Breaking Trail – In Conversation with Blair FyffeFrom The Field
An interview with Blair Fyffe on the freedom of ski touring, the science of avalanches, and staying safe in the backcountry.
Blair Fyffe grew up at the foot of the Cairngorms mountains in the Highlands of Scotland. He learnt to ski at a young age on the rather fickle Scottish snowpack, and has been climbing his whole life. After studying astrophysics at university, he went on to complete a PhD in dry snow slab avalanche modelling.
He has worked in a number of roles and locations, including twice overwintering in Antarctica, and is the co-author of Winter Climbs in the Cairngorms. These days, Blair is based on the west coast of Scotland, with the Glen Coe and Lochaber hills as his playground, where, during the winter months, he works as an avalanche forecaster and enjoys getting out skiing and climbing whenever possible. In November 2020 he was a guest at Patagonia’s Breaking Trail event with Leah Evans in a night of freeriding conversation. We caught up with him ahead of it to talk about his life growing up in the Highlands, his work, and how to prepare to get out in the backcountry this season.
Sidetracked: Can you tell us about your work and how you came to be in the field?
Blair: I have always been interested in the outdoors and more specifically in snow and avalanches. I grew up not far from Aviemore and spent a lot of time on the snow as a child. I also had an interest in science, specifically physics; snow and avalanche studies is a natural combination of these two interests.
After studying astrophysics, an opportunity to do a PhD in snow and avalanche came up at Edinburgh University. This involved some fieldwork and I spent a winter working at the SLF, the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos. The winter after completing my PhD in 2006, an opportunity came up in Lochaber to be a forecaster for the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS). Since then, during the winter months, I have forecasted for the avalanche service each winter in the hills of Lochaber and Glen Coe.
How did you learn about the Nevis range and local area you now live in when you first got here?
I certainly knew the Glen Coe and Lochaber hills from university climbing trips to the area. There is a lot of great winter climbing here, and I would travel up for climbing trips whenever possible. When I became a forecaster, I spent more time both working and playing in these hills, and got to know them even better. Living locally meant that even on the days when I was not actually on the hill, I still had a fair idea what was going on up there.
What were your initial interests in the outdoors when growing up?
I started taking part in mountain activities at a young age. My dad was a mountain guide who would take me out climbing, and my mum was a ski instructor, so she would take me skiing. When in high school I spent a lot of time skiing with the Cairngorm Ski Club, but climbing took over at university as it tended to be a bit cheaper – I didn’t need to buy a lift ticket! These days I would say I enjoy skiing and climbing equally, and the activity I do tends to depend on what the conditions are most suitable for.
With the Breaking Trail event (above), people will be listening in to get information on how to get out in the backcountry. Do you remember your first time in it?
This depends on what you mean by the backcountry. When I was young I would very much stick within the bounds of the ski area, but as I grew and gained experience I started to venture progressively further beyond. I’m not sure where you would draw the boundary between sidecountry and backcountry, but I do remember a feeling that the ski area felt restrictive. I just wanted to be able to explore and travel though the mountains beyond.
What feelings do you get from touring that you don’t get from other types of days on the hill?
The thing I like about touring is just how quickly and efficiently you can move through the mountains. Going by ski I find I can quickly and easily get into some wild and remote places. I love that feeling of being able to leave the crowds and queues of the ski area behind and just head off. The added bonus of getting some great skiing in – and ski slopes that have few or no tracks on them – is also pretty appealing.
So, how do you prepare for a day in the backcountry and what are the important items to take with you?
Preparing for a day in the backcountry starts well in advance. As the winter develops I pay close attention to where the snow is, how much there is, and how stable it is. Not only does a good understanding of the development of the snowpack help with my work, it allows me to make the most of my days off, because a good knowledge of conditions will help me choose what will be the best venues/options for either climbing or skiing. If I am going away to another area or country, I look online to try to see what is happening there on the lead up to my trip.
These days there is a plethora of up-to-date information on winter conditions on the internet: the blogs of mountain guides and instructors, webcams, mountain weather forecasts, automatic mountain weather stations, and of course avalanche forecasts. Avalanche forecasts and associated avalanche forecaster blogs are a great source of reliable information, and it is important to be able to understand these. By paying attention to all this information about snow, weather, and conditions in the days and weeks leading up to your trip, you should have a good idea in advance what you are likely to experience. Not only will this help you choose safe options, but also make the most of the conditions on the hill that day.
If you were speaking to someone wanting to get into the backcountry or more clued up on it, what advice would you have?
At first, take it easy. Go on short tours to get used to the equipment and how to use it properly. There are a lot of potential hazards on unmanaged terrain. Snow quality is likely to be more variable than on piste, and the avalanche hazard has to be managed. There is also the navigation side of it, especially if the cloud comes down; navigating in skis in winter is much harder than on foot in summer. Therefore introduce yourself gently with a few smaller tours on easy-angled terrain.
A great way to negotiate the learning curve in relative safety is to hire a guide for a few days, or book on a ski touring course or trip. Learning from a professional for a few days can save a lot of time and failed trips in the long run.
With travel restricted and the winter season ahead of us, what plans do you have in place to travel or explore your local area?
I tend to spend the winter months in Lochaber, but with climbing and skiing trips to other parts of the Highlands depending on conditions. In spring, I would normally get away for a ski touring trip – maybe a multi-day hut-to-hut trip in the alps, for day touring in Arctic Norway. This will depend on the COVID situation. However, there is plenty to do in this country. One of my most memorable days touring was in the Cairngorms a few years ago. On a beautiful warm and settled April day I did a circuit of the four 4,000-foot peaks in the Cairngorms: Cairn Gorm, Ben Macdui, Cairn Toul and Braeriach.
Blair Fyffe joined Leah Evans and friends for an evening of backcountry conversation – to discuss every angle of backcountry touring, from voicing the stoke to fighting for winter. You can watch the video of the event above or via vimeo.com/472616781
You can find Blair via his blog blairfyffe.blogspot.com. Interview by Hannah Bailey.