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Lochaber

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/

This week, the annual Mountain Festival comes to Lochaber. Now in its fifth year, the event is a mixture of workshops offering practical skills in mountain craft, films and lectures on a wide range of hill-related topics and a whole host of social activities. Timed to coincide with the school half-term holidays, it attracts people from all over the UK, making this one of the business parts of the winter season for Fort William and the surrounding area.

Ardgour <em>Picture: David Calder</em>

Ardgour Picture: David Calder

It was intended to be the last long ride of the summer – take the ferry from Corran across to Ardgour and follow the quiet road along Loch Linnhe, then turn up Loch Eil with the intention of catching the train back to Fort William at Glenfinnan. But somehow it didn’t work out quite like that.

The Corran Bunkhouse is a wonderful place to stay when planning a trip like this. It may call itself a “bunkhouse”, but it’s really a comfortable and quite sophisticated self-catering home-from-home. It can cater for up to 32 people in two connected buildings. How many bunkhouses can offer twin rooms with en-suite facilities?

We arrived to meet friends very late in the evening. The drive from Edinburgh takes over three hours and we had chosen to break the journey at the excellent Real Food Cafe at Tyndrum. Its lights are a welcome sight after a journey in driving rain. The coffee is great, their freshly made soups are superb and they serve some of the best fish and chips in the Highlands – all from sustainable sources, too.

The last to arrive at Corran, we only had a short while to catch up on news over a healthy dram before heading off for bed. At other times of year, you really need the midge blinds – the wee blighters seem able to get in through the smallest crack and bite you in awkward places. But this year, the threat seemed to have passed.

The group we were with is part of the Scottish Ski Club. When there is no snow on the slopes, we meet up every second or third week to become the Summer Walkers, bagging a Munro or a Corbett, a Graham (known as a McVean to the group in honour of one particular member), or even a “lump”. One brave soul cadged a ride across to Gruinard Island to bag its little summit.

Some of us choose to cycle, especially when there’s a really scenic route to follow. Ardgour is certainly one of the more scenic areas, looking across the loch to Ben Nevis, which on that day had a constantly changing canopy of cloud swirling around it. It was still mild, but a louring sky always carried with it the threat of rain.

The ferry was busy that day, so it was shuttling back and forward without any regard to the published timetable. Pedestrians and bikes go free, making it even a greater attraction for a true Scot! Almost all of the cars and trucks headed south, either for Strontian (where strontium was first discovered) or Lochaline and the crossing to Mull.

Very few vehicles turn north, making it a perfect cycle route. It was one we had taken before but had never completed the trip all to the way to the head of Loch Eil. We still haven’t. It had been a stressful summer and we quickly became distracted by all sorts of things, especially with our cameras at the ready. We even looked in on the local church, all decked out for a festival.

However, it was the wildlife which took most of our attention. There is a fish farm a short distance offshore: you cross the pipes which carry the feed to the cages making a curious rustling sound as it goes. It inevitably attracts predators of one kind or another. We spent about half an hour watching a couple of seals in the rocks a short distance out into the loch.

We could hear the cries of eagles high above our heads but never saw them. But we did pause to watch a buzzard catching the thermals and a short time later stopped when a heron landed on an outcrop. They are curious birds, so tall and elegant on land but rather ungainly in flight, their long legs trailing behind them.

We had ridden no more than five miles when we met one of our group returning from what turned out to have been a futile attempt to climb one of the hills. Now in her 70s, she walks the hills for pleasure rather than for exercise. Climbing a cloud-covered hill without the reward of a decent view from the top struck her as a pointless exercise. We all stopped for lunch, sitting on a convenient log looking out across a tree-lined bay.

As the first spots of rain struck our faces, we began to realise at this point that we had little chance of riding the rest of the journey we had planned. But we continued for a short time until reaching the path that leads up to Glen Cona. We turned our bikes down this track, a really attractive tree-lined route with a stream burbling alongside.

Once again we were distracted, this time by a huge stretch of bramble bushes, the fruit just ripe for the picking. Since we follow the country code and had packed away our sandwich bags, they became useful once again to collect some of the berries. As is so often the case, it was one for the bag, one for me… etc.

Satisfied, we continued only until we reached a loch in which the mountains were almost perfectly reflected, until the raindrops started to disturb the surface. Looking around, the shoulders of the hills were cloaked in shrouds of cloud, as if in mourning for the passing of summer. A robin settled in front of us. As the rain grew heavier, we headed back for the shelter of the trees.

