It was one thing to have a vision, quite another to possess the grit and spirit of adventure to ensure it became a reality. James McIntosh had both in spades.
A former member of the Fleet Air Arm and navy ski teams, he grew up in Strathdon, skiing on the hills and fields using a tractor and rope tow. The inhospitable terrain was notorious for being snowed in and, he believed, an ideal spot for a ski area.
He first floated the idea in a bar in the Italian alps, while ski training with his friend and colleague Pieter du Pon, but nothing came of it then. However, McIntosh, universally known as Tosh, hung onto his dream and when the pair met again in Aberdeenshire the venture began to take form.
There may only have been a lay-by, a cattle grid and nothing but desolation for miles around but, most importantly, there was plenty of snow. Fast forward 40 years and, weathering the inevitable ups and downs, the area has been transformed with the Lecht Ski Centre welcoming 3000 winter sports enthusiasts on a good weekend – and Tosh the astonished recipient of an MBE for services to skiing and tourism.
Born in the small rural community of Strathdon, amid the majestic beauty of the Cairngorms National Park, he attended the local primary and Alford Secondary Schools before going on to technical college. After a spell as a technician at Aberdeen University he joined the Royal Navy, working on helicopters in the Fleet Air Arm and becoming a member of the Naval Air Command and Royal Navy ski racing teams. It was during this time he forged a firm friendship with Pieter du Pon and originally proposed the possibility of creating a ski centre.
Some years later he left the service and became a ski instructor at Glenshee, working during the summer with an aerial crop-spraying company. It was when the friends got together again in 1977 that the idea of developing the Lecht, as an area for fledgling skiers, took off. They were both in their mid-20s, with little business experience, but managed to get another couple of people on board – Dr Jim Petrie, son-in-law of the landowner Sir John Forbes, had been involved in some developments at Cairngorm, and Ronnie Winram, lived locally and ran two businesses in Aberdeen.
They set up a company and bought three portable tows. “We started with a blank sheet of paper,” he said.
In the beginning one of the biggest headaches during the winter season was the frequent closure of the road to the ski centre, the A939 between Cockbridge and Tomintoul – due to snow. But once Aberdeenshire Council agreed to help open the road when feasible, they decided to go ahead. The upshot was that the council eventually allowed the ski centre to help them clear the roads while the local authority did the gritting, dramatically reducing the number of days lost to road closures.
With support of friends and family the Lecht slowly developed from small rope tows, with facilities being added when cash permitted. Tosh took on the role of operations manager, leading on the practical elements and building his own house at the Lecht.
Over the years Poma lifts were installed along with a chairlift. The first pisting machine arrived in 1984 and in 2004 the old base station was replaced with a £1.3million structure. Road upgrades were made to improve its reputation of being the first and last road to be blocked by snow each winter and more recently an investment of almost £500,000 brought a state-of-the-art snow-making machine to the slopes. On a busy weekend the centre employs 40 locals.
The Lecht was originally developed for friends and families, to get children skiing, and that remains the case today.
Tosh was made an MBE for services to skiing and tourism in the 2018 New Year’s Honours. He didn’t see that coming but he was somewhat pre-occupied at the time: the letter arrived when he was recovering in intensive care following a double lung transplant.
A member of the Lonach Pipe Band, which he joined as a drummer at the age of nine, he had become increasingly breathless and was eventually diagnosed with the lethal, progressive lung condition idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He was on oxygen and had been on the organ transplant list for almost two years. When the transplant call came it was a whirlwind. He was whisked to hospital in Newcastle within a couple of hours and prepped for surgery.
When he awoke his family handed him the letter from Buckingham Palace. He promptly told his children to buy a lottery ticket as he reckoned he was getting all the luck going as he had been so fortunate to get his lungs and the award on the same day.
He was well enough by June to receive his MBE at the Palace from Prince Charles and the donor’s generosity gave him another five years of active life. Known far and wide in the skiing community, he finally hung up his overalls and retired last year but, up until a few weeks ago, was still involved with the Lecht which acknowledged: “The centre just won’t be the same without Lecht 1”
He is survived by his wife Alison, daughters Louise and Annette, son Nicholas and granddaughter Emma.
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