Not quite the Whistler Dave Murray downhill course

The Team February 16th, 2010

Hillend may not be on the same level as the Dave Murray Olympic downhill course of Whistler, but it is Europe’s longest and most challenging artificial ski slope. Located on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Hillend is home to just as many memories as the Olympic downhill course so when the Scotsman newspaper announced last week that Hillend is facing possible closure within weeks under a major cost-cutting drive by its local authority owners, we and some previous GB Olympic stars were immediately reminiscing on past times. 

Martin Bell: Ex British ski team member & Olympian

Martin Bell - ex Olympian

Martin Bell – ex Olympian

“I remember going to the Thursday night race training sessions, and stopping for a haggis supper in Corstorphine on the way home. There were many mass start “Chinese downhill” races “around the bend”, cutting the corner over the wet grass.

We must have done thousands of “short swings”, always with Hans Kuwall shouting at us to do more. In the winter we would ski Thursdays on plastic and weekends on snow (up North), so we had to adjust to different surfaces every week, which was great practice for becoming a better skier.

I remember many races, Davee Mercer (ex-British ski team member and Olympian) had some padded jeans made (flared jeans were the only “cool” attire for skiing at Hillend in the late 70s) so I had to ask my mum to make some for me too – I must have been about 12 at the time.

In the summer we would have week-long camps where we also did fitness training (Hans yelling “twenty laps to the sheep sh*t and back” and huge games of “football” on the grassy sloping area outside the cafeteria (where the terrain park is now).

I learned to grass ski at Hillend, by riding up the chairlift and grass skiing down the graded trails to the looker’s left (now converted into plastic ski runs). In the 70s, grass skiing was cool and hundreds of people would come to the race events, camping for the weekend and racing in cut-off denim shorts. Grass skis were available for rent at the slope, so anyone could (and did) try it.

For my brother (Graham Bell) and me, Hillend was a huge part of our life, and did more than any other venue to mould us into the World Cup ski racers that we would later become.”

 Nick Laver: Ski Independence Product Manager

“I first went to Hillend in 1970 when I was eight years old – my mum packed us off to a 5 Day Learn-to-Ski summer school. I remember we had to use rubbish leather boots with metal clips and cable bindings on huge straight skis and side-step up the nursery slope under the tutelage of the legendary Pat Findlater. I was hooked after the first day, and I can still remember my first ever ski run from the top of the nursery slope. We had a few more lessons and then we were let loose.

Grass Skiing

Grass Skiing. Photo thanks to Natives.

We used to go a lot as kids and at one point I had a season pass for Hillend. Sad, but true. All we wanted to do was go fast. There used to be a massive block of wax at the chairlift mid-station that you walked your skis over to make them go faster. When it was raining they went nitro-fast. My brother still has 3 parallel scars down his chin gained from a nitro-fast run which went pear-shaped.

I remember when the dog-leg run from the top opened – it had rollers on it designed to flip you off the track and ensure you skied grass at least once a day. There also used to be a ‘mogul’ slope on the left hand poma slope which was a hilariously awful feature. The matting eventually got eroded off the top of the bumps and you skied on the metal. Nice!

They used to cut the grass from the top of chairlift to create a grass-ski track – I still have a pair of Rolka Grass Skis in my garage which I sometimes scare my kids with… We used to concoct our own lubricants from fairy liquid and cooking oil to make them run faster. Seriously scary stuff – I remember seeing someone go through the fence at the bottom once. Nae skidding on grass skis, just carving. The grass burns were horrendous. No helmets or pads, just jeans and T-shirt…

Grass skiing is now gone from Hillend sadly, but it now has some seriously good facilities including a great jump slope and a proper café. I still practice my skiing through the summer at Hillend with the kids. I’d be really, really sad to see it close. It’s a Scottish ski institution.”

Finlay Mickel: Ex British ski team member & Olympian

Finlay Mickel's first time on Hillend 1979. 2years old.

Finlay Mickel’s first time on Hillend 1979. 2years old.

“I remember the first time I visited Hillend was in 1979 when I was 2 years old and from then I couldn’t wait to start to ski with the big boys. I became a regular attendee of the Thursday night race nights from the age of 7 and from then developed my love for the sport. I have many great memories of skiing at Hillend, fondest of which was only this winter when my two year old son, Jenson, had his first taste of Scottish snow.

The future of Hillend is critical for the future of Scottish skiing. 10 Olympians have started their careers at Hillend including Graham & Martin Bell and this year’s Olympic hope Andy Noble  and with any luck there will be more in the future. I am going to be returning to Hillend on Thursdays, this time to coach rather than being on the receiving end.

Hillend is a landmark in Edinburgh and we need to try our hardest not to let it disappear.”

Finlay has recently made his own YouTube video paying tribute to Hillend. View the video here.