The shower didn’t last long. But we wended our way back the way we had come, this time stopping to walk up an avenue of rowans to visit the ancient graveyard where the MacLeans of Ardgour had once been buried. Many of the gravestones have fallen, but it is still possible to make out some of the names of those whose bones lie there.

On our way across, one of the ferrymen had warned us to be careful as the last trip back would take place at about half past nine. We shouldn’t have worried. It wasn’t even five o’clock. Back to the bunkhouse to have a shower and an excellent dinner prepared by the leader of this trip. As for reaching the head of Loch Eil, there is always next year…

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<em>Picture: Eric Kitchen</em>

Picture: Eric Kitchen

It’s one of the main events of the motorcycling year. This weekend, the 2011 SPEA FIM Trial World Championship arrives at Nevis Range, seven miles north-east of Fort William, for the sixth round of the series. Some of the best riders in the UK will be in the Highlands, all of them wanting to make their mark on sections that should favour the home runners.

Britain will be the best represented nation in the World Pro class, with five riders on the entry list. Amongst them is Dougie Lampkin of the Gas Gas team, 12 times Trial World Champion. This year, he’s in search of his 100th Grand Prix win and will certainly be motivated by massive home support.

Lampkin says he is fully committed to taking victory on British soil, especially after just missing his 100th win at last year’s event, when he finished second. So he is determined to realise his target and ride on to the top step of the podium once again.

“Without doubt Scotland is one of my favourite places to ride,” he said, “and I’m really looking forward to this year’s UK World Trial. Having a noisy home crowd behind me is a massive confidence boost and is one of the things which makes this event so unique. Over the years I have ridden in the Highlands several times, however still it remains special to me, so I cannot wait to return to Scotland.”

Lampkin has a home-grown challenge from the current British Trials champion, James Dabill of the Beta team. Currently sixth in the overall standings, Dabill also wants to use home advantage to record his best result of the season to date.

“The Nevis Range terrain is second to none,” he says, “and if this year’s sections are anything like last year’s the trial will be brilliant. I’ve ridden all around the world, but I still get the biggest buzz when performing in front of British fans on home soil – it’s amazing! I think the fact that there is something for everyone also helps.”

Then there is 21-year-old Jack Challoner who also rides for Beta. He too has high hopes when he arrives in Fort William. Despite this only being his first year in the World Pro class, Challoner has produced a series of determined performances and finds himself in eighth place, only five points behind the more experienced Loris Gubian, also of Gas Gas.

A third Gas Gas team member is Michael Brown, currently ninth in the general standings. He will arrive in Fort William riding on a wave of confidence after having recently taken his maiden win of the season at the latest round of the 2011 British Trials Championship.

“Obviously getting my first victory of the domestic championship was brilliant,” he said, “and it has certainly given me increased motivation heading to Fort William. Last year’s UK World Trial was fantastic and I am expecting it to be just as good this time around. With my team by my side and the crowd behind me I will be pushing for a good result.”

In the junior category, Jonathan Richardson of the Sherco team will continue his championship campaign. Others to look out for include wild-card entries George Morton and Jack Spencer of Beta and Harry Harvey of the Montesa team. As regular competitors in the British Trials Championship with previous experience of the formidable Scottish hazards, Morton and Spencer in particular could record surprise performances on the day.

<em>Picture: Eric Kitchen</em>

Picture: Eric Kitchen

The youth class is highly competitive. Leading the field of possible winners is young Jack Sheppard from the Beta stable. He has led the championship since the opening round of the series in Germany and currently holds a slender two-point lead over his nearest rival, despite struggling with a long-standing wrist injury.

“Riding at the World round in Scotland last year was a personal highlight for me,” Sheppard says. “Fort William has some of the best sections in the world and standing on the top step of the podium was brilliant – something I am determined to do again this year.”

The event starts on Saturday morning when riders put their bikes through technical control. Later in the day, there is what is possibly a grudge match between two former world champions in the finale of so-called Highland Challenge, where Dougie Lampkin and Takahisa Fujinami go head-to-head in order to settle the score once and for all.

Championship action proper will take place on Sunday as over 50 riders from all over the world will compete on the mountain course. Spectators will be able to keep up with the action from a group of seven key sections located close to the paddock. There are three man-made hazards actually at the start/finish area.

The Nevis Range gondola will also carry people up the mountain to enjoy four more hazards, set in a stunning location within a short walk of the top station, which boasts its own restaurant and play area. The organisers promise it will be a great weekend for all the family.

