Destination Tahoe: A journey begins

Every journey begins with the first step they say, tonight the first steps were along a windswept River Ness in driving cold sleety rain to catch the late ScotRail train through to Aberdeen.

River Ness on a wild wet night

River Ness on a wild wet night

At a wholly unholy hour on Thursday morning the next hop of the Journey from Aberdeen to London Heathrow will take me South (providing snow doesn’t close Aberdeen Airport…) to join a Virgin Atlantic flight to San Francisco. An hour or so into the Transatlantic flight one can expect to hear the captain say ‘if you look out the left windows you’ll see Loch Ness, the right windows the Cairngorms…..’ Ever get the feeling your going round in circles! ;)

Trains waiting to depart a wet Inverness Station

Trains waiting to depart a wet Inverness Station

It’s just gone half eleven at night, we’re chugging through the Northfield area of Aberdeen. Time to log off, but hopefully lots of posts over the next two weeks. Big storms forecast for Tahoe, perhaps I need wider skis, but for now Goodnight.

Glencoe is go.

Glencoe is now open for the 2010 season with the first tracks getting laid down in 6 inches of fresh that fell over the weekend under perfect bluebird conditions. A day some doubters kept saying could never come has arrived, Scotland has a full house of ski areas open and what’s more it’s been achieved before Hogmanay, that in itself is something quite special as it’s more often or not into January before the West Coast can get up and running.

Glenshee Q&A

On Saturday 30th May with a perfect blue sky around 20 people gathered at Glenshee Ski Centre from 10am for a guided walk about with Dr Adam Watson. A selection of photos from the day have been put up in the Pix from the Slopes, as well as a number of photos/links and discussion about the day in the forum.

Gathering at the Cafe

Gathering at the Cafe

To start the day off prior to heading up the Cairnwell Chairlift and onwards to the Summit, Dr Adam Watson explained the proposed itinerary for the day over morning coffee, while Iain Cameron (Firefly) explained his idea behind the meeting, partly as a thank you to those who have contributed to snow patch monitoring in recent seasons through filling reports and photos on Winterhighland over the summer months.

As part of the day Adam Watson then introduced Willie Meston a manager at Glenshee who spoke about the company, Glenshee Ski Area and the season just past, there was then a question and answer session about Glenshee. Some of the questions were from recurring themes on the Winterhighland Forum and some of these were answered by the A4 handouts from Willie Meston.

Willie Meston gave a brief presentation on snow management at Glenshee, the principle method being the snow fencing, then grooming and snow farming with the Piste Bashers and finally the limited snow making capability that is primarily used on the Claybokie run.

Key points from this:

  • Snow fence management and repair is a major undertaking, Glenshee are currently replacing between 1000 and 2000m of snow fencing per year.
  • 1km of snow fencing was replaced on Glas Maol in summer 2008 including extensive repairs to the fenced traverse from the top of the Poma out to Centre Gully.
  • Newest Piste Basher is a 10year old Kassbohrer.
  • Different wind directions favour different fence lines and parts of the Ski Area.

Existing snow making system:

  • Entirely manual system, staff have to be on site to start up and stop the system.
  • Constant adjustments needed as temperature, humidity and wind fluctuate. Staff need to keep a constant watch as a sudden change in temperature could result in the guns blowing out water and ruining the existing snow by turning it into sheet ice.
  • A small water storage pond between the foot of the Cairnwell T-bar and Claybokie Poma.
  • The six manual fan guns used on Claybokie have a start up wet bulb temperature of -3°c, but -5 or lower is better.
  • In clear settled weather conditions with light winds such as under high pressures temperature inversions can be an issue, temperatures down to double digits below 0°c in Braemar but above freezing on the mountain.
  • Requires significant electricity input and Glenshee has to generate own power. System for Claybokie consists of the fan guns which are rated 30kW each, a 150kW water pump and uses a 380kVA generator.
Snow Making on the Claybokie on 31st Dec 2008.

Snow Making on the Claybokie on 31st Dec 2008.

