December can be a nerve-wracking time for lovers of Scottish snow, with each hint of white stuff in the long-range forecast prompting flurries of speculation.
Can we look forward to another stellar winter like 2009/10, which kicked off well before Christmas with a blanket of deep powder stretching all the way from Broad Law to Ben Hope? Or (whisper it) are we in for a lean year like 2011/12, when a killer combination of poor snow conditions in the Highlands and fantastic conditions in the Alps spelled trouble for Scottish resorts, which recorded the second lowest number of skier visits since records began?
This year, for the first time in a decade, there has been no December skiing to speak of at any of the five Scottish resorts, with the exception of a very limited opening at Nevis Range on 27 December, which saw around 300 skiers and boarders using the Alpha and Rope tows to access the lower slopes of Aonach Mor. CairnGorm Mountain is often the first Scottish ski centre to open, and it has been able to offer skiing in December every year for the last ten, but this year: nothing.
So is it time to panic? Does a snow-deprived December bode ill for the rest of the season? Well, not necessarily.
The first thing to say is that the early starts to the ski season we’ve enjoyed in recent years are not really the norm. At Nevis Range, for example, in 27 years of operation they have only started running the lifts in December 19 times. Not all of those later starts have been in January either – a few have been in February.
Down the road at Glencoe, meanwhile, although they’ve opened before Christmas for five of the last seven seasons, in 60 years of operation they’ve only managed a grand total of six pre-Christmas openings. True, this is partly because in the early days there was no attempt to start skiing until the worst of the winter storms were over, usually sometime in mid-February, but still: it’s pretty clear that December skiing has never exactly been a given.
Another thing frustrated skiers and boarders may wish to consider as they sit glued to their phones and tablets, obsessively refreshing the Met Office website, is that there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between when a ski season starts and how successful it turns out to be. That record-breakingly bad winter of 2011/12, with a total of just 131,678 skier days across the five resorts, started early, with the first skiing on 10 December. The only winter worse than that was 2006-7 (a catastrophic total of just 78,723 skier days), and again, that was a relatively early start, with the lifts running for the first time on 16 December.
From a consumer perspective then, a late start to the ski season is really no big deal – based on the evidence of previous seasons, there’s little to suggest that the next few months won’t deliver some fantastic skiing in spite of the disappointment of recent weeks.
But what about the ski resorts? Won’t they suffer, having effectively lost the first month of what tends to be a five-month season? Well, again, the picture isn’t anywhere near as bleak as you might think.
While an early start is obviously a nice bonus for the resorts, lift tickets sold in December tend to represent only a very small fraction of their total income: in the last three years, December skiing has accounted for an average of just 5.3 per cent of total skier days. Of course, no business wants to lose 5 per cent of its annual takings, but at least that’s nowhere near the 20 per cent a casual glance at the calendar might suggest.
As Ski-Scotland chair Heather Negus puts it “winter does arrive every year, and there’s still plenty of time for Scottish skiers and boarders to get all the sliding they might hope for.” And, even as I write this, the weekend of 9 and 10 January is starting to look promising, with some of the ski centres reporting heavy snow already falling and more in the forecast.
Will there be skiing on offer by the time you read this? Perhaps. Will there be skiing on offer between now and 1 May? Definitely. The trick, as always, is to make sure you’re prepared to make the most of the snow when it eventually arrives; so sharpen those edges, patch up those salopettes, locate your goggles and treat yourself to a new pair of ski socks. Because this year, of all years, there are no excuses for being unprepared.
• For the latest information on conditions at Scotland’s ski resorts, visit www.ski-scotland.com