Dyed in the Wool - Ski Mag

Dyed in the Wool

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Wool 1204

On the rocky hip of Loch Linnhe, four miles

from the North Sea, it's raining hard, a cold, sideways rain that runs in sheets down western Scotland's highland hills and tumbles across a strip of black pavement called the A82. Point of fact: The A82 is not so much a road as it is an exercise in engineering caprice. Along its hundred miles, its two lanes sometimes shrink to one, then grow to four, and then compromise at three. After a downpour, rogue waterfalls erupt in flumes that spill across the road and then mysteriously dry up as soon as the sun shines. Rainbows, even in winter, are common.

And at odd moments (like the one now), a white Volvo lorry lugging a mountain of timber will drift into my half-lane and bear down on me like doom. A stab at the clutch, a grab to my right (where, in the haze of jet lag, I'm sure there's a stick shift but instead find only an armrest), a lunge to my left, a yank on the right-justified steering wheel and...success. I avoid the oncoming truck by more than one full inch. I stop on the A82's muddy shoulder and discover I'm more angry at myself than at the hoggish trucker. After eight hours of travel, I have driven deep into the Scottish highlands expecting...what? Superhighways? EZ Passes? Luxury suites? It occurs to me as I get the car moving again: The road's ancient twists and turns have no interest in my chronic need to get places quickly.

My destination is Scotland's western flank, where skiing in the British Isles makes its unlikely home. I'm headed for the leftward coast of a country that is "spectacularly bleak," says the former secretary of the Scottish Ski Club, Beryl Austin. The misty route that zags northwest through 100 miles of moors, from Glasgow to Inverness, "is both gorgeous and hopeless." The same can be said about skiing in Scotland-half fool's errand, half journey back to the purest beginnings of the sport. Ungroomed trails and furrowed pistes are navigated by locals in houndstooth coats.Single-malt Scotch whiskey is considered an insulating layer.

On cue, Ben Nevis rises out of the mist. At over 4,400 feet, "the Ben" is the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom; but trite guidebook statistics don't do justice to the strangeness of the real thing. Up from the purple heather and the silvery larch and the bare lowlands, Ben Nevis looms suddenly, menacingly over the flats around it. The mountain is part of the ancient Caledonian range that once stretched from Scandinavia to the eastern edge of North America. It got its name from the Gaelic Beinn Neimheis, which is linked to words meaning "poisonous" or "terrible."

Right now, the Ben seems more lost than loathsome: a rotund, whitecapped visitor from the Alps who got off the train one stop too late. Speaking of lost, I'm not, but the signs along my route have become decidedly unfamiliar. What was once comfortably anglo-"Paisley," "Clydebank" and so forth-has given way to pure Gaelic-"Arrochar," "Meall á Bhuiridh" and "Ballachulish." It's as if I've driven into The Lord of the Rings.

"To get to Sgurr Finnisg-aig," says one hiking guidebook, "look up Aonach Mor. The path takes you across the saddle on up to the Sgurr and its uninterrupted views of the Great Glen and westward to the hills of Knoydart. Of course, dress appropriately, for the weather is often dreich."

The Gaelic word dreich, pronounced as a rude blend of "drab" and "ecch!" is exactly what it's like outside when, after two hours of driving, I finally arrive at a tiny, rambling inn called Old Pines, which faces Ben Nevis and its ski area, Aonach Mor. I've barely stepped out of my Vauxhall and into the drizzle when the Inn's owner, Bill Barber, shambles out to greet me, wearing khakis and a green polo shirt.

"Brilliant!" he says, issuing the first of many exclamations he'd make over the weekend. "You found us! Care for a bit of flatbread and a tea?"

What I'd really like is a stiff drink. But glad to be out of the car, I assento the offer of a bland cookie and step into the piney dimness of the inn's foyer.

Soon I'm before a crackling fire, ensconced in a deep couch and surrounded by dog-eared paperbacks of shady provenance. I can hear the rain landing softly on the roof. Granted, rain isn't what I want, having traveled thousands of miles to ski and explore, but rough weather is an authentic part of the Scottish landscape. Barber enters the sitting room and answers my silent question: "The rain down here in Spean Bridge often means snow up on the hill." Then he sets down a tray of mint tea and flatbread. Now I'm worried-will there be anybody skiing tomorrow? Anybody to talk to up there? "If the weather is horrible," he says with little irony, "there are sure to be Scottish people skiing."

Suddenly, Barber's words dull to a blur; maybe the flatbread has been drugged. Maybe my long trip has done to the cake what the rustic experience of hiking does to campfire food-making flapjacks taste like foie gras. Either way, the tiny cake is thrilling. Imagine a flaky, slightly bitter vanilla cookie with buttery undertones, whose tangy, darker notes are interrupted by the sweet crunching of sugar grains.

"My God," I interrupt him. "Who made this?"

