Highland ski resorts give thanks for late snowfall in fight to survive
By Auslan Cramb, Scottish Correspondent
The rest of Britain may be hoping for the first signs of spring but there were no complaints about the cold weather from thousands of skiers in Scotland's mountain resorts.
After a poor start to the season, the five ski centres are making the most of a late snowfall that has produced near-perfect conditions.
When the snow failed to arrive in time for the financially important half-term break in February, the season could have turned into one of the worst for a decade.
Now all the resorts are operating at close to full capacity, with skiers and boarders travelling from all over Britain.
In recent years, the brown slopes have become a barometer of global warming and the centres have had to diversify in the fight to survive.
Nevis Range, above Fort William, developed mountain biking and at CairnGorm, above Aviemore, a funicular railway provides income throughout the year. But without the recent snowfall CairnGorm would have struggled to break even.
"We were beginning to panic," said Fiona Milligan, the marketing executive for CairnGorm Mountain Ltd.
"Now things have picked up marvellously. Another couple of good weekends and we will reach our targets."
The resort needs 45,500 skiers to break even, around half the average number on the slopes in the 1970s and 1980s.
"Last year we had eight weeks in total," Miss Milligan said. "If we get six this year we will be happy."
This winter is proof that there is still an appetite for Scottish skiing. Last week about 500 skiers visited CairnGorm each day and this weekend more than 3,000 were on the mountain.
Joan and Alden Henderson, who introduced their daughters to skiing in Canada last year, took eight hours door to door to reach the slopes from their home in Belfast.
"We set out when we heard there was enough snow," Mr Henderson said. "We originally planned to come in mid-December but the conditions were not good enough.
"I don't think you can book a Scottish ski holiday in advance but it works if you can travel when the conditions are right."
Greg Louis Richard, 21, who works in the ski hire department, is still talking about the "amazing powder" two weeks ago.
"I have snowboarded in France, Switzerland and Bulgaria but the powder here was better than anything I have experienced. It was fantastic."
Les McLaren, 54, from Glasgow, a season ticket holder for 30 years, has skied every winter and has noted the climate change.
"Thirty years ago the skiing in May was pretty reliable," he said, "but now it has disappeared completely. The weather has become very unpredictable. In the past 10 years we have had the usual amount of snow falling but as soon as it falls it melts.
"I would not tell someone to travel a long distance just to ski in Scotland but if they are coming anyway they should bring their skis. I have skied in lots of resorts in Europe and the skiing here can be as good as anywhere. It can also be pretty grim.
"I think there is some truth in the saying that if you learn to ski in Scotland, where sometimes the runs are narrow and you have to avoid the rocks, then you can ski anywhere."
Bob Kinnaird, the chief executive of the ski company, said he had his fingers crossed that there would be snow at Easter.
"If we have skiing at Easter, it will make up for the loss of the February break," he said. "But it would not make it a good season; just a survivable one."