Walk of the week: Cairnwell

The view from Cairnwell looking down on Glenn Beag
The view from Cairnwell looking down on Glenn Beag
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Late December was a stormy time, with gales and severe flooding causing hazardous road conditions. After days of not getting to the hills, my toes were starting to curl.

However, a break in the adverse weather was forecast for the morning of Christmas Eve and, desperate to escape the festive mayhem, I left at 6:30am. Despite the number of roadside flood notices and one big splash over, the drive in the dark gave no problems.

The target – 917m/3008ft Carn Aosda and 933m/3061ft Cairnwell, the easiest of all the Munros but the least attractive in overlooking, and indeed being part of, the Glen Shee ski centre. From the cafe it is an ascent of 275m to Aosda and 291m to Cairnwell. However, when climbing both hills on the same day (it is unusual to do otherwise) the intervening 800m dip gives an overall ascent of only 450m (allowing for undulations) and a time of just over two hours.

It took me three hours! Suffering from a heavy cold on this raw morning and having to navigate (visibility little more than 100 yards at times), it was a tiring two-mile traverse over the recent dumps of fresh, soft snow interspersed with icy sections. (I had originally planned to include the outlying Carn a’Gheoidh but quickly realised that that was out of the question.)

The chairlift, not operational on my day, goes almost to the top of Cairnwell, but you wouldn’t use that anyway, would you? The vast majority of hillwalkers would regard using the chairlift as unethical. Anyway, I was heading first 
for Aosda.


Climb WNW then NNW from the ski car park for a direct route, following the ski tracks. Although its south-eastern slopes are marred by the skiing development, in truth, even without those man-made changes Aosda would still be one of the more unattractive and insignificant Munros. An embarrassingly easy “tick”, up and down from the ski centre will take less than an hour – on my day that was my time just to the top.

The small summit area, comprising two minor bumps on a quartzite-covered, vegetation-free top, has at least been spared the masts on Cairnwell. The east bump is the Munro, with a pile of quartzite stones as the cairn. Aosda is the Gaelic for ancient or old, and is pronounced “ooshda”. It’s also the nearest any Munro is likely to come to being mistaken for a supermarket chain.

It should be noted that in the current Munro tables the map reference for Aosda is 091762, but it should be 134792. The incorrect reference is that of Carn Bhinnein, the subsidiary Top of Carn a’Gheoidh, also 917m.

From Aosda, descend south-west then southwards by the perimeter fence of the ski area to the central ski tow, operational on my day. I met only three skiers on the traverse, all having arrived by the tow. It is then south-east to the top of the chairlift and so to Cairnwell.

I know not why the hill should be called and mapped as the Cairnwell. Luckily, there is no other. The summit area, marred by masts, concrete buildings and trailing cables, is not the prettiest place, even on a good day. The name is said to be a corruption of the Gaelic Carn Bhalg, meaning peak of bags; odd, considering that the upper hill is stony, with the peak when seen from the south having a lovely conical shape.

It then took only half an hour to follow the line of the chairlift back to the car. The rain forecast for lunchtime duly arrived but by that time I was heading home.

Map: Ordnance Survey map 43, Braemar & Blair Atholl

Distance: 3 miles

Height: 450m

Terrain: Paths and tracks, unless snow covered

Start point: Ski centre café, map ref 138782

Time: 3 hours

Nearest village: Braemar

Recommended refreshment spot: Glen Shee Ski Centre café