The Scots ski into luxury

Gone are the austere days of the Scottish Ski Club. Now all they need north of the Border is a little more snow.
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The Independent Travel
Early tomorrow morning, a Eurostar train leaves Waterloo for the French Alps. This will be a "preview" trip for the travel trade and the press; but next season Eurostar will run a regular service from London to Bourg St Maurice, from where it is a short trip to La Plagne, Les Arcs (linked to Bourg St Maurice by a funicular railway), Tignes and Val d'Isere. Unless you enjoy hanging around airports, enduring long coach transfers and polluting the atmosphere with fossil fuels, you'll look forward to that.

But it won't be the first direct train service from London to the ski slopes. Last week I caught the overnight Caledonian Sleeper from Euston to Fort William for a first, long-delayed skiing trip to Scotland. As the train rumbled up the West Coast main line, I lay in my bunk reading Skisters, Myrtle Simpson's long-out-of-print history of Scottish skiing. After a last look at England - on a damp, dark night at Crewe - I fell asleep; when I next looked out it was from the single-track railway across Rannoch Moor on a bright Scottish morning.

Simpson's book reinforces the view that skiing in Scotland can sometimes be an "experience" rather than a pleasure. Even before the First World War, she reports, "skiing was becoming popular [and] members of the Scottish Ski Club began to feel that their sport was degraded as a result." The committee therefore decided that applicants could qualify for membership only by completing a series of strenuous ski tours, covering 75 miles in all and involving a total of at least 12,000ft of ascents - with an 8lb back-pack, and without ski lifts. Expeditions in the Alps did not count, since obviously they were for softies: the "significant difference between people who ski happily in Scotland and those in the Alps," says Simpson, is that "Scottish skiers have an unlimited capacity to put their head down against a blizzard." She quotes one enthusiastic skier as saying that the weather in Scotland "is always indifferent to bad, and the great mistake lies in waiting for a good day, as it seldom happens".

I waited the best part of three months for a good day, telephoning Scotland regularly from mid-December onwards; but my patience was rewarded with snow and sunshine. And the weather wasn't the only thing that belied the image of Scottish skiing. The Nevis Range ski area, only 10 minutes' drive from my tiny but comfortable bedroom in Fort William station, is the newest Scottish ski resort, having opened in the 1989/90 season. So its facilities reach a standard of which the dour old Scottish Ski Club would have strongly disapproved: a six-seat gondola carries you 2.3km from the road up to a big restaurant and bar, and 10 ski lifts cover a ski area which stretches up to the peak of Aonach Mor, at 1,220m the highest point in Scotland to be reached by a lift.

The views from the restaurant terrace were vast on such a clear day. Set on the north face of the Nevis range, the resort looks down on the wide Lochy valley between Loch Linnhe and Loch Lochy, which makes a soft, green-and-brown foreground to a panorama of rugged, mainly snow-covered mountains stretching from the island of Rhum, out in the Atlantic, across to Inverness on the North Sea coast. An etched metal plate on the terrace balustrade attempts to identify each mountain, but the jagged line was too long to follow and the names were no easier for an English-speaker, being mostly bad anagrams (Sgurr Thuilm?) or Gaelic expletives (Stob Mhil Bheathain!).

Poor Nevis has had a terrible season so far: the resort hoped to have had 48,000 skier-days by now, but has achieved only a third of that number. This January was one of the driest on record; and February's good snowfalls were washed down the mountain by heavy rain. Which is a great pity, because a new, pounds 13m resort needs better luck, and because - even on last week's limited snow - it offers good, challenging skiing. Many of the pistes on the main face of the mountain were narrow, the thin snow having been bulldozed in from the edges to provide a reasonable, vegetation- and rock- free surface; and all had big patches of ice, offering an experience to go with the pleasure. But the main snow bowl (well, a side-plate, really), with a red run merging into a blue, was well covered and exhilarating.

In one respect, Nevis lived up to the image of Scotland as a tough place to ski. As noted last week, Killington's double-diamond black runs had been a doddle, but even the reds at Nevis were a desirable challenge, most of all in an east-facing bowl called Colre Dubh. Cally Fleming, the resort's marketing manager, insisted that I had to ski into the bowl - and made sure that I did so by leading me there, even though its lift wasn't working, and there

was also a slight risk of avalanche.

We edged up a sheet-ice slope to a ridge near the peak. I looked over the edge. Stob Mhil Bheathain! From the ridge was a near-vertical drop on to a very steep slope, which levelled out gradually into an un-pisted bowl full of snow. Rather than have Fleming do it, I pushed myself off the ridge, hit the snow flying - and then did a slow, anxious traverse, wondering when I would dare to turn down the slope. By the third turn, of course, I was loving it.

I would have had another go - maybe two or three; but without the lift, it was a long haul around the resort to get back to the ridge. And then I might have missed the summit run off the peak. It's only a short blue run, but I spent a long time on it; I kept stopping to get a bit more of the dramatic view to the south west, of Ben Nevis, Cam Dearg and Sgurr a' Mhaim.

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