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
“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.
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
“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.
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.