As winter approaches & the first snow settles on the hills, anticipation rises, skis are looked out & the waiting game begins. However once the first storms deliver sufficient white stuff to consider heading out, the question is where to go.

Here are 10 early season alternatives to the ever popular & generally reliable Cairngorm with routes graded using the club grading system*:

  1. The Ben Lawers Range

Ben Lawers & its satellites comprise the largest area of high ground in the Southern Highlands. The area frequently attracts November & December snow, especially when it arrives on a stalled weather front and handily the hill road up from the Loch Tay road to Lochan na Lairige takes you to over 500m so much closer to the set off point.

December touring from the car is not unusual & from the Lawers road a variety of touring options on different aspects are all available. Above the dam either side of the approach ridge to Meall Corranaich is frequently a good bet, as are the east facing slopes of Meall nan Tarmachan which catches the snow coming in from the west. The classic ski ascent of Beinn Ghlas via Coire Odhar & onwards to Ben Lawers itself can occasionally provide an early ski after a heavy snowfall.

Trip grade very much depends on which route is chosen & what the conditions are like on the day. Meall Corranaich is generally E1/S1/M1 whilst to reach the top of Ben Lawers is normally E2/S2/M2.

Heading up Meall Corranaich 6/12/20

2. Creag Meagaidh via Creag na Cailliche

A huge mountain full of complex corries, summits, ridges & cliffs make this a location worth visiting during any winter month. However early in the season, a 200 year old wall found on Creag na Cailliche forms a perfect snowtrap which quickly builds into a narrow corridor of skiable snow with easy navigation leading directly towards the summit of Creag Meagaidh.

Park at the layby (GR NN 4131 8214) on the A86 & take a line between the forest & Creag Mhor to pick up the wall immediately west of Lochan na Cailliche. From there the route is straightforward until the wall finally peters out at 1100m from where compass work may be required to reach the summit. Return the same way down easy angled slopes with only a couple of steep sections which are easily outflanked.

Trip grade: E2/S1/M1

Nearing the top 4th Jan

Early December conditions

3. Carn na Caim, Drumochter

Not an immediate first choice option but it wins out due to easy access from the A9 & a short day can be had which suits the limited daylight of December & early Jan.

A good track heads up from the road, just south of the Dalwhinnie turn off, to the edge of the plateau at 900m. The track acts as an excellent snowtrap & sitting lower than the surrounding terrain is semi protected from thawing. Consequently it offers a great route up with minimal ski carry when the snow is in visibly in short supply on surrounding slopes. Once the plateau is reached a line of fence posts links the Munros of Carn na Caim & A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag & provides a good navigation aid to reach the summits. The descent frequently remains skiable to low levels & fun can be had keeping within the narrow confines of the track as the snow cover narrows the lower you get.

Heading up the track

In the right conditions leaving a second car at Drumochter summit allows a quick traverse with the descent down the shallow gully line of Allt a’ Chaorainn (GR 6462 7646) which acts as a natural snow trap . Beware the waterfalls at the final steepening back to the A9 where taking a southwards traverse brings you back to the car.

Trip grade: E1,S1,M1

High up on Carn na Caim 28th Dec 22

4. Geal- Charn, Drumochter

Another short early winter day from Drumochter on a Munro which is easily accessed & often comes into condition especially after snow borne on southerly winds. It also has the advantage that prior to setting off the route can be easily seen when coming from the north.

Start at the Balsporran cottages car park (GR NN6279 7913), cross the railway & follow the line of best snow which lies in the shallow depressions on the wide NE ridge all the way up to 900m. From there the exposed position often means wind scouring leaving the summit snow free. The descent is frequently skiable all the way to the railway line.

Trip Grade E1/S1/M1

A wild january day on Geal-Charn

5. The Ladder hills (the Lecht)

Another location where a high level road means easy access & the grassy slopes lend themselves to early season skiing. Park at the Lecht summit & depending on where the snow has fallen either head NE towards Carn Liath 792m, or west to Beinn a’ Chruinnich & Carn Ealasaid. Both options are short days & perfect when the Lecht webcams confirm the snow has arrived.


1st November at the Lecht

6. Glen Feshie

The western slopes of Sgorr Gaoith are a frequent early season ski touring destination. Easy angled slopes on varying aspects, relatively high terrain & a start point at 300m mean it’s a good bet especially if the nearby Cairngorms are already being skied.

