Forget down, the wild set go across

It may be the most gruelling way to meet a grouse, but Nordic skiing is a healthy antidote to Scotland's crowded slopes. UK OUTDOORS

Still feeling stodgy from the Christmas over-eating? Depressed at the thought of spending the rest of the winter in the city? Then clear a weekend of commitments and join one of Highland Guides' Nordic skiing trips into the high, white wilderness of the Cairngorms.

Scotland's downhill pistes, such as Aviemore and Glen Shee (or Glen Shite as many now call it), are notoriously ugly, crowded and over-used. But Nordic, or cross-country, skiing allows you to get quickly into the wild, skiing with the deer, Arctic hares, peregrines and grouse. It's also a lot more physical than downhill skiing - a weekend on Nordic skis will work off a fair slice of post-Christmas podge.

Many downhillers think of Nordic skiing as a poor relation - fit only for wimps who can't take speed. Certainly at a beginner level Nordic skiing offers little excitement. But those with some downhill experience can expect to start gentle ski touring - really crossing country - their first weekend on Nordic gear. Once you have mastered the basics of step- turns and skiing along the flat, the adrenaline and attendant skill levels of Nordic easily rival downhill.

Negotiating steep, unprepared snow with Nordic equipment, which uses a free-heel binding rather than the relatively easy fixed-heel boot and binding of downhill skiing, is far from easy. But the free-heel binding opens up the mountains to you in a way that downhill skiing never can.

Telemarking is Nordic skiing at its highest level. Invented in Telemark, Norway and enjoying a boom in the USA, Telemark is the art of turning in steep, deep powder with free-heel cross-country equipment. You drop to one knee, push one foot forward to make one ski out of two and carve your turn in a kneeling position. If the right foot goes forward you turn right. If you push the left foot forward you turn left; simple, not.

Highland Guides leads combined Nordic ski trips and Telemark courses from Aviemore into the surrounding ranges. Founded in 1969, it was the first outfit to offer Nordic skiing in the UK. Its trips last from a weekend to several days and cover four levels: basic, intermediate, Nordic downhill and Telemarking.

Beginners are taught the basics of uphill and flat technique before they start on the difficulties of turning. Those with some experience with Nordic skiing can go straight into learning the Telemark turn. Then, whatever your level, if the snow is right and the instructor feels you are ready, you are taken "away up the hill".

If you have just arrived on the overnight sleeper, the space and freedom are exhilarating. Yes, you will fall over in the snow. Yes, there are long uphill plods. Yes, the long, narrow, Nordic skis can be frighteningly fast once you do set off downhill. But once you've carved your first Telemark turn, felt the unfamiliar movement take you in a smooth, wide arc across the slope, felt the strange, gliding grace of it, you're hooked. Always bear in mind, though, that aching thighs are part of the deal.

FACT FILE

Location

Highland Guides

Inverdruie, Aviemore

Inverness-shire PH22 1QH.

Tel: 01479 810729

Fax: 01479 811153

Season

Approximately January to the end of March.

Accommodation

Not provided, but Highland Guides will book you into local accommodation to suit your budget, with pick-ups to the ski site each morning.

Food

Highland Guides provides packed lunches only.

Children

Accompanied children welcome at reduced rates (see below). Minimum age eight for family courses.

Disabled facilities

None.

Insurance

Clients must have their own personal accident cover.

Safety

All instructors first aid trained. Mountain rescue on hand.

Affiliations

British Association of Ski Instructors.

Tariffs

Two-day courses cost pounds 55 including equipment and tuition or pounds 40 if you have your own equipment. Four-day courses including equipment and instruction cost pounds 97 or pounds 65 for instruction only. Under 15s go for reduced rates, contact Highland Guides for details.

Booking

Last-minute bookings often taken, so ring to see if there's a cancellation, with a deposit of 25 per cent. Access and Visa accepted.

Access

Inverdruie is on the Aviemore-Glenmore road, about two miles east of Aviemore. Clients arriving by train at Aviemore will be collected on request. Aviemore also has a coach stop.

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