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The Great Outdoors should be an essential part of education

Outdoor education has been shown across time and geography to be an effective and safe means of learning. It’s relevant equally to participants from challenged backgrounds as for those who are more fortunate. The space beyond the classroom walls is suitable for the transfer of technical content and is the perfect medium for learning soft skills, such as leadership and resilience. As examples, we can turn look to the Scouts, the Outward Bound Trust or the concept of the traditional summer camp, which is a mainstay of youth activities in North America.

Outdoor Education  Debate in the Scottish Parliament

Outdoor Education
Debate in the Scottish Parliament

Over recent months, there’s been increasing discussion in Scotland about greater use of the outdoors in schools. A recent debate led by the Education and Culture Committee in Holyrood looked at the benefits to society in general as well as the potential to satisfy the aims of the Curriculum for Excellence. The country is blessed with a hugely varied landscape and, compared to most of the world, a generous attitude towards access for all and for free. In cash-strapped times, it seems criminal not to use the outdoors more.

The Scouts provide outdoor education (Picture: John Knox)

The Scouts provide outdoor education
(Picture: John Knox)

I believe passionately that everyone should have the opportunity to become the best they can in the domain of their choosing. Achieving self-knowledge is harder for some than for others, and that path can be forced, foiled or facilitated at school. Over the years, pedagogic methods have evolved with technology and fashion – everything from learning by rote (which I received ad nauseam as a student in early 1990s China) to remote, multi-media delivery by Webex. However, despite the internal combustion engine, globalisation and the internet, pupils in Britain are taught subjects indoors just as they have been doing since the Elementary Acts of the late nineteenth century within the same architectural configurations.

The effectiveness of the outdoors as a learning environment is because it is unstructured. Freedom from fixed seating creates liberty of expression; everybody can play director, while the teacher becomes a guide; the whole world becomes the object of study. In the outdoors you can discover physics from watching rivers, improve confidence by climbing mountains, develop communication through recounting stories around the campfire.

Future Shock CoverI don’t believe that everybody has to be academic to reach his or her potential. Using personal wealth as a benchmark, we can look at the education of the 50 richest billionaires on Slate: many flunked college or didn’t bother at all. In a balanced economy there’s a large percentage of jobs that don’t require traditional indoctrination: for the nation to get the best from its human resources, we should be encouraged to achieve possibilities that match our personal interests, drivers, values. We do not need the dystopian (but unfortunately reasonably accurate) vision of the Alvin Toffler Future Shock society. Our sustainability depends on using the positives of our heritage, creativity and human connectedness.

I’m a fan of incorporating as many learning methods as possible to bring knowledge and experiences to young people. There’s a long list of means to achieve this besides indoor school time, ranging from work placements and apprenticeship schemes to ball sports and adventurous trips. Variety is the key, but it’s not easy to get the balance. Application is more difficult than theory, while success is at least 99% perspiration. The Curriculum is challenging for schools to implement when the bricks and mortar reinforce old ways, teachers are trained to oversee single subjects and budget restrictions lead to difficult choices.

Wayne Bulpitt  UK Chief Commissioner The Scout Association

Wayne Bulpitt
UK Chief Commissioner
The Scout Association

Over the past two decades, health and safety culture has reduced the value of many organised outdoor activities. It has warped the definition of ‘risk’ into that of ‘danger’. I interpret risk as an entirely neutral term denoting outcome based on choice and the application of resources. As reported in the Telegraph recently, the Chief Commissioner of Scouting, Wayne Bulpitt, claimed the movement has benefitted in popularity because “schools have taken a more rigid approach to stopping activities”. Consider the risk of not letting young people get wet and be challenged in awkward ways… erm, perhaps a witless, scared society ten years from now?

However, I’m positive about the future of learning in Scotland. There are many initiatives, private and public, new and old, ready to integrate with schools. Examples include the Adventure Learning Partnerships from WideHorizons Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. In addition, the media seems to be adjusting its bias against outdoor adventures. So with a new year ahead, it’s my hope that the tide of funding for outdoor youth charities and state-run outdoor centres in Scotland will run full flow again.

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NWNick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. Nick works as a coach and consultant, specialising in resilience for individuals and organisations. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline

The Cairngorms – soon to be wrapped in winter snow
Pictures: Penny Haywood Calder

Arctic wind rasps my face. It’s November. I smile and think, somewhat guiltily, that nobody in Scotland should celebrate weather that dumps leaves on the line for commuters, smears ice across the path of the shop-bound elderly and chills the homes of those who can’t afford to heat them, especially in today’s harsh times. However, my heart, like those of tens of thousands of skiers, walkers and climbers, hums with delight as the promise of winter sport gets closer.

There's already a chill in the air on the higher ground

There’s already a chill in the air on the higher ground

The eye-stropping wind has shuddered through glens and over tops, pursued by anvil-black thunderclouds. Whenever I’m up here, listening to the grinding of ice axes on rock or how the mulch reeks in thawing cracks, there’s a sixth sense at work. Each decision I make, either edging me further into my personal unknown or back to civilisation, is tempered by an argument that I cannot see or hear. But it’s one I always heed.

