Why the Ciste Needs Saving

Without the Coire na Ciste and West Wall Chairlifts, CairnGorm Mountain is no longer complete.

The issue of the Shuttle Bus:
Without the Coire na Ciste Chairlift, mountain access has been lost from the Coire na Ciste carpark. Shuttle buses are contracted to ferry people the distance of 2.5km from the Coire na Ciste Carpark to Coire Cas. Contracting shuttle buses is costly for the operating company, detrimental for the customer experience, and contributes no value to the business. Shuttle bus queues regularly reach unacceptable lengths at peak times and during winter 2010 exceptional waits of up to 1 hour 30 minutes were timed.

This shuttle bus service is considered with widespread dissatisfaction amongst the customers we spoke to. Many customers also spoke of their dismay at having to first wait in the shuttle bus queue (queue 1), then in the Coire Cas ticket queue (queue 2) and finally in their first lift queue in Coire Cas (queue 3) before they could get on to the mountain, feeling that valuable time on the snow was being ‘wasted’. The influx of customers from Coire na Ciste to Coire Cas results in severely congesting the base facilities and infrastructure at peak times. Many customers have been observed to choose to walk the 2.5km distance (wearing ski boots and carrying skis) in preference to waiting in the queue for the shuttle bus. This might help to mask the true extent of the shuttle bus problem, but highlights general customer dissatisfaction with this service.

Lack of Basic Facilities in Coire na Ciste Carpark:
Many customers are dissatisfied at the closure of the Ciste Base Station and the resultant lack of even the most basic of facilities. Thus to access such facilities including toilets, they first have to wait in the shuttle bus queue to reach Coire Cas.

Image based on Ordnance Survey map data

Of Blocked Roads and Closed Mountains:
Higher in altitude and more exposed, the roads to Coire Cas are more vulnerable to blockage by snow and heavy drifting can leave them blocked for a period of several days after a large storm. In 2010 both roads to Coire Cas were closed for a period of some 12 consecutive days during peak-season, with several days of business lost as a result of the operating companies’ full reliance on Coire Cas and their inability to operate from Coire na Ciste.

Availability of Snow-Proof and User-Friendly Lift Access:
When the Funicular is blocked by snow at its track or tunnel mouth – an occurrence every winter since its construction which results in staff having to resort to shovels before being able to operate the train – or otherwise closed, there is no user-friendly lift access above the Coire Cas middle station. In particular, this is unsatisfactory for snowboarders and families who struggle with the steepness of the West Wall and M1 Pomas, which then become the only other uplift to the top of the hill. As well as severely limiting uplift capacity, this compromises the ability of these persons to access the entire middle and upper mountain.

Usability of the West Wall Poma:
The West Wall Poma is now the only lift in operation in Coire na Ciste, and it is a surface lift of sustained steep gradient for the first 750m of its length. We have spoken to many snowboarders and families who say that they feel ‘put off’ using the terrain in Coire na Ciste because – although fully capable of safely negotiating the extensive intermediate/advanced terrain in this area – they find the West Wall Poma ‘difficult to manage’ and ‘not user-friendly’.

Image based on Ordnance Survey map data

The West Wall Poma Fails to Serve Coire na Ciste:
The lowermost traverse limit to return to the West Wall Poma shortens key runs such as the Ciste Gully, East Wall No.2 Gully and the West Wall. Runs such as the Lower Aonach are no longer lift-served whatsoever:

Image based on Ordnance Survey map data

In practice, people traverse higher than the lowermost traverse limit:

This results in heavy rutting across a large section of the West Wall. This rutting renders the ‘traverse area’ of the West Wall unskiable, and so a new – higher – lowermost limit of ‘skiable’ snow is created:

Image based on Ordnance Survey map data

With just the West Wall Poma in operation, the run-lengths are compromised by people having to traverse early to reach the West Wall Poma, and then further compromised by these rutted traverse lines. As such, the area of lift-served ‘skiable’ snow is significantly reduced with just the West Wall Poma in operation:

Image based on Ordnance Survey map data

The Issue of Capacity:
The West Wall Poma has a maximum potential hourly capacity of 784 persons. The West Wall Chairlift has a maximum potential hourly capacity of 849 persons, and the Coire na Ciste Chairlift an hourly capacity of 596 persons (but maximum potential of 1000).

With just the West Wall Poma alone running in Coire na Ciste, the uplift capacity is very low compared to the actual capacity of the area it serves. This leads to large queues, but it has been noted that these queues can be capped as a knock-on effect of running only a single lift in this area. It is likely that less people are using this area than would otherwise be the case. Many customers have told us that – although they would like to – they often won’t venture into Coire na Ciste because they are ‘discouraged’ by the queues for the West Wall Poma.

While the West Wall Poma might at first glance appear to be coping with the numbers and keeping queues to a relative maximum of ~15-20 minutes, we believe it is a self-fulfilling prophecy that operating just a single lift in Coire na Ciste artificially lowers the number of people using the runs in this area. This generates further congestion in Coire Cas, where there are more lifts but across a similar size of area.

The West Wall Poma is not sited to properly utilise the natural snowfields:
The West Wall Poma uptrack is far less snow-sure than the runs it serves. The lift sits on the exposed brow of the hill, and its bottom section in particular is not known for effective snow holding. Both Early and late season, we are often faced with a problem where the East Walls, Ciste Gully and West Wall runs are all skiable, but there is not sufficient cover on the lower West Wall Poma uptrack or on the slopes that lead to it.

Image based on Ordnance Survey map data

The following photo demonstrates an extreme example of such conditions. The East Walls, Ciste Gully and West Wall are all complete to the boardwalks and the two Ciste Chairlifts, but not to the West Wall Poma. Overall, we can see that the West Wall Poma is poorly placed to serve Coire na Ciste. Indeed, the West Wall Poma does not serve Coire na Ciste at all during these times:

Since 2005 (the year the future of the Chairlifts came into question, and we started paying attention), we have observed this problem as happening every winter for total periods of up to several weeks annually. It was particularly evident in 2008, where the situation continued for a period of almost one month. During these times, the entire Coire na Ciste area is closed even though runs are otherwise complete.

The operating company has stated that a requirement for the West Wall Poma to run is to be able to drive a Piste Basher down the M2 and OverYonder to reach the foot of the West Wall Poma. In comparison to the snowholding capabilities of the East Walls, Ciste Gully and West Wall, the lower M2 and OverYonder areas have poor efficiency.

Examination of vegetation on the hillside in photographs and satellite imagery reveals the location of the natural snowfields and areas of poorer snowholding. On the following two diagrams, the more snow-sure runs have been marked, while the problem area of poor snow holding (that affects the West Wall Poma) has been highlighted in pink.

This area of poor snow holding also exacerbates the ‘traverse area’ problem of the West Wall. As the cover melts on this exposed area of hillside, people are forced to traverse higher and higher in order to return to the West Wall Poma. This is even if cover in the Ciste Gully and East Walls continues to extend as far as -if not beyond – the boardwalks. The following graphic demonstrates this, with the greyed-out area highlighting skiable snow that cannot be served by the West Wall Poma under this circumstance.

Advanced/Expert Terrain Compromised:
The terrain in Coire Cas does not provide the same challenges as the terrain in Coire na Ciste. For reasons listed above, the current ski operation on CairnGorm Mountain fails to provide for advanced/expert abilities. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy that any decline in the advanced-level market on CairnGorm Mountain is as a direct consequence of the decline in uplift in Coire na Ciste.