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Ben LediThere is only so much snow-shovelling, path-scraping and frozen-radiator battling that anyone can take. Winter is meant to be fun, and there comes a point where you need to stop feeling fed up and start finding a bit of space and a means to enjoy yourself.

It’s been good to see so many people out sledging these past few days (and by sledging I mean skimming down slopes on plastic trays, rather than the verbal variety indulged in by increasingly fraught Australian cricketers). It’s also been ideal weather if you’re a skier, as suddenly everywhere has been an option – streets, parks, fields.

Less easy for hillwalkers and climbers, however, as – at risk of stating the obvious – it’s not really been the weather for travelling far. Anyone with some free time and a few hills on their doorstep – based in, say, Ballachulish or Braemar – is well placed in such conditions. Forget about the state of the roads and get out there. But if, as with most people, you’re slightly further from high ground, things can become demoralisingly and prohibitively complicated.

Statistics for such things don’t exist, but there could well have been fewer Scottish hills climbed last week than in any week in recent memory. Although it’s hard to prove a negative, there is at least a little evidence for this, in that the trip-report sections of walking websites such as Outdoors Magic, Scottish Hills, and Walk Highlands have been on the sparse side ever since the big snows came.

The trip report – or TR – has quietly become a significant feature of modern hillwalking, useful if rather formulaic. Someone goes for a walk, takes lots of digital pictures – sometimes so many that you wonder if they ever got into a stride – then posts them on a site along with short pieces of descriptive text.

The rest of the site members then chip in with emoticon-enhanced enthusiasm, regardless of the quality or otherwise of the report. “Great TR, trigboy”, they say or: “Fantastic pix. Deffo must do those hill’s sometime.”

There’s not been much of that this week, however, because it’s been so damn difficult to get anywhere. The TR world tends to be largely the domain of the linear bagger – chiefly interested in picking off new hills an ever-increasing distance away – and such people can become easily grounded, recreation-wise, at this time of year.

So it’s better to put the bagging agenda to one side, for a while at least, and to stay fairly local and revisit familiar territory – but even that can be tricky.

If the key elements of winter hillwalking are fitness, equipment, awareness, opportunism and adaptability, then my own efforts the first Saturday in December – at least in relation to the last three of these – felt typical of the thought processes that govern where one does and doesn’t end up.

The original half-arranged plan to meet a friend for Beinn Ime from the Rest and Be Thankful never really appealed. Driving 60 miles each way from a Stirling base camp is one thing in summer or in a mild winter, but there’s an old saying that it’s the drive, not the walk or climb, that is the most dangerous part of a hill day in winter, and a 120-mile round trip felt too far.

Not that the hills were to be treated lightly. The earlier snowfall – the one before the one that got everyone talking – was accompanied by steady north-easterly winds, and it didn’t take a meteorological genius or a mountain guide to work out that any big west-facing slope was asking-for-trouble territory.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service might only be reporting from two of its five locations, Lochaber and the Northern Cairngorms (the other three come onstream for the season on 16 December), but the trend was countrywide, with avalanches reported on south-western aspects of smaller hill ranges such as the Campsies and the Ochils.

Formal warnings had also been issued for Arthur’s Seat and the Pentlands. There are no laws about these things, but there was a very definite hint, and it needed to be taken.

Beinn Ime was shelved, as was one of the standard fallbacks, Stuc a’Chroin from either Glen Ample or Loch Lubnaig. Stuc is an excellent winter hill, but again it involved west-facing slopes, and again I found myself thinking: “Mmm, maybe not.”

So it became, not for the first time, a Ben Ledi day. Even less of a drive, a reasonably trampled trail through the soft-snow drifts, and with none of the dodgy south-western stuff coming into play, given that both the main route and the Stank Glen are on the eastern side of the hill.

And it was fine – once I got there. The morning A84 felt dodgy – bright skies above, but low-lying mist and skiddy-looking in places. Somewhere near Doune, the car had a distinct and unnerving wobble on a straight stretch shaded by trees, so the speed – already no greater than 45mph – never went above 40 thereafter.

But the really alarming moment came when a blue hatchback doing around 60 zipped by a queue of four or five of us and only just ducked back in as a truck loomed out of the mist. Crazy stuff. It was a relief to pull into the layby on the Anie straight (the Corrieachrombie car park was too chossy with churned-up snow) and to put the boots on.

It proved to be a good half-day out – as was an effortsome-but-enjoyable slog up Ben Cleuch four days later, after the top-up of snow that put the skids under the ministerial career of Stewart Stevenson.

