March the cruellest month for Scotland's ski centres

On the afternoon of Saturday 28 March, I checked the webcams for Scotland’s five ski centres. The Glenshee camera was temporarily out of action and the snow was looking a bit patchy at the Lecht, but at Glencoe, the Flypaper, Spring Run and Main Basin all appeared to be in great nick, at Cairngorm the Gunbarrel was also nicely filled in, and at Nevis Range the Goose was looking good enough to eat, bathed in golden afternoon sunlight. After a winter that had started painfully slowly, snow-wise, Scotland’s ski industry finally had some good conditions to celebrate. Only, of course, nobody was celebrating. This was the first weekend of lockdown in the UK, non-essential travel was forbidden and all the ski centres were all closed.

Looking down The Goose at Nevis Range, Saturday 28 March 2020

“In light of COVID-19, everyone’s health and safety is the most important thing,” read a statement on the ski-scotland website. “All ski centres are closed at the present time. This means despite the love and desire to share our friendly, passionate and unique country, we must ask everyone at this time not to travel to or around Scotland. Please stay safe everyone.”

There are, of course, much more serious things going on in the world right now than the closure of a few ski hills; nevertheless, from the perspective of the Scottish snowsports industry, the lockdown arrived with particularly cruel timing. Already this season, the ski centres have had to deal with the continuing closure of the funicular railway at Cairngorm and the fire that destroyed the beautiful, log cabin-style base station at Glencoe. Not only that, December and January were almost entirely snow-free, making a strong end to the season something of an economic imperative.

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In February, it finally seemed as if the day might have been saved, particularly in the west, as the first meaningful snowstorms of the season arrived. On 12 February, Glencoe was reporting top-to-bottom skiing with sunny skies and light winds, and by the end of the month a ski journalist visiting the resort from London was moved to tweet “Believe the hype! #Scotland is boasting some of the most epic ski conditions in Europe right now!” By early March, Cairngorm was reporting “tremendous conditions” while at Glencoe the fences on the plateau had been almost completely covered. Perhaps the 2019/20 season wouldn’t be a wash-out after all.

But then... coronavirus. Reacting to the directives emanating from Downing Street, which announced the closure of pubs, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and gyms and leisure centres on Friday 20 March, the ski centres shut down that weekend. Nevis, The Lecht and Glencoe closed on the Saturday; Glenshee and Cairngorm closed on the Sunday. The statement issued by Nevis Range perhaps summed up how the whole industry must have been feeling: “We have, with pain in our hearts, decided to temporarily close Nevis Range starting today (21 of March) until further notice. We all feel devastated, but as safety is our main priority we feel this is the only decision we can make.”

Inevitably perhaps, there was a certain amount of online grumbling about the fact that all five centres were still open on the 21st, and that two of them remained open on the 22nd. However, at this time there was no government ban on ski centres remaining open, nor was there a ban on non-essential travel – the full, nationwide lockdown didn’t come into effect until Monday 23 March. In the absence of any definitive government ruling, the ski centres were forced to decide for themselves when to close. The fact that they decided to shut themselves down before the government finally decided to shut the country down – in spite of the fact that they were enjoying such stellar conditions – speaks volumes.

So, for now and for the foreseeable future, the slopes of Scotland’s ski hills remain deserted. At Glencoe, the pomas on the plateau swing eerily to and fro in the breeze; at Nevis, there is nobody around to enjoy the late afternoon alpenglow and watch storm clouds blowing across Loch Linnhe; and at Cairngorm, as the light fades, the surface of the Gunbarrel – usually chopped up by countless ski tracks by this stage of the day – is still unusually pristine.

In an attempt to strike an upbeat note, Glencoe announced that they were closing down with the following statement: “That’s it folks, the 2019/2020 ski season at Glencoe is now over... unless the snow lasts until June.”

It’s nice to think that this might all be over by then, and that Glencoe’s famous Midsummer Slide might be able to go ahead as normal. As things stand, however, that seems unlikely.