FOR those of us prepared to brave horizontal hail, ice and rain, getting in some turns just an hour or two from home is deeply satisfying.

And on exceptional bluebird days, Scottish skiing amid world-beating scenery is one of the best experiences ever.

But can it last?

While the business thrives on cold, consistent weather, global warming is already making serious inroads into Scottish mountain snow cover, with our weather becoming highly erratic.

Last winter, 2018 to 2019, was the country’s second-worst ever for skiing, with just 54,481 skier days at Scotland’s five resorts – Cairngorm, Glenshee, Nevis Range, Glencoe and The Lecht. The worst was just two years earlier.

Add to that the struggle of the industry’s flagship resort at Cairngorm, with its funicular – the main way to get skiers to the top of the slopes – out of action for two winters now, and you’re near a perfect storm.

Remarkably, however, those running the industry are upbeat, enthusiastic and, crucially, still investing in their businesses.

Part of the story is about diversification, and there is also a growing reliance on snow-making, with modern machinery being brought in to pile up the white stuff even in above-freezing temperatures.

But deep down there is a faith that for the foreseeable future natural snow and skiers will continue to arrive at resorts which each winter employ more than 300 people in areas where jobs are scarce, and which indirectly support twice as many jobs again.

Snow expert Ian Cameron says the best prospects for future snow are not Cairngorm and Nevis Range, on the slopes of 4000ft (1219m) mountain giants. Although both face north the terrain leaves them susceptible to the “hair-dryer effect” of warm wet air blowing in from the west, eating the snow.

Instead Glencoe on 3636ft (1108m) Meall a’Bhuirid, is best placed as snow blows in from the west then dumps down on the sheltered gullies of the north-east-facing hillside. “Whatever winter storms do still arrive, Glencoe will benefit,” Cameron says.

That view is shared by Andy Meldrum who bought the resort 10 years ago. Meldrum is the chair of the Ski Scotland umbrella group, and says skiing and snowboarding bring the five resorts a turnover of around £5 million, with more than three times that going into the wider local economies.

“What the industry does is enable hotels and other business that are full in the summer months to stay open in winter, making those businesses secure,” he says.

In the last two years Meldrum has spent half a million pounds on snow-making equipment and a new vehicle track to the main ski area at Glencoe. He plans to spend twice that much on a new chairlift to the upper slopes.

He says: “Scotland’s a maritime climate and we get huge fluctuations in weather and conditions – our best skiing year was five or six years ago when it was really mild and no snow fell in Scotland as a whole, but we had an amazing season because it snowed in the mountains.

“The margins for us between a great ski season and a poor one are a degree here or there, or a single storm. And if you look back over 63 years of records we have been opening earlier and closing later.

“I wouldn’t have invested in buying a ski area if I hadn’t thought it had a future.”

Mountain biking, a “tubing” slide and accommodation all make the resort more resilient, but Meldrum says: “The primary aim will always be to improve the ski offering. All we need to do is build a business model resilient enough to survive the bad years.”

Cameron says The Lecht, sitting on lower hills at 2,500ft (762m) is the other best bet for snow. Lying further north and east, it too is sheltered from the hair-dryer.

Lecht director Pieter du Pon says their new £400,000 Snow Factory gives a guarantee of opening in December, and he is “generally optimistic”, with investment in plant bringing power costs down.

Of more immediate concern for him than global warming is the failure of the funicular at Cairngorm: this is the second winter it’s been out of action after engineers found major problems with its support bearings, and du Pon says that hits the whole industry.

“Aviemore and Cairngorm are the image of Scottish skiing for people from England – but last Easter Aviemore was a ghost town when it should be one of its best times. That’s not good.”

Cairngorm running at capacity also has a knock-on effect, with surplus visitors heading to The Lecht to escape crowds and enjoy easy, sheltered slopes.

The Cairngorm ski area and infrastructure is owned by Highlands and Island Enterprise which intends to fix the funicular, but meanwhile the resort must stay open.

The management company running the ski area went bust not long after the funicular closed. An HIE subsidiary, Cairngorm Mountain Scotland, now runs it, overseen by HIE executive-turned-interim-CEO Susan Smith. Despite the problems she has come out fighting.

