The CairnGorm funicular crisis: trying to look on the bright side

Things are looking a bit bleak up at CairnGorm Mountain, and no, I’m not talking about the weather. However, Final Words is a glass half-full kind of column, so this week I’ll be examining some of the ways in which the ski centre’s current travails might turn out to be good news, both in the short term and in the long run. First though, a brief recap of the bad news, just in case you’ve missed it.

Rob Machado in a still from Momentum Generation, directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist

“We laughed, we cried” - surf star Rob Machado on the film that reunited the Momentum Generation

In the early 1990s, surfing underwent a seismic cultural shift. Just as soft rock bands were made to look like dinosaurs almost overnight by the emergence of grunge, so the muscle-bound power surfers who had dominated the sport in the late 1980s suddenly began to look like lumbering prehistoric beasts next to a new generation of nimble young acrobats – surfers who seemed to be able to conjure speed out of nowhere, and who tended to see the lip of a wave as a launchpad rather than simply something to smack as hard as you could with the tail of your board (although they could do that, too). The vanguard of this new crew included Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Shane Dorian, Taylor Knox, Pat O’Connell, Kalani Robb, Benji Weatherley and Ross Williams, and the remarkable story of their meteoric rise to the top of the surfing totem and its aftermath is told in a new film, Momentum Generation, released this week by Universal.

Ines Papert climbing The Hurting PIC: Nadir Khan

Extreme sports photographer Nadir Khan on the risks and rewards of working in Scotland

In almost a decade of writing about Scotland’s outdoors folk in this column, I’ve been on the receiving end of a perpetual avalanche of remarkable photography. It’s hard to think, though, of more than a handful of people who have captured the drama of extreme sports with the precision and panache of Nadir Khan. His new book, Extreme Scotland – A Photographic Journey Through Scottish Adventure Sports, features everything from mountain biking and trail running to kayaking and surfing. It’s the climbing and skiing images, though, which really stand out – moments of fleeting perfection snatched from the jaws of a notoriously unforgiving mountain environment.

The CairnGorm funicular, taking passengers above the snowline PIC: Ian Rutherford for The Scotsman

What a winter without the funicular could mean for CairnGorm Mountain ski area

Earlier this month it emerged that the funicular railway that serves the CairnGorm Mountain ski area would have to be closed for “several weeks” after a routine inspection revealed problems with the structures that support the track. Specialist engineers have been called in to check the foundations, and they are expected to report back in November on the extent of the repair work that needs to be carried out. Given that CairnGorm often has enough snow on its upper slopes to open for skiing in early December, however, it’s clear that if anything other than very minor tweaks are required in order to make the funicular safe it probably won’t be up and running again in time for the start of the new season, and Natural Retreats, the company that runs the ski area, recently announced that it was preparing for a winter without the train.

The Lecht in February 2018 PIC: Stevie McKenna

Interview: The Lecht’s James McIntosh looks forward to a winter of guaranteed snow

At about this time of year, skiers and snowboarders all over the Northern Hemisphere start obsessing about whether the coming season is shaping up to be good, bad or ugly; and the only people keeping an even closer eye on long-range weather forecasts are the folks who run the ski resorts. For them, snow really is a serious business: a year of plentiful snowfall can bring in enough cash to pay for new equipment and infrastructure, while a terrible year can harm not just the resort itself but also the nearby communities that depend on it.

A whutterick, perhaps on its way to a whutterick-fuffing

From o’erswak to whutterick-fuffing: 10 old Scots nature words that deserve to return to common usage

Last autumn, the author and academic Robert Macfarlane teamed up with illustrator Jackie Morris to produce a true book for our times: The Lost Words. Intended to be read by both adults and children (and by adults and children together), it was an elegant and eloquent response to the way in which, over a period of several years, the publishers of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had been removing words to do with nature and replacing them with words to do with technology and cyberspace. In a slow process of attrition which had begun in 2007, words like moss, blackberry, bluebell and clover had been quietly jettisoned in favour of blog, chatroom, database and broadband. To begin with, the changes went mostly unnoticed, but gradually a protest movement grew up, involving not just Macfarlane and Morris but also literary heavyweights including Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo and Andrew Motion.

