Skiing Scotland's slopes is a task for the brave

October 28, 1990|By Jules OlderJules Older

The wind blew at 85 mph. The temperature hovered around 52 degrees. The squall roared in from the sea. The snow was a rapidly shrinking grayish strip lying in a gully. It was covered with skiers.

Welcome to skiing in Scotland.

I'd skied from New Zealand to New England, from Squaw to Sugarloaf, but I'd never seen such terrible conditions -- or such determined skiers.

Take, for example, my day at Scotland's newest ski area, the Nevis Range. Because of lack of snow, I joined several hundred Scottish skiers hiking from the base lodge to the T-bar, the only lift still operating.

We slogged through black, suck-your-boots-off mud, bracing ourselves against fierce winds that would tear your hat off. After a couple of hundred yards the mud gave way to heather-covered Arctic tundra, and the wind became a rain-laced gale.

Through the storm, a group of instructors came toward us, skiing down the vegetation. I asked a young Scot who had been trudging along beside me, "What do you call that?"

"Heather hopping."

"What do you call this weather?"

"Hurricane Hamish."

"Skiing under these conditions, you Scots must be crazy. If you don't mind my saying so."

"Not at all. Where did you say you were from?"

"Vermont, U.S.A."

"You've come from Vermont, U.S.A., to ski this, and you think we're crazy?"

He had a point. To ski Scotland requires a certain disregard for things like skiable conditions, basic comfort and sanity. But this doesn't stop thousands of Britons from hitting the slopes in good weather and bad. And unlike the United States, where skiing numbers have been stagnant for several years, Scotland's grow about 10 percent every year.

Nowhere on earth is there a more dedicated group of skiers. Scots ski in frequent gales. They ski in driving downpours. They ski when the sleet slices sideways into the hill, peppering their faces with ice-hot needles. They even ski when the lifts won't go.

When the lone operating lift at Nevis Range shut down at 1 p.m., I called it a day, gratefully settling for hot chocolate in the cafeteria. The Scots simply shouldered their skis and trudged up through the wet snow for more runs.

Scotland has five alpine ski areas. The biggest is Cairngorm, near the Spey Valley town of Aviemore. The gentlest is the Lecht, in the heart of Scotch whisky country. Further south, Glenshee offers Nordic as well as alpine skiing. And in the Lochaber region near the town of Fort Williams, are the Nevis Range and the country's oldest area, Glencoe.

I didn't ski Glencoe. Despite the "Lift Open" sign, (the CLOSED flags had been blown off by 90-mph winds), the area's access chair was definitely not operating, merely swinging sideways in the gale.

At its base were the bedroom-size lodge and the "loo block," or toilet facility. The loo block was across a raging river from the lodge, and the river had washed the bridge away. But even if I had somehow leapt the torrent, I would have found the toilet doors locked. They had been so since installation of the new loo last year.

And how do you get to the new loo? Take the chair lift -- it's at the top. On days when the chair lift isn't running, consult your Scout manual.

In North America, we spoke of 1988-'89 as a bad season. In Scotland, I decided that Americans don't know what a bad season is.

Since 1988, Scottish ski areas have experienced not only a snow drought but a wind glut. Fierce but snowless storms have battered the 4,000-foot mountains almost daily, and with no snowmaking in the country, when it doesn't snow you just can't ski.

Or so I thought. Yet in mid-March, in what should have been the height of Scotland's season (mid-January through late April), everywhere I went I was surrounded by skiers.

Even at Glencoe, shut and looless, the base lodge was full. Despite the foul weather, the unmoving chair lift, the non-bridge to the non-loo -- despite the fact that the area was closed -- a dozen Scottish skiers sat patiently in the lodge, waiting for a change in fortune. "Why do you do it?" I asked. "Why do you do it?"

One of them grinned. "It builds character."

I shook my head, shrugged my shoulders, and sat down next to him.

If you go...

British Airways is the national carrier with a wide choice of flights to Britain. TWA flies from Baltimore to Gatwick and from Washingtton to Heathrow. Heathrow is enormous, but you won't get lost if you take the free shuttle to Terminal 1 and wait less

than an hour for the next plane to Edinburgh or Glasgow. From there you can get a small plane to the airport nearest the ski area of your choice, take a train, or rent a car.

The easiest way to organize a Scottish ski vacation is to call Hi-Line, the Scottish booking agency. Its numbers in Scotland are 0349-63434 (phone) and 0349-64044 (fax); a travel agent can telex the agency at 75137. For more information write the British Tourist Authority, 40 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10010; or phone (212)581-4700.

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