Golden generation of Scots skiers and snowboarders captured in new calendar

The last decade has been a special time for backcountry skiing in Scotland, and a stunning new calendar showcases some of the principal players, writes Roger Cox

Robert Thomson dropping into Diagonal Gully on Cairn Gorm PIC: Nadir Khan
Robert Thomson dropping into Diagonal Gully on Cairn Gorm PIC: Nadir Khan

When people talk about golden ages in outdoor pursuits, they generally do so with the benefit of hindsight. From the vantage point of 2020, for example, it's easy to look back on the southern California surf scene of the 1960s and think of it as some kind of paradise-on-earth. For people like the legendary surfer and prankster Miki Dora, though, who actually lived through it, the dream had already died, or was in the process of dying, before the decade was even half-way through.

Despairing at the crowds of surfers who flocked to his favourite break, Malibu, turning a previously mellow pastime into a Darwinian battle for waves, in a 1964 interview with Surf Guide magazine Dora said: "Malibu is summer... summer is ruined. Now you have to share your summer vacation with everybody... summer has had it." In an interview in Surfer Magazine a year later, he went even further. Asked what his solution was to the overcrowding at Malibu and elsewhere, he said "We should have had birth control years ago. It's too late now, send them to Saigon."

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Rather than talking about golden ages, then, with the implication that everyone who experienced them was automatically having the time of their lives, perhaps it's safer to talk about golden generations. That way we can say that Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton belonged to a golden generation of polar explorers, in a nod to everything they achieved, without using the problematic term "golden age" – Amundsen might have conceptualized the early years of the 20th century like that; Scott, by the end, almost certainly didn’t.

Bearing all this in mind, then, Final Words would like to draw your attention, this week, to a calendar for 2021, produced by the guides at British Backcountry, which provides a snapshot of what we might legitimately describe as a golden generation of Scottish backcountry skiers, snowboarders and photographers. Highlights include a wonderfully atmospheric shot of Peter Mackenzie dropping into a misty Pinnacle Gully on Ben Macdui taken by Hamish Frost, Finbar Doig launching himself into the Back Corries at Nevis Range captured by Robert Grew, and Nadir Khan's image of snowboarder Robert Thomson descending into Diagonal Gully on Cairn Gorm.

Backcountry skiing in Scotland is nothing new – talk to veterans like Myrtle Simpson, who skied here before the first ski lifts were installed, and they'll tell you that when they first started out it was the only kind of skiing available. Steep skiing isn't a new arrival here either – in the early 1970s, Harry Jamiesen, a ski instructor from Nethy Bridge, was already busy developing couloir skiing in the Cairngorms with descents of Aladdin's Couloir in Coire an t-Sneachda and the Shelter Stone gullies. What we've seen develop over the last decade though – a period that seems to have started, or was perhaps even sparked off by, the exceptionally snowy winter of 2009/10 – is the development of a large cohort of focused, driven, professional and semi-professional backcountry experts who are committed to skiing ever-more challenging lines. Many of them have featured in this column over the years – notably Jamie Johnson, Blair Aitken and Peter Mackenzie – and, significantly, they've been followed into the steep and deep by some extremely gifted photographers.

Of course, a calendar can't hope to encapsulate an entire community – it does only contain 12 images, after all – and there are plenty of people not featured who could very much claim to be part of the current backcountry elite. The calendar does provide a sort of full-stop, though, at the end of a remarkable decade, and a moment to reflect on how far things have progressed. If the last ten years haven’t quite been a golden age (the 2016-17 ski season, famously, was the worst since records began) this calendar is a fitting tribute to a golden generation – and a desirable addition to any skier's kitchen.

To order a copy of the British Backcountry 2021 Calendar, visit www.british-backcountry.co.uk. Alternatively, the calendars are on sale at branches of Craigdon Mountain Sports in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Inverness, Inverurie and and Perth; at branches of Tiso in Edinburgh and Glasgow, at Braemar Mountain Sports in Braemar and at the Eleven41 Gallery in Kingussie.

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