Roger Cox: New operator could boost CairnGorm

IMAGINE, if you will, a ski resort in the Scottish Highlands, spread across two beautiful little valleys.

The CairnGorm funicular. Picture: TSPL

One valley has a couple of steepish red runs near the top, but mostly it consists of mellow, cruisey terrain, great for beginners and intermediates; the other valley contains a number of challenging descents much loved by experts.

Once upon a time the resort was perfectly set up to cater to both groups: each side had its own car park, its own access road and its own lift system.

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The experts could pull up at the bottom of their favourite part of the mountain, jump on a chairlift and get stuck straight into their favourite runs, and the beginners and intermediates could do the same. The sun shone, the ptarmigans squawked in their snow burrows and everyone was deliriously happy.

As the years rolled by, however, and cheap flights to the continent took their toll on business, the lifts on the advanced side of the hill were allowed to decay, to the point where there was only one surface tow left serving this prime slice of skiing real estate, and it was no longer possible to access it direct from the advanced car park.

Instead, everyone was forced to start their day on the beginner side of the hill, causing horrific queues on average days and apocalyptic queues whenever it snowed.

For years, the skiers and boarders who frequented the mountain wished and prayed for a handsome prince (or even a smarmy Russian oligarch) to come and rescue them by buying up their ski resort and sorting out the really really obvious problem with the lifts, but the resort was owned by the government, and the government said “not bloody likely, you’re already costing us far too much money”.

The resort in question is, of course, the tautologically monikered CairnGorm Mountain, and earlier this month a handsome prince finally materialised, in the shape of leisure and travel company Natural Retreats, which has been awarded a 25-year lease to run the business by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

Surprisingly, however, the initial press release from the new owners failed to make any mention of improving uplift on Coire na Ciste – the advanced side of the resort.

Instead, it spoke of “increasing food and beverage outlets”, getting rid of the existing Day Lodge and spending £4 million on a replacement, and – most worryingly for skiers – “creating a full day of activities outside of winter sports”. As if what the place has been crying out for all these years was a bowling alley.

So, looking for reassurance, I called Ewan Kearney, chief operating officer of Natural Retreats.

“We’ve taken a long-term lease,” he told me, “and for us the most important thing was to ensure the core assets and the core infrastructure were working as efficiently as possible. There are major issues with queueing, there are problems with the layout of the Day Lodge, there are problems with the layout of the Ptarmigan [restaurant] and the existing ski infrastructure is quite old, so there is going to be a significant amount of investment from us and from HIE to make all that robust.

“We’re going to put the majority of that into the Day Lodge and the main customer areas, but during that period we will be looking at other areas on the mountain.”

So are there plans afoot to bring back the Ciste chairlifts?

“Not immediately, no… but it is something we’re going to look very closely at.”

Has research been done into how much it would cost to reinstate the derelict lifts on that side of the resort?

“It has, yes – research into the cost to replace them, the potential visitor numbers, the revenue taken from ticket sales… that has all been put into the big plan.”

And would it be a case of refurbishing what’s there or tearing it all down and starting again?

“I could probably give you a steer towards the latter. It would be a significant investment. But there are strong cases to say, all over the site, repair vs replacement, and we’re looking at that very closely.”

Throughout our talk, Kearney is keen to stress how open-minded his company is, how ready to listen to its customers.

So if there’s enough demand, expressed in the right way, the Ciste chairlifts might still get their fairytale ending, after all.