Although I describe myself as a climber, I’ve done lots of walking in the Highlands, particularly to write the Pocket Mountains series. For my Cairngorms title, I did most of the research over the winter of 2002-03. The intention had never been to make life so hard, but the publisher’s deadline held me to account. At first the weather seemed constant only in its determination to drive me out. One day, I began a long circuit in horizontal rain and gales to Loch A’an via Beinn Mheadhoin, its summit tors stripped by warm westerlies. The burns were near impassable. The next week I visited Bynack More in waist-deep snowdrifts and a whiteout where the only thing visible was myself. Finally, many similarly unphotogenic adventures later, my luck changed.

Heading up above the snow line

Heading up above the snow line

One plan involved cycling from Inverey (Braemar) to walk the peaks beyond Glen Ey. The start was auspicious at minus ten before dawn. As I pedalled upwards, southwards, the sky shifted through shades of scarlet. I left my bike behind a dry-stone wall at the snowline and continued on foot. Not a cloud shadowed the land, the air was still and ice crystals glistened. I could see every peak for miles around. Sweeping hills led to high plateaux. I walked slowly, off path, noticing how the insulated heather catapulted me forward and the silence gave flight to my worries. Every scene was worth a picture, or at least one in the mind.

I rarely saw another soul on my travels in the hills that winter. On Saturdays and Sundays, there might be parties on Cairn Gorm or Lochnagar, but I mostly went mid-week or chose less-frequented places. The solitude was one of the appeals; I could laugh or cry and nobody would think I was crazy. At other times, I might bring along a friend. Together, we’d enjoy the quiet and mark a meandering trail that would be gone in the next thaw.

The harshness of the mountains is exaggerated in winter. Daylight hours are short. The ground can be sodden or snowbound. Navigation is trickier with numb fingers. It’s a challenge to be able to walk and climb through this terrain, especially to move fast and safely when necessary. But it’s an absolute pleasure when you get it right, like Walking in the Air.

How to enjoy the mountains in winter

An axe and crampons and the knowledge of how to use them are necessary in winter conditions. Always take waterproof and windproof kit, no matter how good the skies at the time of starting out. If you want to feel strong all day, it’s best to eat high quality food little and often, and carry extra in your bag for an emergency as well. In the Cairngorms, much of the ground seems quite benign, but steep corries hide cliffs where climbers play and the unwary have accidents. Skills with a map and compass are therefore essential. Finally, check the weather forecast and the avalanche predictions before you set out: all this can be found online.

Good mountain sense is a pre-cursor to success and enjoyment, but this can only be won by going out in the hills over a period of time, in a range of conditions and with experienced people. The Mountaineering Club of Scotland runs winter training courses. In addition, freelance guides also operate across the Highlands and there are plenty of clubs where you can meet like-minded individuals to appreciate the mountains as well as learn the skills they demand. It’s up to you to be as fit as you can and to take responsibility for your actions: when you do, that’s when you can really taste the freedom of the hills.

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Nick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. In his professional life, Nick works in corporate communications and information strategy. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline

Pictures Courtesy of Etape Caledonia

The 2013 Marie Curie Cancer Care Etape Caledonia has hardly finished before “Expressions of Interest” in NEXT YEAR’S have opened. The organisers, IMG Challenger World, say they’re “still buzzing” from the success of this weekend’s event in Perthshire. There’s been so much interest and enthusiasm that they’ve opened up pre-registration for the 2014 event which will take place on Sunday 11th May. What that means is that those who’ve signed up will get an exclusive 24 hour window to enter the event when places go on sale later this year. Given that all 5000 places sold out in just 72 hours for this year’s Etape, those 24 hours could make all the difference to those budding cyclists hoping to take on the 81 mile cycling challenge.

Pete Wishart MP and  Isobel Paul of Marie Curie Cancer Care Start the Race

Pete Wishart MP and
Isobel Paul of Marie Curie Cancer Care Start the Race

Thousands of cyclists gathered on the start line alongside household names and adventurers who heard a rousing Scottish welcome from Member of Parliament for Perth & North Perthshire, Pete Wishart before setting off on their Highland Perthshire adventure at 6.30am in the morning.

The course was a challenging one. Starting in Pitlochry, the riders went along Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch, then back round Schiehallion before making their way through the Tay Forest Park, heading a short distance up Glen Lyon before turning back towards Aberfeldy with the finish, over 80 miles later, back in Pitlochry. The route included two technical sections; the Scott Sprint and the King of the Mountains — the former a 1km section mainly on the straight and flat; the latter a 2.1km, Category 4, climb.

Winner Tom Arnstein crossing the finish line

Winner Tom Arnstein crossing the finish line

The fastest time around the course was 18 year old Tom Arnstein, a business studies undergraduate at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. Originally from Burnt Island in Fife, he made it in 3 hours 28 minutes 32 seconds, just 54 seconds behind course record set in 2011. The fastest female was 39 year old Ashley Pearson from Aberdeenshire who was riding with a team from Deeside Thistle. She set a new course record time for women of 3 hours 45 minutes and 41 seconds, that’s seven minutes off the previous record.

