Hillend dry ski slope: The breeding ground of Olympic stars

Edinburgh may not be blessed with snowy mountains, but it has not stopped generations of athletes from getting to the top.

Saturday, 19th January 2019, 8:32 am
Updated Saturday, 19th January 2019, 9:23 am
Midlothian Council's vision for Hillend
Midlothian Council's vision for Hillend

And Midlothian Snowsports Centre has played a major role in helping to introduce snowsports to millions, honing their skills and giving them the best chance of reaching their potential.

The Hillend facility has been a jewel in the crown of British skiing and snowboarding for decades, creating a vibrant community with people travelling from all over the UK to test out Britain’s biggest artificial slope. Since opening in the 1960s, Hillend has been Edinburgh’s favourite carpet – offering a year-round training bases which is vital to an athlete’s development.

One of those to benefit is current head coach of the GB Snowsport snowboard freestyle team Hamish McKnight, who began snowboarding at Hillend around 1995.

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Zipline proposed for Midlothian Snowsports Centre

He told the Evening News: “I was part of a very close group of friends and an extended group of passionate local snowboarders who became known as the Lothian Snowboard Division.

“As a group we would meet up once or twice a week and set up jumps and rails on the slope for freestyle snowboarding.

“At this time the jump slope had now been built so our challenge was building or funding self made ramps and rails for everyone’s enjoyment.

“I owe a lot to the facility at Hillend and more importantly to the passionate group of friends without whom my opportunities could not have grown there. Recreational domestic skiing and snowboarding in the UK are obviously a long way away from the level required to compete or work as a coach internationally on snow but if being involved as a young person in freestyle or action sports of any kind teaches you anything, it’s self determination and the enjoyment that can be gained in accepting a personal challenge.

Double Olympian Murray Buchan is one of the many athletes to start off at Hillend

“In my experience, there is an extremely low chance of any young British person making it as a Olympic athlete in snowsports unless they have very regular and local access to a world class facility. That definition of world class facility must also keep up with the fast progression of the sport.”

Hillend has helped nurture a number of top athletes including former British number one downhill skier Finlay Mickel as well as freestyle skier Murray Buchan – who achieved the status of a double Olympian in Sochi 2014 and Pyeongchang last year.

However, those who have gone on to achieve in snowsports have been forced to vacate Hillend in recent years due to facilities “falling into disrepair”.

Many professional athletes deem Hillend in its current state as a missed opportunity, with many travelling to other centres such as Bearsden to continue their training.

Hamish McKnight - GB Snowsport snowboard freestyle head coach

There is hope that this will change following ambitious plans revealed this week to turn Hillend into one of Scotland’s leading leisure attractions.

Leisure chiefs at Midlothian Council are currently seeking feedback on proposals that include upgrading and extending the freestyle jump slope, introducing the UK’s highest zipline, an alpine rollercoaster ride, shops, hotel, food hall and glamping facilities.

Hamish, 36, who currently lives in Murrayfield with his wife and two sons, admits to not using Hillend for almost 20 years, but is optimistic for its future.

He said: “There are four distinct ‘generations’ of successful athletes who have started or grown up using Hillend as a freestyle facility. I was one of the first but certainly not on my own. There have been others since but unfortunately the freestyle ski and snowboard facilities in recent years have fallen into disrepair and I believe they have been out of use completely for some time.

Freestyle skier Anna Vincenti backs the new proposals from Midlothian Council

“I have only had a very quick look and from what I seethere is no doubt that significant investment is required to bring the facility up to date.”

His views have been echoed by 23-year-old freestyle skier Anna Vincenti, who began skiing at Hillend at the age of five.

She only just missed out on selection for the Sochi 2014 Olympics and then suffered a bitter blow last year when she was ruled out of the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang through injury.

She said: “I was at Hillend all the time growing up. It helped that I only lived 15 minutes away. There would be a group of us who would be up there most nights trying to push ­ourselves but also having a lot of fun.

“When I first went to Hillend it was buzzing with Team GB training there and it was ­fantastic to see and grow up in that environment. Now the facilities aren’t the best and more people travel to Bearsden, which is a real shame because I’ve had so much fun there. It’s like skiing on a carpet. It has huge potential.

“The new plans look great and it will definitely encourage people to go back there. I’m all for it.”

Skiers at Hillend Park when Edinburgh Corporation's artificial ski-slope opened in rainy conditions. Bill Pickering assists Morag Forsyth with her skis.

Councillors are likely to decide on the latest Destination Hillend plans some time in early spring with a planning application to follow, if given the go-ahead.

There’s no doubt that Hillend has helped put Edinburgh on the snowsports map. The new proposals may just make sure it is there for years to come.