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Taking inspiration for the great outdoors at Fort William Mountain Festival

By John Davidson

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Naomi Freireich, George Fisher and Pawel Cymbelista in conversation with Calum Maclean.
Naomi Freireich, George Fisher and Pawel Cymbelista in conversation with Calum Maclean.

Inspiration was available in spades as the outdoor community from across the Highlands and further afield set course for the Fort William Mountain Festival at the weekend.

The four-day event encapsulated all that is great about the outdoors, from winter climbing and snowsports to family fun and sustainability. There were film nights and talks, awards and interactive exhibitions, along with daily fringe events to allow people to take advantage of the, ahem, variable conditions.

I was out and about on the Saturday, when the weather was cool and clear, with fresh snow on the mountain tops, but the forecast for Sunday was for heavy rain. There’ll be more about some of the fringe events in our Active Outdoors pages over the next couple of weeks, with a scenic run and a lesser-known area for some fine mountain biking trails to look forward to.

Arriving on the Friday evening, I was booked into the Tales From the Trails evening at the Nevis Centre. A nice bike ride through the dark from the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel – my bed for the night – took me to the venue, which has little to no bike parking that I could find: a little disappointing for the Outdoor Capital of the UK!

The exhibition at the Nevis Centre.
The exhibition at the Nevis Centre.

Nevertheless, inside the venue, the love of the outdoors was clear to see. In another of the rooms, the winter climbing panel was taking place, while my event started in a small exhibition room, complete with a bar full of local beers. Know your audience!

There were stalls from Mountaineering Scotland, the John Muir Trust, the Search and Rescue Dogs Association and many more, along with some exhibits from the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection.

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This variety is key to the success of the volunteer-run Fort William Mountain Festival, now in its 19th year.

Festival coordinator Anna Danby explained: “Fort William sells itself as the Outdoor Capital of the UK and part of that is that the outdoors isn’t just one thing, there are lots of ways to engage in the outdoors, whether that is vertical ice climbing, or nature writing or paddleboarding, being in the mountains on water.

“The key element of the festival is to enthuse people about the outdoors, engage them in the landscapes of Lochaber and give them opportunities and hopefully a little bit of a helping hand with experience and skills to get out there and do it.

Fort William Mountain Festival coordinator Anna Danby.
Fort William Mountain Festival coordinator Anna Danby.

“Ben Nevis is a big draw, everyone wants to stand on top of the biggest mountain, but one of the challenges is to get people to see beyond the Ben and realise that there is all this other stuff to do as well.

“One of the big things I love about this area and being in Fort William is that you’ve got the mountains and the coast, this amazing combination of being able to climb the Ben one day then go to the beach at Arisaig or go sea kayaking. You can do a whole variety of things within the landscape.”

There was plenty of that variety on show at the Tales From the Trails event, hosted by broadcaster Calum Maclean. He brought together speakers ranging from ultra-runners to those who look after the paths to talk about the long-distance routes that converge on the Fort.

It started with writer and photographer David Lintern, who spoke about a project where he talked to people along the Cape Wrath Trail, hearing the different voices along the way. It culminated in a fascinating book, with funds from sales going towards the Disasters Emergency Committee.

Jane McGeary spoke of the development of the West Highland Way and looked at some of the challenges in maintaining Scotland’s first official – and most popular – long-distance route, while musical duo The Laurettes performed a trio of songs, including one written about the route itself.

The story of Polish runner Pawel Cymbelista was a real inspiration. He told the audience how he used to smoke 20 cigarettes a day and be overweight before an off-the-cuff challenge got him started in running. Now he holds a number of fastest known times (FKTs) for long routes emanating from Fort William.

Steve Worsley with Raasay (left) and Jamie Maxwell with Dan, from the Search and Rescue Dogs Association.
Steve Worsley with Raasay (left) and Jamie Maxwell with Dan, from the Search and Rescue Dogs Association.

He has completed non-stop runs along the Great Glen Way, the West Highland Way, Mallaig to Fort William and the East Highland Way (Aviemore to Fort William) – and he revealed on the night that his next challenge is to run non-stop north to south on the Cape Wrath Trail.

Finally George Fisher, an advocate of skyrunning, and mountain bike champion Naomi Freireich were in conversation with Calum about their own routes into the great outdoors. Naomi, who only took up cycling in her mid-30s, is aiming for a double West Highland Way, 192 miles of tough terrain.

The only thing to do after hearing all these inspiring stories is just to get out there and experience the outdoors for yourself.

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