Cairngorm numbers slump despite record snowfall

A skiier enjoys the slopes at the Cairngorms. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
A skiier enjoys the slopes at the Cairngorms. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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SCOTLAND’S top ski resort has seen its numbers go steeply downhill despite record amounts of snow last winter.

CairnGorm Mountain saw numbers of skiers and snowboarders fall by more than a third and by over 35,000 to less than 77,500.

CairnGorm Mountain had its earliest start in four years and also attracted a record number of snowsports enthusiasts on a single day when 3,382 hit the slopes on February 19.

Persistent strong winds badly affected the number of days on which skiers and boarders were able to access the slopes.

There were only 108 operational days during the season while 26 were stormed off when neither the funicular railway nor any other uplift ran at all.

The railway connects a base station with the Ptarmigan Restaurant 1,097m (3,599ft) up Cairn Gorm mountain.

And on 18 of the days when the resort near Aviemore was open, the mountain railway was again not able to run which limited activities.

The overall numbers of skier days for the season were just 77,430 - a figure which the company says was close to its budget.

Last year CairnGorm Mountain attracted 113,000, but it recorded just 66,463 snowsports enthusiasts during its 50th anniversary season 2011-12, suffering losses of over £440,000.

However it made pre-tax profits of nearly £240,000 last year thanks to the bumper winter sports season.

Next month a leisure business is to take over the running of CairnGorm Mountain, which usually accounts for more than a third of the total number of skier days in Scotland’s entire winter sports season.

Wilmslow-based Natural Retreats UK was named in February as the preferred bidder for the centre, which includes Scotland’s only funicular railway and the UK’s highest restaurant.

Natural Retreats owns holiday accommodation at a number of locations in the UK and elsewhere, including John O’Groats in Caithness.

Its 25-year lease for the running of CairnGorm Mountain starts in June.

Natural Retreats said it would invest £6.2m in the resort over the next five years. Highlands and Islands Enterprise has also given the company a £4m loan to develop a new day lodge.

Commenting on the winter season, CairnGorm Mountain Marketing Manager Colin Kirkwood said: “It was undoubtedly an unusual and challenging season.

“Our average number of stormed off days in a season is 19; to have had 26 plus a further 18 days without the funicular during such a snowy winter was very frustrating, not only for our customers but for all the staff who worked so hard to try to get and keep the facilities open.

“At the end of the season we sent out an online feedback questionnaire to our snowsports customers and also conducted a focus group with a cross-section of them.

“The results showed that in all areas of our business at least 70 per cent of our customers rated us as good or excellent.”

When a focus group were asked what improvements would make CairnGorm Mountain a better experience, the majority said to re-open the Ciste side of the mountain. Also mentioned was general investment in lift infrastructure and dry-matting on the car park t-bar.

“During the summer we are expecting to be busy with visitors going up on the funicular to do our guided ‘Walk at the Top’ to the summit of Cairn Gorm and our guided mountain bike descents,” added Mr Kirkwood.

These activities as well as funicular tickets are available to book online and the company has already noticed a considerable increase in the number of customers doing this.

The funicular railway has to undergo some essential maintenance and during June 22-27 the resort will be the starting point for a whole programme of guided walks of different lengths under the banner of the CairnGorm Mountain Walking Festival.

In response to feedback from customers the funicular will run until 8pm on Thursdays in July and August with the Ptarmigan restaurant and bar remaining open until then for the service of meals form the grill there.

The resort is also the starting and finishing point for a number of endurance events during the summer and will be hosting a ride out of Harley Davidson motorbikes during the Thunder in the Glens weekend in August.

The winter snow sports season has also been disappointing for The Lecht in Aberdeenshire which closed on March 8, after missing the big dumps of snow, but Nevis Range, Glenshee and Glencoe have had good years.

Scotland’s five mountain ski areas generated more than £29m after a near record-breaking season last year.

No fewer than 290,996 ‘skier days’ were recorded during the long season, which started in late November and lasted well into late May.