James Robinson, IMG Challenger World, was “absolutely delighted with how well the event went this weekend. Once again, there was a real festival atmosphere at the finish line in Pitlochry and it was fantastic to see so many cyclists crossing it with proud smiles. Feedback has been extremely positive with everyone commenting on the stunning scenery on the route and the unique opportunity to enjoy these vistas on safe and traffic free roads.” He thanked Marie Curie Cancer Care, Perth & Kinross Council and the many sponsors who helped make it “a fantastic experience for cyclists.”

Rob Wainwright  former Scotland Rugby captain

Rob Wainwright
former Scotland Rugby captain

Isobel Paul, Marie Curie Cancer Care’s Scottish Events Manager, said that everyone from the charity had “loved being a part of this amazing event and seeing all the cyclists cross the finish line. We’re especially proud of all the cyclists who have completed today’s challenge to raise money for us.”

Meanwhile, for those participants who have firmly caught the cycling bug, there are still some general entry places left for the Marie Curie Cancer Care Etape Pennines and Etape Mercia.

Anyone who is Scottish and a skier and, most importantly, skis in Scotland, will know all about the gamble that involves trying to plan ahead. Scotland is quite clearly not like mainland Europe, where both snow and good weather tend to be both frequent and consistent. Sometimes, like the situation just a day or so ago, there is plenty of snow in Scotland, so much in fact that the roads are impassable and no-one can get to the ski centres. At other times, the snow is there but so is the wind and this too makes skiing impossible. Then there are the thaws. This time last year Scotland was basking in lovely summer sunshine, the snow retreated and so did the skiers.

But there are occasions when everything comes right. Mid February this year was one of those times.

When we booked our children into ski school at the Cairngorms for the February half term, it was November 2012 and we knew we were taking a big chance. It was so far out that there was no way we could predict what sort of weather would be around three months later. There could be snow but terrible weather, or blue skies but no snow.

Archi eSkiing smallThen we arrived to find sunshine, no wind, plenty of snow and the best conditions I have ever experienced in many years of skiing in Scotland.

To say it was ‘Alpine’ does not do it justice: it felt better than that. So good was the weather, on the back of decent snow falls, that almost everyone there suddenly found themselves too hot.
Everyone had dressed for a day in the Scottish mountains in February only to find themselves sweating in the sunshine and having to take one, or two, layers of clothing off: it was that good.
What I didn’t realise was that the ski school at Cairngorm is right at the top of the mountain. The slopes are gentler there, the snow tends to be thickest and it is in range of cafes and facilities – pretty important when there are hundreds of children around – so it tends to make sense. But the winds are worst up there too which can make it difficult for the youngest ones learning to ski.

The winds can be severe. Indeed, the chances are that when you step out of the funicular station, you’ll be hit by a blast that is almost always enough to fling stinging snow in your eyes and sometimes fierce enough to knock you off your feet. But this year, for those few days in mid February, it was glorious and, for children who are just starting out, that was crucial.

It can’t be fun learning to ski – what with all that stop-start, falling down, picking yourself up again routing – in strong and biting winds. So the absence of any wind and the presence of glorious blue skies was fantastic: indeed, it was as it was supposed to be.

As it was half term, the ski centre was packed with children but the staff dealt with everyone swiftly, efficiently and good humouredly. If there was one feeling that characterised the three-day visit we had there it was of an easy family friendliness.

I have never skied in mainland Europe but those who have said that the atmosphere can sometimes be a little cold, a little intolerant of learners. But, at Cairngorm at half term, there were so many learners, so many children and so many in ski school that everyone else just eased up and went with it.

There was the odd selfish boarder barrelling down oblivious to all but themselves and paying little heed to struggling children who needed room and consideration but everyone else just went along with what was.

There were skiers who weren’t that happy with the conditions though. Several were grumbling about the ice – and they bad a point. Glorious sunshine and no fresh falls of snow did affect the slopes. The snow melted on the top then turned to ice overnight, leaving the runs very icy in the morning. But when they had been pisted by a number of skiers through the morning, they did improve.

The White Lady, for instance, was closed for most of our second day because of ice so, while the conditions were perfect for learners, they were perhaps not ideal for everyone. We had two days of glorious sunshine then, on the third day, the wind picked up and it became like the old Cairngorm once again. Visibility went down to a few metres at the top, it got cold and distinctly less pleasant.

By this time, though, the ski school children had learned enough to be able to cope with the slightly bigger and steeper slopes half way down the mountain, away from the worst winds at the top.
The only problem now is, however, that our children think that skiing in Scotland is always about blue skies, sunshine, beautiful conditions and no wind – oh, do they have a lot to learn.

