Should the troubled CairnGorm Mountain ski area be allowed to return to nature?

There are quotes that don’t age well, and then there are quotes that sounded a bit iffy to begin with and which a few years later, with the benefit of hindsight, come to seem downright delusional. Back in 2014, shortly after the luxury self-catering company Natural Retreats took over the running of the CairnGorm Mountain ski area near Aviemore, they put out a spectacularly ambitious-sounding press release. In it, the company’s CEO, Matthew Spence, claimed that they were going to build “the best terrain park in the world” at CairnGorm, and that their long-term goal was for the resort to host the Winter X Games. Spence also promised not only to “nurture, develop and create future Olympians at CairnGorm” (which he could probably have got away with for a decade or two) but also assured the world that “these athletes will win gold medals at the Winter Olympics in 2018”.

The £26 million funicular railway at the CairnGorm Mountain ski centre is currently out of action. Work is required to strengthen the foundations.
The £26 million funicular railway at the CairnGorm Mountain ski centre is currently out of action. Work is required to strengthen the foundations.

As I said in this column at the time, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of optimism, but these claims were so far divorced from reality that they should really have set alarm bells ringing right, left and centre. Put simply: if the folks at Natural Retreats really believed their own press release, then they had fundamentally failed to understand the many challenges involved in running a ski centre in Scotland.

Suffice to say, none of the things outlined above came to pass. Nor did they even come within a million miles of coming to pass. Fast forward to the present day and CairnGorm is a pale shadow of its 2014 self. The £26 million funicular railway in Coire Cas, previously the primary means of getting skiers up the hill, is out of action for the whole of this season, awaiting structural repairs; the old chairlifts in Coire na Ciste which could have been renovated to provide alternative uplift, were ripped out in the autumn of 2017, so now the only way for paying punters to get up the hill is by drag lift – when there’s enough snow on the up-tracks for the drag lifts to operate, that is, which so far this season hasn’t exactly been a regular occurrence.

And Natural Retreats? Last November they bowed out with the following statement after the subsidiary company they set up to run the ski area went into administration: “When we took over CairnGorm Mountain five years ago, we could see a real potential to create something really special. That potential is still there, but regrettably, it won’t be us leading that journey.”

"Its hard to see the complete demolition of the ski resort going down particularly well with the ski-focused local business community." PIC: Visit Scotland

And yet, the journey goes on, and the long-suffering staff left to run the resort, now funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (which owns the land on which the ski area is situated) have been doing a heroic job of keeping a modest beginners’ piste open on the mountain’s lower slopes, despite periods of ferocious thaw, using a new double-decker Snowfactory and an arsenal of snow guns. Still, in spite of their best efforts, the difference between the Natural Retreats dream (Winter X Games! World’s best terrain park!) and the present-day reality (a single, thin strip of snow surrounded by mostly brown, mostly unskiable hillsides) could hardly be more stark.

In the last couple of weeks, there have been some high-profile calls for the ski resort to be abandoned altogether and the hillsides allowed to return to nature. Writing on the Walk Highlands website, Cameron McNeish (of Adventure Show fame) wondered what the area would be like if all the skiing infrastructure was “stripped out” and Coire Cas and Coire na Ciste were “returned to their natural state.” In the future, McNeish envisages “great swathes of Caledonian Pines spread[ing] uphill from Rothiemurchus and Glenmore and into the Northern Corries.”

Meanwhile, in a blog post on his own website, the author and conservationist Chris Townsend invoked Jim Crumley’s call for “a hundred-year Government commitment to the restoration of the Cairngorm wilderness... the dismantling of every man-made artefact in the mountains.”

It’s hard to see the complete demolition of the ski resort going down particularly well with the ski-focused local business community – when news broke that the funicular was going to be out of action this season, Allan Brattey of the Aviemore Business Association, which represents over 80 businesses in the area, called it “a disaster.” However, perhaps the current crisis presents an opportunity to reimagine the ski area in a way that works for both skiers and conservationists. As reported in this slot a few weeks ago, the foresightful folks at Lowther Hill Ski Club near Leadhills are in the process of planting hundreds of native trees alongside one of their runs, in conjunction with Woodland Trust Scotland. In a few years’ time, it is hoped that these saplings will be big enough to both improve the snow-holding capacity of the nearby slope by sheltering it from the wind and to provide advanced skiers and boarders with what the North Americans call “gladed skiing” – that is, skiing in and out of trees. How much would it cost to partially re-forest the lower slopes at CairnGorm? Probably a lot less than it’s going to cost to fix the funicular.