Disputed accounts muddy the picture as CairnGorm's ski lift saga goes on

The last time I interviewed the Scottish skier and activist Jamie Johnston was in 2011, and he was a geography student at the University of Edinburgh, writing his final year dissertation on the failed Mar Lodge Ski Centre at Braemar. With a few tweaks here and there, he told me, the ill-fated resort could have survived a lot longer than the couple of seasons it managed in the mid-1960s. The profs in the Geography department at Edinburgh evidently agreed with him, because a few months after our conversation he graduated with a first.

"Why the West Wall Chairlift mattered in a single photo" - a graphic prepared by Jamie Johnston showing uplift in Coire na Ciste in the CairnGorm Mountain ski area. PIC: courtesy of Jamie Johnston / Save the Ciste

Since then, Johnston has devoted a lot of his free time to campaigning for the reinstatement of the chairlifts in Coire na Ciste – the eastern half of CairnGorm Mountain ski area near Aviemore where much of the steeper terrain is to be found. When he and a few other enthusiasts started their campaign – dubbed “Save the Ciste” – the two chairlifts that used to serve this side of the hill had been closed down as part of the resort’s so-called “core lifts policy” and the only way of skiing such iconic runs as the Ciste Gully was by using the West Wall Poma. As Johnston showed, however, in a study carried out over four seasons, from 2010 to 2014, the West Wall Poma can usually only operate for around 45 days a season because it is sited on a ridge which frequently has the snow stripped off it by hairdryer winds. Meanwhile, the deep ravine of the Ciste often holds its snow for around 150 days a season. Long story short: since 2005, there have been countless days when the folks at the CairnGorm ski centre have been unable to open what most advanced skiers agree is the best bit of the mountain – not because there wasn’t enough snow on the runs, but because the chairlifts originally built to serve these runs had been taken out of action, and because the remaining drag lift was unable to operate because it didn’t have enough snow on its uptrack.

When Natural Retreats took over the running of CairnGorm in 2014 they invited the Save the Ciste group to come up with suggestions as to what could be done to redevelop that side of the hill. Members of Save the Ciste made a presentation of their proposals to Natural Retreats in November 2015, and one of their key recommendations was the renovation of the two chairlifts. Last week in this slot, Natural Retreats’ head of technical services Adam Gough said he had subsequently invited Save the Ciste to present a business case for reinstating the lifts in Coire na Ciste but it had not been forthcoming. The chairlifts were finally demolished by Highlands and Islands Enterprise in August this year.

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Johnston sees things differently. “Adam Gough saw a presentation of the Ciste proposals,” he says. “We made him aware that the costings had been done for each part. He has now said that the economic case has not been made, but he didn’t ask for our costings. Even without our costings, it wouldn’t have taken Natural Retreats much additional work to come up with a revenue forecast themselves.”

When I spoke to Gough last week, he explained that a full review of all remaining uplift on the mountain would be happening soon. Johnston says he would like to know “why Natural Retreats allowed the chairlifts [in Coire na Ciste] to be removed before the upcoming uplift review could be carried out.”

Johnston also takes issue with the statement Gough made last week that the decision to get rid of the lifts was made solely by the landlords, Highlands and Islands Enterprise: “Prior to Natural Retreats taking over the mountain lease in 2014, it was said during tendering that Coire na Ciste contained two chairlifts which could be brought back into service. Does this not somewhat negate what Mr Gough has said about Natural Retreats not having a say in the process, and that [by demolishing the lifts] HIE were simply completing the work they started in 2005?”

The Ciste chairlifts are now gone, so whether renovating them would have made financial sense or not is a moot point. However, given that Natural Retreats have said they are open to the idea of improving uplift in the Ciste in the future, as long as it could be shown to be economically viable, it seems worth noting the increase in visitor numbers and revenue projected by Save the Ciste, were the old chairlifts to be replaced.

Using HIE’s own model for on-mountain spend, Johnston calculates that putting lifts back in the Ciste would be worth between £889,000 and £1.1 million per year, based on the average of 109 “lost” days per season recorded between 2010 and 2014 (ie. days where the Ciste side of the hill was closed despite there being skiable snow). That’s assuming 125 additional people turned up on midweek days to ski the Ciste, and 400 additional people turned up on weekend days. Having spoken to representatives from other Scottish ski centres, where chairlifts are currently being built, Johnston estimates that replacing both of the Ciste chairlifts would cost between £2.4 and £2.6 million.

“This means that the cost to reinstate each chairlift has risen by about a multiple of four compared to what could have been paid in 2010,” he says, referring to a report carried out in that year into the cost of renovating the lifts by the Swiss company that originally installed them. “The demolition [of the lifts] has unquestionably made the economics harder to justify.”

*Next week: HIE CEO Charlotte Wright offers her perspective