Ski times a lady: A look back on the remarkable feat that heralded the start of commercial skiing at Cairn Gorm

The late Bob Clyde, with Catriona McIntyre, 4, left, and her brother, David, 6
The late Bob Clyde, with Catriona McIntyre, 4, left, and her brother, David, 6
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Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the White Lady Chairlift on the mountain, writes Roger Cox

STANDING in the Coire Cas car park at Cairn Gorm Mountain on a busy winter’s morning, it’s hard to imagine what the place must have been like before it became a ski resort. Drag lifts clank and hum, waves of skiers and snowboarders hurtle down the pistes, and at regular intervals the funicular railway rumbles into life, transporting yet more snow-sliders to the top of the mountain.

In its 40 years of operation, the White Lady is estimated to have carried over nine million people up the hill

In its 40 years of operation, the White Lady is estimated to have carried over nine million people up the hill

Exactly 50 years ago this Friday, on 23 December 1961, Cairn Gorm’s first commercial ski lift, the White Lady Chairlift, was inaugurated by Sir Francis Walker of Leys in front of an audience of almost 300, many of them skiing and mountaineering enthusiasts. The lift officially opened to the public a week later, on 30 December, with skiers queuing for up to an hour to catch a ride from an altitude of 2,500 feet (762m), the level of the funicular mid-station today, to 3,500ft (1,067m) just below Cairn Gorm summit.

Before that, however, there was next to nothing here – no lifts, no car parks, not even an access road. A few hardy souls did ski on the hill when the conditions were right, but they had to hike in, usually from Aviemore, some nine miles distant.

One man who remembers regularly slogging up from the valley to Coire na Ciste with his skis slung over his shoulder is 76 year-old former ski instructor Bobbie Birnie, who still works on the mountain as a maintenance fitter. “I first came up here from Dundee in 1953 with some of the chaps from the factory I worked in,” he says. “We were in an outdoor club so we toured about and this is one of the places we came first.”

In contrast to the hi-tech gear worn by today’s skiers, Birnie and his friends wore army surplus one-piece paratrooper’s suits, which were still being sold off in large quantities following the end of the Second World War. They would typically hike from Aviemore to Glenmore, camp there overnight, then carry on up to the snow the following day.

“You had a good hour’s walk in the morning to get to where the Coire Cas car park is now,” Birnie says. “There was a small hut called Jean’s Hut. That was where you headed to park all your gear – your rucksack and stuff. You maybe had a cup of tea there and then for the rest of the day you went up and down Coire Cas – walked up, skied down, walked up, skied down.”

By 1961, there had already been a few attempts to set up temporary ski tows on Cairn Gorm, but the arrival of the White Lady Chairlift was a boon to Birnie and the rest of the skiing community, as was the access road that had been constructed to serve it. Suddenly it was possible to drive from Aviemore right up to the snowline. The walk from the car park to the bottom of the chairlift was still a 500ft (150m) climb, but once there you could have as many runs as your knees – and your wallet – could stand. In its first season of operation, a trip on the new chairlift cost four shillings, which would be about £1.88 today. A book of eight tickets could be purchased for a pound, (about £9.38 today).

Cairngorm wasn’t the first commercial ski hill in Scotland – Glencoe opened for business in 1956. But whereas the tows at Glencoe were essentially built by skiers for skiers, the development at Cairn Gorm came from a much broader economic base. Far-sighted hoteliers like Hugh Ross of the Nethybridge Hotel and Ewan Ormiston of the Balavil Arms Hotel in Newtonmore came together with members of the Scottish Ski Club, local landowners, traders and farmers and Jock Kerr Hunter of the Scottish Council of Physical Recreation to form the Cairngorm Winter Sports Development Association - a body dedicated to building permanent skiing facilities on the mountain.

In the autumn of 1960, with an access road linking the snowfields of Cairn Gorm to the amenities of Aviemore complete, the group - now calling themselves the Cairngorm Winter Sports Development Board – were ready to start building their first lift.

An advertisement for a manager for the project was placed in the Inverness Courier and it was answered by Bob Clyde. Although he was employed by an engineering firm in Inverness at the time, Clyde, who died in 1994, was also a member of the working party running the ski tow at Glencoe, so he had experience of installing cumbersome machinery on inaccessible, wind-blasted Scottish mountainsides.

Former Scotsman ski correspondent Ed Rattray, 81, whose book Scottish Skiing: The Golden Years, 1950-1990 comes out next year, says Clyde was the perfect man for the job.

“He was a couthy man but he didn’t stand any nonsense,” says Rattray. “He ran a tight ship. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that nobody else could have done it [got the resort up and running] but he did brilliantly through the very difficult first ten or 15 years.”

Clyde was also able to bring in talented friends from Glencoe to work on the project – elite climber-engineers like Tommy Paul who were instrumental in getting the White Lady Chairlift installed before Christmas, in spite of a spell of horrendous weather that threatened to derail the entire project.

The lift Clyde and his team built looks decidedly quaint by today’s standards, with its strange arrangement whereby pairs of skiers would ascend the hill sideways-on to each other and to the direction of travel. Nevertheless, it was a huge success. By 19 January 1962, the lift had already taken its first £1,000, causing Clyde to call Archie Scott, one of the founders of the CWSDB, and exclaim: “There’s money in this!”

There then followed something of a golden age for skiing at Cairn Gorm, with the resort quickly gaining popularity. By the late 1960s, however, the crowds were starting to get out of hand.

“The crowding became critical six or seven years after the resort opened,” remembers Rattray. “The queues were enormous and there were just too many people on the ski slopes. The local doctor wrote to The Scotsman saying if only more ski facilities could be had, there would be a considerable drop in the number of injuries caused on Cairn Gorm by too many people on too few slopes.”

Brian Cottam, 72, has worked on the mountain for over 40 years, first as an engineer, then as a ski patroller – a job he still does today. In spite of the fact that a drag lift had been constructed in Coire Cas the year after the completion of the White Lady, by the end of the 60s, he says, the overcrowding was becoming dangerous.

“The early 70s was the era of people trying to use parachutes to get up the hill, rather than standing in the queue,” he says. “It was unbelievable. And the accidents we used to have on the hill then compared to now… it was just a free-for-all. At one stage we were working on five, six broken legs a day.”

The solution to the problem of overcrowding was to build more lifts, and that’s eventually what happened. These days, the Cairn Gorm piste map boasts ten drag lifts plus the funicular, which also celebrates its tenth birthday this month. Sadly, however, the advent of the two shiny purple trains, which now whistle passengers to the top of the hill in under five minutes, meant the end for the White Lady Chairlift. Shortly before the funicular was completed – in December, 2001, at a cost of £19.7 million – the Lady was dismantled and its unique side-facing double chairs sold off for £50 apiece. In its 40 years of operation, it is estimated to have carried over nine million people up the hill.

The White Lady Chairlift may be gone, but on Friday the veterans of the early years – the Silver Skiers, as they’re known – will get together to celebrate its 50th birthday. CairnGorm Brewery’s specially bottled White Lady wheat beer will be served at the T Bar at the Day Lodge, along with funicular birthday cake. The White Lady run still exists, too, and many of the vets are planning to ski it in vintage outfits, even if the thaw forecast for later this week makes for less-than-ideal conditions.

Bobbie Birnie hopes to be among them. “Cairngorm’s a fantastic place to ski,” he says. “I’ve skied all over the world, but it’s as good as anywhere.”