The next few weeks are shaping up to be a busy time at Glencoe Mountain. On 26 and 27 March, the ski area will play host to The Mighty Coe, billed as “the UK’s first-ever mountain-based ski and snowboard festival”, where there will be opportunities to try out new kit, lessons on offer for those looking to perfect their on-piste technique or have a go at ski or splitboard touring, and a movie night courtesy of Ellis Brigham. Then, on 2 and 3 April, the resort will host the tenth anniversary edition of the Coe Cup, the annual freeride contest which forms the climax to the increasingly popular Scottish Freedom Series of freeride events, and sees the nation’s top backcountry skiers and boarders slashing and spinning their way down the notoriously steep Flypaper.
After a virtually snow-less January, there’s now plenty of white stuff to play with (all runs at Glencoe are complete at time of writing), the base station restaurant has just been rebuilt after being destroyed by fire in 2019, covid restrictions have been relaxed... all the ingredients are there, in other words, for a memorable spring season.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that none of this was inevitable. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, that Glencoe looked to be on the verge of permanent closure.
In 2009, more than 3,000 people signed a "Save Glencoe" petition to be presented to the Scottish Parliament, after the business operating the resort went into administration and it seemed as if Scotland’s oldest ski area was about to sink without trace. At around this time, Scottish skiing in general felt as if it was in dire straits, following a series of disappointingly mild winters and ominous warnings from ecologists that the industry’s days were numbered due to climate change.
But then two things happened, almost at the same time. In general terms, the outlook for skiing in Scotland was improved massively by the "Big Freeze" of 2009/10, which gave Scottish skiers one of their best winters in living memory, and suggested that perhaps it wasn’t time to dismantle the resorts just yet. And more specifically concerning Glencoe, a Falkirk businessman called Andy Meldrum swooped in to rescue the ailing ski hill at the eleventh hour, managing to keep its lifts spinning through what turned out to be a remarkably long season.
I first met Meldrum in February 2010, not long after he had pulled off this dramatic rescue, and his attitude to the task at hand was a reassuring mixture of realism and determination. Having skied at Glencoe for much of his life, he was under no illusions about how tough running a ski resort in such marginal conditions was going to be, but there was also a calmness about him that suggested he might actually know how to pull it off.
Meldrum did indeed steady the ship financially, successfully applying for not-for-profit Community Interest Company status for Glencoe in 2010, which allowed him to carry out much-needed infrastructure projects using public, European and Lottery funding. However, he wasn’t just a nuts and bolts man – he also had a vision for the kind of place Glencoe could become, and working with Andrew Phyn of Whitedot skis, he realised this brilliantly in April 2012 with the inaugural Coe Cup.
The concept of competitive freeride skiing was still in relatively new at this point – the first international Freeride World Tour had only taken place a few years earlier, in 2008 – but the popularity of off-piste skiing was exploding, and Meldrum knew that, while Glencoe didn’t have runs anywhere near as long as the big resorts in the Alps and the Rockies, it could still offer plenty of heart-in-mouth challenge thanks to the steep, craggy terrain on and around its signature run, the Flypaper.
As if to prove the point, Phyn somehow managed to persuade American freeride legend Jeremy Nobis to judge the first Coe Cup. Nobis proclaimed the contest face "as gnarly as anything I’ve skied", and he had plenty to keep him entertained, too, including a spectacular backflip attempt by Jonathan Fish which, if he’d landed it, would almost certainly have won him the men’s ski category. In the end, Dave Biggin won the men’s skiing, with Tim McGregor taking out the men’s snowboard and Roslyn Newman winning the combined women’s ski and snowboard division.
The first Coe Cup wasn’t a huge event in terms of the number of competitors or spectators, but its impact on Scottish skiing has been considerable: it showed that extreme ski and snowboard contests were just as valid here in Scotland as they were anywhere else, and it laid the foundation stone for the string of events that would eventually become the official, SnowsportScotland-orgnised Scottish Freedom Series. Fingers crossed it’ll still be going strong in 2032.
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