The CairnGorm funicular crisis: trying to look on the bright side

The Ciste Gully at CairnGorm Mountain, Easter 2018. PIC: Stevie McKenna / ski-scotland
The Ciste Gully at CairnGorm Mountain, Easter 2018. PIC: Stevie McKenna / ski-scotland
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Things are looking a bit bleak up at CairnGorm Mountain, and no, I’m not talking about the weather. However, Final Words is a glass half-full kind of column, so this week I’ll be examining some of the ways in which the ski centre’s current travails might turn out to be good news, both in the short term and in the long run. First though, a brief recap of the bad news, just in case you’ve missed it.

Following the announcement last month that the CairnGorm funicular would need to be closed for the whole of November so that damage to the concrete track supports could be assessed, it has emerged that Natural Retreats, the company that operates the ski area, is preparing for “a winter without the train.” With the most effective way of getting skiers to the top of the mountain looking likely to be out of action for the foreseeable, it has been announced that a million quid or so is to be spent on new snowmaking equipment – including the installation of a state-of-the-art Snowfactory – to ensure the low-level surface lifts will be able to transport skiers to the upper mountain, even on days when there is no natural snow at lower levels.

Sadly, however, this rescue package hasn’t been enough to save the planned ski school programme, and instructors at the CairnGorm Snow School were recently informed that, due to the closure of the funicular, the school will be closed for the season.

There are, of course, countless reasons why a bad year for CairnGorm could mean a bad year for the local economy. Local business owners have already expressed concern that, even with all the resort’s surface lifts working at full capacity, skiers will simply go elsewhere, and they predict that hotels, bars and restaurants in the area will all suffer as a result.

But should skiers really avoid CairnGorm this winter? No doubt many people will already be planning to ski at Scotland’s other resorts instead, put off by all the negative publicity. For those who prefer a peaceful skiing experience, however, this could work in their favour. Sometimes there’s an advantage to taking the contrarian view: if fewer people are going to go to CairnGorm this season, that means the slopes will be quieter, the pistes will stay groomed for longer and the off-piste powder stashes won’t all get tracked out by 10am.

True, it might take a bit longer to get up the mountain first thing, when everyone and their granny will be lining up to use two or perhaps three drag lifts starting at car park level, but unless conditions are spectacular you’ll probably be doing most of your skiing or boarding on the top half of the mountain anyway, so once you get up there all will be well. If there’s enough snow on these upper runs for skiing, the lifts alongside them should all have enough snow on their up-tracks to operate too.

Also, it’s also worth bearing in mind that CairnGorm is not Chamonix. It really isn’t a very long walk from, say, the car park to the funicular middle station, and from here you can easily hop onto either the M1 Poma (to access the M1, the White Lady and the Ciste side of the mountain) or the Coire Cas T-Bar, if you’re looking forward to being able to use the full width of the Gunbarrel, now that all the crowds are elsewhere.

For those who don’t already know their way around the hill, or for those who refuse to walk more than a few yards carrying their skis, this probably won’t be a the best winter to visit CairnGorm. For those who are prepared to put in a bit of extra effort, though, and who are happy enough to cut the staff running the resort under difficult conditions a bit of slack, the 2018/19 season has the potential to be a memorable one.

The funicular fail could be good news in the longer term, too. For a start, it has forced CairnGorm to follow Glencoe and the Lecht and invest in a Snowfactory. Being able to manufacture snow for the resort’s lower slopes can only be a positive thing for the future, as global warming will inevitably make the skiing there more and more marginal.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the current crisis has highlighted in the most graphic way imaginable the problem with the resort’s present uplift strategy – namely that, by relying too heavily on one lift (the funicular) on one side of the mountain, you inevitably face huge problems when that one lift fails. CairnGorm used to have two main entry points, one in Coire Cas, and the other in Coire na Ciste, spreading the crowds and the risks. If nothing else, this year’s funicular disaster has certainly made a convincing case for a return to the former arrangement.