ROGER COX Gallery images


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 17 May 2010

THE art of persuasion has never been one of my strong suits but a few years ago, acting recklessly against type, I managed to convince a former editor of this newspaper that we should carry a surf and ski forecast on the weather page of our Saturday edition. Since its foundation in the soggy autumn of 1816 The Scotsman has rarely featured extreme sports (although we did make a big fuss about the death of Scott of the Antarctic in 1913). On the upside, though, I had three solid arguments to support my case.

First, a reputable online forecasting company was offering to supply the statistics for free as long as we agreed to print their logo. Second, outdoorsy folk would surely welcome a service that allowed them to plan their weekends while eating their Saturday morning cornflakes. And third, the report could be squeezed into an unobtrusive, fag-packet sized slot, hitherto occupied by a less-than-essential house ad directing readers to the sudoku puzzles on page 64.

Given that the above translates more-or-less perfectly into management speak as “something for nothing”, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was given the go-ahead, and so every Friday afternoon for the best part of four years now I’ve spent a few minutes in the alien environment of the graphics desk, hastily typing out the latest snow conditions at Scotland’s five ski centres, along with the forecasted wave heights and wind directions at various surf spots around the coast.

Doing what’s become known as “the surf’n’ski” can feel like a bit of a chore at times, but it can also be a fantastic daydreaming tool. What, I sometimes find myself wondering in the middle of January, will that 18ft, 12 second interval northwesterly swell look like on Sunday morning as it reels along a remote cobblestone pointbreak on the west coast of Lewis, fanned by the predicted 15mph offshore wind? Will anyone be there to surf it? Apart from the sheep?

Anyway, the point is this: because I’ve been hammering out these statistics, week in week out, for what seems like forever, I’ve gradually started to see patterns emerge; and one particularly baffling trend I’ve noticed is that, towards the end of spring, the ski centres often report perfect conditions, yet in the same breath announce that they have been forced to close their lifts due to a lack of demand.

This year has been no exception. Only the other week, the report for Nevis Range read as follows: “There is still good sliding to be had on the upper mountain but sadly insufficient skiers and snowboarders have taken up the opportunity over the last week, so we have taken the decision to close all ski lifts.”

So what’s going on? Why do thousands of skiers flock to the Highlands in the middle of winter to endure whiteouts and gale force winds, yet suddenly find something better to do when the wind drops, the sun comes out and it’s possible to cruise the pistes in shorts?

Heather Negus, marketing manager at Nevis Range, reckons she has the answer.

“I think the challenge is that a lot of our customers are in the central belt,” she says. “By now the sun’s shining and people are wearing shorts and T-shirts so going skiing’s the last thing on their minds because they can’t see the snow on the hills. They’ve moved on to the next activity – whatever it is – that takes over from skiing in the spring and the summer.

“All the Scottish resorts will tell you the same thing. I think it’s probably been compounded this year because it was a great season and it started early, so lots of people have done a lot of skiing.

“You get some brilliant blue sky at this time of year, though, and spring snow too, which will firm up overnight and then get beautiful and soft during the day. In fact, it was actually snowing again last night – just a dusting on the summits. You have to laugh.”

Nevis Range, Glencoe, Glenshee and The Lecht have now closed for the season, but at Cairngorm, where the snow is still over two-and-a-half metres deep on the upper slopes, marketing manager Colin Kirkwood says they’re planning to remain open every weekend until the end of May. Skier numbers at this time of year are down to around 700 per day, but that still makes it worth their while to remain open. And, if you think about it, it’s another good reason to squeeze in one last slide to round off the epic winter of 2009/10. It ain’t over till the White Lady, er, melts.

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