Not so much pine wood cabins as pebbledash and portakabins. Aviemore, a small highland town is a world away from Aspen, Whilstler or Verbier, but it still bears the label of 'ski town'.
A strip development paints a dirty streak across the floor of the glen at the foot of Cairngorm Mountain Ski Area. The self-proclaimed 'capital of speyside', a jumble of 60s new build has played host to skier's dirtbag debauchery since the 1960s. But consistently low snowfall over the nineties and naughties, increasingly cheap air travel and rapid expansion in the alps have left Aviemore without a purpose. Bars such as the 'skiing doo' are reeling from a former glory, and the sign outside the low rise McDonald hotel consistently reads 'vancancies'. Though it may call itself a ski town, the reality is if you drop into one of the bars on the main drag mid week, you're more likely to run into a pair Hunters than a pair of Langes.
Cairngorm Mountain Ski Area from Loch Morlich
This was the situation five years ago, but Aviemore has been experiencing a welcome renaissance of late. Admittedly the architecture still leaves a little to be desired, the weather is all too often revolting and rental shops still carry a large fleet of 'back-entry-boots'. But there's a different feeling in the air, now relegated to the position of the underdog's understudy the small town has an emboldened spirit. As the credit crunch of 2007 and the subsequent downturn left holiday skiers with less money in their pockets, families have been turning their sights northwards instead of to the continent and they weren't disappointed; the past 5 seasons in Aviemore have been some of the best on record.
As the suburbanites returned home, they sung Aviemore's praises and the mainstream press wheeled their ski correspondents out the morgue and sent them up to the north with an 'if lost return to Fleet Street' post-it on their backs to report on the new trend. Of course all this attention only sent more holiday skiers north of Hadrian's Wall from the comfort of their armchairs, vanilla lattes and broadsheet newspapers.
What's really important now is that Aviemore capitalises upon this renewed interest, lest they risk becoming just another 'fad'. Without sounding cliche, the only way their going to do that is if they 'clean up their act'. Sarah, mother of 4 from Islington who is used to the plush 'six-seaters' of Val D'Isere, is not going to be charmed by the drag lift that doesn't work properly, or the lodge's offering of Haggis Lasagne, greatly at odds with the usual lunchtime ski spread of Tartiflette, Salade Savoyarde and vin chaud. The professionalisation of Aviemore needs to happen soon and fast. And that goes for all aspects of the town's little life, from the ever inconsistent bus service to the hire shop with posters from the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics on the wall.
One of those drag lifts that doesn't work properly
But for us looking in, Aviemore highlights a number of uncomfortable truths about the ski industry. The most relevant perhaps in the age of the mega resort is that instead of throwing major industry players such as Vail Resorts on the bonfire as a sacrifical Guy Fawkes figure, and blaming the industry's every woe on them, we should embrace them. Sure they might be hellbent on installing a Starbucks in the midstation of every lift in Colorado, but without such investment skiing would fast loose the allure held in the minds of suburbanites; the people who subsidise your lift ticket, local economy and lifestyle. The opulence, decadence and romance which draws them to the hills for one week a year simply wouldn't exist without the likes of Boyne, Intrawest and Vail Resorts. We need to stop framing this as some sort of struggle between locally owned 'mom and pop' resorts and bourgeoisie big business, the reality is without the expansionist mindset acquired by developers and resort owners in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s a lot of skiing's 'epic' resorts would just be another Aviemore; an obscure mountain town who's survival year to year is dictated by something as fickle as the weather in a four and a half month window.
words - J. van Dyke
images - Magnus N.
Joey, this articles author skiing down to Loch Avon in the Cairngorm Mountain 'Slackcountry'