Andy Plews: Ski Independence Reservations Consultant

“My first experience of Hillend was when I was 6 when I went to lessons to get better for an up and coming ski holiday. I absolutely loved it and went every Thursday evening and Sunday morning for race training after that. We would race down the top run called the “Face” through around 20 slalom gates. There were always crazy ideas amongst the kids on methods of going faster and what to put on the base of your skis. Mr Sheen table polish seemed to be the lubricant of choice and as you rode the chair lift to the top on a race day a cloud of the stuff used to waft into you as you passed over the waiting racers.

Hillend Ski Slope - Edinburgh

Hillend Ski Slope – Edinburgh

I loved the old “elbow run” which they took away unfortunately as it was only a few meters wide and had huge camel bumps in it meaning if you got it wrong over a jump you were double ejecting out the bindings on the grass and propelled head first into a Gorse bush – a truly unique skiing experience!

The old poma button lift was equally as much fun. Half way up before it got steeper it seemed to stop then suddenly with a violent jerk propels you in the air. If you were expecting it you could get some proper height but if it was your first time you could easily end up with whiplash or get thrown into a hedge.

There used to be a café and pub at the base area that served hot chips and sausage rolls and it was a real social gathering for kids and parents alike, I have so many good memories of Hillend. It is an ideal place to learn to ski and if you can ski on Nylon brush then snow will seem a doddle. Hillend was the place that got me started loving skiing.

It would be a tragedy if it was to close, Scottish skiing would not be the same and I can’t imagine not seeing that big white stripe on the side of the Pentlands.”


What’re your memories from Hillend? It would be great to share them below to help show how important Hillend is.

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    4 Responses to “Not quite the Whistler Dave Murray downhill course”

    1. Nick says:

      I spent many a happy childhood day bombing down the slope at Hillend, hurtling down the notorious elbow, flying through the air and screaming through the middle of slowly-winding snowplough classes making their way down. (The instructors never were very happy with that sort of behaviour, can’t really say I blame them.) My father’s accountant wasn’t best pleased on another occasion when I lost control, careered into him and took him tumbling into the gorse.

      Like many other people I learnt to ski firstly on the nursery slope then gradually made my way up to the middle of the main slope, then the top of the second slope. We often looked up at the very top, never quite believing we’d be able to make it down from there. Fast-forward a year or so and I remember very clearly the adrenaline that starting coursing through my veins the moment the chairlift carried me and my best friend past the point-of-no-return and on to the very top of the main slope: we were going for it! I slid off the chair, shaking nervously, and looked down, neither believing the height we were at nor the steepness of the slope. Eventually we summoned up the courage to point our skis forward and set off. The run down passed in a blur of nervous excitement, occasional panic and complete exhilaration and when I reached the bottom in one piece the feeling of satisfaction was enormous. Needless to say we rushed straight back to the chairlift for a second go!

    2. The Team says:

      Thanks Nick for your stories. Plucking up the courage to do “the big one” seems to be a common one!

      As a team we’ve had great times at Hillend whether it is showing our North American counterparts how we ski in this country or staff nights out including a summer evening in 09 (believe it or not when you look at the photos) of fancy dress & ski races. We hope it doesn’t close so that many more fun nights can be had! View the photos here

    3. Stuart Vallance says:

      I have many fond memories of Hillend.

      Born & raised in Canada to Scottish parents from Edinburgh, I learned to ski at age 7. Sent to a boarding school in Perthshire called Rannoch in 1972, Skiing was one of several sports I took to wholeheartedly whilst being schooled in the Highlands. The British Schools Ski Championship which took place at Hillend a week before Christmas was a highlight of the Winter Term for those of us at Rannoch who were Ski enthusiasts.

      It’s fair to say that myself, and my fellow team mates were not bad skiers in our own right, but we were none the match to the mite of those from the Edinburgh schools such as The Royal High School, George Heriots, & Edinburgh Academy. Names such as Stuart Fitzsimmons & Ross Blyth come to mind (to name two of many). In fact I clearly recall (whilst in my first year of University in Montreal), watching the Mens Downhill from Lake Placid in the 1980 Olympics. Canadian TV (CTV) showed all the competitors, and as Ross Blyth, & one or two fellow GB competitors come down the course, I rememember saying to myself ” cor I’ve raced against those blokes”!! In truth I was at the back of the pack at Hillend & at the Scottish Schools Championships at Glenshee or Aviemore, and these boys were at the front, but there we are!!

      As I rode the lifts at Hillend, I can recall looking down the hill at the Golfers playing on the adjacent Lothianburn Golf Club, and thinking how unique this was compared to Canada. Golf (another favourite sport of mine) was a summer game, and there would be no chance of participating in the two activities on the same day (unless one lived in British Cloumbia) back in Canada!

      I am quite astonished & gobsmacked that the Ediburgh Corporation are considering closing Hillend. They are spending a fortune in developing the tram system, a very unpopular project with locals, and indeed I have not met a single Edinburgh resident that is in favour of the said project.

      Many of us will have enjoyed watching the games from Vancouver throughout the past fortnight. Perhaps if Hillend is kept open, GB & I might very well produce more medals in future winter games than the one which Amy Bell brought home in 2010′!!!!

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