"Ah." He smiles proudly. "Sukie." Bill's wife, Sukie, routinely spins out magic from a tiny back kitchen. She was named Rural Chef of the Year in 2003 by the Scottish Chef's Association; moving about in her expansive apron and laboring beneath a haircut that can only be described as abstract, Sukie Barber makes luminous meals.

Dinner tonight begins with home-smoked trout, followed by a fennel and leek soup, and features as its main course a roast strip loin of venison in a rust-brown, wild fungi sauce-with the emphasis on wild. "We pick them ourselves," says Barber of the mushrooms. "Sometimes we bring guests on the hunt. We have to be careful, though. We once lost somebody." I look alarmed. He shoots me a wry smile and amends his statement. "I mean, he got lost. He didn't pass away, mind you. We found him." Dessert includes a "Tayberry Trifle," accompanied by unpasteurized Wester Lawrenceton sweet milk cheese and organic Benbecula oatcakes. Sukie Barber to the FDA: Drop dead.

The next morning, after a breakfast of home-smoked sausages, fresh scrambled eggs and baked tomatoes, I'm off to Aonach Mor.

The ski area, like a lot of things in Scotland, was won in a fight. In the mid-1980s, the nearby town of Fort William, population 15,000, suffered with 70 percent male unemployment, mostly due to the downsizing of a local pulp mill. A local mountaineer, entrepreneur and Antarctic dogsled driver named Ian Sykes took it upon himself to transform the hill above town into a civic cash cow and petitioned the government in Edinburgh for development funds. After heavy pressure from Sykes, Edinburgh grudgingly told him they'd match what he could muster. So Sykes harangued local banks and raised more than a million dollars in less than two weeks. Which is when Edinburgh backed out of the deal. "I didn't care for that," Sykes tells me, his lips thinning, "not one bit."

Sykes-in true Scottish fashion-decided "to hell with them," raised more money (about $2 million in the end), put up some of his own funds and went ahead, ordering a million-dollar gondola from Austria. Eight months later, on December 19, 1989, Aonach Mor opened. According to Sykes, unlike most of the areas around Ben Nevis such as nearby Cairn Gorm and Aviemore, Aonach Mor has never lost money. They've averaged 2,000 tickets per winter day for the last 15 years. When I'd met him the night before, Sykes paused for a moment before the fire, a dram of Glencoe Scotch in his hand, his eyes distant. "Come to think of it," he finally said, "I'm pretty sure we never got official permission to open. I just went ahead and did it."

Now I'm riding up Sykes' gondola early on a Sunday. I can see split-rail chestnut fencing in rows up and down the hill, designed to provide windproof alleys where the constant highland breeze will die, leaving great drifts of snow in downy corridors. At the top, I realize I'm not really at the head of a trail but rather at the edge of a sheep's meadow that is tipped at a 15-degree angle. Should I be intimidated? By the sound of things, yes-I've just ascended Great Britain's highest peak on a chair called Braveheart, which is two chairs over from another lift, named after the infamous 17th-century war leader of the MacGregor clan, Rob Roy. He who hesitates here is lost. Or at least conquered, apparently.

Anyway, since I'm at the summit, I glide over to a disturbing sign depicting a falling and presumably soon-to-be-dead hiker in order to take a quick look at what is perhaps the area's biggest (and rarest) gem, the back corries. The corries form an open, spectacular bowl that's accessed by a cornice jump. It has been compared favorably to California's Squaw Valley for its steep, open descents. It's closed today, though, so I head down, on-piste, through dense spring crud that sits heavily on the hill, like icing. Making turns here is more of a series of leaps, up from the dense drifts and then down again.

"We like to call it 'porridge,'" says a ski patroller who gives his name as Angus. "Porridge is what you eat," he adds, smiling. Looking around me, I see he's right. Schoolchildren in jeans and self-described 20-something snow junkies are up from Glasgow for a last-moment fix, and many of them are laughing, face down, in various stages of yard sale. Hopping past them is an exhilarating act of defiance-triumphing over the elements. I'm starting to feel Scottish.

Pointers for skiing Aonach Mor: Don't stray too far from the fencing or you'll end up in uneven snow. There's no snowmaking, although two grooming machines make occasional rounds. Stephen Heath, a suspiciously mellow Scottish Rastafarian, describes skiing too far from the fencing as "hopping the heather." But the view is expansive: a long, uninterrupted shot of Highland fields that end against a rocky, alpine crag, exposing Ben Nevis' world-class climbing routes. And then, suddenly, clouds. Barber's forecast is right-snow begins to blanket the mountain.

After a morning on the hill, with moments of bright sunshine followed by total whiteouts, I begin to feel the need for a "wee dram," as they say, of the uisge beatha-the water of life. In other words, it's time for a scotch. As luck or providence would have it, down at the bottom of the hill sits one of Scotland's oldest licensed stills, the Ben Nevis Distillery, which opened in 1825. I'd been sent to the distillery by John Craig, who runs the ski shop at the top of Aonach Mor, and whose strong opinion is that single-malt scotch-which comes out of a single still in a single distillery, unlike blended whiskies that originate from many locations-is an ideal cold-weather drink. "Warms you from the inside," he says, "unlike any other."

