The pros and cons of CairnGorm Mountain's £27 million masterplan

I've just been watching a very slickly produced short film about the new ten-year, £27 million plan for the CairnGorm Mountain ski area, and '“ on first viewing, at least '“ it looks like a skier or snowboarder's dream come true. If the proposed changes become a reality, two new, super-fast six-man chairlifts will whisk skiers from the current base station to the head of Coire Cas and to a spot at the top of the mountain near the Ptarmigan restaurant, and a number of new pistes will be carved out of the mountainside to link the new lifts to the rest of the resort. The place will be an adrenaline junkie's paradise in the summer too: newly crafted mountain bike tracks will wind their way down the ridgeline currently occupied by the M2 piste, a zip-wire will zig-zag its way from one side of Coire Cas to another and there will even be a rollercoaster (yes, a rollercoaster!) rumbling down what is now the Day Lodge piste.

The Ciste Gully at CairnGorm Mountain on Easter Sunday 2018, about as good as it gets PIC: Stevie McKenna
The Ciste Gully at CairnGorm Mountain on Easter Sunday 2018, about as good as it gets PIC: Stevie McKenna

The so-called “uplift review” in which all these proposals and more are to be found has been prepared by US mountain sports consultants SE Group, at the behest of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE). The review’s stated aim is to unleash CairnGorm’s “immense unlocked potential” over the next decade, boosting visitor numbers and increasing market share. (Presumably what they’re really trying to do is “unlock CairnGorm’s immense potential,” as if something is already unlocked there’s surely no point trying to unlock it again, but we’ll let that slide.)

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SE Group have previously drawn up masterplans for a number of well-known US ski resorts including Deer Valley, Jackson Hole and Stowe Mountain, and as someone who has spent many happy hours riding around the mega-resorts of Colorado, Utah, Nevada and British Columbia over the years, I can certainly see the North American influence in the new CairnGorm plan. The most obvious change is in Coire Cas. Currently, the main runs in this area of the mountain (or, at least, the two that are most reliably open) are the Gunbarrel, which occupies the deep gully in the middle of the coire, and Zig-Zags, a winding green run which follows the course of an access road. These runs are both fairly narrow, but because they occupy natural dips in the terrain they are good at holding onto their snow when the wind starts to howl, which, at CairnGorm in the wintertime, it very often does.

Judging by the animated artist’s impressions in the SE Group film, the new plan would seem to involve creating three new pistes starting just beneath the headwall of Coire na Ciste, two running through the flat, gently-sloping centre of the coire, and the other one contouring along the east side of the Fiacaill Ridge. The idea of three new cruisey blues in this area is certainly very appealing in theory – who wouldn’t want to ski the Scottish equivalent of, say, the Quickdraw run at Steamboat Springs? The concern, though, would be how to create and maintain three wide, open pistes in what is commonly a wind-scoured boulderfield (the snow regularly being stripped off this flat, exposed area by westerly gales and blown into the Gunbarrel and Zig-Zags.) The masterplan allows for additional snowmaking equipment, but I’m not sure if even a £400,000 Snowfactory would be enough here. While Glencoe and the Lecht are both currently proving that it’s possible to use a single Snowfactory to create and maintain a small-ish beginner piste in a relatively sheltered area, I’d be amazed if it was possible to use the same resource to create three longer pistes somewhere so vulnerable to the wind. Would three Snowfactories be enough? Perhaps, but at a combined cost of £1.2 million, plus £35,000 a year each to run, these pistes would have to be spectacularly good to justify the expense, particularly as the SE Group report claims it would be uneconomical to put lifts back into the long-neglected Ciste side of the mountain, which regularly holds its snow until well into the Spring with no artificial assistance whatsoever.

And speaking of expense, a total bill of £27 million to lock up the unhinged potentate of CairnGorm (or whatever the phrase was) also seems like a bit of a splurge when Scotland’s other resorts will presumably not be receiving anything like the same amount of investment. According to HIE’s head of business development, Susan Smith, some of the money might come from “philanthropic investors” but “an element of funding has to come from the public purse.” If I was running one of the other four ski resorts in Scotland, keeping things ticking over in the bad years and making modest infrastructure upgrades whenever the snow gods played ball, I might look at CairnGorm with its (broken) £19.5 million funicular and its new £27 million masterplan and wonder what I had to do in order to get a bigger slice of the pie.