Cairngorm Mountain is home to Scotland’s only Funicular Railway. Opened in 2001 the line takes thousands of visitors up and down Cairngorm Mountain to the highest cafe in the UK, the Ptarmigan Restaurant, which sits at over 3,500ft about sea level. Cairngorm is a hive of activity at all times of year with thousands of skiers in the winter time, and many visitors over the summer months experiencing the wonders of the mountain.
The funicular railway was, from its very inception, shrouded in controversy and to this day still somewhat divides opinion. From the moment it was first proposed it was vehemently opposed by sections of the environmental lobby on the grounds of its lasting impact on a very special and already very fragile site of scientific interest. First proposed as far back as the 1950’s, and then spoken of again in the 60s, only in 2001 did this project reach its completion because of all the challenges. When the railway finally opened in December 2001, many thought of it as the greatest Christmas present the Highlands had ever seen. Jobs on the mountain, and the increase in visitor numbers would bring long needed prosperity and investment for the tourist industry in the surrounding area. Others however mourned for what they saw as an environmental disaster.
Cairngorm itself is one of the biggest mountains in the UK. At over 4000 feet it is the sixth highest mountain in the United Kingdom and gives its name to the whole range of mountains. The name Cairngorm translates as ‘Blue Mountain’ and from a distance it is easy to appreciate why it got this name. Ironically however, anyone walking on the mountain will notice the geology of a very red type of stone so historically Cairngorm was know as the ‘Red Mountain’. Red or Blue, this mountain is very special for many different reasons and hundreds of thousands of people flock to experience its riches every year.
Being one of the highest peaks, and giving its name to the range, it is on many walkers ‘to do’ list. Mountaineers scale it at all times of the year either walking or climbing. I had wanted to experience the summit of Cairngorm for a long time so I took the opportunity and made use of the funicular railway to reach the top. One of my motivations was to see and experience the spectacular Cairngorm Plateau. I wanted to see for myself this great expanse of mountain which joins several peaks including Cairngorm and Ben Macdui. Infamous for its exposure, it attracts thousands of mountaineers each year in all weathers. Sadly, many have lost their lives there as a result of the changing weather and exposure to the elements.
We booked onto a guided walk which is the only way to the summit of Cairngorm while using the funicular railway. In order to satisfy the environmentalists, one of the conditions of building the railway was to minimise the impact of visitors. One of the ways this is achieved is by containing people and not letting them wander onto the mountain unless with a guide. Of course, if you walk up the mountain from ground level you are free to wander but, using the funicular railway you must book onto a tour. This makes sense to me, given how many people venture into the mountains without the necessary equipment or experience. Many lives could be put at risk by allowing ill clad, tourists in sand shoes to wander out onto the mountain. I was delighted to reach the Ptarmigan stop and have the opportunity to reach the top with the Ranger.
It’s a relatively short walk up to the summit from the Ptarmigan restaurant with only about 500 metres of ascent. The well constructed paths are sectioned off, again to contain people and minimise environmental damage. We were very lucky to be joined by our guide Gerry, who gave us a real insight into the geology and history of the mountain.
I was hoping to see, or at least hear a Ptarmigan. Very shy but very beautiful birds they spend most of the time on the ground and only fly if they have to. A grey brown colour in the summer they, like the mountain hare, change their coat in the winter and go all white. This gives them protection from predators from above. We did however see some beautiful reindeer. Although theses are wild animals, they were very tame indeed and allowed us to get very close to them. They live up there all year round and are a native species to Norway.
As we approached the summit, views were just spectacular as weather conditions were near perfect. Looking over Cairngorm Plateau was just amazing. This vast wilderness is inspiring. We could see many mountains in all directions and it was good to name many of them. It was a fantastic experience and it has left me with an enthusiasm for more.
I got the feeling that the funicular railway, far from being an environmental disaster, is a wonderful resource for many different reasons. As well as the enormous economic prosperity it brings to the area, it enables people of all abilities to experience the mountains. I don’t think mountains should be sacred places reserved only for the fit and able. The experience of being up a mountain is so motivating and inspiring I don’t think its fair to deny the experience to anyone who seeks it. Being able to use the funicular like this so that anybody can experience the pleasure of being up a mountain is a truly great thing. I felt very much at peace with the impact on the environment. It is very contained and only really impacts on one side of a mountain in a vast area. The ski area was there long before the train. Ski areas in the summer time never look pretty. The mountain organisation ‘Natural Retreats ‘do a fantastic job managing and containing its impact as well as keeping people safe.
I hope to return to Cairngorm and use the railway again in the near future. I would like to go further afield and even camp out on the Cairngorm Plateau. This would be a truly wonderful experience and one that I would treasure. I feel really hungry to experience the mountains. Unfortunately my walking ability has not enabled me to venture far recently without substantial amounts of pain, or indeed more than I’m prepared to tolerate. I will be looking into ways of making this dream possible soon and hope that I can report back on what a wonderful experience it is.