Since then, permafrost may have given way to mega-thaw, but northern winds and daytime minuses are again forecast – and the earliest sunset isn’t until the middle of this coming week, so we’re not even at the halfway mark.

This looks like being a proper winter, which makes it all the more important to snatch the occasional day or half-day, rather than being ground down by months of chaos and cancellations. The hill days are there to be had, given a bit of thought and flexibility.

Ben LediThere is only so much snow-shovelling, path-scraping and frozen-radiator battling that anyone can take. Winter is meant to be fun, and there comes a point where you need to stop feeling fed up and start finding a bit of space and a means to enjoy yourself.

It’s been good to see so many people out sledging these past few days (and by sledging I mean skimming down slopes on plastic trays, rather than the verbal variety indulged in by increasingly fraught Australian cricketers). It’s also been ideal weather if you’re a skier, as suddenly everywhere has been an option – streets, parks, fields.

Less easy for hillwalkers and climbers, however, as – at risk of stating the obvious – it’s not really been the weather for travelling far. Anyone with some free time and a few hills on their doorstep – based in, say, Ballachulish or Braemar – is well placed in such conditions. Forget about the state of the roads and get out there. But if, as with most people, you’re slightly further from high ground, things can become demoralisingly and prohibitively complicated.

Statistics for such things don’t exist, but there could well have been fewer Scottish hills climbed last week than in any week in recent memory. Although it’s hard to prove a negative, there is at least a little evidence for this, in that the trip-report sections of walking websites such as Outdoors Magic, Scottish Hills, and Walk Highlands have been on the sparse side ever since the big snows came.

The trip report – or TR – has quietly become a significant feature of modern hillwalking, useful if rather formulaic. Someone goes for a walk, takes lots of digital pictures – sometimes so many that you wonder if they ever got into a stride – then posts them on a site along with short pieces of descriptive text.

The rest of the site members then chip in with emoticon-enhanced enthusiasm, regardless of the quality or otherwise of the report. “Great TR, trigboy”, they say or: “Fantastic pix. Deffo must do those hill’s sometime.”

There’s not been much of that this week, however, because it’s been so damn difficult to get anywhere. The TR world tends to be largely the domain of the linear bagger – chiefly interested in picking off new hills an ever-increasing distance away – and such people can become easily grounded, recreation-wise, at this time of year.

So it’s better to put the bagging agenda to one side, for a while at least, and to stay fairly local and revisit familiar territory – but even that can be tricky.

If the key elements of winter hillwalking are fitness, equipment, awareness, opportunism and adaptability, then my own efforts the first Saturday in December – at least in relation to the last three of these – felt typical of the thought processes that govern where one does and doesn’t end up.

The original half-arranged plan to meet a friend for Beinn Ime from the Rest and Be Thankful never really appealed. Driving 60 miles each way from a Stirling base camp is one thing in summer or in a mild winter, but there’s an old saying that it’s the drive, not the walk or climb, that is the most dangerous part of a hill day in winter, and a 120-mile round trip felt too far.

Not that the hills were to be treated lightly. The earlier snowfall – the one before the one that got everyone talking – was accompanied by steady north-easterly winds, and it didn’t take a meteorological genius or a mountain guide to work out that any big west-facing slope was asking-for-trouble territory.

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service might only be reporting from two of its five locations, Lochaber and the Northern Cairngorms (the other three come onstream for the season on 16 December), but the trend was countrywide, with avalanches reported on south-western aspects of smaller hill ranges such as the Campsies and the Ochils.

Formal warnings had also been issued for Arthur’s Seat and the Pentlands. There are no laws about these things, but there was a very definite hint, and it needed to be taken.

Beinn Ime was shelved, as was one of the standard fallbacks, Stuc a’Chroin from either Glen Ample or Loch Lubnaig. Stuc is an excellent winter hill, but again it involved west-facing slopes, and again I found myself thinking: “Mmm, maybe not.”

So it became, not for the first time, a Ben Ledi day. Even less of a drive, a reasonably trampled trail through the soft-snow drifts, and with none of the dodgy south-western stuff coming into play, given that both the main route and the Stank Glen are on the eastern side of the hill.

And it was fine – once I got there. The morning A84 felt dodgy – bright skies above, but low-lying mist and skiddy-looking in places. Somewhere near Doune, the car had a distinct and unnerving wobble on a straight stretch shaded by trees, so the speed – already no greater than 45mph – never went above 40 thereafter.

But the really alarming moment came when a blue hatchback doing around 60 zipped by a queue of four or five of us and only just ducked back in as a truck loomed out of the mist. Crazy stuff. It was a relief to pull into the layby on the Anie straight (the Corrieachrombie car park was too chossy with churned-up snow) and to put the boots on.

