The unpredictable nature of the Scottish ski industry has hit boiling point this week. The main lift in the country’s second largest resort, Cairngorm Mountain, is closed indefinitely, and this has now been followed by the closure of the ski school – a startling blow for the local community, which relies heavily on the economy driven by skiing in the area.
The Cairngorm Mountain funicular, which cost an estimated £19.5million to build in 2001 and is the only lift of its kind in Scotland, was closed last month to allow engineers to assess its safety and structure. Whether the track will open at all this winter is uncertain and could have a huge impact on the ski area’s capacity.
“The investigative works will last until at least the end of November, during which time the funicular will remain closed. The work will include excavation to enable the inspection of foundations and on-going monitoring of the structure,” said Ewan Kearney, chief operating officer at Cairngorm Mountain.
“While this is placing the operating business in an extremely challenging situation, rest assured we are also very mindful of the significance of this situation to the entire local area and are working to resolve this situation quickly and safely,” said Kearney.
The funicular lift, which starts at the base of the mountain, provides the main access to the area’s slopes, including the beginner-friendly areas where lessons and training activities take place.
In another dramatic setback for Cairngorm, this week instructors from the Cairngorm Snow School have been told the school won’t operate this winter. It’s estimated 50 jobs have been lost. An email to employees, which was published on Facebook reads: “Due to the impact of the current closure of the Cairngorm Funicular Railway, it has been decided that while we are awaiting the technical report on the status of the funicular, we will not be operating a snow school this 2018/19 winter season.”
Just days after the announcement Disability Snowsport UK (DSUK), a UK charity that provides access to snow sports for those living with disability, suspended its booking system as it waits to hear how it can operate without the funicular. “As many of you know, our Cairngorm ski school is close to our hearts, it’s where it all began over 40 years ago and is the only mountain in the UK to host a DSUK ski school,” said the charity’s chief executive Mark Kelvin in a statement on social media.
“The safety and enjoyment of DSUK skiers and their families is paramount… We are currently exploring how we might be able to deliver skiing on the beautiful Cairngorm mountain without the funicular railway.”
Cairngorm Estate, including the funicular, is owned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE). The resort and its infrastructure is run by commercial operator, CairnGorm Mountain Limited (CML), which leased the daily operation of the ski area to Natural Retreats in 2014. All three companies are under fire from local community groups angered by the recent developments, with some calling it a ‘total disaster’ and a ‘disgraceful shambles’ on the Save the Ciste Facebook page, which calls for the redevelopment of the Coire na Ciste chairlift at Cairngorm.
Susan Smith, HIE’s head of business development, said: “This is a highly regrettable situation, over which we have very limited control. We are treating this as extremely urgent and doing all we can to address the problem and have the funicular returned to full service as quickly as possible.”
Local politicians have also criticised the decision to close the funicular for such a long period during an important time for nearby communities. Scottish newspaper The National reported last week that MP Drew Hendry and MSP Kate Forbes have written to the chief executive of Natural Retreats and Scotland’s Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing, urging him to intervene.
“With the first snow falling and the local economy dependent on Cairngorm Mountain over the winter season, I am absolutely dismayed at the current state of affairs,” said Forbes.
“The news that the ski school has now been suspended is another bitter blow for the Aviemore community, who have already had to deal with the closure of the funicular,” added Hendry.
“The mountain is a vital economic asset to local businesses and the community and this situation cannot be allowed to continue. We are urging the Cabinet Secretary to intervene.”
Ewing later tweeted: “I am concerned about events at Cairngorm and in close contact with HIE. I am determined that we find a solution to enable skiing this season and a secure future for snow sports.”
In a further blow for the local community organisers of the area’s annual music and snow-sports festival Groove Cairngorm announced that the 2019 event has been cancelled.
Ski Sunday presenter and ex-Winter Olympian Graham Bell and his brother Martin, also a former member of Team GB and Winter Olympian, learnt to ski on Cairngorm Mountain when Graham was aged five and Martin a year older – the duo spent much of their youth skiing there.
“The biggest problem that Cairngorm has are the weather conditions. It holds the record for the highest wind speed ever recorded in the UK at 173mph. That wind would strip the mountain of snow if not for the snow fences built on either side of the pistes, and it also was a big determining factor when it came to building ski lifts,” explains Graham Bell.
“The funicular was supposed to be the answer, but it was designed badly and did not service skiers’ needs. Now it turns out it was built badly too, and is falling apart.”
In an effort to combat the recent negative headlines, last week the Board of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) approved a £1m investment in snowmaking equipment on the lower-level slopes of Cairngorm to ensure the mountain can open this winter. It will enable the drag lifts to operate even when there is only natural snow on higher slopes, making the area more accessible, despite the loss of the funicular.
“Board members are deeply concerned about the closure of the funicular and the impact this will be having locally,” said Professor Lorne Crerar, chair of HIE.
“This investment means that, even if the worst case scenario comes to pass and the funicular is out of action for the season, we can still look forward to a season of winter sports at Cairngorm, just as in any other year,” added Crerar.
“This new snowmaking equipment at Cairngorm Mountain will go a long way to supporting the surface lifts running out of the Day Lodge area and create a learner area meaning snow-sports enthusiasts can come to our resort and enjoy skiing and snowboarding,” said Kearney. The new equipment will be installed as soon as possible.
This investment comes after Scotland’s ski resorts were accused of spending almost half of their operating budgets on artificial snow – an accusation they fiercely denied. In fact skiing in Scotland was on the up last winter, with a stellar winter of natural snow fall, which resulted in a five-fold increase in visitors numbers.