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FOUR SEASONS: GET IT WHILE IT’S GOOD

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 7 January 2012

IN SPORT, as in all things I suppose, it’s tempting to hark back to perceived golden ages. Like most surfers, I’d love to be able to hop in a time machine and visit Malibu in the late Fifties and early Sixties, just before it was ruined by the crowds – all those perfect, peeling pointbreak waves and only a few other people to share them with. Bliss. By the same token, I’ve always thought that skiing in Scotland in the early years would have been fun. Maybe not in the days before mechanised uplift (I already do enough hiking, thanks) but shortly after the Second World War, perhaps, when skiers started using ex-army tracked vehicles called Weasels to access the snow on Ben Lawers and Beinn Ghlas, or a few years after that, when the first proper ski lifts were up and running at Glencoe, Glenshee and Cairn Gorm. I’d always assumed that the people who had been lucky enough to live through these romantic, fairytale periods looked back on them with rose-tinted specs, but, well … turns out some of them don’t.

At the end of last year, the Cairn Gorm Mountain ski resort celebrated its 50th birthday, and I had the pleasure of interviewing some of the veterans who had been there in the very beginning. Of course, they looked back fondly on their youth spent working and playing on the hill, but when I asked them to name their “best ever” seasons, I got a shock.

Bobbie Birnie, 76, a former ski instructor who still works on the mountain as a maintenance fitter, told me: “The last two seasons were about the best, and I’ve been here since way back in the Fifties.” Similarly, ski patroller Brian Cottam, 72, said: “The last few seasons, actually, have been very memorable. Since we’ve got the train the skiing is a lot easier – even on a bad day you can still get to the top in five or six minutes, depending on what speed they’re doing.”

So yes, there were some great winters back in the Fifties and Sixties – and in the Seventies and Eighties, for that matter – but according to the experts, the guys who were there, the bumper snowfalls of 2009/10 and 2010/11 were as good, if not better, than anything in living memory. And what’s more, these days when we get a good dump of snow we’ve got the toys to make the most of it: decent lifts, decent skis and snowboards and comfortable, functional clothes to wear. Moral of the story? Rose tinted glasses off; ski goggles on. Don’t waste this current golden age by wondering how much better things might have been back in the day.

All this looking back I’ve been doing lately has inevitably led to a bit of looking forward – after all, in the grand scheme of things the sport of skiing is still in its infancy, while snowboarding, its little brother, has only just had its 12-week scan. What will happen in the next 100 years, or the next 1,000? Will skiing in Scotland come to an end one day, and if so, when?

Depending on who you listen to, the short-term picture might not be too bad. As man-made global warming kicks in over the next 30 years or so, some climatologists think that Britain may get cooler before it starts getting warmer. At Kiel University in Germany, the meteorologist and oceanographer Professor Mojib Latif and his team have been researching cyclical changes to ocean currents and water temperatures in the Atlantic. In a 2008 paper, Prof Latif warned northern Europe may experience a cooler climate for “two decades or longer” as a result of disruption to these cycles. If that’s the case, the last couple of winters, and the one we’re in now (still nice and chilly at time of going to press) might not be a mere blip as the planet continues to heat up – they may represent the start of a mini-ice age lasting until mid-century.

Good news for the next generation of Scottish skiers, perhaps, but what about the one after that? Not so good, I’m afraid. In Mark Lynas’s excellent synthesis of current climate science, Six Degrees, he looks at the IPCC prediction that the Earth will warm by between one and six degrees in the next 100 years. A four degree increase – well within the range of probability – would see snow cover in the Scottish mountains “drop by more than half,” he says. So enjoy this cold snap while you can, but expect to be buying downhill mountain bikes rather than skis for your grandkids.

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