The Ciste chairlifts are gone, but a little hope remains that all is not lost
For the last few weeks, this column has been devoted to the fierce and multi-faceted debate surrounding the removal of the chairlifts from Coire na Ciste in the Cairngorm Mountain ski area. The idea behind dealing with this over several issues of the magazine was to give people from all sides sufficient space in which to explain their respective positions; there were some complicated points that needed to be made and it would have been a shame to reduce them all to soundbites.
We’ve now heard from Natural Retreats, the company that operates the resort, and from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), who own the land, about their reasons for getting rid of the lifts. We’ve also heard from the Save the Ciste pressure group, whose members feel that the lifts should have been renovated rather than destroyed, and from the Aviemore Business Association – a group of almost 80 local businesses who are so concerned about the way the ski area is being managed that they have started a Community Right to Buy bid, in the hope of taking ownership of the estate on which it is situated.
Those, then, are the “official” voices in this debate, and they have all had a chance to have their say. However, when these interviews appeared online they provoked a range of reactions on social media, and it seems fitting to bring this series to a close by providing a summary of some of the things that have been said on the various online forums where the debate has rumbled on.
There were some strongly-worded responses to the interview with Adam Gough, head of technical services at Natural Retreats (16 September). On the Winter Highland Facebook page, a popular forum for Scotland’s mountain community, Jonathan Cook took issue with Gough’s statement that when Natural Retreats took over the business their prime focus was to stabilise it, and that they “weren’t at the stage to say ‘let’s go out and carry out
investigations of the infrastructure.’”
“My reply to this,” Cook wrote, “is: ‘And what about your plans for redevelopment of the Ptarmigan [restaurant]? Wouldn’t you say that’s somewhat above the level of stabilising the business?’” (As reported in this slot earlier in the year, HIE plans to loan Natural Retreats £4 million to extend the Ptarmigan Restaurant at the top of the ski area and add a dry ski slope.)
The interview with Jamie Johnston of Save the Ciste (23 September), in which he pointed out the financial gains to be made by putting lifts back in the Ciste, seemed to get people thinking about the future. Responding to the interview on the Winter Highland Facebook page, Neil Mcgrain wrote: “Be great to see a fully redesigned base station at the Ciste car park with a single gondi [gondola]/chair combo which runs up to the Ptarmigan and has at least one additional mid-point access/exit that allows it to run even if the wind is howling. Would take the pressure off the Cas side for access uplift and [be] a better investment than a dry slope.”
On the Save the Ciste Facebook page, responding to a note on the end of the Jamie Johnston interview stating that HIE CEO Charlotte Wright was to be the following week’s interviewee, Chris Else predicted: “Charlotte Wright [...] will no doubt blame NR!” As we know, however, Wright was keen to stress that the removal of the lifts was ultimately HIE’S decision, and she maintained that the decision was made due to health and safety concerns. That said, HIE’S head of press Calum Macfarlane did then muddy the waters somewhat by sending an email explaining that no attempts were made to find out how much it would cost to renovate the Ciste chairlifts because “any redeveloped facility would have needed a commercial operator and there was no interest from the current or previous operator in restoring and running the facilities on Coire na Ciste.”
So could Natural Retreats have renovated the Ciste chairlifts if they’d wanted to? Looking back through old stories the other day, I came across an interview I did with Ewan Kearney, chief operating officer of Natural Retreats, shortly after they took over the running of Cairngorm in 2014. “Are there plans afoot to bring back the Ciste chairlifts?” I asked him.
“Not immediately, no,” he said, “but it is something we’re going to look very closely at.”
I asked if any research been done into how much it would cost to reinstate the lifts.
“It has, yes,” was his reply, “research into the cost to replace them, the potential visitor numbers, the revenue taken from ticket sales… that has all been put into the big plan.”
And would it be a case of refurbishing what’s there or tearing it all down and starting again?
“I could probably give you a steer towards the latter,” he said. “It would be a significant investment. But there are strong cases to say, all over the site, repair vs replacement, and we’re looking at that very closely.”
At the end of that week’s column I wrote: “So if there’s enough demand, expressed in the right way, the Ciste chairlifts might still get their fairytale ending.” The lifts won’t now, obviously, but the Ciste still might.
When these interviews appeared online they provoked a range of reactions on social media