What's going on with the chairlifts at CairnGorm Mountain?

On 21 August, photographs started popping up on social media that appeared to show the destruction of the chairlift towers and other infrastructure on the Coire na Ciste side of the CairnGorm Mountain ski area near Aviemore. The first few images were blurry, evidently taken from a distance with long lenses, so it was hard to tell exactly what was going on up there on the hill. But it didn't take long for members of the Scottish skiing community to hike up to get a closer look. The flurry of pictures that followed showed what many had feared: the towers that once supported the West Wall Chairlift and Ciste Chairlift had been removed '“ felled like so many metal trees '“ and bright orange diggers were in the process of smashing up the concrete plinths on which they once stood. There were reports that snow fencing from the Aonach Bowl and other nearby ski runs was also being removed. On 23 August, a post on the popular Winter Highland Facebook page read: 'Tonight the West Wall Chairlift, along with the ideas, hopes and dreams of the original generation of pioneers of Scottish snowsports, lies smashed up on the slopes of Coire na Ciste.'

Chairlift towers being removed from Coire na Ciste in the CairnGorm Mountain ski area, August 2017 PIC: Alan McKay
Chairlift towers being removed from Coire na Ciste in the CairnGorm Mountain ski area, August 2017 PIC: Alan McKay

The removal of the ski lifts from the Ciste side of CairnGorm Mountain is a hugely complex and emotive issue, involving pressure groups, concerned local business owners and the expenditure of six-figure sums of public money, and it would be impossible to do it justice in a slot as small as this. Fortunately, however, I’ve been given permission to spend several weeks looking into it, with the aim of providing as detailed a picture as possible of what’s going on. In the next few editions of The Scotsman Magazine, I’m hoping to hear from Natural Retreats, the company that currently manages CairnGorm, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the organisation that owns the land, about why they concluded that the chairlifts had to go; I’ll be talking to the Save the Ciste group, who have been campaigning for many years to have the lifts on the Ciste side of the resort renovated; and I’ll be speaking to the leader of the Aviemore Business Association, whose members are now so concerned about what’s happening at the ski centre that they are looking into ways in which they might be able to bring about change on the hill.

First, though, for the non-skiing reader, some background is required. Look at a piste map of the CairnGorm Mountain ski area and you’ll see it splits very obviously into two parts. On the western side, there’s Coire Cas – home to the famous Funicular Railway and such signature ski runs as the White Lady and the Gunbarrel as well as much of the beginner and intermediate terrain. Over on the eastern side, meanwhile, there’s Coire na Ciste, an area made up almost entirely of red and black runs, with the dramatic Ciste Gully running right through the middle and black runs including the West Wall and No1 and No2 Gullies feeding into it from either side.

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On the map, the two sides of the resort look roughly the same size; however, a first-time visitor to CairnGorm at any time since 2005 might have been surprised to discover that, while the Cas side of the hill was served by multiple drag lifts in addition to the Funicular Railway, the majority of the Ciste side was served by just one operational drag lift, the West Wall Poma, even though there appeared to be chairlift pylons all over it.

In fact, from 1974 the Ciste side of the hill was served by two chairlifts: the Ciste Chair and the West Wall Chair. Between them, these two lifts whisked skiers and snowboarders all the way from the Ciste car park to a point from which it was possible to either ski right towards the West Wall and the Ciste Gully or left towards the mellower Aonach Bowl. However, in 2005, the then-operating company, CairnGorm Mountain Limited, began its so called “core lifts” policy, and the chairlifts on the Ciste side of the hill were officially mothballed, with priority being given to the Cas side of the resort. Since then, the Ciste side of the hill has only been served by the West Wall Poma, which – because it requires unbroken snow all the way up its length in order to run – has only provided patchy service to this side of the mountain.

The Save the Ciste campaign has been active since 2011, and as of July 2017 it had built up a following of more than 3,000 skiers who had signed a petition in favour of renovating the Ciste side of the resort. However, at the beginning of August that plan effectively became unworkable, after Natural Retreats and HIE announced a £267,000 clear-up operation to “remove historical and redundant infrastructure from the ski area, much of which could pose a risk to public safety and negatively impacts the appearance of the mountain.” At time of writing, post-clear-up, there’s nothing much left to renovate.

With the chairlift towers gone from Coire na Ciste, you might suppose the debate about its future as part of the ski area would now be over. However, as we’ll discover next week, it’s only just getting started.