Snowboard news : Cairngorm Mountain – the sorry saga continues
If you’ve been following these pages over the last couple of months, you’ll have seen our reports on the controversial dismantlement of two previously key lifts at Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountain – namely the Coire na Ciste and West Wall chairlifts.
Despite massive objections from the local community and the ski/snowboard fraternity in general, Natural Retreats (the current management company at Cairngorm Mountain, hereinafter referred to as NR) in conjunction with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (the Scottish Government’s economic and community development agency, HIE, which owns the land) announced plans to scrap these two, previously arterial lifts.
Since 2011, a campaign to Save the Ciste had been actively petitioning both NR and HIE to desist from the planned removal of the two chairs. Aided by publicity from the popular Scottish snow reports/conditions website, WinterHighland, the campaign was gathering pace and significant support and over 3,000 followers. Sadly, however, prolonged pressure from both would not prove enough to stop the wrecking squad moving in.
In August, NR and HIE embarked on 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.”
The pictures above show various stages of the dismantlement process, including the highly contested removal of snow-fencing from some runs – a fact which campaigners say is indicative of the management’s lack of commitment to supporting snow-sports at the area. No matter how you see it, the sad result is both the Coire na Ciste and West Wall chairs have been removed from the mountain and currently lie in ruin in a car park at the foot of the hill. Main photo and gallery credit : WinterHighland / Save the Ciste.
A brief history
In order to better understand the current situation at Cairngorm, you need to look a little further back to see the apparent systemic removal of mountain’s lift network – a scaling-back that’s been underway since the construction of the funicular in the mid-90’s. The mountain railway now constitutes the main option for getting from base to summit – but things weren’t always this way.
Below are three piste maps showing Cairngorm uplift at various points over the last 20 years. They clearly demonstrate the prolonged downscaling of the lift network on the mountain, in particular in the Coire na Ciste on the Eastern flank of the ski area.
The first map shows the lift network as it was before the installation of the funicular with the Car Park chair, White Lady chair, White Lady T-bar and M1 Poma providing access on the Coire Cas side of the mountain (on the right of map) and the Ciste Chair and West Wall chairs giving access on the left side up the Coire na Ciste. Note the extensive network of lifts on the Ciste side – including the Ciste and West Wall chairs which first opened in 1974. The Ciste was previously a fully functioning sector of Cairngorm’s ski area with a base station, car park and ticket office at the foot of the natural, snow-holding gully. This meant all-mountain access was possible from both sides of the mountain with the Cas providing the majority of beginner / intermediate areas and the Ciste offering the bulk of the advanced riding terrain.
The second map shows Cairngorm following the installation of the funicular which replaced the White Lady and Car Park chairs. Around this time (approx 2005), the White Lady T-bar also ceased operation and the Ciste and West Wall chairs were mothballed as part of the Mountain’s “Core Lifts” policy. However the pylons remained in place for years and it is argued both chairs would have been able to continue running with some maintenance, upgrade and safety work.
The third map shows the extent of uplift removal at the ski area compared to previous operations. The Ciste side of the area has had most lifts removed, effectively isolating the wealth of advanced terrain at Cairngorm – even though this side of the mountain constitutes around 50% of the total ride-able area on the mountain and some of the most snow-sure runs. In total, six lifts have been removed since 1994, four of them from the Ciste (Ciste Chair, West Wall Chair, Link Poma, Aonach Poma) and the other two from the Cas side (White Lady T-bar and Fiacaill Ski Tow). Note, part of the Link Poma was used to build the new Polar Express tow in the Ptarmigan bowl.
This sustained removal of uplift has hugely reduced the accessible terrain on Cairngorm and, perhaps more importantly, has resulted in a drastic reduction of the number of skiers and snowboarders the mountain’s lift system can accommodate. In total, lift capacity is now around 55-60% of pre-funicular levels while mid-mountain capacity has reduced by 66-75%. Also, three of five previous catering facilities have disappeared (source WinterHighland / Save the Ciste).