Why & how was the Tiger Tow Removed:

Tiger T-bar taken out of service for safety reasons due to steepness and difficulty of up-track, to many serious accidents with the situation described as almost an incident every time the tow was switched on.

Towers were dropped out of the ski season and when there was sufficient snow on the ground Piste Bashers went down the line and were used to remove the towers from the hill-side.

Is there any life expectancy issue with the Cairnwell lifts, esp. the Chairlift?

All the existing lifts remain serviceable, however (as has already happened with the Cairnwell and Carn Aosda T-bars where the old diesel drives have been replaced by electric drives) the remaining diesel drives could be replaced in future. Cairnwell Chairlift will under go a refurbishment if it is remaining in long term operation.

Will the Courrour Poma operate again?

Courrour Poma has not operated for 8 years and it is unlikely to operate again in it’s current location. Subject to funds being available it could be moved to a more useful location, potentially to double up Butchart’s (T-bar or Poma). Decommissioned lifts being used as spares. Some newer poma tower work platforms have been removed and placed on older towers to make work on the lifts easier.

State of play with Meall Odhar T-bar and Pomas

Meall Odhar T-bar and Caenlochan Poma

Meall Odhar T-bar and Caenlochan Poma

Issue raised about redundancy and capacity issues as this has been a bottleneck in recent seasons.

Willie stated that the Meall Odhar T-bar would be serviced and that lack of time/resources meant it had not been possible to get round to it prior to the arrival of snow last season. Plans for future refurbishment of the T-bar with a new electric drive to replace the old diesel drive with external gear box – as with Butchart’s T-bar, more efficient, easier to maintain, more reliable and less diesel storage sites to maintain with electric drives. T-bar generally would be used as back up and for extra capacity at peak times as boarders prefer easier access over the back from the Caenlochan.

Also mentioned with regard stoppages that the Caenlochan line was considerably more exposed than the other two lifts.

Mention that Meall Odhar and Butchart’s T-bars could receive ‘redundant’ electric drive stations from CML.

Reliance of Surface Uplift for access to Glas Maol and Fionn Coire

The discussion over lifts on Meall Odhar brought the discussion onto the subject of the problem of not being able to access the reliable snow fields and runs in Coire Fionn due to runs/uptracks on the way over being incomplete.

Glenshee have a proposal for a Meall Odhar Chairlift to replace the Meall Odhar Poma on a slightly different alignment to the poma. Would need further good seasons to have funds to install such a lift.

Devil’s Elbow and/or Centre Gully Access Lift?

In the 1980s a detailed proposal was worked up for the installation of an access Chairlift from the Devils Elbow to the foot of the Meall Odhar T-bar. This would have addressed the access problem from the South where the road is more prone to closure in snowy weather than the road from the North.

Company concerned about extent to which such a plan would divide the Ski Area base facilities, without adequately dealing with the Glas Maol access issue. Meall Odhar or Coire Fionn could still be broken, while Glas Maol skiable, but still not accessible.

Late 80’s into the 90’s idea surfaced for an alternative Northern approach for a low level access lift, from the North side of the Ski Area. A new chairlift would head from the A93 up Centre Gully to the foot of the Glas Maol and Coire Fionn Pomas providing access to both without relying on either being complete. This remains a potential long term objective and is considered the best solution to the issue of reliable access to Glas Maol, but leaves open the companies concerns about splitting the base facilities.

Glas Maol Summit from A93

Glas Maol Summit from A93. Chairlift would largely be out of sight in Centre Gully.

Alternative lower cost solution to improving Access to Coire Fionn

All potential solutions have the issue of funding. An alternative approach is to extend the Sunnyside Chairlift towards the Meall Odhar Cafe, providing an easier interchange with a Meall Odhar Chairlift. This would would enable access to Coire Fionn regardless of snow conditions on Sunnyside, Cluny/Tom Dearg and Meall Odhar. However Glas Maol could still be inaccessible in this scenario.


Donald Morris brought up the subject of signage along with with the Gaelic bi-lingual signs which were put up this season just past. As a result of increased holiday visitors rather than local day trippers this season, navigation around the Ski Area has been an issue and new piste direction signage and extra instruction signs on correct use of the T-bars is planned.

