Reminiskiing: Glenshee, COVID-19 and the 2030s

by matthay44

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At the nexus of all my passions is Scottish skiing. There are so many things I love about it: the vintage feel of the ski centres, the ephemerality of good conditions, the sheer improbability of doing snowsports in Britain.

Ask me which of Scotland’s five ski centres is the “best” and I’d probably say Glencoe or the Nevis Range. Strung out west, these resorts have benefitted from the recent trend towards milder, wetter winters, and they load up with astonishing amounts of snow when the temperatures are cool enough for Atlantic storms to dump their payload in frozen form.

The West Highland resorts also have better infrastructure and, when the big snows fall, far greater vertical on offer. For a decent chunk of this season, Glencoe was offering it’s full lift-served range of 2,400 ft (730 m). Ok, so it takes 25 minutes to ride the three lifts from base station to mountain top, but that is still pisted skiing down to just 300 metres above sea level in the UK!

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Glencoe Mountain Resort’s Piste Map – Note the dotted lines on the lower pistes, runs that are only skiable every few winters.

The other three Scottish ski centres are all situated further east, within the Cairngorms National Park. The furthest south of these is Glenshee (Gaelic: Gleann Sith), Scotland’s largest resort and my favourite by far.

Glenshee is the archetype of Scottish skiing. Most of the runs are only 10 metres wide, narrow strips flanked on both sides by wooden slatted fences, which catch drifting snow as it is blown across the hillsides by the unrelenting Highland wind. What these pistes lack in width they do not make up for in length, bar a few notable exceptions, and almost all of them are served by old and very slow drag lifts.

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Wooden snow fences flanking Glenshee’s ‘Home Run’, a long and cruisey blue that follows Meall Odhar’s northern ridge.

But Glenshee’s pint-sized runs and tired infrastructure are part of its charm, lending the place a well-seasoned aesthetic, shall we say. They also hint at the financial challenges this resort has faced. Almost all of the lifts are second-hand, purchased on the cheap from resorts in the Alps and made to fit on one of the ski-area’s four “mountains”. For this reason, a lot of the lifts don’t quite make it to where they need to, and a little bit of herringboning is inevitably required.

The lift-engines are dirty, diesel beasts, the sort that belch out noise and smelly fumes when they’re running. A few seasons back the huts that house them were given a lick of paint, which has helped, and in 2017 the famously old, one-man Cairnwell chairlift was upgraded to a three-seater (happily, it remains just as slow) but the core of the lift-system remains unashamedly geriatric.

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The Tom Dearg (pronounced JER-AGG) poma, which means ‘red hill’ in Gaelic. So named because of the colour of its heather-clad slopes in autumn.

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The Caenlochan poma provides access to the third of Glenshee’s “Three Valleys”, including the highest point in the resort – Glas Maol.

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A postcard of the old Cairnwell chairlift, which spun for the last time in 2016.

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The shiny new(ish) three-man replacement.

Creaky uplift aside, when the whole resort is open and doing its thing, it does offer some really good skiing. It also has three greasy spoon-esque cafes, which I love. They contain oily chips, stacks of Irn Bru and signs saying things like: “We don’t have Wi-Fi. Pretend it is the 1970s and talk to each other!”

For sure, I wouldn’t hop on a plane to experience Glenshee – conditions are too fickle (and also I don’t fly) – but if you have the time and proximity to make a quick weekend visit viable, it is not something you will regret doing.

The fact that I believe this resort will fall victim to climate change by 2030 only adds impetus to this recommendation.

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A skier enjoying good conditions at Glenshee during March 2020.

 


 

WINTER IS NOT COMING:

The Scottish winter is famously fickle. This was true before climate change really started to bite and it will continue to be for many decades to come: snow in the Highlands is highly variable. But what has changed is the amount that sticks around during a poor season. Talk to local folk, who were shreddin’ the ‘Shee back in the 70s and 80s, and they’ll tell you that Glenshee used to have a 12-week season, even in a bad year.

A bad year now and the entire resort won’t be open for a single day. Even the best seasons in the last decade rarely saw every lift spinning for more than a week or two. At the moment, the ratio of bad winters to good seems to be about 50:50. That puts ski centres like Glenshee right on the cusp of financial viability.

It’s an odd tension. On the one hand, the marginal nature of Scottish skiing is part of its magic. Every season is a waiting game: an emotional roller-coaster of storm-tracking and webcam-watching. A good year for winter sports in the Highlands is often determined by just a few major Atlantic depressions. If the triple-point of their weather fronts crosses Scotland to the south of the ski centres, they can dump several feet of snow on the mountains. Track further north and its inches of rain that falls, often washing away any base that existed on the pistes.

Every year I am surprised at how close this dividing line between rain and hill-snow is to the ski centres; often within 50-100 miles. In the context of synoptic-scale weather systems that is an absolute hair’s breadth. As soon as the majority of these storms start tracking even slightly further north, it will be game over for lift-served snowsports in this country.

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Winter storms drift huge amounts of snow into gullies and natural hollows. The depth of snow builds a base that can then last well into spring. Most Scottish seasons end in May, despite the low altitude of the mountains we ski on.

