Ski Touring on Braeriach: The Mother Mountain
There has been a Glenmore Lodge in some form or other at the foot of Cairngorm for over 75 years. The National Outdoor Training Centre predates the ski lifts, even the ski road. It existed when ski boots had laces and skis were made of wood with no glitzy top sheet. In those halcyon days Glenmore Lodge instructors taught skiing and ski touring on Cairngorm just like we do today and Cairngorm, the Northern Coires of Sneachda and Lochain and the Loch A’an basin are still today our main hunting grounds.
But every so often the weather, conditions and groups align, and we can take our clients further into the Northern Cairngorms, across the great divide of the Lairig Ghru and go explore the mythical delights of Braeriach.
Braeriach is the 3rd highest mountain in the UK and can also claim to have the snowiest coires in Scotland
In fact, Braeriach is the ‘mother’ mountain for the longest surviving snow patch in the UK. Garbh Coire Mor is home to the infamous Sphinx snow patch, which has only melted out nine times in the last 100 years (scarily: six of the years have been in the last 10, a not to be ignored indicator of climate change).
Reaching up to 1296 metres above sea level the huge bulk of Braeriach is obvious from afar. It is a massive upland plateau extending North from the sedate slopes of Monadh Mor. On its East it is bordered by the terminally long Lairig Ghru and to the West the deep Glen Einich. Ringing the flat summit slopes is a ring of nine impressively steep coires, all with enough of a Northerly aspect to collect and hold vast quantities of snow.
A skier’s paradise?
At first glance these coires look more like a winter climbers dream but between the steep granite buttress lie an untapped seam of white gold ski lines. The selection of skiable lines is phenomenal and range from cruisey confidence building to steep sweaty palm extreme lines and everything in-between. It not just the mighty bulk of Braeriach that is a skier’s paradise, the summit plateau is connected to the Sgor Gaoith via Carn Ban Mor giving another lifetime of ski descents to admire as you harvest the bountiful fruit of Braeriach’s coires.
This mountain shouldn’t be underestimated, it is a remote and wild Scottish mountain. The summit plateau is featureless and colossal cornices form above the coires, good navigation skills as well as holding your nerve are essential if you attempt to cross the plateau in anything other than perfect visibility. While the coires all have multi aspect slopes within them and the wind feeds them with snow stripped from the plateau making avalanche avoidance challenging with numerous cross loaded slopes ready to trap anyone but the most prepared and vigilant skier.
Accessing the mountain is also not as straightforward as skiing from the Cas carpark
The mountain lies tantalisingly, but satisfyingly, out of easy reach. It is often traversed as part of the 4 tops circuit (Cairngorm, Ben Macdui, Carn Toul and Braeriach) a long but enjoyable outing best tackled late season. Skiers not interested in ticking off summits on a list will most likely access the summit from the tiringly long Glen Einich.
Today it is common to see numerous mountain bikes stashed in the heather as riding a bike up the Glen is definitely the preferred option. Biking is not without challenges, early season or after storms the unavoidable ford can be treacherous and although a crossing can be made on large steppingstones, be warned that a colleague went for an early bath and missed an epic powder day when the stones were covered in verglass. Glen Einich is also home to the famous and much appreciated Escalator. A shallow gully that lies on the north-west slopes and reliably fills with snow, giving a convenient and quick access to the summit coires. It is a worthwhile ski adventure on its own, giving an often narrow and continuous ski descent of around 400 metres. Many a skier has feasted on the summit delights of Braeriach, forgetting to keep a little in their legs for this thigh burning descent. Conditions of the Escalator can also be easily assessed from Aviemore with a set of binoculars – if you know where to look from!
Braeriach isn’t just home to some of the best steep skiing lines in the Cairngorms. For seekers of mellow terrain, the summit plateau is extensive and gives enjoyable ski touring out to the lofty summits of Cairn Toul and Angels Peak. This upland, snow catching terrain is also accessible from Glen Feshie to the West and Glen Derry to the South, giving miles of mellow slopes to explore.
If this isn’t enough to whet your appetite and have you strapping skis to bikes, then here are a few memories from Glenmore Lodge Instructors, of skiing on or around Braeriach, the mother mountain.
Ross Creber: Senior Instructor
One of my earliest memories of skiing remote lines in the Scottish mountains stays with me to this day as one of the finest mini adventures I’ve had on skis.
Leaving the Cas carpark under the light of our headtorches my brother Hamish and I skinned with our heavy packs to Garbh Coire Refuge where we’d spend the night. After an hour of intensive digging to free the refuge of snow we scoffed some food and got to sleep. We were both excitedly awaiting the arrival of dawn so we could get out and start skiing some of the amazing lines that surrounded the refuge.
Leaving bulky kit behind we made our way fast and light to the top of Braeriach via Coire Bhrochain, ascending west gully. Clipping into our skis on the summit of Braeriach we had the most incredible pitch of skiing. The upper slopes of West Gully are around 50 degrees requiring precise jump turns before the gully then eases and the turns can open, and the skis can let rip back to the coire floor then the bothy for morning snack and coffee!
