The Cairnwell Three

The Cairnwell (933m); Carn a’ Gheoidh (975m); Carn Aosda (917m)

  • Pronunciation:             The Cairnwell; Karn uh Yoye; Carn Ooster
  • Translation:                  Hill of Bags; Hill of the Goose; Aged Hill
  • Total distance:             13.2km
  • Total time:                    4hrs 50mins
  • Total ascent:                 778m
  • Weather:                       Misty all day – even at the Glenshee car-park. Heavy snow showers on the summits, driven by strong winds leading to localized white-out conditions.
  • Start / end location:   Glenshee ski resort top car-park – east side of A93 [OS Map Sheet 43 – Grid Ref: NO 141 779]
  • Map:                               A map of route can be found here – it may take a few moments to load into a separate window. Unfortunately the map may not display on some Internet Explorer browsers.

    Cameron at The Cairnwell summit shelter

These three hills are reputed to be the easiest little group of Munros to climb because you can start the climb at the bottom of the Glenshee ski resort, which is at a height of around 665m! This means that we only had to climb 268m (vertically) to reach the summit of our first Munro, The Cairnwell.

We parked up at the Glenshee skiers’ car-park amongst the hoards of skiers already getting prepared for a day of downhill thrills (oh, and ski-tows that whisk them quickly uphill again!). By the roadside we also noticed a pair of red grouse eating the freshly laid grit from the road, which aids their digestion due to a diet consisting mainly of heather shoots. From the car-park we headed southward down the main road (A93) for a few hundred meters, then adjacent to the radio transmitter mast we left the road and climbed the ploughed snow bank to access the hillside beyond. This positioned us on the eastern slopes of The Cairnwell, but all we could see in front of us was a thick dense fog that offered only 20m of visibility.

Incongruous telecomms masts surround The Cairnwell summit

The climb to the summit of The Cairnwell at 933m or 3.061’ was reasonably steep, snow-covered but otherwise uneventful. When we reached the summit we were disappointed to see man’s influence being quite so noticeable, as the uninspiring summit hut was “squashed” unceremoniously between numerous, incongruous telecoms antennae: the price to be paid for ubiquitous mobile telephony?

From the summit hut we tracked a course NW following the ridge that marks the SW boundary of the Glenshee ski area, and then eventually arced round first to the west and then the SSW to follow a broad ridge to the top of Carn nan Sac (920m). From Carn nan Sac we headed 1.4km due west all the way to the second summit of Carn a’ Gheoidh at 975m or 3,199’. It was a real trudge in the deep snow and in very poor visibility, with the monotony only broken by sightings of several mountain hares and ptarmigan quite close by.

Elaine at the summit of Carn a' Gheoidh

Once we reached the summit cairn of Carn a’ Gheoidh the weather deteriorated further with wind driven snow causing temporary local white-out conditions. For anyone who has not experienced true white-out conditions it is a hugely disorientating experience: there is absolutely no visual relief on the ground and no discernable horizon. In fact, it is hard to see what your feet are actually about to stand on – but so long as it’s not “free-space” then it is usually okay! This is where prior experience of accurately navigating with map and compass is so important: it is neither the time nor the place to learn the ropes!

Cameron relaxing at the summit cairn of Carn a' Gheoidh

We had to retrace our steps right back to the western boundary of the ski resort before turning north and then NE to climb the third Munro of the day, Carn Aosda, at 917m or 3.008’. Like the earlier two Munros, this summit appeared quite “suddenly” out of the mist as a small pile of rocks built up into a cairn on an otherwise flat plateau. After a quick photograph we turned back the way we had come for a few hundred metres and then headed south to trace our way back to the car-park via one of the ski runs. The ski-tow servicing this run wasn’t operating so the run didn’t have any skiers on it. It was a pity for the skiers as the condition of the snow on the piste was excellent – soft, deep and powdery. Likewise it was a shame for us that we too didn’t have our skis as it would have made for a very rapid descent back to the car-park.

Elaine at the summit of Carn Aosda

Once back at the ‘van we enjoyed tea and homemade shortbread, whilst we watched a small flock of snow-bunting dive amongst the parked cars.

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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2 Responses to The Cairnwell Three

  1. Roy Starkey says:

    Hi Cameron – Sorry to see that the weather has shut in on you somewhat of late. The Cairnwell is a disgrace as a Munro – the summit is awful. I recall a much better day on the other side of the road on Glas Maol, overlooking the Crags of Cannes in brilliant Alpine conditions – altogether much more satisfactory – hope you get a good day when you do that one.

    We’re still hoping to catch up with you in March at some point so will be taking an increasingly keen interest in incoming Atlantic weather systems towards the end of the month !

    Best wishes


    • Cameron says:

      Hi Roy, thanks for your note.
      The conditions right now are pretty challenging: we’re struggling in the deep snow. Today, we climbed An Socach and despite an overnight frost the snow remained “damp” and heavy. An Socach is a long tramp across some fairly undulating terrain just to get to its base. Elaine did a cracking job of breaking much of he trail – but in truth neither of us enjoyed the “challenge”.
      The forecast is threatening more dumps of snow over the next few days and we’re racking our brains to know what to do next. We’re staying in Braemar and had big plans to do the Lochnagar Five and the east of Glenshee Six (including the one you mentioned Glas Maol). However, the last couple of days on the hills has shown me that we should simply try to pick off some of the single or double “outliers” rather than attempt to tackle the bigger and longer outings. We can save these for later in the season.
      I reckon that we’ll stay put in Braemar for a few days until the worst of this batch of weather passes through. We will then head southward to the Lawers group, Glen Lochay or Glen Lyon for a few days. We are planning on being back in Fort William around the 26 Feb. for a few days.
      That will bring us to the beginning of March, when we plan to spend the month ticking off the Munros in Glen Etive, Bridge of Orchy, Tyndrum, top of Crianlarich, then back round to Lawers, Lochay and Lyon. If we have time towards the end of March, and the conditions look favourable then we’ll possibly head back to Braemar to complete Lochnagar, east of Glenshee, and the one or two around the Spittal of Glenshee. Does this help with your planning any, in terms of meeting up to complete one or two together?
      Very best wishes,

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