Summer Activities, Mountain Biking?

Cafe at the road side is open daily following the refurbishment prior to last season. Cairnwell Chairlift will operate daily during the summer from Mid June this year.

Glenshee plan to use the Chairlift for downhill mountain biking using the existing estate landrover tracks on the Cairnwell side. Plans to add features to the sides of the track to enable the track to still be used, this means riders can easily avoid any feature without dismounting.

Other Plans / Issues for Glenshee?

Adam Watson mentioned the issue of Glenshee suffering in terms of funding support due to being the only Scottish Ski Area wholly outside of the HIE area. This contrasts to the situation at CairnGorm and Nevis Range and to a lesser extent at Glencoe and the Lecht where HIE has funded or contributed to funding of infrastructural improvements.

Willie Meston stated that another small lift that is a high priority is to install a short Chairlift between the Ticket Office building and the Cairnwell Cafe. This would make a huge difference to visitation in limited snow cover, as numbers drop dramatically if people have to walk to the Cafe. This is esp true when skiing is on machine made snow on Claybokie. Increased ski numbers in such situations would allow increased use of snow making and in good conditions remove the bottle neck at the Plastic Slope Poma.

The chairlift is currently sitting at the end of the Car Park adjacent to the Dink Dink Poma. There is not a current costing for it’s installation, though this is being looked at. New rules on installations (EU Cableways Directive etc) mean increased costs to bring lift up to scratch.

For other potential lift projects, Willie Meston mentioned the extent of availability of second hand lifts that are relatively modern at low cost if they can be transported from mainland Europe due to many French resorts replacing uplift on a 15year cycle.

Cairnwell Chairlift

Cairnwell Chairlift

Discussions were wrapped up with Iain Cameron and Dr Adam Watson leading the thank you to Willie Meston for his time and for allowing use of the Chairlift. The group then headed up the Cairnwell Chairlift before walking to the Summit where the fantastic visibility gave excellent views in every direction. Adam and Iain are preparing a full account of the walk about and afternoon discussions and site visits in Glen Clunie which will be made available in due course.

On behalf of all participants may I once again thank Glenshee for hosting the day, Iain Cameron for setting the ball in motion and organising the day and Adam Watson for a fascinating and informative day.

Kirkwood goes off the scale

Wed 4th March.

Forty Eight inches (four feet!) of light powder fell at Kirkwood overnight Tuesday into Wednesday. The shuttle bus was delayed leaving South Lake, but when we left Highway 88 was open to Kirkwood and epic day awaited. But as we headed out of town an avalanche hit the Carson Pass closing Highway 88. At one point CalTrans estimated a 2pm opening, so the bus prepared to turn around, just then a police car drove past and opened the snow gates! No-one got into Kirkwood till lunchtime apart from 50 lucky so and so’s who were staying up there, so after a frustrating wait staring at snow gates that only added to the anticipation, Kirkwood more than lived up to it’s claim of America’s Deepest Snow. It was simply off the scale….

When the Cornice Express opened giving top to bottom riding it was simply mind blowing, face shots with every turn, even lower down where they piste bashers had been ! Powder, machine packed powder, on the trails, in the bowls, in the trees, the sheer amount of snow that fell overnight is simply mind boggling. The pics speak for themselves, except that they just can’t portray just how deep the powder was!

Road to the Sky & Snow…

Taking advantage of the time difference between Scotland and California for an early morning start on Saturday, getting up at 4.45am and trundling all the luggage across the street from the Millbrae Travelodge near SF International Airport and jumping on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit System) at 5.45am.


Traversed across the full length of the BART Network from Millbrae in the South to Richmond in the NE to join the Amtrak Capital Corridor’s service to Sacramento the state Capitol and their onwards coach link to South Lake Tahoe. The BART is a whole lot more luggage friendly than the tube and a couple of lifts down then up is all thats needed to transfer from BART to Amtrak at Richmond Interchange. A stress free and cheap way to make the trip, like a 1/5th of the cost of an flying to Reno and the somewhat optimistically  named Reno Tahoe airport, it’s a good 90mins by bus back West on Highway 50, thus little benefit for the hugely more expensive air fare.