Highland Perthshire Cycling has announced details of the first mountain bike enduro as part of this year’s Cycling Festival programme which runs from the 4th to the 11th of May. The event will take place over a 49km off road route on the fantastic trails surrounding the village of Dunkeld. The organisers, No Fuss Events from Fort William, promise “lung puffing climbs and smile inducing technical descents, laid back singletrack, fast fire road, stunning views and above all else the chance for a fun ride with mates, both old and new”. Highland Perthshire CyclingThere will also be at least four special timed stages, with the winner accumulating the lowest combined time from these sections. However, in order to lend a bit more intrigue to proceedings the exact route will remain a secret until nearer to the event.

Kat Brown from Highland Perthshire Cycling said it was “very exciting to have our own enduro in Highland Perthshire. We love to get out on our bikes as much as possible and the route we have chosen takes in the great trails we ride all the time. It made even more sense to link them all up into one big ride and invite like-minded riders looking for an achievable challenge to have as much fun as we do. Sign up now for The Highland Perthshire Enduro to experience the fantastic riding to be had in Highland Perthshire.”

As well as private sector support from Alpine Bikes, this year’s Festival has been possible thanks to funding from EventScotland which will help not just with the Enduro, but also guided rides, a Film Night and the marketing and promotion of the event. Its importance to the local economy has also been recognised by Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust and Perth and Kinross Council as well as the local DMO (Destination Management Organisation) and Paul Bush of Event ScotlandExplore Scotland all of whom have offered financial or in-kind support.

Paul Bush OBE (right), Chief Operating Officer for EventScotland described the Enduro as “an exciting addition to this year’s Highland Perthshire Cycling Festival, creating a real challenge for those looking to tackle the uphills and downhills on the 49km route. The programme offers something for everyone and it is great to see the strong family element in the festival once again. Scotland is the perfect stage for events, and riders in the festival’s closing event, The BIG Day, will be treated to some of the most spectacular views the country has to offer.”

Other new festival events are, guided road and mountain bike rides and a Film Night where amateur cyclists and film makers are being asked to submit a homemade cycling film which will be shown in the newly refurbished Birks Cinema in Aberfeldy, this Film Night will also show a professional feature cycling film and prizes will be given for the amateur film with the most votes. The week also features family fun days, kids events, local rides and the well renowned BIG Day plus lost more! The week all culminates in the legendary Etape Caledonia Sportive on Sunday 12th May.

Entries are now open via No Fuss Events and cost £40. Riders must be 16 or over to take part.

by Nick Williams
Mountaineer and author

That wintry Saturday, the snowy corrie that arcs down from Church Door Buttress into Glencoe looked fantastic. The sky was a perfect light blue, the type which mountaineers look at in wonder. The distinctly alpine-like feel of this place would make anyone feel on top of the world. But in the early afternoon, a small movement triggered a giant slab of snow to crack. The resulting avalanche became, almost instantaneously, the most tragic in recent memory in Scotland, killing four from a party of six and injuring a fifth. It spared only the last of the group. As a long-time climber and survivor of mountain tragedy, I understand both the landscape and the emotions following such an incident. It is really terrible.

The Saturday forecast was for ‘considerable risk’ of avalanche on the northern, western and eastern slopes of the Glencoe summits. The data originated from the daily monitoring of five mountain regions by the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS). Results are posted to the web, to mobile and on notice boards. Angle of slope, quality of the crystals and the freeze-thaw cycle all contribute to the strength of the pack. It’s mostly science, with some art – mountains are not uniform and winter weather is full of surprises. Last season, there were more than 150 recorded avalanches, most triggered naturally, some by skiers and mountaineers. If you are in the hills when the warnings are amber or red, you might need to adjust your plans.

Mountaineers have strong ethics. This includes limiting one’s trace, not using fixed equipment and looking after the environment. But the most important is the duty to respect the rights of all others who work or visit the landscape in the ways that they choose. Nobody can be stopped from climbing a rock route with hardly any protection, or from setting off alone on a run across the tops as twilight is falling, or from descending a slope where there are risks, unforeseen or not. Those caught in the avalanche were exercising their rights.

The tough conditions and steep faces of the Highlands have produced extremely creative and accomplished climbers, from Hamish MacInnes to Dave MacLeod, plus a long list of locals who are not household names. The weather and the topographical variety make Scotland a testbed for anywhere else in the world. At the Glenmore Lodge International Meet some years ago, I accompanied a Chinese climber, a veteran of three Everest expeditions, into Coire an t-Sneachda. As we battled our way up the cliff, he swore he’d never been in weather like the spindrift hell we experienced. To the rest of us, it was just another day in the hills.

The gap between responsibility and hoping for the best seems to be knowledge

That is, of course, part of the problem. The erratic nature of our weather patterns shifts airflows willy-nilly from the Arctic, Atlantic and continental Europe. When the mountains suddenly ‘come into nick’ at the weekend, there’s a rush of visitors up the A9 and A82 from all parts of Britain. Often, the conditions aren’t all that brilliant.

