There’s nothing wrong with optimism – god knows, the world could do with more of it at times. But too much optimism can be a worrying thing, particularly when it’s exhibited by decision-makers who have access to large amounts of money, much of it public.
In April, when Natural Retreats was announced as the new operator of CairnGorm, the leisure and travel company revealed plans to invest £6.2 million in the resort over the next five years, with Highlands and Islands Enterprise chipping in with a £4 million loan to replace the existing Day Lodge. You’d hope the people responsible for disposing of so much cash, a fair old wedge of it yours and mine, would have a solid understanding of the business they’d just taken on. Judging by their recent press release, however, this does not appear to be the case.
In a lengthy statement in which he sets out his “wider vision” for the resort, Natural Retreats’ CEO Matthew Spence makes a number of statements that suggest he may not fully appreciate what CairnGorm is, and what it is not. He starts off well enough, waxing lyrical about the beauty of the Cairngorms’ landscape, but alarm bells begin to ring when he asserts: “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.”
Now, as anyone who has seen me snowboard will attest, I don’t really do jumping, but I’ve seen enough ski resorts in Europe and North America to know that nothing short of an engineering miracle could give CairnGorm “the best terrain park in the world”. For a start, it can never be the biggest. Whistler’s Habitat Terrain Park, for example, begins just under the Roundhouse Lodge, at an elevation of 1,850m and comes to an end perhaps 100m above the top of the Olympic Chair, at an elevation of 1,149m, giving it a total vertical drop of around 600m. The total vertical drop at CairnGorm, when the pistes are filled in all the way down to the Base Station (a relatively rare occurrence) is 548m. So the only way CairnGorm could lay claim to the biggest park in the world would be if Natural Retreats are planning to increase the height of the mountain and then construct a terrain park running all the way from the newly elevated summit to the car park. Good luck with that.
Of course, size isn’t everything, but to keep a world class terrain park in world class condition, day in, day out, you need to employ world class technicians and lots of them, and you also need to be able to deploy lots of extremely expensive equipment. Whistler can afford to keep its six Nintendo-sponsored parks and halfpipes immaculately groomed because it receives in excess of two million skier visits every season. Based on data for the last decade, CairnGorm is doing well if it tops 200,000 skier visits a season. The cost of trying to create and maintain a park to rival Whistler’s at CairnGorm, in other words, would mean there wasn’t much money left to spend on anything else.
And the bold claims from Natural Retreats don’t end there. “We will nurture, develop and create future British Olympians at CairnGorm Mountain,” continues Mr Spence. “These athletes will win gold medals at the Winter Olympics in 2018 and the summer Olympics in 2020.”
Nothing wrong with wanting to nurture future Olympians at CairnGorm (although one would hope that patrons will be encouraged to set about creating them in private), but isn’t guaranteeing gold medals in four years’ time, y’know, a bit over the top? Also, there’s a very good reason the current crop of Scottish Winter Olympians – people like Murray Buchan and Ben Kilner – choose to do the bulk of their training overseas. Scotland is part of a very small island on the edge of a very large, very angry stretch of ocean. For much of the winter, conditions in its mountains are beyond hostile. It also benefits from a relatively warm, maritime climate, which means snowfall in the hills is unreliable at best. Top-level athletes know that no amount of investment, from HIE or anyone else, will change these facts, and that’s why they choose to train elsewhere. Optimism’s great, but realism is infinitely more useful.