There’s much more to winter snowsports in the Cairngorms than skiing and snowboarding on piste. More and more visitors to the area are venturing off the beaten track in search of a new challenge, pure wilderness or the joy of making virgin snow tracks.
You certainly don’t have to ski or snowboard to enjoy the mountains here. Around 14% of holidaymakers don’t ski or board at all on a winter sports holiday, according to recent research by Club Med Europe, and we’re seeing the same trend here in the Scottish Highlands. Alternatives like snowshoeing and ski touring are blossoming in popularity.
So, if you’re an adrenaline junkie in search of a new thrill, or a family on the hunt for an activity to please all members, or a mountain-lover that wants to escape the crowds – the Cairngorms has plenty on offer.
Ski Touring /Ski Mountaineering
A great way to get off the beaten pistes. If you’ve ever tried hiking in deep snow, you’ll know how tiring it is, but ski touring gives you the chance to climb high in a much more energy-efficient way. Exertion levels are similar to a slow jog. It’s the perfect activity to enjoy the mountains all day long, as you gradually climb, rewarded by well-earned glides down.
For an added buzz, “skin” up to the top of the ski area once the lifts are closed and relish the sunset after the crowds have headed home.
The Cairngorms is ideal for ski touring, offering a vast array of beautiful, challenging terrain. For those who would like instruction and guidance, there are many excellent providers locally such as Glenmore Lodge, G2 Outdoor, Mountain Spirit and Scot Mountain Holidays.
Snowshoeing was invented thousands of years ago as a way of travelling swiftly over deep snow and ice, but today is one of the most fun alternatives to traditional snowsports. Most adventurers will be able to pick up the technique quickly and easily, though it’s not recommended for young children. The snowshoes, which look like tennis rackets attached to your feet, give you the sensation of floating over the snow because they stop your feet from sinking into the powder. This makes it an ideal choice for enthusiastic hikers who want to go further, or who want to venture safely off the pisted tracks.
Other great advantages of this hugely enjoyable pursuit are the fact that it doesn’t take long to become skilled, it allows you to cover a much bigger area in a shorter time than walking and it’s a great way to keep fit while you choose your pace. It’s not expensive either, you just need to hire the snowshoes and poles, which you can do in Glenmore Shop, in the heart of the woody, low hilled terrain, perfect for the sport. If you want to go the whole hog, holiday providers like Scot Mountain offer all inclusive guided snowshoe trips.
There is no better way to awaken your childlike sense of excitement than the prospect of scaling a mountain and digging out a snow hole to sleep in, under the stars. Safely snuggled up in your sleeping bag miles from any civilisation, you can enjoy the cosiness and camaraderie of cooking in your homemade ice home.
To get the most out of this adventure, we recommend you do this unique activity under expert guidance, such as that of Andy Bateman of Scot Mountain Holidays. He is legendary in this area, not just for his snowhole construction and ability to cook three course meals in them, but also his extensive knowledge of the area, including the flora and fauna. Visitors love his ability to spot the wildlife on the way up, giving them a chance to enjoy the magnificent views (as well as take a well earned breather).
Zip Trek Park
The feeling of flying through the air above a gaping gorge, whizzing past snow-clad pines in the midst of the forest, is hard to beat in any snowsport. This makes Alvie’s Zip Trek Park a thrilling snowsport alternative, especially when the mountain is closed. Wrap up warm and be guided through this activity, which consists of 14 zip lines and can be enjoyed by all the family as a whole, catering for children from the age of five years old. This is a way to enjoy Cairngorm mountain views in style and earn bragging rights in the process.
Backcountry / Cross country skiing
This gentle variation on traditional skiing, also known as Nordic skiing, is one of the oldest forms of the sport and is particularly suited to flat, or slightly undulating hills, which makes it a perfect activity for the Glenmore forest area. In fact, Glenmore is one of the best places in the world to try this activity as it is home to the only cross country piste cutting machine in the UK; getting in your snow groove here couldn’t be easier. (You can monitor when fresh tracks are made via Aviemoreski’s dedicated Facebook page. If you enjoy taking in the stunning scenery at a slower pace away from lift queues, through snowy forest scenes straight out of Narnia, then this is the snowsport for you. It’s also a fantastic family alternative to skiing because kids tend to become proficient more quickly, making it a great option for a snowy day out.