The objectives of trips to the hills include having fun, de-stressing, getting physically fit, exploring places that you cannot from an armchair and experiencing the calm of nature or the rush of adrenalin. You can tread off the beaten path and see wonderful places that still seem virgin. Nobody can say that you cannot do something here, unless you are breaking the laws, the privacy of those who live there or the unwritten code of the hills. Giving advice and heeding it – well, that’s a different matter. It’s up to the individuals to choose where to go, be informed of the risks and how to minimise them. That is called taking responsibility. It is a core part of mountaineering ethics.

The gap between responsibility and hoping for the best seems to be knowledge. The foresight to choose one route over another or to stay at home perhaps makes good mountaineers stay out of trouble. Some seem to have an implicit understanding of the hills, though most knowledge is probably experiential. Elsewhere, much can be learnt by reading, talking to experts or enrolling on a course. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland might be the first port of call for finding out more. There is also sportScotland’s training facility at Glenmore Lodge or the option to have private courses through practicing members of the British Mountain Guides. Tuition does save lives.

Sometimes terrible things happen. People make mistakes. The weather turns. Lightning strikes. I feel for the survivors of the tragedy, the families of the whole group and to the rescuers who were called out in the night to look for the dead. These people will need support and empathy. However, for our own souls, we must continue to explore and challenge ourselves. In Scotland’s fabulous mountains and on its choppy waters, we learn resilience and resourcefulness that have enormous benefits to our personal and professional lives. This helps in some small, indirect, unquantifiable way for our society to be more creative and successful in the world at large.

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Nick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. In his professional life, Nick works in corporate communications and information strategy. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline

Public Information Feature

The full programme for the 2013 Fort William Mountain Festival, presented by the Outdoor Capital of the UK, has been announced. It has an impressive and diverse line up of inspirational speakers made up of top climbers, mountaineers and extreme sports men and women, together with adventure film screenings and mountain workshops. This year’s festival will be staged in and around the bustling Highland town of Fort William, in the heart of Lochaber, The Outdoor Capital of the UK, from Thursday 21 to Sunday 24 February 2013.

Mike Pescod, Chairman of the Highland Mountain Culture Association, organisers of the Festival, said: “The 2013 Fort William Mountain Festival is one of the most popular events in Scotland’s outdoor adventure calendar and everyone attending will be inspired, energized and entertained.

“This year’s programme celebrates mountain culture in all its forms and promotes the mountains as an attractive, accessible and above all enjoyable place to be. It includes a superb line up of top climbers and explorers, mountain films, inspirational speakers and skills workshops. It caters for a wide spectrum of enthusiasts from armchair adventurers to climbers and mountaineers to mountain bikers and budding wildlife photographers.”

The Fort William Mountain Festival programme includes:

Festival Launch Night – Wednesday 20/02/13 – The festival kicks off in action packed style at Nevis Range Mountain Experience, near Fort William. The evening will begin with a torchlight descent spectacular as a range of local outdoor athletes on skis, bike and foot weave their way down Aonach Mhor. This will be followed by a locally sourced and inspired four course meal, a preview screening of the festival competition films and live musical entertainment.

Bike Night – Thursday 21/02/13 – Kicking off the festival in style will be a full-on evening of mountain bike film action in the company of Chipps Chippendale (Singletrack Magazine), Rob Warner (Former pro dowhhill rider and mountain bike commentator) and Stu Thomson (Former pro downhill rider and mountain bike film maker – MTBCut); with compere Nigel Page (Former BMX and pro downhill rider, race team manager and commentator). They will present their favourite bike films throughout the night and conduct an interactive and light hearted Q & A session.

British Mountain Guides Night – Thursday 21/02/13 – Three members of British Mountain Guides, the most qualified and experienced professionals to lead people in the mountains, will share their passion for climbing and mountaineering. Andy Nelson lives in Glencoe where he has climbed extensively, putting up new routes at the highest standard. He will recount his experiences of Scottish winter climbing. Tim Neill, who has climbed widely in the UK, Ireland and throughout the world, will entertain the audience with his alpine climbing adventures. Stu McAleese is one of the best alpinists currently operating from the UK, a true all-rounder. He will focus his talk on some of the major expedition climbs he has been involved in including the ascent of Arctic Monkeys VI A4 V+ on Baffin Island that involved 18 consecutive nights on portaledges.

Antarctic Adventures Night with Karen Darke – ’From the Paralympics to the Pole…’ and Felicity Aston – ‘Call of the White’ – Friday 22/02/13. Karen Darke, a silver medallist in the hand-cycling Time Trial at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, has hand-cycled all over the world including Central Asia and the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the length of the Japanese archipelago. She has co-organised sea kayaking expeditions along the coastlines of British Columbia and Alaska, a sit-skiing trip across the Greenland Icecap, climbing El Capitan and kayaking through the fjords of Patagonia. Karen will entertain the audience with stories of her adventures and the challenges of wheels in them before finishing with her plans for her next expedition to the South Pole. In 2009 Felicity Aston lead a group of seven women from six different countries, representing six religions and seven languages, on a 900km trek from the south coast of Antarctica to the Geographic South Pole, in just 38 days. The team, many of them complete novices, had met only eight months before they set off. Felicity will bring their incredible journey to life, not just the physical aspects but also what it took to transform these individuals into such a successful team.

