Skiing in Scotland is a singularly strange pastime. In December, when the Alps are covered in heavy snow, we are still waiting for winter to come. From January to February, we often cannot reach the stormy mountains due to the prevailing southwesterly winds.
Then, in April, the sport is demoted to “combat skiing” due to the dangers involved in muddy porridge; risky terrain is rarely found in St. Moritz. And, to put it mildly, the shriek of expletives is a common theme.
However, the enduring popularity of the sport is such that. As 2023 has started with Scotland’s most memorable snowpack in a decade, several of the country’s five resorts have embarked on far-reaching initiatives to improve the ski landscape, including a new base station hotel, the first chairlift for several people in years and the reactivation of the only mountain railway in the country. This is great news for skiers and snowboarders, and there’s so much more.
Back on track in Aviemore
Looking to ride the country’s only mountain funicular for the first time since it closed due to structural problems in 2018, I headed up the Cairngorm Mountain above Aviemore after the fixed-up ski train reopened in late January.
Connecting the base station campus to the summit restaurant and the wider Coire Na Ciste ski area, the UK’s highest railway has been refurbished to the tune of £25 million and, at 2km in length, it is a travel window into the Caledonian Forest and the Flint Lakes. of the Cairngorms National Park below and the means to get 100 skiers into prime snow at high speed. It now takes five minutes (three minutes faster than before) and spits out passengers in the revamped Ptarmigan Restaurant, the result of another £750,000 upgrade.
“When I started in 2019, everything was broken – the heart had been ripped out of this operation,” explained Susan Smith, chief executive of Cairngorm Mountain Scotland Ltd, whom I met at the top station. “So we’re back to square one, with a new 25-year master plan to develop the entire mountain experience. We are scratching the surface in terms of opportunities and we want to make the locals proud of this facility once again.”
Smith showed me around the new restaurant and lounge with wood burning stove, once more like a hospital canteen than a Highland gastropub; it’s now the UK’s highest stop for a satisfying beef bourguignon or roast chicken. Next came the terrace viewing platform (we looked out over a mist-shrouded plateau), then the gin bar, a partnership with Cairngorm Gin, one of the UK’s newest micro-distilleries.
Beneath all of that now sits a hands-on exhibition, a shop selling ski gloves and Shetland wool hats and an immersive theater with a 270 degree panoramic film of the Cairngorms that you’d never see otherwise. By anyone’s measure, it’s another world from the time warp focus of years past.
I could see other pinches and folds from the coaster train during the descent. Also new this year are two 100m long magic carpet conveyor belts, doubling the size of the beginner’s ski area, and Smith told me about future plans for two new chairlifts to replace the aging infrastructure of the Coire Cas bowl. Another success, he said, is that the mountain has been chosen to host The Brits, the UK snowboarding and freeski championships in April, the first time in decades that the competition has been held on British soil, not Laax, Switzerland. .
A good night’s sleep in the Nevis Range
Ninety minutes to the southwest, The Nevis Range near Fort William is embracing a similar change through a similarly ambitious £4 million project. Now as much a gateway for mountain bikers as it is for skiers and snowboarders, the resort of Aonach Mòr anticipates the opening of a new 22-bed base station hotel, the first for any UK ski destination. .
Those on weekend vacations will soon also benefit from a 24-berth bunkhouse, plus a children’s activity center and covered patio with bar and the resort’s third restaurant. It’s Alps-lite, of course, but the enclosure will, in all likelihood, become transformative for the complex, turning into a storm bunker on bad weather days.
Missing Queues at Glencoe
A quick hop south brought me to Glencoe Mountain Resort, and now topped by the imposing Austrian-imported Rannoch Saddle. It’s cathartic for a resort that saw its flagship restaurant devastated by fire weeks before the covid pandemic hit.
Whether viewed on skis from the slopes, helping to open up, or from its dizzying three-person seat, the new arrival is already drawing emotional reactions. “It’s a game changer,” one skier told me. “It’s a powerful lift, almost unrecognizable in Scotland,” said another.
“It almost doubles the lift capacity, which means queues are pretty much a thing of the past,” managing director Andy Meldrum told me on a day of bright skies and melting snow. “Intermediate skiers and snowboarders in particular love it as it means they no longer have to struggle with our Poma trailer. It also completely alleviates what was the biggest bottleneck on the mountain.”
It’s inescapable that Scotland’s ski landscape is laying a better foundation and while it’s hardly shaping up to be a new frontier in winter travel, unlikely scenarios continue to rear their heads. Lift passes have been limited in recent weeks to cope with demand. And I’ve witnessed rental lines worse than a Disneyland theme park.
It is very likely that in the coming weeks, following further snowfall, there will be another increase in the number of motorhomes staying overnight in parking lots and rest areas close to the action. To judge this, however, is to misread the appeal of Scottish skiing: the joy is in the last minute, the improvisation, and who knows what will happen next.
I need to know
Adult/child tickets for Cairngorm Mountain are £38/24 per day, including access to the funicular (cairngormmountain.co.uk). Nevis Range lift passes are £42/27 per day (nevisrange.co.uk). Tickets at Glencoe Mountain Resort start at £30/22 (glencoemountain.co.uk) per day. The Brits (British Freestyle Ski and Snowboard Championships) takes place at Cairngorm Mountain from April 1-2, 2023 (britssnow.com).
For more information on skiing and snowboarding in Scotland, see visitscotland.com