ROGER COX Gallery images

FOUR SEASONS: DOES THE CISTE NEED SAVING?

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 6 March 2010

OK, CONFESSION TIME: last February I cheated to get a quote for a story. On the first Friday of the month, Scotland’s ski centres were hit by the mother of all snowstorms and I was sent to the Cairngorms to see how the resort was coping with the weather and the inevitable crowds.

For all that this was supposed to be a bumper weekend for Scottish skiing, the bad news stories weren’t hard to find. On the Saturday, snow plough teams didn’t manage to get the access road open until lunchtime, leaving hundreds of skiers chewing their steering wheels in frustration. Furthermore, like some sort of publicly funded Grinch, the government’s chief adviser at the Met Office, Alex Hill, chose that weekend to announce that Scotland’s ski industry was “doomed” thanks to global warming.

I knew all this had to go into my story, but as a regular visitor to Cairn Gorm I wanted to find something positive to say as well. Poor visibility made the Saturday a write-off skiing-wise, but the forecast for the Sunday was promising – loads of fresh powder, sunny skies and no wind. It was going to be world-class. The trouble was, I needed to find someone with a bit of authority who was prepared to say as much, preferably a decent skier from overseas.

Eating breakfast at the Cairngorm Hotel on the Sunday morning, fate delivered more or less what I was looking for: Ed Baruch, an American working as a teacher in Edinburgh who just so happened to have grown up skiing in Colorado, home to some of the best ski hills in the world. He’d never been to the Cairngorms before and was planning to do “a few groomed runs” just to get back into the swing of things. Could I possibly show him around?

By this point I’d already written my first paragraph in my head – all I needed to do to make it work was to get Ed waxing lyrical about the great time he’d had skiing in Scotland. Frankly, though, I knew the groomers at Cairn Gorm weren’t going to raise the pulse rate of a guy from Colorado. To get Ed’s juices flowing, I’d need to take him into Coire na Ciste, the mountain’s principal fun zone.

When we bought our lift tickets, however, we were informed that the only lift in that area, the West Wall Poma, wasn’t working. Using all my very limited reserves of charm, I managed to persuade Ed that we should head over there anyway, and although the West Wall was a little scratchy in places, the gullies on the east side of the coire were stuffed with feather-light powder. Better still, we had them to ourselves all morning until the West Wall Poma finally clanked into life, attracting huge queues.

Of course, we had to earn our turns with a 20-minute hike out after each run, but I got the quote for my story – “as good as you’ll get anywhere” – and Ed got a wee adrenaline hit he wasn’t expecting.

I know what you’re thinking: not very ethical. But hey, it’s not as if I misled Ed. I didn’t extract a quote from him at gunpoint. I simply put him in a position where he was able to make an informed judgment about the quality of the Scottish skiing experience.

I’m dredging all this up now because there’s a new campaign afoot calling for the (currently defunct) Coire na Ciste and West Wall chairlifts to be reinstated, a move that would dramatically improve access to the most testing steeps Cairn Gorm has to offer. (The web address is www.savetheciste.com)

Ever since my magical morning with Ed, I’ve been torn by the Ciste issue: should the management at Cairn Gorm try to renovate the lifts on that side of the hill in order to open up all the expert terrain? Or are things better as they stand, with access often restricted to people who are happy to do a bit of hiking?

A big part of me is with the protesters. There’s something more than a little galling about paying £30 for a lift ticket only to find that the most interesting section of the mountain is served by a solitary drag lift – particularly when said lift doesn’t seem to function as frequently as perhaps it could. Then again, maintaining the status quo means more fresh turns for the few who are prepared to break a sweat for the privilege. Start running the Ciste and West Wall chairlifts again and on a busy weekend the whole area would be tracked out by half-past ten.

I honestly can’t make my mind up on this one. Whatever happens, though, those gullies will still be there, and they’ll still be more fun than a giant castle of mashed potatoes.

Waves permitting, this year’s Scottish Surfing Championships – sponsored by Staunch clothing – will be held at Thurso today and tomorrow. In the event of uncontestable conditions, the Scottish Surfing Federation’s head honcho, Chris Noble, has earmarked the weekend of 3-4 April as a possible back-up date. For more information, visit www.scottishwaveriders.blogspot.com

One Comment

  1. Jamie says:

    Hi Roger,

    Thanks for a well written article.

    I thought you might be interested to hear that the ‘full’ website at http://www.savetheciste.com is now live, and seeks to answer your question of “Does the Ciste need saving?”.

    I’d be interested to hear your views.

    Cheers,
    Jamie

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