Trou­ble in the Cha­monix of Scot­land

The Herald on Sunday - - NEWS FOCUS -

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

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