How the UK's highest railway brought life back to Scotland's ski resorts
Skiing in Scotland is a singularly strange pastime. In December, when the Alps is drift-deep in hefty snowfall, we’re still waiting on winter to arrive. From January to February, we’re often unable to get onto stormbound mountains because of prevailing south-westerlies.
Then in April, the sport is downgraded to “combat skiing” because of hazards jabbing through slushy porridge — rarely do you find terrain fraught with such risk in St Moritz. And, to put it mildly, the squeal of expletives is a common theme.
Yet the sport’s enduring popularity is such that. As 2023 has started with Scotland’s most memorable snow cover in a decade, several of the country’s five resorts have embarked on wide-ranging initiatives to improve the ski landscape, including a new base-station hotel, the first multi-person chairlift in years and the revival of the country’s only mountain railway. This is great news for skiers and snowboarders — and there’s plenty more besides.
Back on track in Aviemore
Looking to ride the nation’s only mountain funicular for the first time since it closed because of structural issues in 2018, I headed to Cairngorm Mountain above Aviemore after the spruced-up ski train reopened in late January.
Connecting the base station campus with the summit restaurant and wider ski area of Coire Na Ciste, the UK’s highest railway has been refurbed to the tune of £25million and, at 2km in length, is both a travel window onto the Caledonian Forest and flinty lochs of the Cairngorms National Park below and means of getting 100 skiers onto the optimum snow at speed. It now takes five minutes (three minutes faster than before) and spits out riders at the overhauled 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, who I met at the top station. “So we’ve gone back to square one, with a new 25-year masterplan to develop the whole mountain experience. We’re scratching the surface in terms of opportunity and want locals to be proud of this facility once again.”
Smith showed me the new restaurant and stove-fired lounge, it once bore more resemblance to hospital canteen than a Highland gastropub — now it’s the UK’s highest stop for a satisfying beef bourguignon or rotisserie chicken. Next came the terrace viewing platform (we looked out onto a plateau enveloped in mist), then the gin bar, a partnership with Cairngorm Gin, one of the UK’s newest micro-distilleries.
Below all that now sits a hands-on exhibition, shop selling ski gloves to Shetland wool hats and immersive theatre with 270-degree panorama film of the Cairngorms you’d never see otherwise. By anyone’s measure, it’s another world from the time warp approach of previous years.
I could see other nips and tucks from the mountain railway during 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 of future plans for two new chairlifts to replace the Coire Cas bowl’s ageing infrastructure. Another coup, she said, is the mountain has been chosen to host The Brits, the UK’s Snowboard and Freeski Championships in April — the first time in decades the competition has been held in on UK soil, not in Laax, Switzerland.
A good night’s sleep at the Nevis Range
Ninety minutes to the southwest, The Nevis Range near Fort William is embracing similar change through an equally ambitious £4million project. Now as much a gateway for downhill mountain bikers as it is skiers and snowboarders, the Aonach Mòr resort is anticipating the opening of a new 22-bed base station hotel, the first for any ski destination in the UK.
Those on weekend breaks will also soon benefit from a 24-berth bunkhouse too, plus children’s activity centre and covered courtyard with bar and the resort’s third restaurant. It’s Alps-lite, of course, but, the precinct will, in all probability, become transformative for the resort, turning to a storm bunker on bad weather days.
Vanished queues in Glencoe
A quick hop south delivered me to Glencoe Mountain Resort, and now crowned with the imposing Rannoch Chair imported from Austria. It’s cathartic for a resort that saw its flagship restaurant devastated by fire weeks before the Covid pandemic hit.
Whether seen on skis from the pistes it helps open up, or from its dizzying three-person seat, the new arrival is already prompting heartfelt reactions. “It’s a game-changer,” one skier told me. “It’s a powerhouse lift, almost unrecognisable in Scotland,” said another.
“It almost doubles the uplift capacity, meaning queues are pretty much a thing of the past,” managing director Andy Meldrum told me on a day of bright skies and melting snows. “Intermediate skiers and particularly snowboarders are loving it, as it means they no longer have to struggle with our Poma tow. It also completely relieves what was the biggest bottle neck on the mountain.”
It’s inescapable that Scotland’s ski-scape is laying better foundations and, though hardly being tipped as a new frontier in winter travel, unlikely scenarios continue to rear their head. Lift passes have been capped in recent weeks to cope with demand. And I’ve witnessed rental queues worse than a Disneyland theme park ride.
Very likely in the coming weeks, following future snowfall, there’ll be another spike in camper vans overnighting in car parks and lay-bys close to the action. To judge this though, is to misunderstand the appeal of Scottish skiing: the joy is in the last minute, the impromptu and the who knows what’ll happen next.
Need to know
Adult/child tickets for Cairngorm Mountain cost £38/24 per day, including access to the funicular (cairngormmountain.co.uk). The Nevis Range lift passes cost £42/27 per day (nevisrange.co.uk). Tickets at Glencoe Mountain Resort cost from £30/22 (glencoemountain.co.uk) per day. The Brits (British Freestyle Ski & Snowboard Championships) takes place at Cairngorm Mountain from April 1 to 2, 2023 (britssnow.com).
For more information on skiing and snowboarding in Scotland, see visitscotland.com