Save the Ciste has outlined the effects of the reduction of the lift network – detailed in full at the end of this article. In short, Cairngorm’s lift capacity has been slashed by around 5,000 riders per hour – with the obvious knock-on effect being longer queues.
When you consider a lift pass at the area costs more than in many larger European resorts, reducing the lift network hardly represents value for money. For a typical family of four to ride one day at Cairngorm in the 2016/17 season cost a whopping £116 (2 x adult ticket at £36, 2 x junior ticket at £22). And that’s without including external factors such as price of petrol, food and drinks etc.
Most importantly however, Cairngorm is currently the only ski and snowboard area in Scotland reducing its lift network and, in turn, its accessible terrain. All other Scottish ski resorts have been actively expanding their lift capacity or, at least, solidifying their existing service with better snow-fencing and facilities.
In the East, Glenshee has invested in two new chairlifts, with another planned soon. It’s the same story in the West at Glencoe which has begun work on a new chairlift across the Plateau area. Indeed, Glencoe has also started a crowd-funding campaign to help finance ambitious plans for a revolutionary snow-making system which can operate at +25’C. Cairngorm sits alone with its policy of prolonged area and lift reduction. Images above from SkiScotland showing the old single seat Cairnwell chairlift which was replaced by a new three seater.
The current situation
As reported earlier in the month, the destruction of the two chairs was met with massive local consternation and plans were soon underway to fund a Community Right to Buy bid of the mountain operations, spearheaded by the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust and the Aviemore Business Association. If successful, the bid would allow the transfer of land from HIE to the local community – with NR remaining as a tenant for the remainder of their 25 year lease (the term still has another 22 years to run). As landowners, the Community group would have considerable influence over the management of the area and could apply for funding packages not otherwise available to a commercial company like NR.
In order to help fund the buyout, the group started a Just Giving page which, at time of writing, had already achieved £2561 of a £2000 target (128%). It’s worth noting the target figure was reached in just five days, such is the strength of feeling against the current operators. The Trust’s stated aims are to:
“Secure the future of Cairngorm Mountain and make it a sustainable all year round destination for the benefit of our local community, business community and all mountain users.
To improve and enhance all Snowsports facilities with the aim of helping our unique Snowsports community survive and further develop.
We have now come to the conclusion that the only way to progress these aims is to proceed with a Community buy-out of the Cairngorm Estate, which comprises the ski area land and infrastructure. A Community buy-out is a huge administrative exercise which involves 1000’s of man hours of work. All of the directors of the trust are giving their time for free, but we are looking for donations to assist in the administration and marketing of the bid.”
Contributions are still being accepted to help finance this goal on the Just Giving page.
Meanwhile, the story made the National press in Scotland, with the Scotsman newspaper publishing detailed articles on the current state of Cairngorm Mountain and how things have spiralled out of hand to this stage. The reports have given rise to numerous accusations from both sides but, fact remains, two of the mountain’s previously integral lifts are now gone – lifts which, with further investment, could have run again and vastly expanded access to a key sector of the ski area. Ironically, the cost of renovating the Ciste chair was estimated to be around £300,000 in a report commissioned back in 2011 – just £30,000 more than the cost of decommissioning the two chairs.
Further, both HIE and NR stand accused of tearing down the lifts without first sufficiently investigating the cost of their repair. It is this fact that has resulted in such ire from the ski and snowboard community as well as local businesses who rely on winter trade at the area. These groups accuse HIE and NR of a sustained effort to decimate operations on the Ciste side of the mountain – with recent allegations including the removal of snow fencing on some of the Ciste’s main runs. NR and HIE both claim this was done in the interests of safety and the sustainability of Cairngorm as both a summer and winter destination while most observers regard it as a brazen downscaling of winter operations.
Articles in the Scotsman have documented the views of both sides in the debate:
(1) What’s going on with the chairlifts at CairnGorm Mountain ski centre?