It proved to be a good half-day out – as was an effortsome-but-enjoyable slog up Ben Cleuch four days later, after the top-up of snow that put the skids under the ministerial career of Stewart Stevenson.

Since then, permafrost may have given way to mega-thaw, but northern winds and daytime minuses are again forecast – and the earliest sunset isn’t until the middle of this coming week, so we’re not even at the halfway mark.

This looks like being a proper winter, which makes it all the more important to snatch the occasional day or half-day, rather than being ground down by months of chaos and cancellations. The hill days are there to be had, given a bit of thought and flexibility.

The Ben Nevis summit plateau: Apparently a brisk 25 minute dash from the bottom. <em>Picture: Foilman</em>

The Ben Nevis summit plateau: Apparently a mere 25-minute dash back to the bottom. Picture: Foilman

This Saturday sees what is arguably the highlight – and certainly the high point – of the UK hill-running calendar: the Ben Nevis race.

There are several events longer in distance than its 14km, and several involving more than its 1360 metres of ascent – the Stuc a’Chroin race (22km, 1500m) and the Paps of Jura race (27.7km, 2420m) trump it in both regards, for instance.

But there is something simple and brutal about starting at the bottom of the highest lump of land in the UK, and running to the top and back.

The route breaks down into three very different parts, each roughly two kilometres in length. First comes a stretch of road-running – with a mere 30m of height-gain – from New Town Park on the eastern edge of Fort William to the start of the hill path at Achintee. Then just over 500m of ascent brings the brief respite of flatter ground near the halfway lochan. After that, the real slog begins – a pick-your-route ascent of the upper 770-odd metres of the hill

That’s only the half of it, however. Getting back down the upper part involves an alarming mix of nimbleness and nerve. “Basically, you follow the fall line,” says Chris Upson, of Scottish Hill Racing.

Asked how the uphill and downhill parts of the race divide, timewise, Upson – himself a strong runner – says “Generally I do about 72–74 minutes up, and 38–40 minutes down. The fastest guys must be about 60 minutes up and 30 minutes down.”

That down, however, again includes the mile of road at the foot of the hill. Given that this will occupy the lead runners for around five minutes, it follows that they get from the summit to Achintee – almost 5km distance with 1300m of descent over a mix of very rough ground and stony paths – in around 25 minutes.

That is phenomenal. Think about it next time you find yourself standing at the summit of Ben Nevis. In normal walking terms, the tourist path tends to be regarded as “a long way down”, and strong, experienced hillgoers regularly take a couple of hours to make the descent.

But the Ben race is not just a great end-of-summer gravity-defying spectacle, it is also a notable social gathering, with clubs providing clusters of runners who often travel and camp together. “It’s always a great club event,” says Dave Scott of Ochil Hill Runners.

“We usually camp at the Glen Nevis site and refuel at the Grog and Gruel in town. Always a great atmosphere with the pipe band, and the prizegiving is the best (and longest) in the calendar!”

Scott has completed the Ben race in six of the last seven years. His first intended run, however, was in 1980, the only year that weather conditions have caused a cancellation. “We were all lined up at the start ready to go,” he says, “and word came back from the summit that there was too much snow.”

His PB is a very respectable 1hr 52min (still a remarkable 27 minutes shy of the record, 1hr 25min 34sec, set by the great Kenny Stuart in 1984), and he has reached the summit in 73 minutes. There are various age-related categories and prizes, and he won the Duncan MacIntyre trophy for runners aged over 50 in both 2007 and 2008.

Like any repeat runner of the Ben race, Scott has had his moments. “Most memorable occurrence,” he says, “was narrowly avoiding a whistling cannonball-sized rock travelling at body height when descending the ‘grassy bank’ in my first race. Last year I had a bad fall coming off the summit and hobbled to the finish in around 2hr 15min – ended up in hospital needing stitches to a knee. I foolishly tried to overtake someone whilst seeing nothing – eyes full of water from the gale and driving rain.”

A year on, he is still feeling the effects of that prang, and is “just aiming for a finish – anything around the two-hour mark would be great.”

Conditions look like being good, with little chance of driving rain this time. It has been a dry week and the Mountain Weather Information Service suggests “Gusty winds; fine with patchy hazy sunshine,” and a greater than 90% chance of cloud-free Munros – although the Ben is the Ben and a law unto itself.

