man with skis attached to pack is on knee and hands as he, smiling big, climbs over the top ledge of a snowy mountain
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Chairlift Chats With… Blair Aitken

In the fourth of this series of interviews, Iain Martin, presenter of The Ski Podcast, chats with expert British backcountry instructor, Blair Aitken 

Blair is a former Alpine national ski champion who’s been backcountry skiing in Scotland since the mid-90s. He’s been promoting ski touring among British skiers since 2015 and the courses offered through his business British Backcountry book months in advance.

Let’s start by taking it back a bit…

Iain Martin: Racing was a big part of your early skiing career. I think you were on the Scottish team?

Blair Aitken: Yes, I skied for the Scottish team for six years, training on Cairngorm every weekend, before moving to Canada where I raced on the North America FIS circuit. I first started racing at Hillend in Edinburgh. My parents would drop me off there most nights. I remember watching Dave Ryding race there, it was unbelievable – I’ve never seen somebody generate so much speed out of a dry ski slope.

Who were your contemporaries in racing around that time?

I trained with Noel Baxter, and I was always looking up to his brother Alain. There was Finlay Mickel, Emma Carrick Anderson and Chemmy Alcott too. There were some very talented athletes from Aviemore. I think Aviemore has the highest number of Olympians per head for any town in the UK.

You ended up moving to the Alps?

Yes, I had a friend called Alistair Rainback who started up New Generation Ski School along with three other BASI instructors. Ali was keen for me to work for him, and I was offered the opportunity to restart the New Generation operation in Val d’Isère. I raced through my BASI, got my ‘carte professional’, and then spent 10 years out there.

I did most of my alpine ski touring there. We would often get up really early, sometimes even 3am. I remember walking through Val d’Isère with my skis on my shoulder and everyone spilling out of the nightclubs, them all saying, “You’re not going to be able to go skiing mate, all the lifts are shut!”

the shadow line running along a high Scottish mountain, a skier silhouetted stands over the sunny side, about to ski a steep

You came back to the UK to raise your family and was that when you started ski touring in Scotland?

I started ski touring in Scotland prior to the Alps, but when I returned I started looking at gully skiing. It was quite close to the sort of skiing I was doing in the Alps. It was also a way of developing my mountaineering skills. I became more proficient in using an ice axe and crampons, as well as improving my rope work. Scotland is a fantastic place for developing these skills.

After starting British Backcountry I realised the limitations of my BASI European Mountain Security award, and completed both the Winter Mountain Leader and the Mountain Snowsports Leader Awards.

What kind of courses do you offer at British Backcountry?

We started off with single-day courses – in Scotland you can so easily lose days to the weather, so my thinking was it’s better to have one day at a time and be flexible. But now we offer two-day courses, which are working really well, and we ran our first five-day course in February. We also offer skills courses covering: Avalanche Avoidance and Navigation; Steeps and Gully Skiing; and Ski Mountaineering Skills.

You’ve mentioned before that you’re finding more of your clients coming to Scotland on the Caledonian sleeper train?

Yes, it’s been fantastic this year to see so many people doing that. They take the overnight train, arrive Saturday morning and go straight onto the hill. They do it for convenience, whilst others do it because they don’t want to fly or drive.

a book cover, picturing a skier skiing away down a Scottish slope

Your book Ski Touring the Northern Cairngorms sold out almost immediately. Will it be possible to buy a copy at some point?

A lot of people had been asking me to do something. Fortunately, I had lots of pictures from working in the area to cover every route and that helped make it possible.

I released it just before Christmas thinking that maybe I’d sell a couple of copies and the first 200 sold out in a day. I made another 800 available and they went within a few weeks.

I am now working on a guidebook covering the whole Cairngorms National park which should be available in the Autumn. 

Skiing in Scotland: The Ultimate Guide

To get started, click above for Welove2ski’s guide, or check out Scotland’s Best Backcountry Ski Spots on our sister site, Fall Line Skiing, for more Scotland skiing content (then search British Backcountry to go down a rabbit hole…).

The Ski Podcast is an award-winning podcast with over 200 episodes. You can listen to all episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you download your podcasts.

Listen to Iain’s full interview with Blair Aitken here:

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Katie Bamber

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