Roger Cox: CairnGorm skis into the future as the dream of making snow becomes a reality

Colin Matthew, operations manager at CairnGorm Mountain operates a Techno Alpin snowguns
Colin Matthew, operations manager at CairnGorm Mountain operates a Techno Alpin snowguns
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IN AUGUST 2011 I used this slot to imagine a sci-fi future at CairnGorm Mountain – a future in which artificial snowmaking equipment made it possible to ski or board from the current funicular base station all the way down to Glenmore village, nearly 4km distant.

This wasn’t purely wishful thinking – my little flight of fancy was based on the very credible research of an Edinburgh University geography student and extreme skier called Jamie Johnson, who had calculated that even in a mild winter like 2007, just ten snow guns would be able to create a 15-20m wide piste for 120 days, as long there were trees on either side to protect it from the sun, wind and rain.

As I admitted at the time, the idea of an artificially created piste linking the existing ski area with Glenmore is a little far-fetched. Snow guns are hugely expensive to buy, and CairnGorm’s budgets are so tightly controlled by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which saved it from going into receivership in 2008, that such large-scale projects are almost unthinkable as long as the resort remains under government control. So it was an odd feeling, a couple of weeks ago, to find myself up at CairnGorm again, watching a large yellow snow cannon belching out huge clouds of white stuff – like waking up in the middle of one of your favourite daydreams and realising the dream has become reality.

The piste in question wasn’t Jamie Johnson’s fantasy trail down to Glenmore though, but Zig Zags. Not the sexiest of CairnGorm’s many runs, perhaps, but vital to the smooth running of the resort all the same. These little green-graded switchbacks are a high-traffic area, funnelling skiers and boarders from the busy Coire Cas side of the mountain down to the funicular middle station. Once they lose their snow, the flow of skiers around the mountain becomes much more problematic, with beginners more-or-less confined to the Ptarmigan Bowl at the top of the hill. With snow guns running this season, however, the Zig Zags should remain open as long as they are needed, and there are plans to use the guns elsewhere on the mountain, too, to patch up scoured areas when required.

Formerly head of ski patrol, Colin Matthew is going into his third winter as CairnGorm’s operations manager, and has become something of a YouTube sensation for his regular conditions updates, posted on the CairnGorm website throughout the season. “Snowmaking’s been talked about for years up here,” he says, “but in the past there wasn’t much enthusiasm or we didn’t have enough knowledge of it so it wasn’t very high on the agenda.”

Matthew first trialled a snowgun at CairnGorm in the winter of 2009/10, but there was so much natural snow that the gun was quickly buried and forgotten about. Then, the following season, the gun was damaged when a freak storm blew it down the hill. Finally, last year, it was possible to conduct a proper test and the results impressed Matthew enough to persevere with a more extensive trial for 2012/13. Four snowguns are being leased from Italian company Techno Alpin, and Matthew believes they will more than pay for themselves.

“We got weather data for the last five years and we discovered there’s probably 40 days a year when temperatures are right to make snow,” he says. “That was only temperature data, not wind [high winds prevent snowmaking], but we made the case that if we only had three or four days of snowmaking in certain areas to help keep links open or get a run open quicker then there would be a financial gain.”

As if to prove the point, when CairnGorm opened for the season on 1 December they were able to offer skiing all the way down to the middle station, charging £25 a ticket. Without the snowguns, Matthew doesn’t think the Zig Zags would have been passable, which would have meant they could only have opened the upper part of the mountain and only charged £15. That might not sound like much of a difference, but every time CairnGorm has a good day, big infrastructure projects like, say, the re-opening of the much-mourned Coire na Ciste and West Wall chairlifts, seem that little bit more possible. True, the 4km mega-piste down to Glenmore may still be a long way off yet. But that’s fine. It’ll be worth the wait.