The Angry Corrie 6: Mar-Apr 1992
By the time this issue of TAC hits the streets and summits, Spring will at long last have started its tortuously slow process of sprunging. Obscure, unidentifiable birds will have returned from wintering in the rude-sounding Balearics, lambs will be gambolling their blithe way across fields, little suspecting the rank stupidity awaiting them come adulthood - and, of course, it will, on four days out of bloody five, be torrentialing down with rain.
A few older readers may dimly recall a time when the fresh Spring rains were what differentiated the season from Winter. In Winter it snowed, everyone went around clutching chestnuts in their mitts and wearing dufflecoats designed by Breugel, ponds, puddles and playgrounds were for skating, tea-trays for sledging and the back pages of the tabloids endlessly debated the pros and cons of a curling superleague. But that was in the days before fossil fuels. Aerosol cans, satellite dishes and Mrs. Thatcher. Now we have to make do with a four-season climate rolled into one, with water copiously added: a kind of Borneo minus the big snakes.
Yet recently on TV we've been able to witness a timeslip back into the days of yore: the heavily sponsored snow- and icescape otherwise known as the Winter Olympics. For all that it dominated BBC scheduling for over a fortnight (so much so that Albertville was in danger of becoming as tedious a soap as Albert Square), and for all the unnecessary diversity of already-obscure sports - eg. luge, giant luge and Tomba's super-giant luge - for all these things the Olympics were, if nothing else, nice to look at. Jaggy Alpine summits, clear blue skies, snow cornicing the eaves of Hansel and Gretel timeshare chalets. Snow is nothing if not telegenic.
But all was not as it seemed; is it ever? The White Christmas effect has its ecological price - as hushed-up tales of desecration of the slopes were to show. Vast areas of hillside cleared of trees and boulders to "create" the downhill and slalom runs. Huge, concrete, Fitzcarraldo - type follies known as ski-jumps soaring out of the forests like altars to sporting commercialism - whilst perfectly usable sites remaindered from previous games stood rotting and redundant nearby. And flumelike bob- and luge-runs worming their way through previously quiet suburbs where the residents, for all that their town stood to benefit from tourism, would probably have settled for the quiet life rather than seeing the organisers laughing all the way to their Swiss banks having made a Jean-Claude Killying.
So much for the land of the alpenhorn and flugelstock. What, you may ask, has this to do with the Scottish hills? Of course there isn't any danger, independence or otherwise, of an SNP bid for the next-but-one Winter games. (Mind you, imagine if there was: skaters performing their triple salkos and double whammies at the Magnum centre, ski races down the slope at Easter Road, synchronised ice-hockey at that bizarre Dancing Waters place in Newtonmore.) It's just that the ski-developers over here, oh so vociferous a few short years ago, have suddenly gone strangely quiet. In the late eighties pistes soon looked likely in Lurcher's Gully, at Drumochter and on Aonach Mor. Only the Nevis-range complex materialised: the others, for whatever reason - campaigning, meteorological mildness, the recession - have, for the time being, disappeared below the developmental horizon.
As everyone knows all too well, the nuances of argument on these matters are as many and varied as the different types of snow itself (assuming, of course, that the latter does occasionally exist in some shape or form). How does one weigh the boost to the microeconomics of places such as Aviemore and The Fort against the desecration of hillsides which, unlike many higher ranges abroad, are ever likely to be snow-free for a minimum nine months of the year? And how to integrate the differing needs of so-called "hill-users" when these include groups as mutually exclusive as lycra-clad weekend downhillers and hardy perennial walkers? There are, in the real world, no easy answers to these questions; all that can perhaps be said is that debate rather than subterfuge and consensus rather than fundamentalism need to be the order of the day.
But also a sense of realism. TAC likes to hope that one of the many things which differentiates it from other outdoor magazines (besides humour, good writing and an intelligent readership), is a concern with, amusement at and interest in the people who live, work and play in and around our hills as much as in the hills themselves. And hence, just as the conservationists - all too many of whom don't actually live in the lands they hope to preserve - have to bear in mind that people have to live ordinary, non-hill-oriented lives in these areas, so the developers, wherever they are currently hibernating, must needs redefine their equation which states hills + ski-slopes = filthy lucre.
So what are we saying here? Only that major winter sports developments are perhaps, within reason, okay given the proviso of decent winter conditions both to sustain them and to cover the all too obvious scars on an already beleaguered landscape. But have we reached saturation point already - both in terms of there being enough ski-centres and, in the literal sense, in the climate having swung irreparably towards mildness interspersed with the occasional cold snap? And looking back to Albertville - a place in many ways as dishonest as Disneyland - what is glaringly obvious now that the commercial circus has moved on to pistes and pastures new is that it simply isn't worth long-term destruction for short-term pleasure and profit. Even though the Scottish hill-landscape currently seems relatively unthreatened, this last point needs to remain as glaring as the snow we aren't currently getting too much of. The last thing a future Scotland needs is white elephants in a far-from-white environment.