Roger Cox: Late-season skiing in Scotland needs a rethink

Robbie Paton, winner of the men's snowboard division, competing at the Lawers of Gravity event on Meall nan Tarmachan'. Picture: Roger Cox
Robbie Paton, winner of the men's snowboard division, competing at the Lawers of Gravity event on Meall nan Tarmachan'. Picture: Roger Cox
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The two-year-old and I are enjoying a lazy Wednesday afternoon at CairnGorm Mountain, building weird, skinny-looking snowmen beside the Polar Express tow. The reason our snowmen are so Giacometti-svelte is because the freshly fallen snow is too powdery to build anything more substantial – the best we can manage are wonky towers of snowballs that topple over every now and again and have to be rebuilt from scratch.

The air temperature up here, we were informed during our ride up the mountain in the funicular (or “magic snow train” as it’s also known) is 14 degrees C, and the sun is beating down from an almost completely cloudless sky. Best of all, in what is probably one of the windiest places anywhere in the British Isles, there is only the faintest hint of a breeze.

Then, just as the five-year-old returns from the park with mum in tow, a snowboarder nonchalantly cruises past us wearing nothing but his boots and boxers. Ordinarily you might assume he was doing this for a dare, but given the weather, and given the number of sweaty-looking people we’ve seen puffing around in full winter clobber, he’s arguably one of the more sensibly dressed people on the hill.

Skiing in Scotland in spring can be idyllic – OK sure, not every day, but often. And yet it seems that, in spite of the best efforts of the Scottish ski industry over many years, the glory of late-season sliding remains an improbably well-kept secret. On the day we were at CairnGorm the main car park was less than a third full, and there wasn’t a queue to be found anywhere (in stark contrast to certain stormy, freezing days I’ve experienced in January, when you can sometimes spend more time waiting in lines than skiing them.)

It’s the same story over in the west, too: perfect conditions but not many takers. When I get back to my desk after a stunning week in the ‘Gorms, one of the first e-mails I open is a press release from Glencoe Mountain ski area that says:

“It’s not a lack of snow that will close the resort this year – it will be a lack of customers. Despite the amazing skiing available, numbers on the mountain have dropped as customers pack away the skis and get out the golf clubs and tennis racquets. We plan to stay open daily until 2 May but after that, unless the skier numbers pick up, we will be forced to close with many runs on the mountain still open.”

Attached to the e-mail is a snap of a lone skier swooping down the Flypaper that looks like something you might expect to see in an ad from the Austrian tourist board.

This frustrating lack of late-season customers is by no means a new phenomenon – I remember interviewing Ski-Scotland chair Heather Negus about it six years ago, and I’m sure it’s been an issue for much longer than that. Clearly, though, the old strategies aren’t working, so perhaps it’s time for a different approach.

One of the reasons people might not bother with late-season skiing is that the runs on offer tend to be quite short compared to earlier in the year, as the snowline retreats up the hill. Another, allied problem, is that once the snow under a ski tow melts, the runs it serves are often declared “closed” even if they’re still in fantastic nick, so there are usually fewer runs on offer than in peak season. This sometimes seems to be the case at CairnGorm when (as is the case now) the West Wall Poma is no longer able to function due to lack of snow, even though the Ciste Gully that runs alongside it is in near-perfect shape.

But rather than simply closing these runs when they are no longer linked to the rest of the resort by drag lifts, what if the resorts simply started marking them as “open/walk out” and then providing an estimated “walk out” time, to give people an indication of how far they would have to hike at the bottom to get back to a functioning lift, perhaps adding a little signage to help them find their way? Resorts would then be able to offer customers a far greater variety of runs much later into the season, which can only be good for business.

To give an example of how this might work, as of last Wednesday, the Ciste Gully was skiable almost all the way to the bottom of the West Wall Poma. The tow is now out of action, but the walk from there back to the Funicular Base Station (up Over Yonder and down the Day Lodge Piste) will probably take most people around 20 minutes. That’s not a huge price to pay in order to ski one of the best runs in Scotland in a T-shirt – or, indeed, in your boxers.