Ski: CairnGorm Mountain

[Cloud inversion over Glenmore, seen from the West Wall Poma]

CairnGorm Mountain (historically referred to as Aviemore) is Scotland's best known winter sports destination, attracting more visitors than any of the country's other ski areas. On paper, it's easy to see why: its Top Bowls have the most reliable snow cover of any runs in the UK, accessed by a newish funicular railway which also directly serves the dozen or more runs on the Cas side of the mountain. Nearby Aviemore is also the closest thing Britain has to a winter (and summer) sports "resort", making it a popular holiday base year-round. But CairnGorm's drawbacks are non-trivial. Huge lift queues are common at weekends and during school holidays, and the upper slopes are barren and inhospitable in bad weather: days when the hill is stormbound or uplift limited are fairly common.

Scroll down for a more in depth guide.

[Good views of the upper Cas side of the mountain from the top of the Fiacaill Ridge Poma]

Name: CairnGorm Mountain ★★☆
Location: Minor road end 4 miles south of Glenmore Visitor Centre, G.R.: NH 990060 / swanky somebody blanking
Day lift pass (2016/17): £36 (adults), £22 (children)
Equipment hire (2016/17): £24.75 (adults), £18 (children)
Average season (snowsports): December to April, conditions permitting

Don't miss: The Ciste side of the mountain below the top green slopes - a steep-sided gully now only served by the West Wall Poma but offering the area's best terrain for experts: often quieter than the rest of the hill.

[The information board outside the Ptarmigan Station now shows which runs are open]

Guide to the slopes: If the queues aren't too bad, the Funicular Railway is the obvious way up the mountain. It goes all the way to the top, but if doing mid-station stops you can get off for the Lower Slopes, also directly served by the Car Park T-bar. On skier's right, Home Road is a direct cat track to base, while on skier's left of the railway there are a choice of routes, with the new Sunkid Megastar (replacing an old drag lift for the 2015/16 season) parallel to easy slopes on the top section. None are steep, but all have narrow sections especially if snow is poor. The Fiacaill Ridge Poma also starts from the base but goes higher, serving longish blue runs. Fiacaill Ridge next to the ski area boundary is often particularly quiet, with good views over Glenmore.

Continue on the funicular instead of alighting half way and you enter a short tunnel ending at the Ptarmigan Top Station. To skier's left of the mountain from here is the Upper Cas, with a trio of reds returning to mid-station. The wide White Lady is one of Cairngorm's signature pistes, with a sustained gradient allowing you to get serious speed up if groomed and quiet. On the other side of the funicular, the narrower M1 and Race Piste provide alternative ways down, but by far the busiest option is the Traverse cat track, which (after a flat section) connects to the Zig Zags and beyond to the Lower Slopes: nearly 500 metres vertical all on green runs. The dense network of blues either side of the snowsure Coire Cas T-bar fill in the gaps - these offer more variety than the piste map suggests if you can find their respective starts, although the Gunbarrel can get intimidatingly busy - and narrow if the sides are scoured by wind.

The Top Bowls are situated adjacent to the Ptarmigan Station. This is all fabulous beginner territory in good weather, uplift provided by the Coire na Ciste T-bar, Ptarmigan T-bar and ironically named Polar Express Poma. The West Wall Poma also finishes here, its uptrack stretching away enticingly into the extensive Upper Ciste area. Timid visitors beware: this is all red or black terrain, and the long drag back up can catch tired skiers and boarders out. Down the centre, the Ciste Gully is a natural half-pipe, often full of drifted snow late in the season. Various steeper runs descend both flanks providing excellent expert terrain, but if exploring No. 2 Gully take care not to descend too far and miss the traverse back to the West Wall Poma. Back near the Poma uptrack, Ryvoan is the direct way down avoiding a traverse. There's one other run deserving a mention: the scenic M2 straddles the ridge between the Cas and Ciste sides, eventually reaching a fork. Right takes you Over Yonder (steep for a blue, having been red in the past) to the West Wall Poma, while left takes you to the Day Lodge (also quite steep) on the run of the same name. The latter run's fence is followed by the Day Lodge Poma, which provides an alternative way to access the Ciste.

