‘Scottish Skiing’. cheerfully admits Chris Carter of the Bearsden Ski Club, ‘has been likened to standing fully clothed under a cold shower, tearing up pound notes‘. Yet this man, about to embark on his 22nd consecutive season. professes to be ‘keener than ever’. And what of the 12,000 others who pack the slopes of the country’s four resorts each weekend? Are they insane or just Calvinist devotees who find pleasure without pain a bland affair?
Many know to their cost that the fickle weather cannot always be dismissed with a hearty shrug. High winds are not only unpleasant but can whisk away precious snow and close down chairlifts. Powder can become the dreaded ‘boiler plate’ ice and a mild day turns pistes into rocky slopes coated with a slushy, sugary mess. Worst of all the snow might fail altogether. Glencoe suffered exceptionally last year and was only fully open for two weekends in the season. Artificial snow, the saviour of many American resorts. is a risky expensive business here because of wind and volatile temperatures. The first attempt at Mar Lodge, west of Braemar, in 1964 was an unqualified disaster. But although the Scottish skier might complain of wasted trips or boast of blizzard ordeals, he will also tell you about the time he skived off work on a Wednesday afternoon and discovered empty sunlit runs of virgin powder.
Nobody can control the weather and for this reason alone it is pointless to compare Scotland with the Alps where a succession of clear days and good snow cover are virtually taken for granted. Motorway style pistes are impractical on the windswept Scottish mountains and so most of the skiing takes place in coires (gullies) which often present problems of access. Most people agree that there will never be any huge purpose-built resorts on the scale of La Plagne or Les Arcs and
that skiing is a relatively marginal sport in Scotland. But just how ‘marginal’ is it?
A few climbing enthusiasts first experimented with skis in Scotland nearly a hundred years ago. The sport grew in popularity and children were soon raiding local distilleries and improvising with barrel staves tied to their feet. But it did not really begin in earnest until a handful of people opened a tow-lift at Glencoe on a shoestring budget in the late
19505. Now, with the demand for Scottish skiing advancing at an
It’s cold enough for snow, but whether it will is the Scottish ski industry’s financial headache. Lucy Ash looks at the precarious business of skiing. Illustrations by Simon Gooch.
estimated 10% a year, the four resorts are seriously overcrowded on good days and further development has become crucial.
One of the problems about expanding existing ski areas is that some, like Cairngorm, are uncomfortably close to National Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Dr Adam Watson of the Institute of Terrestial Ecology has been monitoring the environmental effects of ski developments for the past 20 years. At high altitudes fragile arctic/alpine plants can easily become extinct, although those on the fertile soil at Glenshee can withstand damage better than those on the granite at Cairngorm. In the early days operators tore up the ground with tractors and faced heavy reseeding costs, but, says Dr Watson. ‘they now realise that it is in their own interest to be more careful’. Today snow fences are used to create pistes and helicopters for installing on-slope facilities.
There is also concern for mountain birds such as the ptarmigan and the dotterel. ‘What most skiers don’t understand’, says Chris Minns of the RSPB, ‘is that these birds can’t breed on any peak above 3000ft. These highly specialised creatures are only found on certain types of vegetation.’ Dr Watson is more alarmed about lethal ski tow cables which ‘have virtually exterminated the grouse and ptarmigan stock at Coire Cas’ and the influx of gulls and crows which rob ptarmigan nests on Cairn Gorm. He suggests that signposts should be put up to prevent skiers from dropping food which attracts scavengers. ‘There is bound to be some conflict but it needn’t become a dilemma’, he says.
Nevertheless the bitter Lurchers Gully dispute in 1983 which led to a £1 million public inquiry and the intervention of the Secretary of State before it was finally resolved in favour of the conservationists, did much to polarise opinion. Eric Langmuir of Lothian Region who helped to draw up the SDD’s National Skiing Guidelines, says: ‘The one thing Lurchers proved to me is that there are a lot of people in the middle who disagree with the hardliners on either side, but there was little calm appraisal of the pros and cons. Things must cool down — planners can’t just shove in applications without considering the specialised environment, but nor should the mere word ‘chairlift’ make certain conservationists turn pale and foam at the mouth.’
The Scottish Countryside Commission (SCC) is a suitable arbitrator since it has both the responsibility of protecting nature and of promoting outdoor recreation. Although they conflicted over Lurchers, the SCC and the Highland Regional Council jointly commissioned a report from a Glasgow based landscape architects ﬁrm Anderson, Semens & Houston (ASH) entitled ‘The Design and Management of Ski Areas in Scotland’. Ash’s report, out next spring, not to be confused with the SDD publication which is an essentially political document about the siting of new areas, is intended to advise developers and covers factors like conservation, safety, access, weather and cost. John Fergusson of the SCC hopes that the ‘terrible dog fight’ of Lurchers will never be repeated and optimistically observes: ‘I think that all the interested parties, and God knows
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there are quite a few, are now learning to work together in a positive way.‘
However a fresh conﬂict may erupt over the Glenshee Chairlift Company’s proposal to erect a 1,150 Poma tow on the ﬂank of Glas Maol which would carry up to 900 skiers an hour to within 500ft ofthe mountain summit - a grade 1 Site of Special Scientific Interest. In September George Younger rejected a call for a public inquiry. but approval must still come from Grampian Regional Council, the Nature Conservancy Council and others. The determined Myrtle Simpson, who was the first woman to ski across the Greenland Ice Cap and who chairs the Scottish National Ski Council, recently told Skiing UK magazine: ‘I have no illusion that what is called the Conservation Lobby will accept the Scottish Office decision on Glenshee quietly. I suspect they are already sharpening their sabres, but the sport is now much more alert to the chaNengeK
Indeed R. Drennan Watson ofthe North East Mountain Trust, feels that the Glas Maol application is ‘a tremendously amateur document’ and that the scheme is ‘almost as bad as Lurchers’. He has fewer criticisms ofthe plans forwarded by Ian Sykes, the director of Nevisports, for developing Aonach Mor which, in terms of natural beauty and scientific interest, is a far less sensitive area.
Many might agree with critics like Drennan Watson that the planning process for ski developments in Scotland is inadequate, and that it ought to follow the more professional approach practised on the Continent, but this country does not have a lot of Swiss Francs to play with. The ASH report may help to minimise risks but substantial investment in an industry subject to the weather’s caprice almost requires an act of blind faith. On the other hand bodies like the Scottish
Tourist Board (STB) and the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) recognise that skiing can bring revenue and jobs to depressed rural areas. So it is unsurprising that the HIDB is the Cairngorm Chairlift Company’s main shareholder or that the STB has awarded a 25% grant to the Glenshee project and is supporting a £250,000 expansion at the Lecht. There will probably always be disagreement over the best use of Scotland’s mountains, but if pylons and scarred slopes are unsightly, the face of unemployment is ugly too.
10 The List 29 Nov— 12 Dec