditch your yearly trip to the Alps for a week in Scotland? Possibly not. The mountain isn't massive and it can get crowded at weekends. Should you go at least once? Yes, especially if you like the idea of ski or snowboard touring. Plus it's more affordable than the Alps and there's something very sweet about skiing in your own country. And with the devolution vote later this year, this winter could be your last chance.
• Travel was provided by Visit Scotland on the Caledonian Sleeper train from London to Aviemore, advance single fares start at £66.10 (0844 556 5636, scotrail.co.uk). Or you can catch a Sleeper Bus (0871 2663333, uk.megabus.com), advance single fare £35. Accommodation was provided at The Old Minister's House, Aviemore (01479 812181, theoldministershouse.co.uk), which costs £55 per person per night B&B. A Cairngorm Mountain Resort (01479 861261, cairngormmountain.org) one-day lift pass costs £33.50 for an adult, £20 for under 16s and £90 for a family (two adults, two juniors). Guided ski and snowboard touring trips can be organised through G2 Outdoor (01479 811008, g2outdoor.co.uk). Further information: ski.visitscotland.comSam Haddad is the editor of Cooler Magazine
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image: © Robin McConnell