If exploring the Ciste you'll notice the old pylons of the Ciste Chairlift and West Wall Chairlifts. These are no longer in use, although there are calls to reinstate them. Although this means no uplift now serves the lower Ciste, on days with good low-level snow you can ski (according to the ski map, patrolled but unmarked) to the Ciste car park below. If running, shuttle buses take you back to the base of the funicular.

[The Top Bowls are a superb, snowsure zone for beginners in benign weather conditions]

Snow and weather: CairnGorm usually has the longest season of any winter sports destination in Scotland. Decent snow cover in the Top Bowls is common well into May, and sometimes as early as October. Many runs are located in broad natural bowls which hold snow well, also catching drifting snow off the Cairngorms Plateau in southerly storms. North or north-west facing slopes are also good news, with only the Day Lodge piste having a notably sunny aspect, and the Funicular Railway allows access to the upper slopes when lower ones are bare. Wind is the biggest problem: gales often force lift closures (especially in the Top Bowls), scour off piste terrain and can block the access road and funicular tunnel mouth, occasionally for days on end.

[Coire Cas is a large, mainly gentle bowl which usually holds its snow cover well into late spring]

Queues: CairnGorm's biggest problem, caused by large car parks, inadequate lift capacity and the region's popularity during winter holidays. If snow and weather conditions are good, long queues are almost guaranteed at weekends and school holidays up to and including spring half term. Waits for ski hire can also be long, and if the top two car parks are full you may have to queue for a shuttle-bus from the lower car park at the foot of the Ciste, over a mile from the base station. If all the lifts are open, the Day Lodge Poma and West Wall Poma may be a quicker way to access the top of the mountain than the Funicular Railway, which builds queues alarmingly. If possible, visit midweek in term time when the hill's much quieter - also taking advantage of a lower lift pass price.

Facilities: Historically provided by external companies, the "Snow School" was revamped for 2015/16 and is now run by CairnGorm itself. Equipment hire is available but often sells out during school holidays: you can book in advance, or there are plenty of alternatives in Glenmore and Aviemore. Food at the base and at the funicular top station is generally a cut above (in quality and price) general Scottish ski centre fare if you manage to get a seat. There's loads of accommodation in Aviemore and enough to do in the surrounding area to keep you occupied if the hill's closed.

Access: There's a good road through Glenmore Forest Park as far as the snow gates, but the last couple of miles beyond the car park at Allt na Ciste are prone to closure due to drifting after new snowfall. Inverness: 1 hour; Aberdeen: 2 1/4 hours; Edinburgh: 2 3/4 hours; Glasgow: 2 3/4 hours

[View towards the mid-mountain hub on the Cas side; the Ciste gully is behind the ridge beyond]

Downhill skiing in the Scottish Highlands: 5 ski centres, 4 golden rules:
  1. Bad weather (especially wind) is more likely to impact on your enjoyment than poor snow conditions. If booking early, have a back-up plan in case the centre has to close or conditions are unappealing. Otherwise, head up during a settled spell with good snow.
  2. Visit midweek or arrive early if at all possible to avoid queues. All the centres (Cairngorm in particular, Nevis Range not so much) can be packed at weekends and during school holidays.
  3. Use winterhighland for independent, up-to-date information on conditions and lift opening - easily the best online resource for Scottish skiing.
  4. Scottish skiing is unique, so don't expect it to be the same as skiing in the Alps. Great skiing days in Scotland are every bit as amazing as great skiing days in the Alps, but comparing the two is like trying to compare a Speyside whisky to one from Islay.
[CairnGorm Mountain piste map (2016/17 season)]

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