Between Braeriach and Sgor an Lochain Uaine lies the seldom explored Garbh Choire Mor with is home to the classic winter climb Vulcan and the Sphinx snow patch. Great gully, which is very different in character to that of west gully, offers some tight and exposed turns in the top funnel before the gully tightens and steepens.
This was a very memorable mini ski adventure close to home and we both sharing plenty of laughs, suffering and most importantly some brilliant skiing!
Emma Holgate: Senior Instructor
Skiing steeps with a backdrop as good as any other in the world, on the right day when everything aligns!
It was a quick message a couple of nights before to a long-term ski friend. The weather looked reasonable, the snow line was mediocre, and we decided on Glen Feshie as a safe bet for a good ski. We skinned up the west side of Sgor Gaoith, trundling up in no hurry and catching up on life. Summiting, we looked over & down the mountain’s easterly facing gullies leading straight down to Loch Einich, with the giant mother mountain Braeriach in the foreground.
The view, the conditions and the weather all aligned. Quickly bubbling with excitement, we both agreed ‘we really should, it’s too good not too!’. We scoped the tops of the gullies, and concluded all looked safe and in prime nick, so which one first?
It had to be the one closet to the summit, literally 1m north of the highest point. We went for it, adrenaline was high, and we skied soft snow on a great base until the cliffs below prevented us from dropping any lower, booted back up and just couldn’t resist another line down a gully just a few meters to the north, a similar angle, but with a slight narrowing in the middle giving a bit more spice than the first one.
On the second boot out we were extremely satisfied chatting away about the unexpected find of such good conditions on lines we had gazed at before with hope that one day they would be in condition for us to ski.
I have since been back, determined to ski lines that would take us on skis all the way to the loch, so with more focus on this, approaching from the bottom instead and booting up first, we succeeded. Another day that we will always remember, pillows of powder with a full gully line from the top to the loch, and a setting sun giving an incredible glowing light. Patience & perseverance in Scotland is the key to gain those magical days.
Andy Townsend: Head of Snowsports
At times in the mountains, you want to go fast. Speed is safety and helps minimise the time you are exposed to environmental dangers.
I am pretty nippy in the mountains, but I do like to take my time. I should have realised that setting off up Glen Einich on my bike with ex GB ski racer Iain Innes and ski race coach Mark Telling I would be in for a rapid day. The escalator was holding in the mild spring conditions. A brilliant white line slicing through the greens, browns and reds of the hillside as it transitioned from winter to summer.
Stashing our bikes in the heather we headed for the snowline, the fast pace came with a high price for Mark as his lunch bounced out of his bag and disappeared in the heather. The overnight re-freeze has set the narrow strip of the escalator hard, and we opted for boot crampons rather than skins. Upward progress was fast, and we were converted to skis and skins for the shallower summit slopes. Summiting was celebrated with sun hats, sun cream and sunglasses, I wasn’t allowed to rest and admire the view, skins were ripped clear, boots tightened and almost immediately we were circumnavigating the huge cornices of the East facing Coire Bhrochain and headed for the West flank. The sun had softened the spring snow and we were treated to hero turns, with the racers boys making less turns than me. A quick break, a refill of water bottles from the stream and we were boot packing up the East flank and headed for another lap, this time of the narrow hourglass East gully. Within no time at all we were sweating our way back up the boot pack. Nerves were starting to jangle as the cornice warmed and sagging from the hot sun decided to let go and crash into the coire, glad of our rapid progress and please with two great runs we headed for the shady Coire Lochain. A delightfully steep and icy ski saw us shussing across the still frozen but sunken lochan towards the top of the Escalator. The racer boys treated the ‘old man’ to a wee break before they laid perfect GS turns down the narrow white strip.
Skis strapped to bikes we were heading back down Glen Einich in no time. Mark was now racing a slow puncture, sprinting ahead we would catch him up as he frantically pumped his rear tyre. By early afternoon our speed and pace saw us enjoying a cheeky beer in the sun next to the cars, surrounded by drying ski gear having enjoyed some excellent skiing at the end of the season. Speed is not only safety, it is fun!
Braeriach is one of those mountains all Scottish skiers should visit; it is after all the mother of our longest surviving snow patch. Whether to ski a steep gully, meander to a remote summit or just go ski the infamous Escalator. Mother mountain is just remote enough to ensure you won’t suffer from Enochlophobia (fear of crowds) and yet somehow close enough that you will want to go back.
This article first appeared in the 2022 print issue of the Scottish Ski Club Journal.
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Whether you’re looking for to experience your first turns away from the groomed, managed ski area, are ready to develop your ski touring skills to the next level, or are seeking the ultimate ski mountaineering adventures the Cairngorms have to offer, check out our full range of Backcountry Skiing courses.
Or if you’re working towards a Snowsport Scotland qualification to lead others on memorable winter adventures, as National Outdoor Training Centre we offer a wide range of Training courses and Assessments delivered by our experienced team of ski Instructors.
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