Indeed it does. Inside Ben Nevis' distillery, one of more than 200 in Scotland, the copper stills are working their magic. Magic, because the four key ingredients of single-malt Scotch never change-water, barley, yeast and peat smoke, or "reek"-but the outcome can be as varied as the local weather. "Of these (ingredients) there can be no doubt that water is the foremost," John MacDonald, the distillery's founder, once wrote of Scotch's recipe. "On Ben Nevis I was fortunate to find a constant and consistent source of pure clean water in two small lochans." MacDonald wrote those words in 1827, but a sip today is as it was in the 19thcentury-both biting and soothing. After braving the cross-breezes and the pelting rain, I feel the Scotch sending warm waves up from my belly and into my memories of the morning.

And into my hopes for the night before me. A ceilidh (pronounced "kay-lee"), or dance, has been scheduled by the ski club to celebrate the end of the season. As Bill, Sukie and I enter, esigned to provide windproof alleys where the constant highland breeze will die, leaving great drifts of snow in downy corridors. At the top, I realize I'm not really at the head of a trail but rather at the edge of a sheep's meadow that is tipped at a 15-degree angle. Should I be intimidated? By the sound of things, yes-I've just ascended Great Britain's highest peak on a chair called Braveheart, which is two chairs over from another lift, named after the infamous 17th-century war leader of the MacGregor clan, Rob Roy. He who hesitates here is lost. Or at least conquered, apparently.

Anyway, since I'm at the summit, I glide over to a disturbing sign depicting a falling and presumably soon-to-be-dead hiker in order to take a quick look at what is perhaps the area's biggest (and rarest) gem, the back corries. The corries form an open, spectacular bowl that's accessed by a cornice jump. It has been compared favorably to California's Squaw Valley for its steep, open descents. It's closed today, though, so I head down, on-piste, through dense spring crud that sits heavily on the hill, like icing. Making turns here is more of a series of leaps, up from the dense drifts and then down again.

"We like to call it 'porridge,'" says a ski patroller who gives his name as Angus. "Porridge is what you eat," he adds, smiling. Looking around me, I see he's right. Schoolchildren in jeans and self-described 20-something snow junkies are up from Glasgow for a last-moment fix, and many of them are laughing, face down, in various stages of yard sale. Hopping past them is an exhilarating act of defiance-triumphing over the elements. I'm starting to feel Scottish.

Pointers for skiing Aonach Mor: Don't stray too far from the fencing or you'll end up in uneven snow. There's no snowmaking, although two grooming machines make occasional rounds. Stephen Heath, a suspiciously mellow Scottish Rastafarian, describes skiing too far from the fencing as "hopping the heather." But the view is expansive: a long, uninterrupted shot of Highland fields that end against a rocky, alpine crag, exposing Ben Nevis' world-class climbing routes. And then, suddenly, clouds. Barber's forecast is right-snow begins to blanket the mountain.

After a morning on the hill, with moments of bright sunshine followed by total whiteouts, I begin to feel the need for a "wee dram," as they say, of the uisge beatha-the water of life. In other words, it's time for a scotch. As luck or providence would have it, down at the bottom of the hill sits one of Scotland's oldest licensed stills, the Ben Nevis Distillery, which opened in 1825. I'd been sent to the distillery by John Craig, who runs the ski shop at the top of Aonach Mor, and whose strong opinion is that single-malt scotch-which comes out of a single still in a single distillery, unlike blended whiskies that originate from many locations-is an ideal cold-weather drink. "Warms you from the inside," he says, "unlike any other."

Indeed it does. Inside Ben Nevis' distillery, one of more than 200 in Scotland, the copper stills are working their magic. Magic, because the four key ingredients of single-malt Scotch never change-water, barley, yeast and peat smoke, or "reek"-but the outcome can be as varied as the local weather. "Of these (ingredients) there can be no doubt that water is the foremost," John MacDonald, the distillery's founder, once wrote of Scotch's recipe. "On Ben Nevis I was fortunate to find a constant and consistent source of pure clean water in two small lochans." MacDonald wrote those words in 1827, but a sip today is as it was in the 19thcentury-both biting and soothing. After braving the cross-breezes and the pelting rain, I feel the Scotch sending warm waves up from my belly and into my memories of the morning.

And into my hopes for the night before me. A ceilidh (pronounced "kay-lee"), or dance, has been scheduled by the ski club to celebrate the end of the season. As Bill, Sukie and I enter, we can hear strains of Strip the Willow, an ancient square dance, through the old grange's thick walls. Inside, the club's dowager queen, Beryl Austin, observes the whirling proceedings with gleaming eyes. "I am a Scot," she says. "A serious Scot. And a Scot skis."

er, we can hear strains of Strip the Willow, an ancient square dance, through the old grange's thick walls. Inside, the club's dowager queen, Beryl Austin, observes the whirling proceedings with gleaming eyes. "I am a Scot," she says. "A serious Scot. And a Scot skis."

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