CairnGorm ski operator says it is stuck in the middle of chairlift dispute

"Felled" chairlift towers waiting to be removed from Coire na Ciste, part of the CairnGorm Mountain ski area PIC: PIC: Alan McKay
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As reported last week, in the second instalment of an ongoing series, emotions are running high in the Spey Valley following the removal of two chairlifts from the CairnGorm Mountain ski area. Although they had been closed since 2005 many skiers had hoped that Ciste and West Wall lifts, situated on the Coire na Ciste side of the mountain, could one day be renovated and brought back into use. Last month, however, workmen employed by the landowners Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), with support from Natural Retreats, the company that operates the ski centre, demolished all the chairlift towers and removed them from the mountain. Since then, the folks in the Natural Retreats marketing department have barely been able to publish a single post on the CairnGorm Mountain Facebook page without attracting the ire of locals, who feel that the future of their ski hill has been put in jeopardy.

There is such strong feeling about what’s happened that there are now plans to put together a Community Right to Buy bid, which, if successful, would see ownership of the ski area transferred from HIE to the local community. Last week we heard from Alan Brattey, secretary of the Aviemore Business Association (ABA), who is one of the people behind the bid. This week it’s the turn of Adam Gough, head of technical services at Natural Retreats, to put the resort operator’s side of the story. I began by asking him why the ski lifts in Coire na Ciste had to go.

“It’s a project that the landlords [HIE] are undertaking,” he says, “They’re really finishing the job they started in 2005 when the chairlifts were first decommissioned. At the same time they are also clearing up infrastructure [in various areas of the mountain, not just Coire na Ciste] that’s an eyesore from a cosmetic point of view.”

So, the decision to get rid of the lifts was made by HIE, and to find out why it was made I need to talk to them?

“Absolutely.”

I’ve requested an interview with a representative of HIE, and I hope to be able to bring you their reasons for getting rid of the lifts in the coming weeks. In the meantime, Gough is keen to stress that ever since Natural Retreats took over the running of the ski area a little over three years ago, they have always been open to the idea of improving skier access to the Ciste side of the hill, where, since the Ciste chairlifts were decommissioned, almost half the skiable terrain within the resort boundary has been served by a single drag lift.

“If there’s one thing you should take away from this conversation,” he says, “it’s that we’ve never said never [to redeveloping the Ciste]. We would ultimately like to make CairnGorm a bigger success... and that ultimately means more skiers, it ultimately means more uplift and it ultimately means more capacity.”

Given this evident desire to make it easier for skiers to access the Ciste side of the mountain, I ask if Natural Retreats commissioned any reports into how much it would have cost to renovate the old Ciste chairlifts before they were demolished.

“No, when we first took over the operation of the business our prime focus was to stabilise it... We weren’t at the stage to say ‘let’s go out and carry out investigations of the infrastructure’ because we’d have been getting ahead of ourselves by doing that.”

But won’t it be much more difficult to improve the offering in Coire na Ciste now that two chairlifts, which it might have been possible to renovate, are no longer there?

“No, not really,” he says. “[Coire na Ciste] is still part of the ski field and I can’t see how it would be harder – the concrete bases and the old towers would have to have been taken out anyway as far as I can see.”

I ask if he’s aware of a 2010 report prepared by the Swiss chairlift company Rowema MG, shown to me by the Save the Ciste group, that estimated it would have cost in the region of £300,000 to renovate the lower of the two chairlifts. (The figure is significant because it’s not far off the £267,000 that has been spent on the current clear-up of the mountain, which includes the demolition and removal of the two Ciste chairlifts.)

“I can’t comment because I’ve not seen that report,” he says.

As far as Gough is concerned, the economic case for reinstating the lifts in Coire na Ciste has not yet been made. “Three years ago we had a meeting with the Save the Ciste people and the president of the ABA and asked them... can they help us out by preparing a business case [for reinstating the lifts]? And that’s never ever been forthcoming. And I’ll go on record as saying that. We’ve never seen that.”

I ask him if he’s aware of the proposed Community Right to Buy application. Unsurprisingly, as our conversation is taking place several days before the story makes the papers, it’s the first he’s heard of it. If the application is successful, I ask, and the local community say they are keen to redevelop the Ciste, would Natural Retreats look at ways of making that happen?

“Absolutely.” n

Next week: Jamie Johnston of Save the Ciste offers his perspective.

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