Ski mountaineering really appeals

Cairngorm (1245m);

  • Pronunciation:           Cairn Gorm
  • Translation:                Blue Cairn
  • Total distance:           13.8km
  • Total time:                  3hrs 45mins
  • Total ascent:               880m
  • Weather:                     Overcast. Mist on the summits. Cold with severe wind chill in strong to gale force winds (on the summit).
  • Start / end location:  Lower car-park servicing the ski resort on main ski access road above Glenmore. [Grid Ref: NH 998 074]
  • Map:                              A map of route can be found here– it may take a few moments to load into a separate window.

    Elaine skiing on Cairngorm in March 2010

Elaine and I have skied in many European resorts as well as here in Scotland, and there have been numerous occasions when we’ve been speeding downhill or relaxing on chairlifts being ferried effortlessly back up the mountainside and seen climbers trudging, under heavy packs, towards the summits. Well, today the tables were turned, as it was our turn to trudge up the slopes whilst enviously eyeing the skiers bombing past on the nearby pistes. Actually it wasn’t so bad.

Cairngorm Mountain Funicular Railway whilst skiing in March 2010

We had decided to use an ascent of Cairngorm (the sixth highest Munro) to regain our mountain legs after a nice wee break over the festive period.

We started our walk from the lower skiers’ car-park about 2.5km further down the access road from the main ski paraphernalia as there was plenty of space there to park the ‘van. After a short warm-up walk up the access road we reached the lower ski-tow station and from there we branched off due east to climb towards the ridge of Sron an Aonaich. As soon as we left the bottom ski-tows our crampons went on to cope with the crispy snow and very slippy ice.

Ptarmigan mountain restaurant near the summit of Cairngorm

Once we intercepted the Sron An Aonaich ridge it was simply a matter of turning right (SW) and following the ridge all the way to the Ptarmigan Mountain Restaurant (which also incorporates the top terminus for the Cairngorm Mountain Funicular Railway).

We stopped near the restaurant to put on an extra layer of clothing, our thicker gloves and ski goggles before heading south for a further 800m (horizontal) to reach Cairngorm summit at 1245m or 4,085ft.

Elaine at the summit of Cairngorm

As we neared the summit the weather closed in with visibility of only around 5-10m. The wind had also really picked up. Near the summit there was a small weather station that was covered in wind driven ice. This icy wind was also coating all the exposed surfaces on our clothing with a stiff frosting. It even prevented the lens on my camera from operating – so no more photographs.

In near white-out conditions caused by the mist, we traversed west from the weather station to pick out the top of the ridge Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais, which would take us back down to the lower ski station. The bowl formed between this ridge and the earlier one we climbed forms Coire Cas: the corrie that contains many of the runs making up the Cairngorm Mountain ski area. The other adjacent coire, Coire na Ciste, contains the rest of the runs.

Cameron on the descent from Cairngorm with Aviemore in the background

We ate our sandwiches amongst the many skiers congregating at the lower ski station. It was only 12:15 in the afternoon.

Many people in the outdoor press talk of the “despoliation by man of the Cairngorm area” due to the infrastructure and erosion caused by the ski resort. [I’m sure that these sentiments aren’t limited to the Cairngorms and indeed extend to most commercial developments in the UK’s high mountains – such as the Snowdon Mountain Railway with its Restaurant/Café at the summit.]

Looking towards a misty Coire an t-Sneachda

Although I’d be the first to admit that in the summer months the scarring and erosion are very obvious around Coires Cas and Ciste I’m also someone who recognizes the huge commercial benefits that such enterprises bring to the local rural communities – often spreading their “knock on” effects much wider than simply the ski industry. Elaine and I, as skiers, climbers and mountain bikers, too must shoulder responsibility for the damage that can be inflicted on our fragile mountain environment by our usage and hence we strive to ensure that our presence in these special and unique mountain habitats is not detrimental to the flora, fauna and local communities that work the land: “take only memories, leave only footprints”.

About Cameron Speirs

Born and brought up in the Scottish Highlands, Cameron, has been interested in outdoor pursuits since he was a wee lad. Over the last few decades he has climbed extensively in the Italian Dolomites as well as summiting the Matterhorn and several other 4000m alpine peaks. Closer to home he has spent many wonderful weekends mountaineering and biking in Snowdonia, Cairngorms, Glen Coe, Skye and Lochaber.
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