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.
As previously reported in this slot, James McIntosh, manager of the Lecht ski centre in Aberdeenshire, has an uncanny knack of predicting what the coming season has in store – he boldly maintained that 2017/18 would be a stellar year, even though the previous season had been the worst since records began, and so it proved. However, when I ask him about the prospects for 2018/19, he gives me a startlingly specific answer: “We’ll be open by 1 December,” he says. “We’re 100 per cent confident we’ll be open.”
When it comes to snow forecasting, nothing is ever a 100 per cent certainty, but McIntosh isn’t relying on the vagaries of the weather for his snow this year – at least, not all of it. He’s recently purchased a Snowfactory, a state of the art snowmaking machine that can churn out piles of white stuff even if the temperature is well above zero. So, even if he gets nothing but clear blue skies for the next month and a half, the Lecht will still be able to offer skiing by the start of December.
“We’ll be able to cover the whole of the beginners’ area with the one machine,” he says. “We’re starting production in the middle of November and we’ll have two runs open by 1 December. It means that the ski school can then make plans, I can employ staff at the beginning of the season and I don’t have to worry about paying them off – I can offer them more secure employment. So it’s going to make a huge difference to everybody.”
McIntosh invested nearly half a million pounds in the Snowfactory after trialling it last year.
“We made snow in June this year – at plus 27 degrees!” he chuckles, “And then we had a snowboard competition for three days. So we’re taking the guesswork out of it.”
McIntosh first set about turning the Lecht into a ski centre in the 1970s. “I was working at Glenshee,” he says, “working for the ski school. Glenshee only had five tows then, they had no beginners’ tows, and the beginners’ area... well, from the teaching perspective it wasn’t the best.
“I’d been away ski racing in the Royal Navy. I was working for an aerial crop-spraying company during the summer, and during the winter I went to work at Glenshee. That went on for a few years until I met up with my ex-Navy captain who was in the ski team with me. I said ‘I’ve got a place I’d like to start a ski area at, are you interested?’ I’d learned to ski there and I knew it had good snow-holding. That was in 1977.”
The Navy colleague was Pieter du Pon, and along with their doctor friend Jim Petrie and the Aberdeen businessman Ronnie Winram they set up a company and bought three portable tows. “We started with a blank sheet of paper,” McIntosh says. “There was nothing here.”
In the early days, one of the biggest problems they had to contend with was the road to the ski centre being closed due to snow – often in both directions. “The road was the biggest headache,” McIntosh remembers, “but once we got an agreement from Aberdeenshire Council that they would help to open the road when they could, that’s when we decided to go ahead.
“We still used to work on an average of 25-28 days closed due to road closure – that’s about a quarter of your season. But then the roads department allowed us to help them, and basically we’re now contracted to clear the road and they do the gritting. Now we have maybe five days closed on the Aberdeenshire side per season and on the Morayshire side maybe one or two days closed.”
A lot has changed at the Lecht since the early days. In 1984, the resort got its first pisting machine, which McIntosh says made “a huge difference” to the runs, and then in 2004, the old base station (“it was just two sheds!”) was replaced by the eye-catching £1.3 million A-frame structure that’s there now.
The four decades of hard work that McIntosh has put into the centre haven’t gone unnoticed either: at the start of this year he was made an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list.
“I definitely didn’t see that one coming,” he says. When the letter arrived, he was in intensive care following a double lung transplant, but he had recovered sufficiently by June to travel to Buckingham Palace to collect his award from Prince Charles.
McIntosh now describes himself as “semi-retired.” His son Nicholas is now responsible for lift maintenance and piste-grooming. I ask if he has any more plans in the pipeline for this season.
“No no,” he laughs, “I’ve already spent half a million quid on a Snowfactory! I’ve no money left! No, this is my last project. If we can secure the business then we’ll let the younger ones take it on.”
And providing guaranteed snow, I suggest, would be a pretty good way to bow out.
“Aye,” he says, “that’s a pretty good legacy.”