Cairngorm’s snow-maker was switched on on October 28 to pile up snow until opening day on December 7. Smith says another year as bad as last is “inconceivable” and has limited the daily number of skiers to 1,000, where 1,700 was the norm, to ensure uplift can cope.

There are new snow vehicles and volunteer ski hosts working the slopes. “I want to be absolutely sure we step up customer service and do everything possible to mitigate queuing and blockages on the site,” says Smith

A local community-based group is in talks with HIE to take over the site. Smith says: “The long-term objective is get Cairngorm to become a world-class visitor destination ... with investment there’s no reason why it can’t once again be at the forefront of Scottish skiing.”

A year ago proposals were unveiled for a £27 million redevelopment of Cairngorm ski area including zip-wires, mountain bike trails and a “mountain coaster” ride. That is still under consideration.

The consultants behind that plan were confident there would be enough snow at Cairngorm for the next 20 years, and Smith says skiing will be always at the heart of the offer, but she adds: “If we revert to type and don’t throw all the balls up in the air and see what different options land, the only thing that will happen is this business will go bust again – it’s been bust twice in the last 12 years, so we’ve got to look at innovative fresh ideas.”

The Nevis Range resort near Fort William made the move into non-skiing activity 20 years ago. It has the mountain biking world cup, downhill bike runs, 60 km of cycling trails, treetop adventure and the country’s only mountain gondola taking sightseers, walkers and climbers high on to 1221m (4006ft) Aonach Mor. 160,000 of its annual 200,000 visitors come outside the ski season.

Chief executive Chris O’Brien now spends one month a year in China meeting travel agents. It’s become what he calls Nevis Range’s Great Leap Forward, with 1,500 visitors a month now from China.

He’s staying tight-lipped for now about major investment initiatives afoot, but he said snow-making is a “vital part of the future plan”.

“We have invested massively in snowsports this summer and we’ll continue to do so because the future is still bright,” he says. “We’ve got no reason to be that worried about the immediate future with climate change.”

Kate Hunter, a director of the Glenshee resort near Braemar, has been there since 1980. She says in that time snow cover has seen no dramatic change. Summer business has grown, helped by the “Snow Roads” tourist drive through the resort.

One cloud on the horizon is Brexit – Glenshee like others depends on flexible local workers but calls on agency staff: many are EU citizens who might not be back.

But Hunter adds: “You have to remain optimistic otherwise you’d get grey and wrinkly even quicker. I know climate change is an issue, but we try to remain positive.”

What the experts say

Snow experts say inconsistent winter weather will continue until the 2030s, with seasons of good snow mixed with years when it fails to materialise, but after that the future looks grim.

Mike Spencer is a snow scientist at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). He says: “For the next 15 years or so we will continue to see increased variability with some years exceedingly snowy and some where we get almost nothing at all, but it will continue to be cold enough on and off for snow to fall in Scotland.

“Beyond that temperatures will go through a threshold, and we will begin to see some quite dramatic declines in snow cover. There’ll still be variability, but as a whole we will get far less snow.”

Iain Cameron has in recent years attracted a following for his observations of Scotland’s dwindling year-round snow patches.

This year a single patch on Braeriach in the Cairngorms just hung on until last month’s first dump of snow.

But snow-patch disappearance has been accelerating: there was a year without permanent snow in 1996, then two more in 2003, 2006, and then unprecedented back-to back years in 2017 and 2018.

Cameron says there’s definitely been less snow cover in general in recent years, particularly the last three: “There’s just not as much snow falling in winter and spring as we would have seen previously ... It’s not looking great for the future.”

The funicular

The loss of the funicular railway at Cairngorm has been a devastating blow to the resort and the image of Scottish skiing.

Government agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which owns the Cairngorm site and infrastructure, now hopes to get repair work started next May, to get the funicular back running for winter 2020-2021.

The agency says repair is its “preferred option” although its business case to the Scottish Government still has to be made and will have to consider removal of the railway. Repair could cost £10 million while removal plus restoring the site could cost £13m.

HIE is already drawing up design documents for the repair, sorting planning permission, and finding a contractor to get the job done before winter closes in on the mountain again.

In a statement, HIE said the May date is “very ambitious but presents the best prospect of returning the funicular to service in 2020”.

It adds: “It needs to be stressed this will be a complex engineering project in an extremely challenging environment and the timetable for repairs can only be confirmed once a contractor has been procured and all statutory consents are in place.”