Stars of the Slopes

Weather has always been the biggest challenge for Scottish ski areas. Wind speeds in excess of 100mph are not uncommon and it is not unusual to have snow drifts completely burying much of the infrastructure onsite.

So, how do the ski areas plan, prepare for and manage the worst winter conditions? Three of Scotland’s five ski centres, Cairngorm Mountain, Glenshee and The Lecht are situated within the Cairngorms National Park; here they give an insight to dealing with winter storms and keeping the slopes clear.

From a commercial point of view the weather poses a real test. How many other businesses are 100% reliant on the weather? From an operational perspective the elements are uncontrollable and unpredictable and pose their own unique challenges. Following a heavy snow fall there is much work to do, starting with clearing and maintaining the access roads. Walkways and fire exits also have to be dug out before the facilities are opened to the public.

Making the slopes safe.

The runs need to be pisted by grooming teams and then assessed by ski patrol before they can be opened. A ski patroller’s day can start as early as 5.30am as there is much to do. The runs are checked and set up according to conditions. This means that certain runs may be roped off, potential hazards such as bare rocks identified, and warnings put in place about any icy or demanding conditions ahead. Often this work has to be carried out in the early hours of the morning in blizzard conditions. Throughout the day weather and conditions are monitored as the weather in a wild mountain environment can change extremely quickly.

What does it take to be a ski patroller?

All ski patrol members have to be expert skiers, have a high level of fitness and know the area very well. A ski patroller can work through into the evening, the day-to-day duties are physically very demanding and are often carried out in blizzards. One important job happens at the end of the day. Before the lifts close, the patrol will do a sweep of the mountain to ensure that no-one is left on the hill and the car park is checked for abandoned vehicles. All members of the team are required to be highly experienced in first aid and must have the ability to work in extreme conditions. Before becoming a fully-fledged ski patroller a vigorous in-house training regime has to be completed. The team size varies throughout the season, and from centre to centre, but generally there are around 12 full-time members at CairnGorm and 4-6 at Glenshee plus additional numbers in a part-time capacity.

More than a few shovels are needed.

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Naturally the team are helped with the task of moving snow by machines which operate in the early hours. Designed for dealing with drifts and smoothing the snow, several machines can be in use at any one time. Many different types of machines are employed onsite including snow ploughs, skidoos, a polaris, snow blowers and piste machines. Snow ploughs are used to keep the roads clear and often run through the night when required. The skidoos and polaris are used primarily for transportation; including the movement of staff, equipment and even casualties. Often snow blowers are used to help clear the snow and are normally supported by a team that dig by hand. Piste machines are perhaps the most iconic of the machines and these are used to piste the runs and tow-lines. At CairnGorm, measures to modify the effect of drifting snow has included installing around 6km of high rail fencing to help catch drifting snow during the winter months.

Sometimes the mountain has to close.

There are times when the weather gets the upper hand. Decisions are made on a daily basis due to the unpredictable nature of the weather and conditions are communicated to the public in a number of ways. One of the main methods over recent years has been Facebook, with 44% of those skiing at CairnGorm Mountain saying that it is their main source of news pre-arrival. Information is communicated through other social media platforms, the Centres’ websites, webcams and various third parties such as Visitor Information Centres and local radio broadcasts. There is close liaison with the local Council and the police to assess conditions. For Glenshee this involves liaison with two police forces in Aberdeen and Tayside. Naturally the priority for Councils is to keep open essential roads, such as school routes, and if they consider the road to the ski centre to be unsafe or impassable, the facility will be closed that day. However, once it has been established that the main road is open, the ski patrol comes into action.

Many more stars behind the scenes.

To ensure the facilities are useable and safe, the operations team normally starts and finishes in darkness, especially during the winter months. Vital members of the operations team include maintenance engineers who ensure that the lifts and, in the case of CairnGorm, the funicular railway are de-iced and operational. Other important roles and skills comprise; operations managers, drivers for the snow ploughs and the funicular, ski patrollers and piste machine groomers, mechanical and electrical engineers, outside maintenance squad, fencers, snow-making team, health & safety officers, control room operators and lifties.

Getting to work through gales, sleet, ice and snow.

Most staff live within 10 miles of the mountain and everyone needs, at the very least, good winter tyres on their vehicles but preferably landrovers and 4 x 4s to negotiate the approach road. There are times when the snow gates are closed to the public but staff can access the centre. Staff have to make a judgement call as to their safety; the priority is to minimise risk.

A word of advice to anyone heading to the slopes this winter?

Many customers are local or regulars and so the weather holds few surprises for them. However, an astonishing number of visitors, from outside of Scotland, expect snow all year. Although the mountains can be enjoyed at any time, snowsports in Scotland is definitely seasonal.

The watch words are “be prepared” and “check the forecast” (both in advance and on the day as the conditions change so quickly). You could have a glorious morning but by lunchtime the weather is atrocious. And be sure to “wear appropriate clothing.” The difference of 1,000ft altitude can make a huge difference! For example, Braemar is 1,000ft above sea level but at 2,000ft the temperature at Glenshee car park will be noticeably much colder.

Snowsports enthusiasts gain enormous pleasure from our ski centres and their experiences are made possible thanks to the unsung heroes behind the scenes who truly operate ‘at the coal face’.

For more information, directions and, of course, an up-to-date weather forecast visit: tel: 01479 861 261 tel: 01339 741320 tel: 01975 651440

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