As to who might win, it’s very hard to call, even though only a few of the 600 runners are genuine contenders for either the men’s or women’s race (which usually has a winning time between 15 and 30 minutes slower then the fastest man). This year’s event incorporates a round of the Skyrunner World Series Trials, so a strong international challenge is to be expected.

The seemingly endless domination of wiry runners from Bingley Harriers also needs to be taken into account. In the past 11 years, nine of the first men home have been from the Yorkshire club: Ian Holmes and Rob Jebb four times each (Holmes has won six times in total), and Andrew Peace once.

This year, however, there are reports of Jebb being injured, while Holmes was beaten by 18-year-old Robbie Simpson of Deeside Runners at the Snowdon race in July. Chris Upson points out that Simpson has never run the Ben race before, “so might not win, but I reckon he’ll definitely be top three.” He also notes that several other leading Scottish-based men will be absent: Tom Owens and Andy Symonds are running in the Alps, while Jethro Lennox is training for road marathons.

Dave Scott likewise reckons Simpson has a chance, while he tips Ronnie Gallagher (Carnethy) and Alan Smith (Deeside) in the over-50 veterans and Tom Scott (Fife AC) in the over-60s. Steven Fallon of Carnethy, another strong runner (he finished eleventh in 2007), also tips Simpson, while mentioning his Carnethy team-mates Paul Faulkner and Bruce Smith, “a superb descender”.

The women’s race appears to be very open, with neither Angela Mudge of Carnethy nor Mireia Miro (last year’s winner, from Catalonia) in the entry list at present.

So, The Caledonian Mercury’s punt on who will pick up the prizes? Quite possibly both the men’s and women’s races will be won by overseas raiders – and, given the likely conditions and the quality of the field, Kenny Stuart’s fabled record time could come under threat.

But the first UK runners home, and possibly the first overall? Robbie Simpson in the men’s race and – assuming they run – either Andrea Priestley or Catriona Buchanan, both from the Ochil club.

Assuming, that is, they can cope with the whistling cannonball-sized rocks and the crazy descent.

by John Knox

The Ochil teamat the new post

The Ochils team at the new post

As they screwed the official blue and green badge to their new “hut”, the Ochils Mountain Rescue Team began a new phase in their life on standby.

They are just one of the 26 volunteer teams ready to rescue – at 15 minutes’ notice – anyone in trouble in Scotland’s hills, glens, gorges, moors and mountains. Not many of the 500 callouts a year are texted to the 40 members of the Ochils team – in fact they get just over a dozen a year – but when the call comes, they have to be as prepared as the heroes of Glencoe or Lochaber.

“The Ochils may not be the highest or wildest hills in Scotland but people do get lost up there, or they get caught out by bad weather, or they fall down the gullies,” said Kevin Mitchell, the team leader. “ So we need to be ready. And that means two training sessions a month, one on a Wednesday night and the other on a Sunday.”

That training can now take place in the team’s smart new £250,000 headquarters, just south of Tillicoultry, with the full panorama of the Ochil hills visible from the windows, from Dumyat in the west to the highest point, Ben Cleuch (721m), almost due north of the hut.

The building is a gift from the first-aid charity, the Order of St John – which, in Scotland, has specialised in supporting the mountain rescue service. Over the past decade, St John’s has built 11 rescue posts and provided 25 vehicles, including the Ochil team’s Land Rover.

The new building was officially opened on Thursday afternoon by the Grand Prior of the Order of St John, the Duke of Gloucester,  and in the evening former members of the team were invited to inspect the facilities. The old boys included myself. I was a member in 1976-78, while I worked as an apprentice reporter on the Alloa Advertiser.

I recognised several old faces – some of whom were still serving with the team after 30 years, if not in an active capacity, then as radio operators or caretakers. We were shown round the training room, the garage, the equipment store – with ropes all neatly stored in canvas bags – the radio-computer room, the showers and toilets and kitchen.

It was all a world away from the police cell which formed the first headquarters back in 1971. In my day, the team had progressed to a cupboard in a scout hut in Menstrie. More recently, the team had been operating out of a garage in the local council’s plant nursery.

But the world of mountain rescue has changed, too. Many more people are taking to the hills and the number of callouts has hugely increased. The rescue helicopters from RAF Leuchars and RAF Kinloss are now more closely involved.

Last year, the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland (MRCS) recorded a total of 558 callouts, an increase of 4 per cent. 402 of those were hillwalking or climbing accidents. 27 people died, 228 were injured. However, an increasing number of callouts are for non-mountaineering incidents – 156 last year – ranging from motorists stranded by flood waters to sad cases of suicide. 58 people died in such non-mountaineering incidents in 2009.

