Cairn Gorm seen from Carn Etchachan
Cairn Gorm is the northernmost of the Cairngorm 1200m mountains, and access today is easy, as you can drive all the way to the Cairngorm ski-centre, with parking as high as 650m. A funicular railway will take you to the Ptarmigan restaurant (1080m) and a footpath will take you the final meters to the Cairn Gorm summit (1245m). At the time this was written, access from Ptarmigan to the summit was prohibited, and walkers should access the mountain via the footpaths from the ski-centre.
Cairn Gorm is the 5th highest mountain in Scotland (and Britain) and due to the high access, the mountain is an excellent gateway to the other Cairngorm mountains. A classic round trip hike is from Cairn Gorm to Ben Macdui and return via Cairn Lochan and its west ridge back to the ski-centre. This is also the hike described in this document. This route is estimated to approx. 6 hours (not including ascent of Creag an Leth-choin).
Ben Macdui is the 2nd highest mountain in Scotland (and Britain). Only Ben Nevis (near Fort William) rises higher on the British isles. Cairn Lochan is not a ranked mountain (Munro), but is considered a prominent 'Top'. Seen from the south, Cairn Lochan appears as an anonomyous hill, but when seen from the north (Aviemore), the northern face appears majestic, with excellent climbing and scrambling routes.
Creag an Leth-choin is also considered a prominent 'Top' (not a Munro), Viewed from Cairn Lochan, Creag an Leth-choin is a low front-peak (with only a 56m drop to the Cairn Lochan saddle), but looks quite spectacular when viewed from the Lairig-Ghru valley. This valley separates the Ben Macdui/Cairn Gorm peaks from the other 1200m Cairngorm mountains - Braeriach, Sgor an Lochan Uaine and Cairn Toul.
Ben Macdui's primary factor towards the higher Ben Nevis is (to me) unknown at the present. But a rough estimate is 1054m. This is based on my assumption that you cannot bypass the drains of Loch Treig on route from Ben Macdui to Ben Nevis. Loch Treig drains to Waters of Nevis in the south and to the Caledonian Canal in the north. Ben Nevis is enclosed by these waters, draining to the sea. The last 10m contour line before the lake is 260m. I have interpolated the lake height to 255m.
Cairn Gorm's primary factor towards the higher Ben Macdui is 146m. The saddle is just SW of Cairn Gorm, on route to Stob Coire an t-Sneachda. The saddle is marked as 1099m on the 1:25000 map. And as such, this is the only point dropping below 1100m on route to Ben Macdui.
Cairn Lochan's primary factor towards the higher Ben Macdui is 90m. The saddle is marked as 1125m on the 1:25000 map, just W of Lochan Buidhe.
Creag an Leth-choin's primary factor towards the higher Cairn Lochan is 56m. The saddle is marked as 997m on the 1:25000 map.
For trail descriptions, refer to the comprehensive and well-written Scotland mountain books. Recommended reading for those interested in exploring the Cairngorms, is "The Cairngorms" by Adam Watson (ISBN 0-907521-39-8).
The below trip report should also provide some useful information about the mountains.
Route: Ski Centre - Cairn Gorm - Cairn Lochan - Ben Macdui - Creag an Leth-choin - Ski Centre
I had spent the night in Fort William, visiting my friends Annie and Colin. This day, they drove me from Fort William to Carrbridge (near Aviemore), where I would be enjoying the week at Woodland Club Resort. The weather was just unbelievable, and I couldn't wait to get up to the mountains. Even if we came in late, it was still time to have a look around. After checking in at the resort, Annie and Colin drove me up to the Cairngorm ski-centre. The time was now 13:15PM.
The trail to Cairn Gorm runs from the ski-centre, up to the left when facing the funicular railway, and next to a small, white meterological device. The trail climbs the ridge, steep at first, more gentle above 850m. The snow level wasn't quite what I had anticipated. First sign of snow was just below the Ptarmigan restaurant. The ski-slopes, being just a few narrow lanes of snow, were quite busy. It was a lovely Sunday for anyone in the mountains.
I noticed the signs that prohibits access to the summit from the Restaurant. I assumed that this regulation wouldn't last long. The trail from the restaurant up to the summit was almost paved... I reached the summit within 55 minutes (14:10PM), and a grand view opened up in front of me. If the weather stayed like this, I would have a wonderful week ahead of me. From the summit, I had a clear view towards a possible round trip hike that would include Ben Macdui and Cairn Lochan. With dusk setting in as late as 21:00PM, I was in good shape.
On the way towards Cairn Lochan, I enjoyed the spectacular northern corries. The northern face was cleary for climbers only, but a rugged ridge (Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda) attracked my attention. I made a mental note to check out this ridge one of the days. It could be an interesting scramble route (which it was).
In the saddle between Stob Coire an t-Sneachda and Cairn Lochan, the route towards Ben Macdui breaks out towards SW. But I decided to visit the Cairn Lochan summit first, as the return route seemed to run W of Cairn Lochan. I reached Cairn Lochan 15:10PM, 1 hour after arriving Cairn Gorm. From Cairn Lochan, I maintained a southbound direction all the way to Ben Macdui. The terrain was easy to hike on, and only a few snowfields needed to be crossed. Hiking Ben Macdui from Cairn Lochan is quite a modest route. The lowest point on this route is 1125m, so the vertical ascent is only 184m.
I reached Ben Macdui at 16:00PM, less than an hour after leaving Cairn Lochan. I came to Aviemore to do 5 of Britain's 6 highest mountains, and allocated 6 days for it. Now I had two of them "in the bag", and only after a couple of hours. This was uplifting, because I was mentally prepared for bad weather that would somewhat restrict my access to the deeper mountains. From Ben Macdui, I had a great west view towards the mountains I yet had to do: Braeriach, Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochan Uaine. This long massif west of Lairig Ghru valley, with the dramatic south face of Braeriach, and the sharp-pointing Cairn Toul, looked astounding. I decided that these mountains would be visited the next day.
On the return route, I bypassed Cairn Lochan on the west side, left the regular trail and headed towards Creag an Leth-choin. I expected to get a good look of the northern corries of Cairn Lochan from this peak. Afterwards, I joined the regular trail down to the ski-centre. I arrived the trailhead 17:55PM, and was happy with today's results - two Munros and two prominent tops. Total vertical ascent on this route was approx. 1080m.
Move cursor to read notes, and click on the images to see full version.
Some of the thumbnails may have been cropped to fit the format.
westcoastpeaks.com Scotland 2003 Scotland 2002