Roger Cox: Room for compromise over CairnGorm Mountain dry ski slope plan

A snowboarder enjoying CairnGorm Mountain on a good day PIC: Steven McKenna
A snowboarder enjoying CairnGorm Mountain on a good day PIC: Steven McKenna
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As regular readers of this column will know, there’s a very special place in my heart reserved for the U-shaped ski run in Coire na Ciste, on the quieter eastern side of the CairnGorm Mountain ski resort. I’m sure it’s plenty of fun on skis, but on a snowboard it can feel truly epic, like surfing two giant waves back to back. Most people tend to zip straight down the middle of it, which is fine, but in my humble opinion they’re missing the point. To get the most out of the Ciste, you really need to wait until it’s good and quiet and then treat it like a giant, snow-filled drainpipe: build up a decent head of steam across the Ptarmigan Bowl, and then, as the walls of the gully start to loom in your peripheral vision, climb up the wall on the right, get as high as you can without losing too much speed and then arc back down towards the bottom. Feel the Gs push you down into the soles of your boots as you transition from speeding down one side of the gully to speeding up the other, then put in another turn somewhere high up on the opposite wall and enjoy a split-second of weightlessness before swooping back down again. Repeat as many times as you can before you run out of road or before your knees buckle and you end up in a heap.

Obviously this is not something to try on a busy day, with scores of skiers zig-zagging down the middle of the gully like so many brightly coloured skittles. Usually it’s a treat to be left until late in the season when you don’t have to wait too long for a break in the traffic, or even something to do when the season’s over, the lifts have stopped running, and you can climb up there on a warm spring day and have the place to yourself. For several seasons this has been a favourite April activity of mine, but when I was in the Cairngorms over the Easter break this year, hoping against hope for a little Ciste therapy, there wasn’t quite enough white stuff to make it worthwhile: about half-way down the gully the snow disappeared and gave way to the rushing waters of the Allt na Ciste, before turning into snow again for the bottom section. Still, the Ciste was the nearest thing CairnGorm had to a complete ski run; the more popular Coire Cas side of the mountain was in a sorry state following a winter that may well prove to have been the worst on record in terms of the total number of skiable days.

Against this backdrop it’s hard to argue with the logic of a new proposal announced by Natural Retreats, the company that operates CairnGorm, to install a new dry ski slope to the left hand side of the Day Lodge piste (by the car park) in time for next season. With consistent snow cover no longer a given thanks to global warming, and millions of pounds’ worth of ski infrastructure already installed on the hill, it seems like a contingency plan so blindingly obvious it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done already.

That said, there are objections to the scheme – and to the proposed enlargement of the Ptarmigan Restaurant building near the summit of Cairn Gorm, announced at the same time – from groups including the John Muir Trust. The JMT’s policy officer John Low tells me: “[we] are highly sceptical about the proposals at this stage and we would not support any development which would further scar the slopes of Cairn Gorm and be visible from within the [Cairngorms National] Park.”

I have a huge amount of respect for the JMT and the work they do in protecting wild land in Scotland, and I’m glad to see they’re on the ball here, scrutinising any developments on CairnGorm on our behalf. At the same time, however, I can’t help thinking that in this particular case it must be possible to reach some kind of compromise in which the proposed dry slope is allowed to go ahead as long as it is sensitively installed to minimise its visual impact. The coire in which it will be situated could hardly be described as virgin landscape as things stand: there’s a huge funicular railway running right through the middle of it, propped up on gigantic concrete pillars for much of its length, not to mention all kinds of drag-lift infrastructure, miles of tracks and snow fences and various huts and sheds, in addition to the already very large buildings at the top and bottom of the funicular and a car park so enormous it’s probably visible from space. Adding a dry ski slope and extending the funicular top station a bit (or even a lot) are hardly going to change the character of the place.

I should add for the record that I find snowboarding on a dry slope so unpleasant as to be more-or-less pointless, so a dry slope here isn’t going to benefit me one bit, but it’s fine for skiers, and if building a dry slope helps make CairnGorm a viable long-term proposition, with a ski school that can offer lessons all year round, then it can only be a good thing. Hopefully a promised review of uplift on the mountain will also lead to a re-think about how access to Coire na Ciste could be improved. As the folks at the Save The Ciste campaign have been pointing out for years, restoring the now defunct West Wall Chairlift would massively improve CairnGorm’s offering in both good years and bad. That would also mean I had the Ciste gully to myself less often, of course, but I’m sure I’d cope.