(2) CairnGorm ski operator says it is stuck in the middle of chairlift dispute
(3) Disputed accounts muddy the picture as CairnGorm’s ski lift saga goes on
(4) Campaigners back right to buy as best way to realise potential of CairnGorm ski area
(5) Interview: HIE CEO Charlotte Wright on why the CairnGorm ski lifts had to go
Taking blame out of the equation, one thing is clear – since the construction of the funicular railway on the Cas side of Cairngorm, the mountain has witnessed a prolonged, systemic and apparently deliberate reduction of wintersports facilities. The proposed community buy-out intends to address these issues by putting the running of the mountain back in the hands of local people, granting control to those who have a genuine interest in prolonging wintersports at the area rather than being motivated by profits.
The importance of the Coire na Ciste and West Wall chairs
While NR propose to keep the West Wall poma running, the image above clearly demonstrates a problem very common on this side of the mountain – namely that cover in the deep Ciste gully frequently outlasts that of the exposed ridgeline where the poma runs. The reinstatement of the West Wall Chair would have addressed this issue.
The lack of access caused by the decommissioning of the chairs is a common problem that has plagued the resort for many years. The image below is taken from the WinterHighland Facebook page accompanied by the following statement:
“This was the Ciste Gully during the peak first week of the English (and some Scottish) schools half term in February 2017. The Ciste Gully was complete to where the boardwalk level was (a pathway to the chair, marked in red), but the Poma uptrack was not complete. Thus had the boardwalk and the chairlift been serviceable there could have been advanced terrain open, indeed it would have been the only red graded terrain in Scotland at the time.”
Overall, the stats for lost rider days – and therefore lost days in the Ciste gully – make for depressing reading (supplied by WinterHighland and Save the Ciste)
180 days – Ciste Gully skiable to old Chairlift boardwalk
57 days (32%) – West Wall Poma operated
68% of the time – Coire na Ciste without any uplift
140 days – Ciste Gully skiable to old Chairlift boardwalk
44 days (31%) – West Wall Poma operated
69% of the time – Coire na Ciste without any uplift
152 days – Ciste Gully skiable to old Chairlift boardwalk
52 days (34%) – West Wall Poma operated
66% of the time – Coire na Ciste without any uplift
131 days – Ciste Gully skiable to Chairlift boardwalk
14 days (11%) – West Wall Poma operated
89% of the time – Coire na Ciste without any uplift
Further reading at http://snowboard-app.com/cairngorm-scraps-ciste-chair/
Overblown claims and unfulfilled aims
It’s worth recalling that, when NR took over the management of Cairngorm back in April 2014, the company’s CEO Matthew Spence stated, “We will build the best terrain park in the world here, and my long-term goal is to host the summer and winter X Games at CairnGorm Mountain.”
Not content with punting lofty, unrealistic dreams of attracting X-Games glory, Mr Spence continued,“We will nurture, develop and create future British Olympians at CairnGorm Mountain,” . . . “These athletes will win gold medals at the Winter Olympics in 2018 and the summer Olympics in 2020.”
At the time, Spence’s comments were met with widespread derision. How would a resort of Cairngorm’s size and global standing possibly host the Winter X Games – and what did the summer Olympics have to do with anything anyway? However, even the most cynical observers resolved to give NR a chance to prove themselves. Since then, neither HIE or NR have appeared to reflect the best interests of the long term sustainability of winter interests in the area.
This maelstrom of conflicting interests and the continued reduction of uplift by the mountain’s management has led to the current situation where the local community has felt forced to step in and take matters into their own hands.
A personal view
As riders raised in a country with relatively sparse wintersports facilities compared to many other established European nations, we Scots have strong feelings for our local resorts. From the early days of snowboarding in the UK, Cairngorm always played an integral role in the development of the sport and was once the thriving hub of a fledgling UK snowboard scene. While Glenshee may have held the very first UK Snowboard Championships, Cairngorm went on to host numerous subsequent British and Scottish Snowboard Championships and Open Events, held over many years and helped spawn some of the best British riding talent – including our first Olympic snowboard competitor, Lesley McKenna. Skiing talent included Alain Baxter who took Bronze at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics – albeit he had his medal (wrongly) stripped for the presence of banned substance in his urine**.
