Arriving alone in early-morning darkness at Glenshee ski centre in Ballater, Aberdeenshire, I am greeted by friendly voices in the tiny ticket queue and eagerly join the small posse. The forecast is good and the centre has brought forward limited opening of the facility in response to a fresh dream topping of snow suddenly coating the glen down as far as the car park. We plan to make the most of it.
But today’s enthusiasm has to be set against harder realities. The pandemic has significantly restricted the past two winter seasons. The coming months are pivotal to the recovery and future of the industry after its long forced hibernation.
According to Snowsport Scotland, ski centres have suffered a £20m reduction in ticket revenue as a result of stop-start Covid disruption.
On a blue-sky day last February, I was given a tour of the ghost resort of Glencoe on a giant snow groomer. It should have been one of the busiest days in the resort’s 60-year history: half-term holiday, perfect weather, perfect snow. Yet the buildings were locked, tables and chairs half-buried in snow, the cliffhanger chairlift silent, machinery and slopes maintained by a skeleton staff to keep wheels ready to turn. But the pistes empty.
Scotland has five mountain resorts: Cairngorm, Glencoe, Glenshee, Lecht 2090 and Nevis Range. Today at Glenshee there are limited lifts running, so after a few circuits on Sunnyside Poma we are ski touring our way up 917-metre Càrn Aosda. High above us, white mountain hares galumph about in the first yellow rays of sunlight.
Near the summit, on a steep slope, my new friends shed their climbing skins and click their bindings into downhill mode. As they descend, they celebrate with abrupt, handbrake-style turns, throwing up powdery plumes. The snow is, indeed, beautifully dry. I had intended to take a long tour out to Glas Maol over Càrn an Tuirc, but there’s a strong wind at the summits, so I shelter in the glen, enjoying mooching around the valley in good company. I even forget to eat my lunch.
According to Snowsport Scotland, ski centre losses from the pandemic over the past two seasons are more than £12m, even taking furlough, redundancies and postponed capital payments into account.
More than 750,000 tickets are normally sold at Scottish snow sport resorts each year and the industry is worth more than £30m to the nation’s coffers. Scotland’s ski industry supports a workforce of more than 1,000, and almost 50 elite athletes are involved in Snowsport Scotland’s performance programme. Among them is celebrated teenage freestyle skier Kirsty Muir.
Trafford Wilson, chief executive of Snowsport Scotland, has called on all British skiers and snowboarders to sample the country’s slopes and thus avoid quarantine restrictions and travel problems overseas. He believes the first full season since the beginning of the pandemic, plus the impact of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, create perfect conditions for a snow sports boom in Scotland as all five resorts prepare to open fully.
The Scottish government provided a £7m ski centre fund to safeguard Scotland’s commercial snow sport centres during Covid. However, for the centres and surrounding communities to thrive, Wilson believes more investment is needed, to be part-funded by strong ticket sales in the coming winter season.
Wilson believes Covid-19 provided an opportunity by putting the industry under the magnifying glass and highlighting its importance for Scotland’s tourism economy.
“While Covid has been a massive headache, particularly the stop and start nature of it, it has also provided the opportunity to gain heightened support from the Scottish government and other agencies,” he said.
With thousands of winter sports fans facing uncertainty owing to the changing quarantine rules in European countries, Wilson hopes more people may look to Scotland.
“There’s a golden opportunity. We hope this allows more people than ever before to experience snow sports in the UK and want to come back for more.
“This winter season presents a great opportunity for people to make the most of the varied terrain, explore our backcountry playgrounds and learn how to ski or snowboard on home soil,” Wilson said.
There is indeed a varied menu on offer – on and off piste. Terrains vary from the high plateau and rolling whalebacks of the Cairngorms in the east to the almost vertical freeride gullies of Ben Nevis and Nevis Range in the west. Opt for the crowds, queues and camaraderie of a resort, or the enchantment of a solo tour into the heart of the bleached wilderness.
Eventually my newfound buddies peel off, heading home to destinations near and far. I am skiing solo. A pink moon has risen and the sun on the ridge line is about to take an early plunge. The light is stunning. I am going the distance, even in the absence of trophy, flowers or flashbulbs. Well, at any rate I’m doing easy quick circuits, until they switch off the last tow lift. The moon turns blue, and with the arrival of dusk, the cable clanks to a halt. The day may have been short but it has etched sharp satisfaction on the soul. I head for the car park, happy.