Skiers have been whizzing down Glenshee’s slopes since the 1930s. As the famous Aberdeenshire snowsports centre hopes to open for the season on Monday, Gayle Ritchie looks back at the stories behind the venture.
Glenshee in the late 1930s. The perfect spot for a group of friends, fresh from learning to ski in Europe, who came here to practise their new-found sport.
With no chairlifts or ski tows in sight, they were forced to hike all the way up to the top of the hills before they could enjoy an exhilarating ski back down.
Members of Dundee Ski Club, established in 1936, were at the heart of the action and the club has been a core part of the Glenshee community since skiing in Scotland began.
The club’s honorary vice-president, Ian Steven, of Newport-on-Tay, has been involved with the organisation since the 1950s.
He’s still an avid skier, having enjoyed a few days at Glenshee in March – before lockdown.
“It used to be the case that you couldn’t get to Glenshee (the main area at Glas Maol) for weeks and weeks because the Devil’s Elbow, a notorious, double-hairpin bend on the A93, which is now bypassed, was shut because of snowdrifts,” recalls Ian.
“You’d often wait until the end of February or the beginning of March until it was open at the Blairgowrie side.”
Instead, ski club members in the 40s and 50s used snow-holding gullies on the slopes of Ben Gulabin, high above the Spittal of Glenshee Hotel.
“You’d park your car at the side of the road, walk up a path into the mountain and ski back down again,” says Ian.
“It took half an hour to walk up to where you skied down. And then you had to walk all the way back up again.”
Foot-weary skiers had a Eureka moment – why not engineer some basic rope tows?
They did so, on Ben Gulabin, along with a ski hut.
“The first rope tow was a ‘donkey engine’ where you held onto a rope,” says Ian.
“Then we had rope tows powered by modified tractor and motorbike engines.”
The hut blew away in a storm many years ago but a pylon and some sheets of metal remain.
In 1957, Dundee Ski Club built the first T-Bar tow on Meall Odhar.
As skiing grew in popularity, the club reached an agreement to lease the land from Invercauld Estate and went on to form Glenshee Chairlift Company Limited in 1961, which operated the ski area until May 2004.
The company built a chairlift up the Cairnwell to ski the infamous Tiger ski run – a steep, bumpy, often icy black run.
The lift towers were built in the Clyde shipwards and were painted yellow.
Along with a small cafe, this opened to the public in 1962. A book of 12 tickets cost £1 at that time.
The chairlift ran for 53 years and after being dismantled, the chairs were auctioned off in aid of the Scottish Charitable Air Ambulance.
It was replaced in 2015 by the bigger, more robust Cairnwell Chairlift.
The year 1963 saw the first lift built on Sunnyside and the inception of a ski rescue service manned by the Scouts and Guides.
The commitment to development over the decades transformed Glenshee into the largest ski centre in the UK, with 22 lifts and 36 pisted runs spread over four mountains and three valleys.
The runs might be shorter than continental ones and the weather can be truly horrendous but Glenshee is comparable to anywhere in the world on a bluebird day.
40 years at Glenshee
Kate Hunter has been the director at Glenshee Ski Centre since 2004.
She has worked at Glenshee for 40 years, having started in December 1980 as a ski instructor alongside legendary ski-jumper Eddie the Eagle.
Kate became a ski patroller in 1990, and is now ski patrol manager.
“Aberdeen Ski Club built a 300m rope tow pioneered by Jimmy Reid with a Bren gun carrier up the Cairnwell in 1958 which was fast and dangerous,” she says.
“Dundee Ski Club built one on Ben Gulabin with a tractor engine around the same time and the remains of it are still visible today.”
Highlights over the decades for Kate have included working alongside Eddie the Eagle and watching Austrian world cup skier Harti Wierather in action.
“Eddie was and is a lovely person – a very good skier and extremely fit,” she says.
“He was determined to achieve ski fame and had a portfolio saying he wanted to be strapped to a jump jet on skis and also to jump a number of London buses on skis.
“Harti Wierather visited for a giant slalom ski race and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Scottish skiing.”
Kate also enjoyed a series of “snow fun” weeks in the 1980s opened by Ski Sunday presenter David Vine.
Another event that sticks in her mind is the winter of 1984.
“More than 2,000 people were stranded at the centre overnight and had to shelter in all the buildings until the next day,” she recalls.
“Cars had to be dug out and there were some medical cases where people had to be evacuated by helicopter.
“Every sausage, pie – all the food available – was eaten by 8pm.
“The police and road departments are now more sensitive to changing conditions, with the centre evacuated and the road closed sooner.”
In terms of major investments, as well as the three-man Cairnwell Chair in 2015, the centre purchased a £1 million snow machine in 2019 and three snow cannons earlier this year.
The hope is that the equipment will help to future-proof the centre against bad winters.
There are plans to introduce more summer activities and to upgrade lifts and centre buildings, but Kate says “monetary support” is difficult to obtain.
“We’re looking forward to this season and hope that the public comply with government guidelines so that everyone has a happy, safe time skiing and snowboarding,” she says.
“To carry on the historic legacy of outdoor sports at Glenshee, we hope to continue winter sports in the future within the constraints of climate change and we are continuing to develop and diversify outwith winter.”
The hills will be alive
When Glenshee Ski Centre opens, hopefully on Monday, the hills will be alive with the chatter of the chairlift and tows, the clack and clatter of skis, sticks and snowboards, and the background thrum of vehicles queuing for spaces in the car park.
With Covid-19 restrictions in force, there’s sure to be a lot less buzz and bustle than usual – February, before lockdown, was fantastic – but centre staff are hopeful it’ll be a fun, successful season.
The plan is to open with the use of “snow factory” snow on the plastic run and beginners’ area. Other runs will open as the weather – and real snow – allows.
Masks/neck gaiters and social distancing will be especially important in queues, at lifts, in toilets and all indoor areas.
There will be screens and hand sanitising stations dotted around the centre.
Ski passes must be booked online in advance. No half day hires will be available this year.
- Glenshee Ski Centre had hoped to open on December 19 but will confirm the new date over the weekend. For more information, see ski-glenshee.co.uk