Cairngorm ski area: Why there are still reasons to be hopeful

The news that the Cairngorm funicular won’t be repaired in time for the new ski season is a major blow, writes Roger Cox, but the ailing Highland resort shouldn’t be written off just yet
The funicular railway at Cairngorm will not be ready in time for the 2021/22 ski seasonThe funicular railway at Cairngorm will not be ready in time for the 2021/22 ski season
The funicular railway at Cairngorm will not be ready in time for the 2021/22 ski season

As Morgan Freeman’s Red says to Tim Robbins’s Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” Red was, of course, talking to Andy about the kind of mental toughness required to survive a long stretch in jail, but he could equally have been advising Scottish skiers on how to deal with the seemingly endless stream of negative news stories emanating from the Cairngorm Mountain ski area in recent years.

Rewind to 2014, and things seemed to be looking up: a company called Natural Retreats had just taken over the running of Cairngorm, and their CEO Matthew Spence was waxing lyrical about his vision for the resort; a vision that included, rather improbably, the construction of “the best terrain park in the world.”

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Since then, however, it's been one PR disaster after another: the controversy over the demolition of the chairlifts in Coire na Ciste in 2017, the news that, during the stellar winter of 2017-18, Cairngorm's market share had collapsed by almost a third; the ignominious exit of Natural Retreats in 2018 (Green MSP John Finnie described the company as having “tucked its tail between its legs and headed off into the wilderness”); and then, of course, the announcement in 2018 that the funicular railway – much more expensive than it was supposed to be when it was completed in 2001 – would have to close, due to its still-teenaged track supports starting to crumble. Oh, and the repairs were going to cost £16 million – not far off the £26.75m it cost to build the thing from scratch. Not even the undisputed god of positive spin, Saddam Hussein's former minister of media and foreign affairs Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, would have been able to portray all of this in a flattering light, although you sense he might have enjoyed having a go.

The terrain park at Cairngorm Mountain PIC: Roger CoxThe terrain park at Cairngorm Mountain PIC: Roger Cox
The terrain park at Cairngorm Mountain PIC: Roger Cox

The pandemic was, of course, an equal-opportunities destroyer of hopes and dreams, but as things started to open up again this summer it seemed as if it might finally be time for a new chapter at Cairngorm. The repairs to the funicular were due to be completed in time for the new ski season at which point perhaps – just perhaps – the resort could draw a line under a catastrophic few years and move on into a happier, more stable new era. As regular readers may remember, I even expressed a hope that this very thing might come to pass in last week's magazine.

As Red says, however, hope is a dangerous thing. Less than 48 hours after last week's mag went to press, it was announced that the funicular would not, in fact, be ready in time for the new ski season after all. Now, apparently, we're looking at the winter of 2022/23. Unless, of course, there are further delays, which I suppose under the circumstances it would be naive to rule out. After all, according to Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) who are overseeing the repairs, one of the factors that led to the current delay was "extreme blizzards"; given that the funicular is located on the north face of a notoriously windy 4,000-foot mountain, more "extreme blizzards" would at least seem to be a possibility.

It is tempting, at times like this, to feel more inclined to agree with Red than with Andy​, o​r, indeed, with Alexander Pope: "Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”​ Trouble is, as anyone who has ever experienced Cairngorm on a good day will tell you, it still has the potential to be a great little ski resort. ​The Ptarmigan Bowl is a fantastic place to teach young kids to ski; the runs are a good mixture of cruisey, fast and steep; and the terrain park, while perhaps not of the world-beating standard envisaged by Matthew Spence, is still better than anyone really has the right to expect.

​Some in the wild land lobby have called for the whole resort to be demolished, and the mountain allowed to return to nature; and given the borderline-farcical ​goings-on of the last few years, there must have been times when even the most die-hard Cairngorm skiers will have seen some merit in this view. However, there are good reasons not to throw in the towel just yet.

The Top Station and Ptarmigan restaurant at Cairngorm Mountain. Picture: Tim Winterburn/HIEThe Top Station and Ptarmigan restaurant at Cairngorm Mountain. Picture: Tim Winterburn/HIE
The Top Station and Ptarmigan restaurant at Cairngorm Mountain. Picture: Tim Winterburn/HIE

For one thing, the plan for razing everything to the ground doesn’t exactly represent great value for money. We now know that demolishing the funicular would have cost almost as much as repairing it, so we can safely conclude that demolishing the entire resort would be monumentally expensive. (Plus, based on past performance, we can also be fairly certain that the work would not be completed on time.)

​More importantly, though, Cairngorm and Scotland's four ​other ski hills are a powerful force for the democratisation of skiing. True, a day's skiing in Scotland isn't cheap, but it's a lot cheaper than a trip to the Alps. Start to dismantle Scotland's ski areas, and you start to put the possibility of skiing out of reach of thousands of kids who might otherwise have benefitted from all the good things it has to offer. So yes, there are still reasons to hope for better days at Cairngorm, but we might be in for a bit of a wait.

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