The Scottish government provides £300,000 a year to the MRCS, and all other funds are raised by the teams themselves and by donations from companies and charities such as St John’s. It’s a huge voluntary effort when you think about it – all those dinners, dances, book sales, fundraising days, not to mention the time and sweat, and the skill, of those who make up the teams.

“We do it because we enjoy it,” said Kevin Mitchell. “ And also, because there’s a huge satisfaction in saving people’s lives. The next casualty, after all, could be one of us.”

The cliffs of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu. <em>Picture: The Ancient Brit</em>

The cliffs of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu. Picture: The Ancient Brit

Impressive climbing news from North Wales, where Lochaber-based Dave MacLeod – by common consent the UK’s leading traditional climber – has made only the fourth ascent of a notorious route known as The Indian Face. Traditional – or “trad” – climbing means placing and then removing safety devices – or “protection” – as you climb.

The Indian Face is only around 50 metres in length – it forms part of the much larger Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, commonly known as Cloggy, a crag halfway up the north side of Snowdon – but when Johnny Dawes made the first ascent in 1986 it was the first route to be graded E9, the ninth level of extreme.

This was top-end stuff, and Dawes – one of the most nimble and gymnastically gifted of climbers – was at his limit. The crux move – the crucial, most committing section – was so serious, so unprotectable (“the ropes dangle uselessly from my waist”, he later wrote), that a fall would have been fatal.

A quarter-century on, the grade-ceiling has been nudged even higher – MacLeod himself has led at least one, possibly two routes at a near-incomprehensible E11 – but The Indian Face retained a reputation for risk outweighing reward.

No-one repeated the route until 1996, when Neil Gresham and Nick Dixon made the second and third ascents. MacLeod paid a visit in 2007, but backed off after a key hold snapped while he was inspecting it using a top-rope. “Meaningless death is not cool”, he wrote at the time, clearly unnerved by what would have happened had the hold failed as he was climbing from the bottom up.

This retreat led to much discussion within the hard-climbing community, and added to the mystique of the route. Given MacLeod’s climbing CV and his undoubted boldness when putting up new lines, his decision came to be seen as a sign of maturity and commonsense. There was hope, however, that he would have another look, and this is what he has now done.

Taking a break from an extraordinarily hard “project” on the Hoy sea-cliffs in Orkney, MacLeod headed for The Indian Face and had “couple of sessions on it last week”. Then, accompanied by his wife Claire and a film crew, he again drove down the motorway at the weekend. Suddenly he was in the mood, “eager to go back and get it led”, as he wrote on his blog.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing is that he led it with the rain coming on. “The crag was covered in clouds and the rain started as I was abseiling down the wall to chalk the holds,” he wrote. This time, however, the key section appears to have been almost straightforward: “I was tight, aggressive and ready for trouble moving through the crux bulge, but it didn’t come.”

The rain began in earnest as he reached easier ground above (not that this would seem like easy ground to upwards of 99.99% of the population), after which “a speed climb up the final corners landed me in the wet grass ledge just in time to avoid a rescue epic”.

Part of why MacLeod has earned such respect is that he writes of his plans and achievements with insight and humility.

Looking back at the 2007 effort in light of subsequent success, he tells of concern that having climbed several mega-hard routes placed him in danger of pushing the envelope too far: “I worried that I might not be able to keep in tune with the inner voice that keeps you safe and making good decisions on cliffs and routes without much gear. Whether I had anything real to worry about or not is irrelevant, the point is it’s a healthy thing to think if you spend your life sketching about a long way above gear … Even though Indian Face was at the time 2 grades below the maximum level of trad climbing (and now even more), it still kills you if you break a hold, or just make a mistake and fall off it.”

Speaking to not just the extreme end of the climbing community, but to any ability level where there is a risk of ego exceeding ability, MacLeod also writes: “I’d totally recommend this process of deliberately breaking your routine of doing anything that’s risky once in a while, so you can step back and be sure you’re having a clear conversation with yourself about that risk. If people taunt you for ‘bottling it’ in a macho and idiotic manner, all the more reason to hold off until the absolutely correct moment comes around.”

Anyway, job safely done, monkey off back. Whether The Indian Face has now lost some of its aura, and whether it will be another 14 years before someone again climbs it, is not MacLeod’s worry. He has headed back north, reputation further enhanced, eyes on bigger and even crazier-looking things on Hoy.