Climbing Night with Andy Cave – Saturday 23/02/13. Ben Nevis has been central in the history of Scottish winter mountaineering – the site of legendary new routes, incredible characters, unfailing passion and tragedy. As a teenager Andy Cave, one of the greatest mountaineers of his generation who explores new routes in remote mountain ranges all over the world, had his first taste of mountaineering on the Ben. In 2013 he returns with friends to examine the importance of Scottish Winter climbing and its impact on mountaineering throughout the world. Packed with both humour and drama this entertaining lecture is a celebration of winter climbing through the prism of Ben Nevis; together with some freshly shot video of The Ben by award winning film maker Paul Diffley. The 6th recipient of the Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture will also be formally announced.

The Best of Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour Film Night – Sunday 24/02/13 – Always a sell-out, this is your chance to see the best in award winning mountain films from around the world – extreme expeditions and challenges, remote cultures and the world’s last great wild places. Don’t miss it!

Winter Skills Workshops – There will also be plenty of opportunity for both novices and experts to hone their mountain skills through a series of workshops in avalanche awareness, winter walking and winter climbing with Abacus Mountaineering. There is a one off Climbing Technique Master Class with local climber Dave MacLeod. There will be mountain photography workshops with Nevispix and a two day outdoor emergency first aid course at the Snowgoose Mountain Centre. Indoor climbing and ice climbing skills workshops will also be on offer at Kinlochleven’s Ice Factor Indoor Climbing Centre. There is even a gaelic language workshop aimed at climbers, mountaineers and hillwalkers at theWest Highland College, UHI, entitled ‘Understanding our mountains through the Gaelic language’.

Mike Pescod added: “This celebration of mountain culture, showcasing the huge range of outdoor activity opportunities available to visitors to Fort William and Lochaber, one of Scotland’s most stunning natural environments, is the vision of The Outdoor Capital of the UK, which is our presenting sponsor once again.”

To find out more about the Fort William Mountain Festival 2013 and to buy your festival tickets go to – www.mountainfestival.co.uk/

Ben More Assynt

Just two weeks into the Year of Natural Scotland and Highland Council looks set to back a wind farm scheme which would damage some of the nation’s best mountain landscapes.

Council planners are recommending that councillors do not object to a proposal by major power company SSE to build 27 huge turbines at Dalnessie, Lairg. The development would ruin some of the best remaining wild lands in Scotland. The final decision, though, rests with the Scottish Government.

The Mountaineering Council of Scotland which, along with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) objected to the proposal, has warned that if the council does not reject the proposal, and the Scottish Government subsequently support the project, the outcome will be the loss of an important national resource.

David Gibson, MCofS Chief Officer, said: “Just a few days ago Alex Salmond declared that ‘in this Year of Natural Scotland, there is no better time to enjoy Scotland’s great outdoors’. Unless he acts right now it will be the last time that people will have the chance to see the fabulous mountain landscapes round Dalnessie in their natural state. After that they will be reduced to an industrial site.

“Right now the Year of Natural Scotland looks like an empty slogan. If it is to have any meaning at all the First Minister should stop making misguided statements and get on with delivering policies that will protect our countryside. Time and time again we hear the same mantra from the Scottish Government saying that appropriate protection for our wild land exists. The truth is exactly the opposite.

“Highland councillors must make a stand by rejecting these proposals and taking seriously their obligations to protect our natural heritage. We believe the scheme is contrary to the Highland Council’s own wind farm spatial planning policy – part of the proposed development lies in the Ben Klibreck Special Protection Area and also it is in a SNH Strategic Locational Guidance Zone 3, which presumes no large scale wind farm development.”

Highland Council planning committee will be asked to vote on the scheme on 15 January. The report prepared by its planners notes that the Scottish Government has still not declared its final policy position on wind farms and wild lands. This guidance is urgently required due to the large number of industrial scale wind farms which threaten our countryside.

The MCofS has stated previously that it believes that inappropriate wind farm developments could have a severe impact on tourism and on the valuable jobs they provide in fragile rural economies. Recent reports showing a 12% drop in Scottish tourism last summer make the case more urgent than ever.

Dalnessie wind farm, if approved by ministers, would be close to mountains of great national importance, and highly popular with hill walkers and visitors alike, including Ben Klibreck, Ben Hope, Ben More Assynt, Ben Hee and Ben Loyal.

There are places in the Highlands which today seem to have no raison d’etre – places like Achnasheen and Achnashellach for instance. Achnasheen has a tourist shop and just about enough houses to qualify as a village. Achnashellach is little more than a mark on the map. Both are stops on the railway line to Kyle of Lochalsh which a long time ago gave them an economic relevance. Modern walkers and cyclists however are grateful for their continued existence as it gives them access to the hills in the area.

