Scotland’s Glencoe |

Scotland’s Glencoe

Eben Harrell
This windswept ridge is somewhat typical of Glencoe, where the writer says snowpack is secondary to rocks and ice. (VisitScotland/ScottishViewpoint )

Edinburgh, Scotland, my adopted hometown, is affectionately known by locals as “auld reekie.” The name refers to the layer of foul-smelling fog that hovered over the city in coal-burning Victorian times. The nickname is still used, despite coal having been banned for more than 100 years.The name has stuck, however, not only because of the dark, humbug humor required to survive in such foggy and damp weather (the fog no longer reeks in Edinburgh, but it’s still soup-thick). It has stuck because the fog is a metaphor for the richness and density of life in Scotland. This tough, beautiful country clings to your heart; it envelops you. It will not let you go. In many ways, Aspen is the opposite. Aspen is sharp, dazzling brilliance. It is space and light and blinding white. You breath free and clean in Aspen. You float. Take Aspen’s favorite pastime – skiing. Skiing in Aspen is all ease and grace. An Aspen skier ghosts down a mountain, willowing back and forth with all the urgency and effort of a metronome in a hushed Viennese piano parlor.

Skiing in Scotland, on the other hand, is nothing like this. It is a brutal, harrowing affair, bald and elemental, in which wind, rock and ice compete for supremacy in hills that hide the ghosts of massacred clansmen. It reminds you, as Scotland always does, that life is not supposed to be easy, no ones glides through unscathed, and if you do manage to finish then it’s an accomplishment worthy of celebration and a pint among friends at the local inn.It is not like skiing anywhere else in the world. And it is not to be missed.Murder, mayhem and winter recreationLast week, an e-mail alert popped into my in box announcing that, after waiting months for snow, Glencoe ski resort had received enough powder to open its lifts. For those unfamiliar with Scottish history, Glencoe is the sight of an infamous massacre of the Macdonald clan by the rival Campbell clan in 1692. I punched the name into Google to find out more information: “Altogether, 38 men, women and children of the MacDonald clan were shot, bayoneted or burned to death by the Campbells. Some 160 of the clan escaped into the snows. Unknown numbers perished of hunger and exposure.”Death in the mountains by hunger and exposure is not usually a sentiment that would inspire me to ski, but I was undeterred. The last time I had skied, after all, was on the glistening groomers of Buttermilk. And the last skiing I had watched on television included the sun-drenched smiles and cowbells in Torino. I shrugged off the omen and hopped in the car for the three-hour drive from Edinburgh.It was right around Crianlarich that I began to realize how far I was from Buttermilk. This was a mountainous terrain I had never seen before. Some mountains, the Rockies and Alps included, rise from the ground like stately monarchs, exercising a divine right over the surrounding area. The hills around Beinn Chaorach and Ben Dorian in Scotland push against one another like warring nobles. In this austere and menacing land, even rain clouds are skittish, racing across the dark hills as if outrunning some unseen enemy.Pulling into Glencoe ski centre, I quickly realized why it is called a “ski centre” and not a “ski resort.” One of my favorite drives in Aspen is up the road from Glenwood to Sunlight resort. Cut the width of that road in half, remove all trees, huts, road signs and evidence of life, and you will begin to understand the desolate loneliness of the road to Glencoe. It is single-track, which means you have to wait at designated posts for cars to pass – if you happen to encounter one. Eventually, you come upon a small hut and a sign: “Please pay for ski hire in the caf*.”

Glencoe is the oldest and smallest of Scotlands five ski centres. It opened in 1951 at a time when recreational skiing was gaining a foothold as soldiers from Army mountain divisions in World War II returned home eager to pass on their training. For a while, it was the only show in town for British skiers. Black-and-white pictures of professional ski races held at Glencoe line the walls of the centre’s cafe.Globalization has attacked the ski centre on two fronts, however, and as recently as two years ago it was threatened with closure. The advent of cheap airlines in the early 1990s decimated visitor numbers. Scotland had more than 1 million ski visits in 1990. Last winter, a good snow year, the number hovered around 100,000.Adding to the problem, global warming has severely reduced the number of days the centre can even open for business. Skiing five months of the year in Glencoe was not unusual 50 years ago. Now, five weeks is considered a good season.

Although the smallest of Scotland’s ski areas, Glencoe is known as the most demanding. “Short but steep” describes most of the 16 runs. This challenge is compounded by a shallow snowpack, high winds and warm days that mean you rarely ski Glencoe without encountering the skiers’ equivalent of Scilla and Charybdis – rocks and ice.More worrying to me as I boarded the first chairlift was not the presence of ice, but its absence. Indeed, there was no frozen water of any sort, only bushes and gravel. It is a strange sensation riding a chairlift with nothing but greenery underfoot.Thankfully, it wasn’t a hoax. There was snow at the top. Just not much of it. Rocks and patches of grass pocked the face of each run like a teenager’s acne scars. The rocks, particularly, are unavoidable. The ice patches seem to be positioned next to each rock, sending you skidding helplessly into them.And then there’s the wind, a blinding, biting wind that makes your eyes tear and blur. The wind is so powerful it can move snow hundreds of meters in a matter of minutes, so even if you do manage to skid and slide around all the visible obstacles on a run, there’s no guarantee the obstacles will be in the same places the next time down.I took three separate runs and managed three spectacular crashes. Far from the breezy, relaxed approach that characterizes my skiing on Aspen’s groomers, I found myself moving slowly and hesitantly down the mountain in what I can only describe as a “death crouch.” It was not unlike the pose one strikes when defecating in the wild, in the mistaken belief that the closer I was to the ground the less it would hurt when I fell.Most of the lifts on the mountain are tow-lifts. But they are nothing like the Panda Peak lifts at Buttermilk. These tow lifts take you up steep terrain. And there are rocks in the way. And if you fall off or lose a ski – not an uncommon occurrence – you must wait until an available handle swings by. This can take 30 minutes.

On my last run down, taking a panting pause and surveying the stark, beautiful land around me, I remembered the opening of a poem about the Glencoe massacre: “Oh, cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe / And covers the grave o’ Donald …”Realizing that I was skiing over the corpses of dead clansmen did not make the task of getting down the mountain any easier. The feeling of my skis hitting rocks was one I had never experienced before. It felt as if someone was reaching up from under the snow and grabbing my legs. It felt personal.I made my way down the mountain and arrived pale and exhausted at the bar. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” a man said.I smiled, happy to be safe and warm, and asked if I could buy him a pint.

For more information on Glencoe or Scotland generally, go to

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