EVERY now and then I like to test myself on difficult terrain where route finding and judgement are a bit more critical. It helps to keep the skill levels up and there’s no better season than winter to do it, with snow and ice adding another layer to the challenge.
Creag Bheag above Kingussie has become something of a favourite hill, with a defined path crossing it and some cracking views from the top. But behind it, on the north side of Loch Gynack, lies its big brother – Creag Mhor – and behind that again, Creag Dubh, not to be confused with its namesake near Newtonmore. Both Creag Mhor and Creag Dubh are rough, pathless hills – just the kind of territory I was looking for in my quest for a sterner test.
I tackled them on two separate, very similar days, when the temperature was well below zero, the sun was shining and the sky an alpine, azure blue. In each case the start point was the large free car park in Kingussie, behind the Duke of Gordon Hotel.
It was -11C when I set off to do Creag Mhor, following the Kingussie path network signs for the golf course circular walk. As it skirts the course, doing the circuit anti-clockwise, it reaches a derelict building with a track descending to the River Gynack.
This leads to Loch Gynack and the new hydro scheme installed by Pitmain Estate. I turned right along the track which eventually reaches the Corbett Carn an Fhreicedain.
My walk along it was short, however, and I soon deserted it for frozen heathery and bouldery ground, looking for the best line up the craggy south face of Creag Mhor.
Progress was slow as I edged upwards, zigzagging back and forth, testing the ground with my walking poles before taking the next step, avoiding the steepest ground. A herd of deer to my left were engaged in scraping the snow to find grass and I stopped to watch them for a few minutes until they clocked my presence and headed off.
With the ascent test over, my next problem was getting off the hill. A check of the map revealed that if I contoured round under Creag Dubh I’d reach easier terrain for the descent.
Even so it proved tricky, with boulders often hidden under the snow to watch out for. A slow descent brought me to the track on the north side of Loch Gynack and I made my way back to Kingussie.
A couple of weeks later and this time a balmy -7C in the car park. My route to the hydro plant repeated, I walked further along the track rounding the impressive Pitmain Estate house to the far end of a fenced enclosure.
Leaving the track, I walked along the fence line then took to the heather to ascend Creag Dubh.
There were fewer boulders in my way this time but the heather again made progress slow as I edged nearer steeper ground leading to Creag Dubh’s summit at 786 metres.
Crossing a small gully full of thigh-deep snow, I was confronted with a steep section of icy ground around 15 metres high. Time for some fun. Walking poles stowed away, ice-axe in hand and crampons on, I made much quicker work of this obstacle and reached easier terrain.
There was less snow at this level, making for easier walking towards the top of the hill. By now the wind had got up and it was bitterly cold, so I wasn’t for hanging around despite an absolutely stunning vista of the Monadhliath, with A’ Chailleach standing out.
I walked north towards Carn Coire na h-Inghinn then down as quickly as possible to the track alongside the Allt na Beinne, sending mountain hares skittering across the snow and deer on the lower slopes running for higher ground.
The Allt na Beinne track was followed to a gate then I used tracks and connecting paths to head round the south end of Creag Bheag towards Pitmain Farm, up into West Terrace and back to the car park.
Creag Mhor and Creag Dubh above Kingussie
Distance Creag Mhor: 4 miles / 6km. Creag Dubh: 6.5 miles / 10km
Terrain Rough and pathless, steep in places
Start/finish Free car park in Kingussie behind the Duke of Gordon Hotel
Map OS Explorer OL56, Badenoch
These are not high hills but the going is tough. Frozen ground can make it easier in winter