The Ledgowan Lodge is a traditional country house hotel which caters for lovers of the great outdoors. Its campsite and bunkhouse provide inexpensive accommodation for anyone planning to tackle the Fannichs or the Torridon mountains.

For those with a mountain bike and a sense of adventure, there’s an attractive circular route that takes you right out into the wilderness; but it helps to do it the right way round. On leaving the hotel, turn left on to the road towards Achnasheen about a mile away. The roads around here, even the main ones, are relatively quiet though some motor cyclists are known to use them to find out just how powerful their machines actually are!

At the junction, follow the signs for Kinlochewe, turning left on to the A832. This route takes you along beside Loch a’Chroisg. This stretch is quite boring; the loch isn’t especially attractive. But once you get beyond it, you find you find yourself freewheeling for what seems like ages down through Glen Docherty, the open gorge that leads to Loch Maree. It’s the main reason for tackling the circuit in this direction.

Kinlochewe itself lies beside the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. Exploration of this is another adventure, especially the short, steep woodland trail that rises up through the pine woods, opening out to offer fine views Loch Maree, Slioch and other mountains of the area, some of the most dramatic scenery in the British Isles. Instead, we’re going to turn at the junction opposite the Free Kirk and head up the road that leads towards Glen Torridon.

About three miles down this road, there’s the charming Loch Clair. A track leads off to the left skirting the edge of the loch, crossing a bridge over the river. At this point, the track is of good quality since it’s the road in to Coulin Lodge and the estate. But once you get beyond that and ride up to Loch Coulin, it starts to become rougher.

From that point, it’s a steady uphill pull with the path becoming rutted, a stalkers’ road carved for Land Rovers. However, it’s worth making regular stops because the views all round are magnificent. You look back towards Beinn Eighe itself and at the top of the Coulin Pass you can see Fuar Tholl, Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor.

The route down to Achnashellach is a well-maintained forest road. There has been a lot of clearance of the woods in the past year or so which means you get good open vistas down Strath Carron and across to Loch Dughaill. It’s an easy ride down to Achnashellach Station; there aren’t many trains so crossing the line isn’t a risky business.

From there, it’s again downhill to the main road back towards Achnasheen. At the end of a day’s cycling, this is an easy last stretch. Contrast that with what would have happened going in the opposite direction. The final leg would have been a long hard slog up several miles of the glen which feels in your legs as though they will never end.

Liz Smith and friends on Slioch last Sunday

Congratulations to Liz Smith, who climbed Slioch last Sunday, the first day of July, and in so doing completed a round of the Munros. Becoming a Munroist might be markedly easier than it was a few decades ago, and the total of listed finishers has recently passed the 5,000 mark, but it is always an achievement worthy of note. Tackling the famous old list of hills – 283 of them at present – is different for everyone and invariably requires a huge amount of physical graft and weather-endurance.

For the former teacher from Madderty in Strathearn (and former member of the Scottish Ladies’ cricket team), the completion is even more noteworthy as it places her in a surprisingly small number of parliamentarians who have climbed all the Munros – she is a Conservative list MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife.

It is impossible to ever be sure about these kind of stats and facts, as there is no compulsion to sign up for the “official” list of Munroists started by Eric Maxwell of the Grampian Club and for the past 40-odd years maintained by the Scottish Mountaineering Club – and the shadowy number of undeclared Munroists could well be between 500 and 1,000 at present. But until last Sunday the parliamentary peakbaggers’ subcommittee, if it can be called that, appeared to comprise just three people, and to have an inbuilt Labour majority.

Chris Smith (Lord Smith of Finsbury since 2005), the secretary of state for culture, media and sport in the 1997 Labour administration at Westminster, completed a round of Munros on Sgurr nan Coireachan above Glenfinnan on 27 May 1989.

Alan Haworth (Lord Haworth of Fisherfield since 2004), the former secretary of the parliamentary Labour party at Westminster, then did the same on Ben More Mull, 28 September 2001 – the exact centenary of the first-ever Munro completion by the Reverend Archibald Eneas Robertson.

And Murray Elder (Lord Elder since 1999), a former special adviser to Donald Dewar at the Scottish Office, completed his round on 9 June 2007 on Beinn Sgritheall, despite having had a heart transplant in 1988.

So now, with one final touch of a summit cairn, this little club of three male Labour Westminsterites has acquired a female Tory Holyroodian. It is worth noting that no more than 20 per cent of Munroists are female – although this is a higher proportion than in various more obscure hill categories. We are in the world of boys and lists here, after all.

It took Liz Smith 30 years to progress from first Munro to last. “When I first climbed Ben Nevis back in 1982,” she said, “I had no thought whatsoever of doing all the Munros – but, over time, especially during my teaching career, the ambition grew on me.

“I have had the privilege to climb in the company of some wonderful colleagues and young people, and I have also had the privilege to see some of the most outstanding scenery in the world, both of which make bagging Munros a very special experience – just so long as the well-known Scottish mist doesn’t get in the way.

