From ben to glen by board
Hero Brown thought the Scottish Highlands would be a poor place to learn snowboarding - how wrong she was
Having never been to the Highlands before, I had imagined the scenery would be rather like Wales or New Zealand - dramatic and picturesque by turns, heavier on the rain, lighter on the sheep. In fact, it is a powerful, unique place, with a landscape of bleak, majestic peaks, obsessive clouds and urgent waterfalls. It seemed to be a lonely place, noble and remote.
And very cold. To even contemplate the chill factor of the Scottish Highlands in winter you either have to have the constitution of a Highland cow (of which there are plenty) or a passion for outdoor activities. My keenness to learn snowboarding put me in the second category and after a relaxing first night at a lively pub in Fort William - oddly filled with men dressed as women (it was a cross-dressing theme night) - I was itching to get on the slopes.
As it turned out, one of the local "lovelies" from the pub transformed the next morning, minus lipstick and dress, into my snowboard instructor, Ewan, who is based at the Nevis ski range (seven miles north of Fort William). Conditions weren't great, although the winds no longer reached the 100mph of the previous night. It had snowed, but it was still gusty and I was told to expect ice - not ideal conditions for a nervous novice boarder. Still, given the treacherous conditions currently prevailing in the Alps, it seemed churlish to grumble. Kitted out with snowboard and boots, and looking considerably more professional than I felt, I took Scotland's only gondola up to the Aonach Mhor ski field, an area of 35 runs (including five black).
Any snowboarder will tell you the only way to learn is to take lessons. No point in looking good if you can't stand up. Ewan taught me for two hours in the morning on the nursery slope, and two in the afternoon on a ski-lifted run, as part of a group of four. While I fully expected to enjoy snowboarding, I still assumed the experience would be a poor second to what I could experience in a foreign resort. But I soon realised it's just a question of priorities. Scotland can't guarantee sunny conditions, lots of piste skiing or huge variety in the runs compared with foreign resorts, but for a beginner snowboarder like myself (and also for many experienced skiers I talked to), skiing in Scotland also had some unique benefits.
Apart from the obvious price advantages of skiing close to home (fares to Glasgow are as low as pounds 29 one way, and day passes are less than pounds 19 in the Nevis range), I found having an English-speaking instructor who was friendly, patient and encouraging an enormous relief after years of being forced down perilous runs by slightly bored French and Italian playboys. My boarding technique, while no doubt leaving something to be desired, seemed to delight Ewan. He even found something kind to say when I careered head first into the snow (apparently, I had nearly mastered a turn).
The Highlands' main appeal though, has to be the views. It sounds simplistic, but the anodyne valleys of white upon white in Europe were nothing compared with Glen Nevis from the top of Anoch Mhor. The countryside, smeared in greys, olives and burgundies, was clearly visible from the top of the mountain and when the sun popped out (yes,in late January!) the glen looked magical.
Back in the real world the next morning, I was due for more tuition. Except I couldn't seem to move. There is no doubt about it, your muscles haven't lived until they've been forced through a snowboarding lesson (horse-riding is nothing by comparison). Providence intervened, and blizzard conditions cancelled any hope of trying out Glen Coe (literally, Valley of the Weeping), the other nearby ski field, thus saving me from bursting into tears on grounds of muscle fatigue.
Instead, I decided to explore Glen Nevis - gingerly - on foot. Trekking is rightly popular in the Highlands, given the beauty and remoteness of the area. I started my trail at the foot of the glen, with Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain at 4,406ft, towering above. Attempting a Nevis climb in this weather was never an option (even in Summer, conditions can be dangerous) so I stuck to the lowlands with a fairly easy, sheltered five-mile walk through the glacial gorge of the glen.
The pretty, leafy route followed the path of a stream which surged over eerily huge, spherical boulders. The walking group I joined had the route largely to itself, with only the occasional corps of army cadets for company. I was beginning to lose my enthusiasm in the cold when, after about two hours, the stream finally slowed to a trickle and, rounding a corner, I was hit by the most spectacular view. The glen suddenly opened out into a startlingly wide valley. Straight ahead, and coming from half- way up one of the surrounding army of mountains, the 400ft Steall Falls roared angrily.
It was magnificent, and I would have loved to stay longer, but the wind was fierce and footing quickly became tricky (one person in my party twisted her ankle). Buffeted on all sides, I turned back for home, finally conquered by the weather, and seduced by the beauty of what I had seen.
London to Fort William by train costs pounds 99 on an Apex sleeper ticket (tel: 0345 550033). National rail enquiries (tel: 0345 484950).
By air, London to Glasgow costs from pounds 29 with easyJet (tel: 0990 292929). Fort William is a two-hour drive from Glasgow. Ballachulish Hotel (tel: 01855 821582) offers B&B from pounds 33 per person per night.
A day pass at Nevis Range (tel: 01397 705825) costs pounds 18.50 for adults, pounds 10.25 for children. Equipment hire is available.
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