Mark Boyd of the Scottish Surf Team competing at the ISA World Surfing Games in Peru in 2014 PIC: ISA

Scotland’s surfers look set to lose hard-won independence

In October 2014, in the aftermath of the Scottish Independence Referendum, it was a pleasure to be able to report in this column that Scotland’s surfers, at least, would soon be celebrating their independence, having won permission to send a national team to the World Surfing Games at Punta Rocas, Peru. It was, the president of the Scottish Surfing Federation (SSF) William Watson told me at the time, “the biggest thing that’s happened to Scottish surfing in 40 years.”

Stuart Crichton, Ian Wishart and George Law surfing at Aberdeen Beach, September 1968

Pioneers of Scottish surfing celebrate 50 years in the water

Andy Bennetts, Ian Wishart and Bill Batten started surfing in Scotland in the late 1960s. After half a century of riding waves all around the country they tell Roger Cox about the good old days when the boards were long, the waves were empty and nobody wore a wetsuit - not even in December. (The interview was serialised in The Scotsman magazine between 11 August and 1 September.)

Riders approach the competition face at the Lawers of Gravity event on Meall nan Tarmachan,''Ben Lawers Range, April 2015

How the Scottish snowsports industry could harness the backcountry skiing boom

At a recent meeting of the Scottish ski industry’s high heid-yins there was a discussion about key moments in the 2017/18 season – the events that had done the most to help raise the profile of Scottish snow-sliding. As you’d expect, the presence of homegrown athletes like Murray Buchan and Alex Tilley in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang featured prominently, as did the impact of the early March cold snap better known as the Beast from the East, which contributed mightily to Scotland’s ski resorts enjoying their most prosperous season in five years.

Kelly Slater slides into the green room at the Surf Ranch Pro

Mixed reviews for World Surf League’s artificial wave event

A little bit of surfing history was made last week when the World Surf League held its first ever inland event in the sleepy town of Lemoore, California – a place hitherto most famous, in sporting circles at least, for being the home of Tommie Smith, the sprinter who set a new 200m world record at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City before giving a Black Power salute during the medal ceremony. Unsurprisingly, Lemoore doesn’t have much of a reputation as a surf town – it is, after all, located approximately 100 miles east of the Pacific Ocean – but for a few surreal days in September it became the epicentre of the surfing universe, as the best waveriders on the planet descended for a contest like no other.

William Thomson and friend

Tidal Traveller William Thomson to host “tide walk” at Portobello

William Thomson first popped up on Final Words’ radar in 2016, when he published his excellent tome, The Book of Tides. Stylishly illustrated by the author, it covers all the weird and wonderful ways in which water moves around our coasts – not just tides, but also more exotic phenomena like whirlpools and tidal bores. It is written with a rare combination of authority and immediacy too: Thomson evidently has a good grasp of the science behind his subject, but because he spends much of his time surfing, sea swimming and stand-up paddleboarding he is able to speak from first-hand experience.

CairnGorm on a good day PIC: Stevie McKenna

2017/18 ski season branded “a disaster at CairnGorm and an even bigger disaster for the local economy”

As reported in this slot a couple of weeks ago, even though Scotland’s 2017/18 ski season was a dream – the best for five years in terms of the number of people who went skiing at the nation’s resorts – up at CairnGorm Mountain they still somehow managed to have a nightmare. While the folks at Glencoe, Glenshee, The Lecht and Nevis Range were all basking in the chilly aftermath of the Beast from the East and selling ski passes hand over (gloved) fist, CairnGorm saw its market share decline dramatically, from an average of 35 per cent over the last ten seasons to just 23.6 per cent – a drop of almost a third.

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