The routes start from either the car park immediately short of Auchlean or, possibly better, at the forest car park short of Glen Feshie hostel (GR NH 8519 0124). Both are likely to involve a ski carry of varying length to the snowline from where the tracks quickly lead to a series of west facing corries which seem to trap the snow whichever direction it arrives from.

on the upper slopes of Sgor Gaoith 10th Dec ’21

Starting from the forestry car park it’s well worth checking out the slopes of Geal-Charn/ Meall Tionail which provide an excellent way to approach Sgor Gaoith. From the summit possibly one of the finest descents in the central highlands drops immediately west down the Allt a’ Chrom- alltain which rapidly fills with snow every season. From the bottom of the coire either pick your way back to the car by following the walking track or, if the start point was Auchlean, climb back to the col immediately SE of Carn Ban Beag from where an easy ski down Coire Arcain reunites you with the ascent path.


The climb back out of Allt a’ Chrom-alltain 29th Dec ’13

7. A’Chailleach above Newtonmore

Monadhliath magic on the 3rd Jan 2020

Occasionally the Monadhliath receive enough early snow driven in on NW winds to give a great early day out on A’ Chailleach. For decades a mountain popular with ski tourers it’s home to a well known ski howff a 1/3rd of the way up which provides a great spot for a sheltered snack. From the hut its 2km to the summit with a straightforward descent back down the line of ascent.


8. Fionn Bheinn

This justifiably popular Munro located on the edge of Achnasheen is probably the most skied hill in the NW Highlands with dozens of ascents in a day given the right conditions. It occasionally comes into condition before Christmas but is normally associated with January when most years sees it receiving enough snow to ski.

On the upper slopes of Fionn Bheinn

Start at the village, parking at the railway station, before crossing the A832 & taking the obvious route towards the summit using the best snow cover. Cracking views from the summit before an easy descent back to the road often using the burn line of Allt Achadh na Sine which readily fills with snow.


9. Beinn Dearg

A remarkable mountain often skiing early in the season as a result of showers being concentrated & then driven up Loch Broom on NW winds. Several times in recent winters continuous December snowfall has led to the eastern approaches being plastered in deep snow skiable from the main A835 road immediately east of Loch Droma.

Watch the rainfall radar closely & if for several days continuous showers have been piling in over Beinn Dearg then it’s worth heading west. Confirmation of snow depth can be gained from viewing a very helpful traffic Scotland webcam which is located nearby on the A835. Look for Aultguish here:

The eastern approach to Beinn Dearg 10/12/17

Leaving the road at the small car park at GR 2764 7429 head round to the east of Loch a’ Gharbhain & then follow the burn line of the Allt a’ Gharbhrain upstream until a crossing point can be safely navigated. Once across traverse up to Loch nan Eilean from where the slopes above can be amazing with some superb descents possible. The alternative & more common approach from Lochdrum at the west end of Loch Droma provides a longer but easier approach up the stalkers track. However, the more exposed ridge crest heading NW is less likely to hold snow.


Above Loch nan Eilean

Bottomless powder, Beinn Dearg, Dec ’17

10. Glencoe

The mountains adjacent to Glencoe ski centre invariably attract early season snow & handily the access chairlift is open on most days, providing quick access to 650m. Moreover the ski centre webcams provide great evidence of the conditions.

From the top of the chairlift a generally straightforward tour to the top of Meall a’ Bhuiridh is possible with Clach Leathad & Creise further away on generally non-technical terrain. If the conditions allow & you’re feeling adventurous the east face of Creise gives a fabulous run for good skiers into Cam Ghlean from where a short skin on a rising line takes you easily back to the ski centre. Early season there is unlikely to be anyone piste skiing but if there are you should take a line which avoids the ski runs & uplift tracks.


Over the back of Meall a’ Bhuiridh

Into the Cam Ghlean, Glencoe Jan ’16

The superb Beinn a’ Chrulaiste, which is located immediately NW of the Kingshouse hotel is a great low level alternative. Deservedly well known as a photographer’s hill, after a heavy December snowfall it’s also a wonderful & easily ascended ski hill. A short section of combat skiing and/or ski carrying may be required on the lower sections above Altnafeadh but higher up some wonderful lines can be skied with a fantastic backdrop of Glencoe summits.


Looking down Glencoe 10th Dec 2015

On Beinn a’ Chrulaiste

Given sufficient snow many hills in Scotland ski well in December & its often unecessary to drive far to enjoy a day out. However reliable places to ski are harder to find so the 10 destinations above should give you lots of choice if you want peace away from the early season hordes on Cairngorm.

Al Todd

Dec ’22

* the grading system can be viewed in the section called ‘knowledge & training’