Trouble in the Chamonix of Scotland
IT was to be Scotland’s answer to the Alpine glamour of the likes of Val d’Isère and Chamonix. And for a while Cairngorm’s ski slopes and the small Speyside town of Aviemore were indeed the jewel in the crown of the nation’s snow sports.
For hardy Scots skiers keen to feel the mountain breeze – even if it did sometimes result in being blown off course by gale-force winds or skiing blind through pea-soup fog – all roads led north on the A9 to Aviemore.
Convoys of weekend skiers climbed the winding road through Rothiemurchus estate and past Loch Morlich; skis hired or serviced at the bustling Ski Shack in the town centre were strapped to roof racks and an après ski session planned for the Cairngorm Hotel, Skiing Doo or the Red McGregor.
They found runs capable to challenge experts and, in the Ptarmigan Bowl, a wide basin of soft snow and gentle slopes which, thanks to the introduction of the funicular railway in 2002, meant beginners could find their ski legs while savouring the postcard scenery of the glen below.
Today, however, storm clouds are gathering over the mountain. Businesses and locals who rely on it for their livelihoods are asking serious questions over how the snow sport centre is operated and its ability to continue to attract winter tourists.
Concern had been already mounting over a slump in visitor numbers which had seen the resort slip behind its rivals.
A controversial decision last year to dismantle the mothballed Coire na Ciste and West Wall chairlifts enraged enthusiasts who had already expressed doubts over investment plans by owner Highlands and Island Enterprise and operator Natural Retreats
Now technical problems affecting the funicular – the only route up for non-skiers and beginners – mean it is almost certain not to run this winter.
For experienced skiers and snowboarders, it means they are likely to face long queues for the T-bar and poma tows. It’s even bleaker for beginners, who will be left kicking their boots on lower slopes prone to poor snow cover, hoping new snow-making equipment can help.
It’s understood a routine inspection revealed issues with
floating bearings on the track which help it cope with extreme temperatures. However, engineers have now been brought in to inspect the railway’s foundations.
With the engineers’ report not due until early next month and the bitter winter weather expected to curb any repair programme, Natural Retreats marked the day of the first snowfall to deliver bombshell news to more than 50 ski school workers that their services would not be required.
They join staff at the Ptarmigan Restaurant at the top of the funicular who, with no railway to bring tourists, had already been told to stand down at least until the winter season kicks in. That has fuelled concerns over the operator’s commitment to the resort and prompted campaigners to press ahead with plans for a community buyout, to develop their own vision for its future.
All of this is cold comfort for local businesses facing the prospect of a bleak winter.
Naeela Shahzad of Aviemore Convenience Store on Grampian Road said: “If you don’t get tourists up in numbers, then you’re in trouble.
“It’s not just skiers who use the funicular railway, some people just go up for the view. They take the funicular railway, look around and then spend time in Aviemore.”
The Ski Shack, already one of Aviemore’s most familiar names in snowsports, has closed, citing the “situation on Cairngorm” for its demise.
Meanwhile, Colin Little, manager of Mambo’s Café Bar in the town centre, said concern has been fuelled by confusion. “No-one seems to know what’s going on. There’s a lot of concern that it will be a difficult season,” he said. “There will be tows and uplift available so we’re all trying to stay positive.”
According to local MSP Kate Forbes, the situation gripping the resort is “potentially devastating”.
“The impact of this throughout the local economy is significant. It’s snow sports that brings people to Aviemore in the winter. There’s no question this situation has an enormous impact on not just local hospitality and transport sectors but on the wider economy too.
“To be announcing in late autumn, on the first weekend of snow, that a ski school isn’t going to operate, is inexplicable. Enough is enough.”
But just why has the former jewel in the crown of Scottish snow sport fallen so dramatically on its face?
To trace Cairngorm’s problems means rewinding to 1971, when Aviemore’s status as a resort was taking shape in the form of a clunky concrete centre with go-karts, ice rink, cinema and its showpiece attraction, Santa Claus Land.
