Ski scene seen through rose-tinted gog­gles

The Press and Journal (Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire) - - AGENDA - Camp­bell Gunn

The first snows of au­tumn have fallen on the High­land hills. And the news has en­cour­aged many a keen skier to start check­ing their equip­ment for the com­ing win­ter, in hopes of a good sea­son. How­ever, here’s the prob­lem. In terms of good ski­ing, Scot­land is on the mar­gins. Yes, if con­di­tions are per­fect they can be stu­pen­dous, with long pow­dery runs on soft snow un­der pris­tine blue skies. But in re­al­ity, how of­ten is that the case? We of­ten look back at such days through rose-tinted ski gog­gles. In happy mem­ory, that is what ski­ing in Scot­land is all about. The re­al­ity is some­what dif­fer­ent. More of­ten, the trip to the slopes is in vain, with ac­cess roads closed or lifts un­able to op­er­ate due to high winds.

In the event of ski­ing be­ing pos­si­ble, the chances are it will be an un­com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ence, in driv­ing sleet or cloud. In­deed, one of the ben­e­fits of learn­ing to ski in Scot­land is the abil­ity to raise a sin­gle ski quickly to avoid a pro­trud­ing boul­der loom­ing through the mist, as well as a skill sel­dom taught on the pris­tine slopes of the Alps – how to aqua­plane over a slushy pud­dle. This is how I learned to ski, first at Glen­shee, and later on Cairn­gorm. I also skied of­ten at Glen­coe, and years ago even us­ing a tem­po­rary tow on Ben Law­ers. Hap­pily, pro­pos­als for a Law­ers ski de­vel­op­ment dis­ap­peared many years ago.

To­day there are five main ski ar­eas – Cairn­gorm, Glen­shee, the Lecht, Glen­coe, and Aonach Mor. Over the years, there have been many other pro­posed ski de­vel­op­ments around the High­lands. Most peo­ple will re­mem­ber the pub­lic in­quiry and ma­jor con­tro­versy over the pro­posed ex­pan­sion of the Cairn­gorm ski area into Lurcher’s Gully in the 1980s. For­tu­nately in ret­ro­spect, this was scrapped, thanks in no small part to the ex­pert ev­i­dence pro­vided by the late Dr Adam Wat­son, whose knowl­edge of the moun­tains and their snow con­di­tions was sec­ond to none. Adam was a keen skier, but was also a con­ser­va­tion­ist, and saw the dam­age the pro­posed de­vel­op­ment could have caused.

The Lurcher’s Gully pro­posal wasn’t alone at that time – there were plans for two de­vel­op­ments at the Dru­mochter Pass. One was for a fu­nic­u­lar rail­way, a se­ries of tows and a lift at Jean’s Gully, while the other en­vis­aged a de­vel­op­ment slightly far­ther north on the Munro Carn na Caim. This sec­ond plan would have fea­tured a large car park on the A9 and a shuttle bus tak­ing skiers to the base sta­tion and restau­rant three-quar­ters of a mile away. There was even an al­ter­na­tive pro­posal for a Ma­glev rail­way to re­place the shuttle bus.

Fur­ther north, again around the same time, there were two ri­val pro­pos­als for de­vel­op­ing Ben Wyvis as a down­hill ski area. One planned a road halfway up the moun­tain with a lift and tows tak­ing skiers to the plateau, while the other pro­posed a fu­nic­u­lar rail­way. In the event, nei­ther went ahead, although the sec­ond plan was briefly res­ur­rected a few years ago by lo­cal MSP Jamie Stone, now an MP at West­min­ster. For­tu­nately though, again noth­ing hap­pened.

As we ap­proach the com­ing ski sea­son, all eyes are on Cairn­gorm and the seem­ingly doomed fu­nic­u­lar rail­way there. This surely is a para­ble for all the un­re­al­is­tic ski pro­pos­als we’ve seen pro­posed for Scot­land over the years. It opened in 2001, hav­ing cost £26 mil­lion to build. It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to dis­cover how much pub­lic money – your money and mine – has gone into the project over the years. High­lands and Is­lands

En­ter­prise (HIE) gave one of the op­er­at­ing com­pa­nies loans to­talling £4m and spent a fur­ther £3.5m on in­fra­struc­ture. The rail­way closed in Sep­tem­ber last year due to struc­tural prob­lems, and the com­pany op­er­at­ing it on be­half of HIE, which now owns it, went bust in Novem­ber.

Ini­tially, HIE claimed re­pairs would be car­ried out and the rail­way would be op­er­a­tional again by 2020. That now seems highly un­likely. Al­most half of the piers which sup­port the rail­way are in need of re­pair, 300 bear­ings re­quire re­place­ment, while the con­nec­tions to the beams also need to be re­in­forced. Re­pair costs are es­ti­mated at £10m. An al­ter­na­tive would be to de­mol­ish and re­move the rail­way com­pletely, but this ac­tion has been con­ser­va­tively costed at £13m.

It will now be up to the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment to de­cide what to do, and HIE will present a busi­ness case to them in De­cem­ber.

No mat­ter which side the gov­ern­ment takes, they will re­ceive crit­i­cism, and no mat­ter what the fi­nal out­come, the tax­payer will be left to foot an enor­mous bill for a de­vel­op­ment that should never have been built in the first place.

It’s a timely re­minder that Scot­land is only just vi­able as a ski des­ti­na­tion, even with­out the on­go­ing ef­fects of cli­mate change. We can never com­pete in terms of qual­ity with the top Alpine or even An­dor­ran, Ro­ma­nian, Bul­gar­ian, or Balkan re­sorts. And the sad story of the over-am­bi­tion of the Cairn­gorm fu­nic­u­lar is a re­minder of that un­happy fact.

No mat­ter what the fi­nal out­come, the tax­payer will be left to foot an enor­mous bill for the fu­nic­u­lar rail­way

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