Ski touring without the machismo: a women-led weekend on Cairngorm mountain, Scotland

The closer we get to the summit, the harder the wind blows. When it fills the sky fills with tiny ice pellets picked up from the upper slopes, we seek shelter beneath a bank of snow. We have a decision to make. Continue our ascent of Cairngorm mountain or switch our kit back to snowboards and skis, and ride down from here instead.

We’re on an introductory weekend to ski touring, the sport where you attach sticky but removable “skins” to the base of your skis so you can walk uphill. In my case, though, it’s splitboard touring: I’m on a snowboard that splits in two, allowing me to climb, with skins, like a ski tourer.

We need to decide as a group whether to descend or carry on. We’re seven women with little or no snow-touring experience, ranging in age from early 20s to mid-40s. Our two guides have made it clear it’s our call. We share some Percy Pigs and weigh up the pros and cons, shouting to be heard over the wind’s roar, but also laughing at the absurdity of its force, which makes even passing round a bag of sweets a tricky exercise.

The day is beautiful despite the gales, with bright sunshine and patches of pale blue sky. As we gaze on the landscape below, where snow gives way to heather, ancient Caledonian forest and the gleaming expanse of Loch Morlich, it’s clear none of us wants the experience to end. We haven’t reached our limit – though it may not be far off – and we still have a potentially choppy run down to navigate. We decide to turn back.

The weekend is being run by Wandering Workshops, a project set up during the pandemic when the ski resort at Cairngorm mountain was closed, but the snow kept falling. With no lifts operating, many local people turned to ski touring or splitboarding.

Hannah Bailey, an outdoor sports photographer who had recently moved to the nearby town of Aviemore, is a passionate snowboarder but felt intimidated by the touring scene. “There is a lot of macho alpinist energy around touring and the backcountry,” she says. “It can be off-putting. There was often talk of extreme routes or lines, which makes you feel you can’t take part if you’re not able or prepared to take it to that level.”

Talk of extreme routes can be very offputting, according to Hannah Bailey
Talk of extreme routes can be very offputting, according to Hannah Bailey

That all changed when she met Lesley McKenna, three-time Olympic snowboarder and a backcountry ski and snowboarding guide, who has lived in Aviemore all her life. Lesley introduced Hannah to splitboarding, and on one of their many backcountry tours in the Cairngorms, the pair discussed how they might help break down the barriers to touring and encourage more women and other underrepresented groups into the sport.

It’s a move that is clearly needed. On our two days of touring close to the resort, where high winds had forced the lifts to close, we see a handful of other groups on the mountain, touring or doing winter skills training. They’re all men.

Along with demystifying the sport, Hannah and Lesley wanted to keep prices reasonable. A grant from the Cairngorms Trust enabled them to offer two free places on each trip to people who might not be able to afford it otherwise.

Rather than attempting to replicate the “macho alpinist energy” that had put Hannah off, the pair have adopted a more soulful approach. Instead of racing up the mountain from dawn to bag as many summits as we can, we meet each day in Glenmore forest, below the Cairngorm slopes. On day one we spend two hours doing exercises to help us connect with our environment and each other, “to notice what we’re noticing” as Lesley puts it, while preparing for the climbs ahead.

The group hiking on the lower slopes
The group hiking on the lower slopes

We head out on short solo walks under towering Scots pines, along moss-covered paths and fast-flowing streams, taking photos and scribbling thoughts in notebooks, which we later share with the group in a way that could feel contrived but, in this company, simply flows. Hannah encourages us to be creative, while Lesley is the perfect mix of local sage and technical expert, switching seamlessly between stories of Cailleach, the Gaelic goddess who created the mountains by dropping stones from her apron, to demonstrating how to work as a team to rescue avalanche victims using transceivers and probes.

The forecast is stormy. We can hear the wind picking up and see it bending the upper branches of the trees. Lesley helps us set our boards and skis into touring mode, with skins attached to their bases to provide grip. Everyone is a little nervous. “On the mountain, I want you to think about how you connect with the storm,” says Lesley. “There may be some uncomfortable moments: have a think about how that feels.” She encourages us to be curious about the environment we’re heading into rather than fretting over it.

She has chosen the most sheltered route possible, but part of the adventure is being immersed in the elements, whatever they may be. We take a short drive and park at Coire na Ciste, where our first tour begins. We move off at a gentle pace, constantly checking in with each other and more aware of the group’s needs than is sometimes the case on the mountain, no doubt helped by our time together in the forest.

Menacing clouds scud across the sky, but the wind is manageable at first, especially when you lean into it, and the snow is nice and grippy beneath our skins. At times we chat, and at other times we hike in silence, enjoying the calming effects of the scenery, a shared solitude.

As the slope gets steeper and our confidence grows, Lesley teaches us kick turns, a safe way to change direction on steeper slopes. But when we reach the ridge, the wind gets too strong to continue, so we ski and snowboard down, carving fresh turns in untracked snow as soft and lovely as any you’d find in the Alps.

The author prepares her ‘split’ board ready to snowboard down the mountain
The author prepares her ‘split’ board ready to snowboard down the mountain

One of the great things about touring – and with the climate crisis making snow cover ever more unpredictable – is that you’re not restricted to the pistes. You can hike to wherever the snow looks good and unridden while, of course, staying within the boundaries of your experience level and being mindful of avalanche risk, which Lesley coaches us about.

We do a few more up and downs, then hike out through the heather, carrying our boards and skis towards a rainbow that has been there all afternoon, adding a magical air to proceedings. By day two our uphill technique is becoming more efficient – we look less like ducks on ice – and our confidence is growing, so we take on the longer hike up Cairngorm mountain, knowing we’ll probably be thwarted by the strong winds before we reach the top but eager to give it a go, and better able to decide when to turn back.

Each day ends with yoga, led by Lesley, at Badaguish, an outdoor centre at the foot at the mountain. At the final session, we reflect on the weekend and what the experience has taught us about ourselves. Though the wind stopped us summitting both days, we agree it was never about reaching some notional target or end point. It was about having fun and connecting with others in the outdoors, while mastering new skills and facing challenges. The therapeutic benefits feel as though they’ll last far longer than any summit selfie.
The trip was provided by Visit Scotland and Wandering Workshops, whose weekend trips cost from £250pp, with two days of snow instruction, tour leading, photography coaching and yoga. Equipment can be hired locally. The next trip is 21-22 January 2023. Train travel from London to Aviemore was provided by Caledonian Sleeper (from £90 return). Eriskay B&B has doubles from £95 room-only

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