The mountain’s ski tows and chairlifts were the envy of Scotland’s other resorts – and many continental ski areas – when the Scottish Office took the controversial decision to transfer Cairngorm Estate from the Forestry Commission to HIE’s predecessor body, the Highlands and Islands Development Board.
“That’s where the problems began,” says Dave Morris, former director of Ramblers Scotland. “Both HIDB and HIE displayed flagrant incompetency in how they dealt with the mountain. They simply chewed up one site after another, starting with Lurcher’s Gully and then the funicular railway.
“They were told the railway was the wrong option, and a modern chairlift was better. But they would not listen.”
As well as the current engineering issues, the railway’s tracks are prone to being covered by drifting snow requiring staff with shovels to clear them before the trains can run.
But even before its construction there were deep concerns over whether it would provide an effective alternative to a chairlift or gondola structure, and over its impact on the stony plateau of the Cairngorm massif, the only place in Western Europe where both arctic and alpine habitats thrive.
Its lower slopes nurture eagles, pine marten, wild cats and merlin; higher up are found dotterel, snow bunting and ptarmigan.
It is designated a Special Area of Conservation, and the funicular plans horrified the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – yet their concerns were thrown out by the Court of Session.
The White Lady chairlift was torn down amid claims the railway would see a boom in skier numbers, bringing 200,000 to the hill each year. Many locals scoffed at those figures.
English-based Natural Retreats, a leisure and travel business based around eco-lodges and cottages, was appointed by Highlands and Islands Enterprise four years ago to run the centre for a 25-year period. If the intention was to halt any potential decline, the plan quickly fell flat.
“We will build the best terrain park in the world here, and my long-term goal is to host the summer and winter X Games at Cairngorm mountain,” said Matthew Spence, chief executive at Natural Retreats, at the time.
“We will nurture, develop and create future British Olympians at Cairngorm mountain. These athletes will win gold medals at the Winter Olympics in 2018 and the Summer Olympics in 2020 – we want to bring a true sense of pride and place to one of Scotland’s most incredible assets.”
That, points out Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust spokesman Mike Dearman, hasn’t quite materialised.
“People have been frustrated, these new operators came in with great promises, and then not a lot happened.
“They came out with a plan for a new day lodge but it wasn’t well received. As far as skiers and snowboarders are concerned, they want good uplift and smaller queues.
“Then they came up with a plan for a dry slope which again wasn’t well received. There’s real frustration their promises have not been acted upon.”
With Aviemore’s reputation as the Scotland’s winter playground in shreds, focus is shifting towards radical solutions – including calls to return ownership of the mountain from Highlands and Islands Enterprise to its original Forestry Commission owners, or for a community buyout.
That idea emerged after horrified snow sport and mountain enthusiasts watched the surprise removal of the Coire na Ciste and West Wall chairlifts. “That cost £300,000 even though they could have been refurbished for less,” adds Dearman.
The irony of that decision is now evident. A refurbishment of the Ciste chairlift could have offered a ready-made solution to the funicular problems.
Alan Brattey of Aviemore Business Association and owner of Avonglen selfcatering accommodation said: “HIE’s long-term strategy with Cairngorm mountain has been found out to be completely flawed.
“The focus was completely concentrated on the funicular railway to the detriment of the rest of the ski area and that’s been found out.
“Having invested more than £20m in the funicular railway they had the view they need to get as many bums on seats to justify the cost of running it. That has been to the detriment of the rest of the infrastructure.
“HIE suffers from enormous institutionalised arrogance – it doesn’t listen to anyone.”
Meanwhile, Morris points out the financial implications. “Cairngorm is losing market share all the time and the Government is going to have to respond.
“It’s probably going to take nothing less than another £10m to sort this out.”
Local MP Drew Hendry wants action now to address the situation
As another ski season approaches for Aviemore, there is real concern and desire for change from many people who live and work in the area. From top: shopkeeper Naeela Shahzad, Mike Dearman of AGCT, local businessman Alan Brattey