However, Cairngorm remained a central hub for the development of both sports. It was home to the country’s first dedicated snowboard shop (Tony Brown’s Snowboard Academy) and was even the production and test base for the UK’s first snowboard manufacturer, Acid Snow. This writer can personally recall hiring a board from the now defunct Ski Road Skis in my first year snowboarding (1989). At a time when snowboarding was largely branded as ‘dangerous’ and it was almost impossible to find hire equipment, Cairngorm and the local community openly fostered and encouraged its growth.
So, it is with heavy heart and weary eyes that we watch the continued haphazard, wanton destruction of an area that has been so pivotal in the development of skiing and snowboarding in the UK. Whether you remember these days or not, Cairngorm was integral to the growth of wintersports in Britain.
It is for this reason, amongst many others, that we fully encourage the local buyout bid to help put Cairngorm Mountain back in the hands of those who know it best and care for it most. NR has already squandered multiple opportunities to listen to the local community and riders loyal to Cairngorm. Just like any once-good relationship turned bad, there comes a time to cut the ties and start afresh. The sad truth is the current management, with the backing of HIE, seems more focused on profits and summer diversification than on the real substance of the hill and its heritage.
The time feels right for change. Get involved and lend support to the community buy-out of Cairngorm following these links:
Thanks to WinterHighland and Save the Ciste for the images and information above where noted.
If you have any pictures of Cairngorm from back in the day, please add them to the comments on our Facebook post and we’ll share them here.
**Alain Baxter would later prove his innocence on the charge of taking a banned substance. In the run-up to his slalom event, Baxter had been using a US version of the popular Vicks inhaler decongestant which, unbeknownst to him, contained trace elements of a restricted drug (methamphetamine). This banned substance was not present in the UK version of Vicks and Baxter was later able to prove he had been completely unaware of taking the drug. Nonetheless, the IOC has yet to retroactively award him his Bronze medal. Still, it could be argued that Cairngorm nurtured the UK’s first ski Olympic medalist (prior to the excellent Bronze-winning performance by snowboarder Jenny Jones in Sochi, 2014).
Save the Ciste – effects of uplift removal on Cairngorm Mountain
Lift capacity at Cairn Gorm ski area has been found to run at approximately just 55-61% of its (pre-Funicular) mid-1990s level, following a managed reduction in lift infrastructure (marked in red).
This capacity reduction translates to carrying approximately 4,544-5,294 fewer people per hour up the hill now than in 1994.
These figures are compiled from ski area documentation (1993-1994) and from uplift timings (2015-2017). The final value depends on whether the Funicular is conducting mid-station stops.
In real terms, this either means less people on the mountain, or it means bigger queues. It certainly means severely restricted access to Coire na Ciste, an area previously accounting for approximately half the ski area.
A reduced capacity restricts the money the operator can make in any one day, while still having the biggest overheads of any Scottish ski centre. This affects their ability to capitalise on ‘big weekends’, and increases the reliance on long, steady winters.
Opportunism is being taken out of a resort in a country where skiing has always been somewhat opportunistic.
Meanwhile, other Scottish ski centres continue meaningful uplift development in earnest.
– 1993 ski area document: 11,502 hourly mountain uplift capacity.
– 1994 ski area document: 12,052 hourly mountain uplift capacity. [We averaged the two to 11,777].
– Modern figures generated from uplift timings across 2015-2017 seasons calculating average hourly capacities of 7233 (train running non-stop) and 6483 (mid-station stops).
– Hourly uplift capacity = the total number of uplifts possible per hour, remembering that skiers anticipate multiple uplifts each per hour.
Uplift changes since 1994:
– Coire na Ciste Chairlift
– West Wall Chairlift
– Aonach Poma
– White Lady T-Bar
– Fiacaill T-Bar
– Link Poma (~1/3 of it is now the Polar Express)
– White Lady and Carpark Chairlift (Funicular)
– Shieling Platter Lift (Shieling Rope Tow)