The Angry Corrie 49: Apr-May 2001

TAC 49 Index

Blessed are the pistemakers

Donald Shiach is worrying about the hill with that damn privately operated train again...

APPARENTLY, season tickets at the Cairngorm ski area are valid from November each year. This season, regulars must have thought they had hit pay-dirt: wonderful early conditions well into December, with a wide snow cover right from the Aonach to the Fiacaill. So why were the slopes deserted, apart from a few tourers and rogue snowboarders? Because Morrison Construction was still working on the funicular, and it was 'unsafe' to open the hill to skiers. I wouldn't bother asking for a refund on your season ticket, though.

Then again, two of us went for a ski tour round the Northern Corries in early January, skinning all the way up Coire Cas and looking down a deserted Coire na Ciste which appeared to the casual passer-by to be eminently skiable; yet all the piste skiers were confined to the Ptarmigan Bowl.

Now, the obvious reaction to these two cautionary tales is: great, more room for tourers. But hold on: where exactly are all these jobs the funicular was supposed to underpin? On the first of these visits there were two pistenbully drivers in evidence; on the second, those two again, plus a tow operator, and cafeteria staff down at the car park. Some people have been accosted by a new breed of customer care staff at the day lodge: very nice too, and about bleeding time, if you ask me. But it's hardly a jobs bonanza, is it?

So why is the Cairngorm Chairlift Company apparently on its uppers and pinning all its hopes for survival on the funicular? Having spoken to a range of regular, occasional and decidedly ex-piste skiers, the consensus appears to be that the product on offer has become so poor that people are taking their business elsewhere. Complacency, lack of investment, bizarre ticketing policies, grumpy staff... People used to complain about the queues - but, apart from the bottlenecks at the chairlift stations, I haven't seen a half-decent queue at Cairngorm for years. On snowy Sundays ten years ago, the Cas car park would be full by 9am, the Ciste car park by 10am, and they'd be turning people away after that. Now it's a major achievement if the slimmed-down Cas car park is full by lunch-time, and half of these cars belong to ice climbers, ski tourers and hill walkers.

I don't especially like piste skiing, and am no fan of the funicular, but I don't entirely share the schadenfreude that many feel about the decline of Cairngorm as a ski area. Some would like to see all the ski areas shut down and the ground in some way returned to the wild. Er, no, don't think so. I suspect areas such as Coire Cas and the Lecht are knackered for all time. Piste skiing, even in our dodgy maritime climate, can be a useful source of employment in mountain areas, as well as providing sport for many thousands; it's one of the few sports in which whole families can participate at the same time. Also, it provides followers of the true cross (cross-country) with lots of laughs, not least at cocky young snowboarders falling off the poma for the nth time. And then there's that wondrous heel-and-toe walk across the car park. No, I wouldn't consign piste skiing to Room 101 - just don't ask me to partake.

But piste skiing in Scotland doesn't have to resemble Bulgaria circa 1975. Unlike many hill-goers, I have no principled objection to public money supporting piste skiing in this country, because it's self-evident that it can't make a profit. Fickle weather (especially high winds), a relatively small population to draw on, remoteness from centres of population - all of these mean that piste skiing needs to be subsidised to survive. And that's OK, because it means that the taxpayer can start to insist on some minimum standards of layout, facilities and access.

That last one bothers me quite a bit, because most ski areas are at best ambivalent and at worst actively hostile to ski tourers, the perceived wisdom being that we use 'their' car parks (no income there) and skin up 'their' pistes (ditto, plus it's dangerous and inconvenient for paying customers). The thinking seems to be that piste telemarkers are OK - they buy their lift passes and so pay their way - but ski tourers are a bloody nuisance. It wasn't always that way, of course; the first generation of piste skiers in Scotland were tourers too, and that relaxed attitude could be found at Glenshee up to ten or 12 years ago, when you could buy a punchcard to use for single uplift and keep it for years if you didn't happen to be in that area again that season (or if the snow vanished). Three holes on your punchcard saw you on top of Glas Maol in 45 minutes, and you had the rest of the day to ski to Lochnagar and back. One hole took you up Carn Aosda for a tour to the Baddoch and Beinn Iutharn ... contrast that with the 6 it costs to take the Cairngorm chairlift to the site of the Ptarmigan Restaurant (now consigned to a new life at Loch Insh Watersports, since you ask). And, when they finish building the funicular, you won't even be able to do that.

Ah yes, the funicular, more of which has been built than you probably realise. In fact, it's a done deal, so let's move on from whether it's a good thing to how it's going to operate to the benefit of hill users. And I mean all hill users, not just the coach parties that the CCC think (or at least have persuaded the Bank of Scotland to think) will allow them to make money. For piste skiers, hooray! The funicular is going to be much more comfortable than the chair-lift and, if it breaks down, you won't be dangling above the White Lady with morbid thoughts any more. But for walkers and ski tourers, it's going to be strictly out of bounds.

Which is a pity, because one option we sometimes choose is to have a half-day on the piste (midweek only!), then go for a tour to Macdui or just along to Cairn Lochan and down Lurcher's Gully. No longer possible, according to the draft Visitor Management Plan: no one with a rucksack is to be allowed on the train - and anyway, you pay for a day ticket just to board it. At the risk of sounding like an editorial in the Sunday Post: is that not daft? The CCC has made no attempt to reach out to anyone apart from piste skiers, most of whom seem to think the funicular is a straight replacement for the chairlift rather than a misguided attempt to create a 12-month visitor attraction.

So, in the end, the saddest thing about the whole funicular debate has been the polarising of views between CCC / local businesses / Highland Council / piste skiers on the one hand and walkers / climbers / ski tourers / conservationists on the other. In fact, we all probably have more common interests than we realise, and it's a shame that ill-conceived stunts such as proposing a boycott of Aviemore businesses have made it impossible for anyone to realistically occupy the centre ground. I would like Aviemore to flourish. I would like the Cairngorm ski area to flourish. And I would like them to stop being so rude and obstructive to the outdoor activities I enjoy.

Ed. - Donald refers to the draft Visitor Management Plan, and an associated document - the December 2000 draft of the Interpretive plan for the development of visitor facilities at the Cairngorm ski area has come TAC's way, and its 40-odd pages include some fine developmental doublespeak. For example, in section 6.0 (defining the aims of the 'interpretation' - ie mainly the new Ptarmigan exhibition at the top of the funicular): 'To increase visitors' awareness of the national and international significance of the Cairngorm Mountains, and of their interest, beauty and fragility.' And here is a telling phrase, again from 6.0: 'There has been and continues to be much debate about how best to use the Cairngorms in a sustainable way' (TAC's emphasis).

Section 7.2 focuses on 'Emotional objectives', eg visitors should feel 'A sense of privilege and fulfilment at having experienced the mountains [...] a sense that the mountains are a wild place [...] a special place [...] should be cared for'. The 'greatest prominence' should be given to Interpretive Themes such as (8.5): 'The Cairngorm mountains must be protected for future generations'. There's more...

TAC 49 Index