The UK snowsports scene: exploring CairnGorm Mountain


CairnGorm is a much-loved mountain in the Scottish Highlands – located close to Aviemore, it’s a dream come true for those who love to ski and snowboard. Recently featured on the BBC series The Mountain, The CairnGorm Mountain ski centre has been open since the sixties, and has proven consistently popular over the years (despite the often unpredictable weather conditions).

We wanted to unearth the challenges that are faced in the running of the centre, and what it is that keeps people visiting the mountain season after season. To find out, we spoke to Lauren MacCallum from Natural Retreats – the leisure and travel company who recently became the operators of CairnGorm.

Could you tell us a bit about CairnGorm Mountain? What’s the resort like?

We’re situated in the Scottish Highlands, just outside Aviemore, so we’re pretty central in terms of all the other resorts – probably the most central resort in Scotland. Recently, the lease for CairnGorm has been taken over by Natural Retreats, which has been exciting, and a really good thing for the mountain. This is the first year of 25 years of Natural Retreats trading, and we’ve already seen a really good investment in the Terrain Park – and there are plans to renew the day lodge.

What makes CairnGorm a unique experience compared to other resorts in Scotland? Is there anything that gives it an edge?

CairnGorm has typically been surrounded by Aviemore and the local community, and I think they have really made this place quite special over the years. The Highlands have been quite a pioneering place, and I think that kind of pioneering spirit and innovation makes it quite special.

There’s always something going on in Aviemore, whether it’s climbing, mountain biking, snowboarding, touring – there’s always somebody doing something really cool, and I think you feel that spirit in the local community. Even in Scotland itself, there’s nothing better than having a really good day on your home turf. Also, as we lie quite central, we’re pretty easy to get to. You can jump on a train in Glasgow and Edinburgh and be here within 3 hours, with fares as cheap as £11.

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Are there any other exciting plans for the future?

With Natural Retreats taking over, we’re going to try and commit to making it a really unique experience in Europe. We’ve already invested heavily in the Terrain Park features, so we’re going to invest in our park and pipe infrastructure too.

We’re also building up an elite athlete team. We’ve just sponsored GB snowboard team member and local boy Jamie Trinder, which is really exciting. We’re looking to extend that to a couple more Alpine skiers as well in the future, particularly a female. We’d also like to expand on our summer programme and mountain biking, and really just create an all year-round experience that everyone can enjoy.

How does the snowsports scene in the UK hold up against the rest of Europe, especially given the perceived limitation of available mountains and the conditions in Scotland?

This is something that gets debated quite a lot. The UK snowsports scene is a very vibrant and healthy one. In terms of the limitations of the mountains, if you look at people like Jamie Nicholls, Katie Summerhayes, and Murray Buchan (who’s from Edinburgh), these guys are all going to the Olympics and holding their own. We had two top ten finishes for Male Snowboard with Billy Morgan and Jamie Nichols. And with the females, we obviously had Jenny Jones with her bronze medal, which was amazing.

It’s all about skill-based learning. If we can offer the opportunity for those guys to learn those skills – especially without the same alpine conditions that they’re used to from going to any of the major European alpine resorts – it’s actually a bit easier for them!

The dry slope scene is also especially very strong in Scotland, and you’ve got to be a really good rider to be able to do tricks or race on dry slopes, just because of the surface – and that definitely filters into our top riders. There are limitations in terms of weather and whatnot, but I think you can get a good basis of learning in the UK, that’s for sure.

Can anyone get involved with the snowsports activities at CairnGorm?

Oh, definitely – we have a range of activities. We have our local weekend, where the kids come over for the season and progress with their skiing skills. We also have the Scottish Schools Skiing Association (SSSA) – they’ve run their championships and qualifiers here, which is schools across Scotland competing against each other.

The dry slope scene being so strong helps everyone get involved too. Kids can get on the slopes, and once they’ve learned the basics, they can bring them up to CairnGorm or any of the other Scottish mountains – it’s really accessible compared to how it was beforehand. There’s a healthy school skiing/racing community as well.

We do have our local clubs operating on the hill every weekend too: the Scottish Ski Club, the Cairngorm Ski Club and the Cairngorm Snowboard Club. We also have the Badenoch & Strathspey Schools Snowsports Association (BSSSA), which gives every local pupil a chance to try skiing in the Strathspey area. They’re actually one of our charities, along with Disability Snowsport UK (DSUK), who work to make snowsports available to everyone – no matter what ability or disability.

What do you do to prepare for the variable weather conditions in Scotland? How do you ensure that the mountain is as accessible as possible, for as many people as possible?

The guys in our operations team work really hard around the clock; we tie lifts down and try to prepare as much as possible once we know something’s coming in. We just invested in a brand new snow-blowing machine as well, which has definitely been put to work!

Natural Retreats is really investing in CairnGorm. This new investment brings a lot of opportunities for families – families being the core of who we’re trying to target – so we’re trying to make it as family friendly and accessible as possible.

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What’s been your best day on CairnGorm Mountain?

Last year when we had the Bag the Pipe competition. The sun was shining, the halfpipe was shaped really well, all my friends were there, we had the music on, we had the barbecue on… there were just some really good vibes! Everyone was enjoying themselves and it was great fun.

If Lauren has inspired you to hit the slopes in Bonnie Scotland, you can find more information on the CairnGorm Mountain website. Don’t forget to grab some warm skiing or snowboarding clothes first!

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