Situated to the south of Aviemore in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, CairnGorm was first seen as an opportunity to offer commercial skiing to the public in the 1950s by a group of businessmen and landowners, though the first skiing actually took place as early as the late 1890s in Coire Cas. In 1956, the Cairngorm Sports Development Fund was set up to try and raise funding in order to begin the ski centre.
Since the Cairngorm Chairlift opened in December 1961, the ski areas expansion led to corresponding developments in accommodation and aprés-ski in Aviemore and the rest of the Strathspey. Today, CairnGorm Mountain is seen by many as being the figure head of Scottish skiing.
Since its opening, CairnGorm was to prove to be an immediate success with both locals and, indeed, the rest of the UK. Their continuing popularity enabled them to rapidly broaden their skiing area, creating the barebones of the area we know today, and more. They sought planning permission in the 1970s to build a tow in both Ciste Mhearaidh (on the south side of CairnGorm) and Marquis' Well (above the Ptarmigan T-Bar), both excellent snow holding areas. The decision at the time to not install these tows is one which is much regretted by regulars today.
The CairnGorm chairlift was one of only a small number of side-facing chairlifts ever built, and was the last operating according to the Funicular contractors in 2001. Having opened in 1961 when single-seater chairlifts were thought of as being high-tech, the two seater White Lady chairlift was the earliest detachable-grip chairlift in the world.
In 1978 the company changed its name to the Cairngorm Chairlift Company Ltd. The 1980s saw probably its most fruitful period in which visitor numbers reached a record high and the winters are generally recognised now as being the best successive run the Scottish ski areas have yet experienced. 1981 saw off the final major CairnGorm development plan to increase capacity and area, in the form of the failed proposals to introduce ski infrastucture into the other Northern Corries. This elaborate scheme involved the installation of six new lifts - not only up Lurcher's Gully, but also into Coire an t-Sneachda. One of the reasons for the failure is that it was believed that it would only be a matter of time before Coire an Lochain too was taken over by ski infrastructure. Regardless of this setback, visitor numbers were still growing and 1988 saw the record skier days, notching up over 390,000 in one winter.
In 1991, the CairnGorm Chairlift Company Ltd made a final attempt at the Northern Corries expansion plans, involving a compromise with more limited and discreetly placed uplift up Lurcher's Gully alone, but this too ultimately failed. The 1990s saw a new proposal in the form of the controversial Funicular Railway introduced. Alternative plans were proposed by others, including a Glenmore Gondola running to the Coire Cas carpark - no Funicular, but with all existing uplift replaced by modern high speed chairlifts. However, eventually the planners were convinced otherwise and the Funicular was given the go ahead, with a view to it spearheading a move to a more advanced redevelopment of the infrastructure.
In 1998, the Coire na Ciste three stage development plan began. The first phase was to replace all chairs on both chairlifts. The second involved making the chairlifts more beginner friendly with alterations to the station configuration and enable downloading on the West Wall Chair. The third and final involved converting the chairs to detachable-grip, extending the West Wall Chairlift to the Ptarmigan Top Station. A vague possible fourth was to refurbish the Ciste Base Station area. This development plan was regretfully never completed, and stalled after the first phase. This was the last attempt at any form of development in Coire na Ciste.
In 2001 saw the opening of the new Ptarmigan Top Station and the Funicular. The two metre guage is to help cope with the Scottish "stiff breeze", has a top winter operating speed of 10 metres per second, and carries 120 passengers per car during the winter months. A passing loop and middle station permits the carriages to pass, and allows skiers to dis/embark. The Funicular has a diesel hydraulic powered emergency drive, so that in case of main power failure this is manually operated to move the carriages back to the stations. Running from the Coire Cas carpark at 635 metres, it transports passengers up to the Ptarmigan Station at 1097 metres, running more or less along the line of the old chairlift.
With the opening, the operating company changed its name to the current CairnGorm Mountain Ltd, and branched out more into summer activities. Summer visitor numbers have again increased, and the availability of the likes of the popular Sunset Dining at the Ptarmigan Top Station has provided an essential alternative source of income to help support the snowsports operations.
Perhaps in part due to an unusually poor winter in 2003, followed by a mediocre winter in 2004, there has been a decline in winter visitor numbers recently - even though the latest example of a good winter was as recent as just this winter past. Other more likely reasons for this decline is the fall in pricing for air travel, and so for many from southern areas of the British Isles, it might well be cheaper to travel to the continent.
As a result of the decline in skier days, snowsports operations have been forced to cut back - this illustrated through the "core lift" policy, where 6 lifts are operated on all but the busiest of days, giving access to almost the full area. Perhaps this is characterised best by the removal of the Aonach Poma and Fiacaill T-Bar, and subsequent planned redundancy of the Coire na Ciste and West Wall Chairlifts.
More recently, CairnGorm gained planning permission to move two small poma lifts into the Ptarmigan Bowl area of the mountain - one of which being the Link Poma which was removed/moved from Coire na Ciste, and the other being the old Aviemore Dryslope Tow. It is hoped that this will help reduce queueing in this busy area, with the Link Poma set to be in position in time for winter 2006/07.
So what does the future hold for CairnGorm? Positive moves are currently being made towards achieving meaningful research into snowmaking. There has also been much talk of potential investment into uplift infrastructure but only if sufficient revenue can be generated from a succession of good winters. So in the same way that the resort usually annually closes early for the winter due to lack of skier numbers rather than due to lack of snow cover, it will be the number of skiers rather than the amount of snow that will ultimately determine the future.