Track works before Sacramento though meant only a short 30min trip on the double decker Amtrak train, just enough time to scoff a hot dog and breakfast baggle for breakie, very American, before decanting to a train replacement bus to Sacramento. So it’s not just ScotRail !


Sacramento Valley Station is like something right out of the Wild West, an old red brick station, who’s main concourse resembles a church with long solid wooden pews !


From there it was back on another bus, the Amtrak link to South Lake Tahoe over the Echo Summit on Highway 50, soon after Placerville the first remnants of old drifts at the side of the road from previous winter storms that brought lower level snow. From Placerville Highway 50 starts to really climb, the freeway soon gives way to a narrower road, a mix of dual carriageway, single carriageway and long crawler lanes. We’re climbing to the Twin Bridges before Echo Summit as I type this, the road winding and twisting its way skywards and to the main winter snowline.


Sunny under part cloudy skies, but you can tell from the increasing high level cloud that weather is moving in. Snow expected to reach this evening or overnight, another 15 to 20inches of fresh forecast for Kirkwood through Sunday. However rather high snow levels in the warm sector, down at lake level in South Lake at a mere 6200ft, the forecast is Heavy Rain… Is that sun I saw on the CairnGorm webcams in the afternoon !!

Getting Close To Tahoe (2.30pm PST)

Shortly after Echo Summit Highway 50 starts to descend towards the Tahoe Basin, however it doesn’t so much descend as plunge precariously! This is the point for those who aren’t the best with heights to close their eyes and pray (though preferably not if driving). Photos can never do this section of road justice for it’s sheer exposure. For all effective purposes the mountain ends, a thousand feet below your right tyres Highway 89 winds through the woodland on the way to Kirkwood.






Road Trip…

Well OK not much of a Road Trip yet, more of a frustrating crawl along the A96 towards Aberdeen. However it does mark the first stage of the journey…

This time tomorrow (Friday 27th) it should be fasten seat belts time for the final approach to San Francisco International Airport. The observant amongst you will have spotted the return of the  ‘Return to Kirkwood’ Graphic on the General Situation. It’s just minutes away from hitting 0 days to go…

During the 2005 and 2006 Seasons much of Winterhighland was run from 8 time zones away from a base 7800ft up in the Serria Nevada mountains at Kirkwood Mountain, with some assistance from closer to home with the reports and pix.

Armed with camera and shinny new netbook, I’ll try and post regular blogs and a few pics from the trip. The base will be South Lake Tahoe CA, taking in Kirkwood, Heavenly, Squaw Valley, Homewood and perhaps somewhere else, of course it’s weather dependent. Another 15inches of snow is due to hit Kirkwood Saturday.

Oh and yea, it just had to be done, a Big Mac in Mcdonalds at Elgin to get in the mood !! ;)

Location: Under a railway bridge in Aberdeen freeloading on some wifi.

Mood: Excited! :D

Ten is the number

Ten Days… Ten Feet of Powder… Ten Days To Go till Return to Kirkwood!

Take all the best things of Scotland’s snowsport areas, the lift served off-piste of the Back Corries at Nevis, the cliff strewn, gully lined playground of Glencoe, the massive bowl like expanse of Coire Fionn, the steeps of the East and West Walls, natural gullies like Ciste, and like the Lecht and top of CairnGorm some of the best learning terrain around, oh and the rocks and snow fencing, throw in some trees and dump it on a 10,000ft mountain in California, add a T-bar to confuse the locals and you have Kirkwood!

Having come across numerous Scottish Skiers and Winterhighlander’s, during 2005 and 2006, one Glencoe regular put it like this “It’s like Meall a’ Bhuiridh on steroids with some trees thrown in”. Despite it being small in area in Alpine terms, there’s not a lot Kirkwood doesn’t have and it’s got something just a little bit special, a little bit wild and little bit different. Like Scotland, don’t expect the locals to run and hide when the sun goes in. Here a storm day = a powder day. A blizzard = a bigger powder day and a howling gale  = a powder day with fresh tracks every run!