Lady Alva’s Web/Veil/Necklace/Coronet on 29 April, 2010

Lady Alva’s Web/Veil/Necklace/Coronet on 29 April, 2010

It might seem odd to talk of snow at this time of year, especially after a decidedly warm few days. But one after-effect of the long, hard winter is that a number of snow patches are lingering in unusual places, not just on the highest slopes but also in enclosed, sheltered corners.

The very highest hills – in Lochaber and the high Cairngorms – still have a considerable amount. Nothing unusual about that. It’s the small isolated patches that really stand out, and provide a visual reminder of one of the more sustained winters in recent times.

Cross Fell, at 893 metres the highest hill in the Pennines, has a horizontal strip of snow high on its west side, along with three patches much lower down. All are visible from the A66 well to the west of Penrith – and, from the chatter on Radio Cumbria over the weekend, the feeling locally is that at least some of this snow will survive into June.

The Lake District, being much further west than the Pennines, has very little snow remaining. Your correspondent wandered over Blencathra, High Street and the Coniston fells at the weekend and encountered none at all, but a patch could be seen in a west-facing gully high on Helvellyn.

Do any of these old patches have names? The Cross Fell cornice-remnant, perhaps, it being a regular feature, but snow patches are generally too transient to acquire names, at least on maps.

There are exceptions, however. In March and April, I swapped a few emails with Dr Adam Watson, a retired ecologist with a lifelong interest in snow. Watson points out that named patches “are really quite rare”, the most common form being Cuidhe Crom, “crooked wreath”, of which he knows of three. One is on Lochnagar and has acquired wider usage as the name of a Munro Top. The other two are “at the top of Coire Cas on Cairn Gorm, and on Ben More near Crianlarich, facing north-east near the top”.

There is also Broon Coo’s White Calf, “on the south side of the Brown Cow Hill in Glen Gairn. Locally the Brown Cow Hill is just the Broon Coo, no Hill which is an Ordnance Survey invention. The Gaelic was A’ Bho Dhonn, meaning the brown cow.”

Watson got in touch wondering as to the whereabouts and nomenclature of “Lady Alva’s Web”, or “Lady Alva’s Veil”, a spring snow patch on the Ochils. He also contacted noted Scottish historian (and Ochils local) Rennie McOwan, who found a reference to a patch with “the appearance of a fine linen web or lace veil” in a 1917 book, Between the Ochils and the Forth, by David Beveridge. Similarly, the Old Statistical Account of Alva, 1790–95, records that “Snow frequently remains here far on into the summer and assumes the appearance of a fine linen web or lace work.”

The patch itself is odd on at least three counts. It is surprisingly far south in Scotland – the Ochils might form part of the northern barrier of the Central Belt, but they stand south of the Highland Boundary Fault. The patch is relatively low, lying 30 or so metres below the summit of Ben Cleuch, itself only 721 metres high. And it faces south-west, into the prevailing weather, rather than tucked away round the north or east side. But as the west-facing Cross Fell patches show, the really harsh winters bring winds out of the north and east for weeks on end, shifting snow on to western slopes, where it accumulates and solidifies.

The Ben Cleuch patch (pictured here on 29 April, just before it degenerated to dregs) appears to have at least four names. Each includes a “Lady Alva” part, derived from the Johnstone family who lived in Alva House, on the southern slopes of the Ochils, before it fell into disrepair and was used by the military for target practice during the second world war.

Along with the Web and Veil versions, there is “Lady Alva’s Necklace” – although I haven’t found a written reference to this, and McOwan regards it as “a modern invention”.

Gordon Downs was asked for his thoughts. He is a knowledgeable hill man, Ochils regular and resident of Falkirk – from where the whole southern face can be seen – and he added another name. “An old friend of mine,” he writes, “now sadly dead, used to call it Lady Alva’s Coronet.”

The patch itself is a fragmented, almost ragged, strip stretching across a kilometre of slope, just below the summit flattening. That section of slope is steeper by a degree or two than the ground below, and this slight increase in angle could well contribute to the phenomenon in some way.

Downs offers an assessment of the four versions of the name: “It seems to me that ‘veil’ or ‘coronet’ are reasonable for its position on the hill and ‘web’ reasonable for the way it usually breaks up; in my view, ‘necklace’ would really have to be lower on the hill.”

Ironically, for all that Lady Alva’s Web/Veil/Necklace/Coronet lasted well into the spring this time round, it never quite adopted its classic fragmented form. The huge snowfalls during the first three months or the year meant that it eventually split into long chunks rather than small close-together patches.

There is always next winter, however.