The Ciste chair­lifts are gone, but a lit­tle hope re­mains that all is not lost

The Scotsman - - Final Words - Roger­cox @out­doorscots

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

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