Cairn Gorm gives its name to the mountain range now known as the Cairngorms, the highest and most substantial area of high ground in the UK. Here lie 5 summits over 4000 feet, and huge plateaux over 3000 feet, containing arctic tundra vegetation unique in the UK.
Cairn Gorm (blue hill) is not the highest of the range (it is actually only 5th highest) but it is one of the most prominent mountains as seen from Strathspey to the north. It is because of this prominence that the mountains are now called after it; their original Gaelic name was "am Monadh Ruadh" or the red mountains, after the granite of which they are largely composed.
Cairn Gorm itself is not a very interesting summit, and two of its northern corries have been devastated by skiing developments, most recently the highly controversial funicular train, which takes skiers to about 4000 feet. However, the mountain is on the edge of a huge area of wild country, superb for walking. Additionally, the Northern Corries, which form the edge of the Cairngorm plateau to the west of the summit are one of the prime areas in Scotland for winter climbing.
Because of the ease of access conferred by the ski road, Cairn Gorm is one of the most popular mountains in Scotland. Before the funicular was built, there was a chairlift to serve the ski development, and many walkers and day-trippers took advantage of this to gain easy access to the top. However, due to concern about the pressure of visitor numbers on the incredibly fragile arctic ecosystem, it is not possible for walkers to take the new funicular and gain access to the plateau.
Aviemore is the main base for the northern Cairngorms, and especially for the skiing developements. It is an unattractive town of concrete hotels and hideous shopping developments. However, it is well served by bus and train services. It is easily accessed from the main A9 road which links the Central Lowlands of Scotland with Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. From Aviemore a minor road runs to Loch Morlich, and from there the ski road takes you to approx 600m / 2000 feet, providing easy access to the summit.
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The Northern Corries
For many mountaineers the attraction of Cairn Gorm is not the summit of the mountain, but the series of corries which form the northern edge of the great Cairn Gorm / Ben MacDui plateau. These offer some of the best winter climbing in the UK. Conditions here are colder and drier than western climbing areas such as Ben Nevis and Glen Coe, leading to very different conditions.
From west to east the corries are:
LURCHER'S GULLY: A shallow corrie, with no climbing interest. Was the subject of proposals to extend the Cairngorm ski area westwards; fortunately this did not happen.
COIRE AN LOCHAIN: Lots of climbing potential on the steep cliffs.
COIRE AN T-SNEACHDA: The other main climbing corrie. Separating Coire an Lochain and Coire an t-Sneachda is the Fiacaill ridge, which gives a good scramble.
COIRE CAS: A wide corrie taken up with ski developments. The Cairngorm funicular takes skiers up to around 1200m in this coire, close to the summit of Cairn Gorm itself. Separating Coire an t-Sneachda and Coire Cas is the Fiacaill a'Choire Chais (not "the" Fiacaill rige), which makes a good easy descent route from the plateau back to the ski car park.
COIRE NA CISTE: Also taken over by ski developments.
When To Climb
All year round. Snow may linger until May, but can fall at any time of year. Winter conditions can be experienced from September / October onwards. Conditions in winter can be extreme in the Cairngorms. The vast high plateaux are no place to be in a blizzard, and avalanches are all too common in the corries. Anyone attempting the mountain in winter should be a competent winter walker, and should have an ice-axe and crampons.
Most of the climbing interest is in the winter months.
The Scottish Youth Hostels Association have a hostel in Aviemore, and one at Loch Morlich (recently renamed Cairngorm Lodge).
There is also a campsite at Loch Morlich.
A mile east of Loch Morlich is Glenmore Lodge outdoor centre.
To the south of Cairn Gorm is the remote Loch Avon (pronounced A'an), deep in a glacial trench. Climbers tackling routes on the buttresses and cliffs which surround the head of the loch often stay in the Shelter Stone (a large stone which provides shelter!). This can be found at NJ002016.