Skiing in Scotland is an extremely strange pastime. In December, when the Alps fall deep in snow, we are still waiting for the arrival of winter. From January to February, due to the prevailing southwesterly winds, we often cannot get to stormy mountains.
Then in April the sport is downgraded to “combat skiing” due to hazards poking through slushy porridge – rarely do you find risky terrain in St. Moritz. And, to say the least, the screeching of expletives is a common theme.
Yet the enduring popularity of the sport is such that. As 2023 kicks off with Scotland’s most memorable snow cover in a decade, several of the country’s five resorts have launched extensive 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. the country. This is great news for skiers and snowboarders — and there’s a whole lot more.
Back on track in Aviemore
Wanting to ride the country’s only mountain cable car for the first time since its closure due to structural issues in 2018, I headed to Cairngorm Mountain above Aviemore after the refurbished ski train reopened at the end of January.
The UK’s highest rail line, linking the base station campus to the top restaurant and larger ski resort of Coire Na Ciste, has been refurbished at a cost of £25m and, at 2km in length, is both a travel window to the Caledonian Forest as to the flinty lochs of the Cairngorms National Park below and a means of getting 100 skiers onto the optimal snow at high 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 was ripped out of this operation,” explains Susan Smith, CEO of Cairngorm Mountain Scotland Ltd, who I met at the top station. “So we’re back to square one, with a new 25-year master plan to develop the whole mountain experience. We are scratching the surface of opportunities and want the local population to be proud of this facility again.”
Smith showed me the new restaurant and stove-fired lounge, once more like a hospital canteen than a Highland gastropub – now it’s the top stop in the UK for a satisfying boeuf bourguignon or rotisserie chicken. Next came the terrace viewing platform (we overlooked a mist-shrouded plateau), then the gin bar, a collaboration with Cairngorm Gin, one of the UK’s newest micro-distilleries.
Beneath all that is now a hands-on exhibition, a shop that sells ski gloves to Shetland wool hats and an immersive theater with 270-degree panoramic film of the Cairngorms you’d never see otherwise. By anyone’s measure, it’s a different world than the time warp approach of previous years.
I could see other folds and creases of the mountain track on the descent. Also new this year are two 100-meter conveyor belts, doubling the size of the beginner ski area, and Smith told me about future plans for two new chairlifts to replace the Coire Cas bowl’s aging infrastructure. Another coup, she said, is that the mountain has been chosen to host The Brits, the UK’s Snowboard and Freeski Championships in April — the first time in decades that the competition will be held on British soil, not in Laax, Switzerland.
A good night’s sleep in the Nevis Range
Ninety minutes to the south west, The Nevis Range near Fort William is embracing similar change through an equally ambitious £4 million project. Now as much a gateway for downhill mountain bikers as it is for skiers and snowboarders, the Aonach Mòr resort anticipates the opening of a new 22-bed base station hotel, the first for a ski destination in the UK.
Those on a weekend getaway will soon also benefit from a bunk bed that sleeps 24, plus a children’s activity center, covered courtyard with bar, and the resort’s third restaurant. It’s Alps-lite, of course, but the district is likely to become transformative for the resort, turning into a storm bunker on bad weather days.
Gone queues in Glencoe
A quick drive south took me to Glencoe Mountain Resort, and now crowned with the imposing Rannoch chair imported from Austria. It’s cathartic for a resort whose flagship restaurant was destroyed by fire weeks before the Covid pandemic hit.
Whether seen on skis from the slopes, helping to open, or from his dizzying three-person seat, the new arrival is already eliciting heartfelt 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 lifting capacity, which means queues are pretty much a thing of the past,” managing director Andy Meldrum told me one day with clear skies and melting snow. “Advanced skiers and especially snowboarders love it as it means they no longer have to struggle with our Poma drag. It also completely relieves what was the biggest bottleneck on the mountain.
Inevitably, Scotland’s ski landscape lays a better foundation and, while it’s hardly tipped as a new frontier in winter travel, unlikely scenarios keep cropping up. Lift passes have been capped in recent weeks to meet demand. And I’ve seen rental queues worse than a theme park at Disneyland.
Very likely in the coming weeks, after future snowfall, there will be another spike in the number of RVs staying overnight in parking lots and car parks close to the action. To judge this, however, is to misunderstand the appeal of Scottish skiing: the joy is in the last minute, the impromptu and who knows what will happen next.
Adult/child tickets for Cairngorm Mountain cost £38/24 per day, including access to the cable car (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 British (British Freestyle Ski & Snowboard Championships) will take place on Cairngorm Mountain from April 1-2, 2023 (britssnow.com).
For more information on skiing and snowboarding in Scotland, visit visitcotland.com