Equipment hire also tends to be cheaper than regular skiing and is available at through Aviemoreski at Glenmore Shop, on the forest doorstep.
Winter Mountaineering And Climbing
If you’re an enthusiastic summer hill walker looking for your next challenge, then taking a course in winter mountaineering and climbing would be an ideal move. You’ll quickly see that there’s something particularly magical about winter walking in your crampons, not to mention the bonus of deserted trails.
Glenmore Lodge, for instance, is world-renowned in its skills courses. It offers a huge range to suit all abilities, from two-day introductions to winter mountaineering, to longer more advanced training and training aimed at those who want to become leaders themselves. If you fancy yourself as leader material, then you’ll definitely want to put Glenmore Lodge’s MTA Winter Conference on 28th-29th January in your diary, where you can find out more about mountain leadership and meet other budding leaders.
You can take a specific course, on crucial skills like avalanche awareness / navigation, or choose one based at the classic Ben Nevis or West Coast range. Additionally, you can opt for a women’s only course, if that suits you best. Similarly, other local companies like Scot Mountain integrate skills training into an all-inclusive holiday, complete with home-cooking from Fraoch Lodge; the perfect end to an invigorating day in the mountains.
The step up from Winter Mountaineering is Winter Climbing, or “Ice Climbing” as it is more dramatically called! This suits hikers that already have decent winter walking skills and some mountaineering and climbing background. Similarly, local providers offer courses to build these skills where you’ll, for instance, move from being proficient in using a single ice to axe to confidently using different axes for more technical terrain.
Sled Dog Rally
Another memorable activity for your diary is watching the 34th Annual Aviemore Sled Dog Rally, on 28th-29th January. You’ll be able to watch the breathtaking spectacle of sleds being pulled by huskies around Loch Morlich and Glenmore at pace. This is the largest sled dog rally in the UK boasting over 1,000 sled dogs and 250 “mushers” (drivers) and the trail is around 4 – 7 miles long. And never fear if snow is scarce – the show will still go on, just with mushers using a three-wheeled rig.
Conquer a Cairngorm Peak Challenge
If you’re the kind of person who likes to set your sights on a specific physical challenge when you’re on holiday, then you’ll love the Cairngorms because it’s full of them. For instance, one of the most lusted-after mountain triumphs in winter is to ski all the summits over 4,000 feet in the Cairngorms in a day. This entails over 30 km and a 2000m ascent. Not for the faint-hearted. If this all sounds too hardcore for you – don’t worry – there are plenty of other challenges too, which can easily be done in a day. They may be less punishing physically, but will still deliver that delicious feeling of achievement in the pub later and will bag a munro or two in the process. Ben Macdui in a day, for instance, is a firm favourite. Experts at the likes of Glenmore Lodge can help you plan your mission, or you can join an organised tour on holiday, such as those offered by Scot Mountain Holidays.
Sledging & Simple Snow Pleasures
While the satisfaction of nailing an ambitious challenge is undeniable, don’t underestimate the joy of the small snowy moments that may not cost a penny; like building a snowman, having a snowball fight or making snow angel prints in the powder. Sledging is a simple pleasure that can elicit shrieks of glee from fun seekers old and young and there are plenty of superb spots to sledge in the Cairngorms. For instance, the Hayfield at Glenmore, Braemar Golf Course and Boat of Garten Golf Course. Similarly, taking a camera out in the snow with you and capturing those special, still shots is another wonderful way to make the most of your Cairngorm holiday. As well as the frosty scenes, the area provides stunning wildlife for budding photographers. Places like Boat of Garten’s Loch Garten and Loch Mallachie are particularly striking when snow-clad. The added bonus of Boat is that you can warm up with hot chocolate and cake in 1896 café & gallery afterwards, which is full of local artwork to inspire you in your photographic endeavours.