The big question then becomes, ‘well…what’s going to happen to the storm-track, is it going to move further north?’. The short answer in my opinion is yes. But the longer answer is that it’s complicated, due to the interactions of anthropogenic global warming, ozone depletion and the jet stream.

Currently, there is no strong scientific consensus on how the jet stream will respond to climate change. The logical outcome would be for it to shift further north, as the pool of cold, polar air continues to shrink. However, some climatologists argue that a lessening of the thermal gradient between the tropics and poles will lead to the jet stream becoming weaker, displaced to the mid-latitudes and prone to get stuck in certain configurations for longer. I’ve written about some of this in more detail before.

At the same time, there is a signal for global warming to affect the stratosphere in such a way that the jet stream moves further north and strengthens, at least during the winter months. This locks all the cold air up in the Arctic, preventing it from leaking south, and leads to anomalous warmth in our latitudes. It is exactly what we’ve seen this season: a highly positive ‘Arctic Oscillation’ index and one of the most persistently strong polar vortices of recent years.

Add into the mix the influence of ozone-depleting pollutants like Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and trying to distinguish any firm forecast becomes even harder. Ozone depletion also leads to stronger polar vortices, turbo-charging the jet stream in winter and pulling it further north. As CFC concentrations in the atmosphere decrease, due to our banning of them, we should see ozone levels recover and the jet stream track further south again. However, some countries – notably China – continue to illegally emit CFCs, which will impede any ozone recovery. The question is to what extent?

The stronger, colder polar vortices also themselves increase ozone destruction, so we have another layer of feedback to try and disentangle. Put simply, it is fiendishly complicated to work out what will happen to our prevailing winter weather patterns over the next decade or two.

My personal punt is that we’ll likely see more of what we’ve been experiencing in the last ten years, i.e. a real mix. Overall, though, I expect that sub-tropical high pressure will feature more and more in European winters, with colder, snowy airmasses pushed further north for longer periods during the ski season.

That said, I’m sure there will still be some good winters, a few epic ones even when we end up on the right side of the jet stream, as we did in February 2020. But as the years tick by, the trend will be for longer and more devastating periods of thaw, and less reliable winter snow cover in Scotland.

This will push financially marginal businesses like Glenshee to the brink, I suspect within the next ten years. They will become casualties of climate change: places that used to exist and memories to tell our grandchildren about.

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Sam – one of two spaniels in Glenshee’s ‘ski patrol’ team.

It is so strange to be skiing somewhere that you believe won’t exist in the 2030s. I desperately hope that I’m wrong and somehow climate change spares Glenshee, leaving it on the right side of marginal for decades to come. But I just can’t see it happening.

This time-limited nature makes every day I spend at the resort feel more precious than the last. Despite living locally, I find myself turning into an uber-tourist, photographing everything and contriving to savour every moment I spend there. It’s why I’m writing this blog post!

But this awareness of the place’s fragility also makes me so self-conscious that it becomes harder to really be there. It’s a bit like visiting an old friend or relative, who you know is going to die. How can you interact with them normally? How can you ignore what is coming down the tracks?

I feel so silly thinking and feeling this way about a ski resort. Is this is the ultimate first-world problem? Privileged white-guy’s main concern about climate change is that it might shut down his local slopes. In some ways, yes – undoubtedly. But you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that this isn’t all I worry about with climate change and ecological breakdown. Not even close. It is one of many outlets.

I worry about what our warming world means for the Scotland’s psychrophilic (cold-adapted) biodiversity: Arctic skuas, ptarmigan, capercaillie and the like. What it will mean for the livelihoods and businesses that depend on winter, in the UK and elsewhere. What it says about us as individuals and as a species that we could let this happen.

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Looking over Glenshee’s western slopes from the summit of the mountain Carn Aosda.

I was lucky enough to visit Glenshee back in March, on their last day of the season before they closed for the COVID-19 lockdown. The whole resort was open, with east-facing slopes stuffed so full of snow that the season could have extended into April with ease.

It was a sun-filled and happy trip. I was joined by my brother and the pistes were fantastic, softening despite a cold wind into the sort of granular snow that makes heroes of us all. Red grouse gurgled on the bare patches of heather, snow buntings chirped by the lift stations, and, on one run, we skied through a glade that was full of pure-white mountain hares taking the time to bask in the sunshine.

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Lapping the rarely open Glas Maol poma!

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Frankie enjoying the sunshine.

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Last run of the day, heading back down to the carpark.

COVID isolation is a strange experience, but it has given us all some valuable time to reflect. It has also shown that our society is capable of coping with radically different modes of existence; of volunteering en masse to help others; of listening to scientists and their predictions; of creating community to ameliorate life in a difficult time.

I just hope we can apply some of the lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic to our planet’s environmental crises. It will be too late to change course in time to save Glenshee, but there are many other benefits that will come from realigning our societies, in an equitable fashion, with what the Earth can actually sustain.

In the meantime, I will continue to ski at Glenshee whenever I can. Maybe some of you reading this will bite the bullet next winter, and come experience Scotland’s ‘Three Valleys’ for yourself.

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