“The Munros are a very special feature of Scotland – so too are all the volunteers who provide such wonderful support when we are out on the hills.”

This interest in the volunteer-support side of hill-going and outdoor activity generally led to her raising more than £7,000 ahead of the final ascent for various mountain rescue teams, the Mountain Bothies Association, the John Muir Trust and the RNLI – and Smith says she intends to raise more “as I plan my next outdoor adventure”.

Of course just four people is far too small a sample to draw any real conclusions or to detect any trends, but a couple of thoughts come to mind in terms of last Sunday’s happy event on the big bold hill above Loch Maree. One is surely obvious: it is good to see the parliamentary base of Munroists being broadened – especially as one of the sillier and more persistent assumptions about such things is that a love of the hills is somehow synonymous with left/liberal leanings. Sure, there might be a slight majority in that direction insofar as one could ever tell (try asking someone’s political affiliation when meeting them on a hilltop and see how far you get), and the mass trespasses and sundry land disputes of yore have retained their political edge and folklore status down the decades.

It’s also the case that the published literature leans that way and some of the climbing and walking clubs have radical socialist roots, but hill-going – and hill-loving – is and has to be a broad church which transcends party politics. If someone spends 30 years tackling the Munros, or goes climbing, or skiing, or simply potters about in the rougher bits of the uplands on a regular basis, it is because they love the hills in all their complexity and all their simplicity – and other issues and opinions tend to be very much secondary. Hill-going, in all its forms, brings together people of vastly divergent mindsets and backgrounds and helps them to find common ground. “Big tent politics” feels like an appropriate phrase in this context.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Hugh Munro himself not only failed – just – to complete the list which he created, but was also an unsuccessful parliamentary candidate for Kirkcaldy Burghs in the inconclusive 1885 general election – for the Conservative party. So there is an argument to be made that Liz Smith was tidying up some unfinished business on Slioch.

The other thought is that no one, thus far, appears to have done the Munros and then turned to politics – it has always been the other way around. There hasn’t as yet been a professional climber, mountaineer or guidebook writer arriving in any of the various debating chambers, along the lines of, say, Pete Wishart’s switch from the world of music to that of politics. We’ve had Henry McLeish MSP but not Cameron McNeish MSP; we have Lord Coe but not Lord Hamish MacInnes of Glen Coe. Such people doubtless prefer to be out in the open air rather than confined in what passes these days for smoke-filled rooms – and who can blame them? – but their presence, along with others from the “real world”, would add considerably to the breadth of knowledge and experience in parliament. Something to be considered for an eventual Scottish revising chamber, perhaps?

Anyway, that’s all rather general and theoretical. To get back to last weekend’s achievement in Wester Ross, it’s good to see that Liz Smith struck lucky with clear skies and decent views – a great many of her Munroist predecessors have fallen foul of “completion weather”, where a pre-planned finale coincides with “the well-known Scottish mist” or worse. She was especially lucky given her fine choice of hill – standalone western Munros are often saved for such events, and Slioch is among the most popular in chums-and-champagne terms. This was the 98th known Munro completion there and the true figure could well be 120 or higher. It is the seventh-most popular last Munro, pretty much neck-and-neck with Ben Hope in that regard.

“I was always attracted by the magnificent grandeur of Slioch in what is one of my favourite areas of Scotland,” Smith said after last Sunday’s ascent, “and so that it is why I kept it till last.”

Quite how long we will now have to wait for a Munroist from the Lib Dem, Green or – a curious omission, this – SNP benches remains to be seen. Several of Smith’s 128 MSP colleagues must surely have ticked off a reasonable number of the hills – perhaps the presiding officer could maintain a current-status list, to sit alongside attendance records, declarations of interest and such things? Just so long as no one starts trying to claim crampons from Nevisport or Cuillin guide-hire on their parliamentary expenses…

Update, 8 July – While writing this I had a nagging thought that another MSP had climbed all the Munros – but couldn’t find any evidence to support this. Then, rummaging through old files a couple of days later, I found a note about Murray Tosh having completed a round on Ben Hope on 17 July 2002 – almost exactly ten years before Liz Smith finished her round. I think I’d forgotten this – or had become muddled – due to two of the people concerned having Murray as a first name. That’s my excuse, anyway.

Murray Tosh was an MSP from 1999 to 2007 for the South of Scotland and then for the West of Scotland, and served as a deputy presiding officer from 2001 – so he could have been the very person to maintain a tally of members’ Munro totals.

He is number 2788 on the list of Munroists – apologies for having omitted him from the original musings. I don’t think there has been another Munroist at Holyrood or in the Commons or the Lords – but if anyone knows otherwise, please do say so in the comments.

(There is, incidentally, a George Galloway on the list – no.1390, completed on Seana Bhraigh, 3 April 1995. Also a Gordon Brown – no.1800, completed on Sgurr a’Mhaim, 21 June 1997. But not the indefatigable cat-imitator or the former prime minister, respectively.)