Fort William sits nestled beneath the rugged peaks of the Northwest Highlands, with Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain, a constant fixture over the town. Each year it celebrates everything great about the outdoors and wild mountain culture through art, photography, film, workshops and well known names in the world of adventure at The Fort William Mountain Festival.
This year I was invited to experience some of what the festival has to offer and also to explore what else there is to do in Fort William in the winter. As it turns out there is a surprising amount of ways to fill your time (you can read some of my recommendations here) and combining a winter break with some of the festival events meant I enjoyed a diverse range of activities during my three days there.
I got my first feel for the festival at the launch night which officially kicked off with a torch-lit descent of Aonach Mor on ski, board and mountain bike before everyone gathered in the warmth of The Pinemartin Cafe at the Nevis Range. Here we were treated to a series of short films and talks before providing an audience for the BBC's Adventure Show live with presenters Dougie Vipond, Cameron McNeish and Michael Stewart keeping us entertained with their witty banter. I also have to give a special shout out to the Scottish stovies served up during the interval, they were amazing!
The following day I felt it was only appropriate to fully immerse myself in the wild mountain experience by making my way up one of the local munros and opted for the easy route up Aonach Mor via the Nevis Range gondola. A mere 15 minutes later and I was dodging novice skiers on a short walk across the snow to admire the surrounding white capped peaks. There is no doubt that mountains provide some of the most breathtaking views and this was the perfect spot to pay homage to their majestic formations.
Whether you are an armchair adventurer or weekend warrior, The Fort William Mountain Festival offers a wide range of activities for all abilities and interests. After my short jaunt back down the gondola I could have taken part in a walk to learn about the Lochaber Geopark or headed off on a winter walking skills workshop, however being slightly more active than an armchair adventurer but less skilled than a weekend warrior, I took a third option and joined Ian MacLeod from Wild West on a guided tour around the Fort William and Lochaber area. Ian is a knowledgeable local and professional photographer who specialises in wildlife tours and during the festival he was offering themed red deer photo safaris and trips to see Scotland's big five (golden eagle, red deer, red squirrel, otter and harbour seal). Joining a local is always the best way to really get to know a place and after several hours with Ian I had a head and notebook full of fascinating new facts!
After a hectic day, it was nice to head over to the Nevis Centre for a chilled night of adventure and outdoor films. The European Outdoor Film Tour proved to be a popular event with a packed auditorium being treated to a night of award-winning short films, with a mixture of inspirational and dramatic adventures. I spent a good part of the evening on the edge of my seat, going through a range of emotions from fear to elation as we were taken on a series of adrenaline fuelled journeys across the globe.
To get a taster of some of the spectacular documentary films that make up the The European Outdoor Film Tour, you need to watch the trailer below!
On my final day at the festival I found myself back in the classroom for a lesson on 'Understanding our mountains through the Gaelic language'. The two-hour-long taster session focusing on Gaelic mountain, hill & geographic feature names was being run by Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the National Centre for Gaelic Language.
Apart from dabbling a bit with Gaelic online and in books, I have never had the opportunity to be taught first hand by a native speaker and it was a fascinating couple of hours finding out how language plays such an important part in our mountain culture. The whole group was suitably chastised for our common mispronunciation of the nearby Aonach Mor mountain and we all left feeling quite smug at the thought of showing off our corrected Gaelic pronunciation at every opportunity!
Incidentally if you would like to know how to properly pronounce the Gaelic names of Scottish munros and find out what their name means (including Aonach Mor!), you can listen to them being spoken by a native speaker on the Walk Highlands website here.
I visited the Mountain Festival from Wednesday to Friday, when the events, workshops and town were a bit quieter meaning it is easier to get a ticket. In many ways the first few days are just the warm up for an action packed weekend with energetic highlights including a Freeride Clinic for skiers, avalanche awareness workshop, rock climbing masterclass, guided Ben Nevis expedition and the official after party.
For those looking for some less vigorous pursuits the daily talks, films, literature festival and a visit to the exhibition zone provide maximum adventure at minimal effort!
I found by combining a few festival events and workshops with a mix of other indoor and outdoor activities in the area, my stay in Fort William was not only unique but educational and provided a real insight into the many diverse strands that make up Scotland's wild mountain culture.
To find out more about The Fort William Mountain Festival, you can visit their website here.
To find out some of my other recommendations for things to do on a winter visit to Fort William you can read my blog here.
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I was kindly invited to experience Fort William and the Mountain Festival by the Outdoor Capital of the UK, however all experiences and opinions as always are my own.
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