Wet & Windy Fort William

Written by Haydn Williams

The plan for last week was to spend seven days winter climbing in Fort William. An appalling run of weather meant that wasn’t possible, but plenty of other stuff got done instead.

Day one saw a forecast for 60 mph winds and constant snow, so Phil, Gary and I went for a walk up a couple of Munros. Mullach nan Coirean was first, and after despatching that in good time despite strong cross-winds near the top, we decided to carry on to Stob Bân.

Braving the weather on Stob Bân. © Haydn Williams 2012
Braving the weather on Stob Bân. © Haydn Williams 2012

The forecast proved to be not entirely accurate, and we actually had quite a pleasant day out and about. There was a fair amount of accumulated snow in places, but it certainly wasn’t blanket cover or enough to impede progress, and the wind actually died back on what should have been the more exposed part of the walk.

Descending Stob Bân to Glen Nevis. © Haydn Williams 2012
Descending Stob Bân to Glen Nevis. © Haydn Williams 2012

The forecast for the following day included the phrase “any mobility tortuous“, and so we (me, Phil, Gary, Robby and Chris) retreated to the safety of the indoor ice climbing centre at Kinchleven. It turned out to be great fun, with the longer routes requiring a nice amount of finesse and thought to complete. I finished the first couple of routes incredibly pumped, but once I got my footwork sorted the rest of them were a lot more comfortable.

Making shapes at the Ice Factor. © Haydn Williams 2012
Making shapes at the Ice Factor. © Haydn Williams 2012

A pub lunch soon revitalised us after our exertions, and the subsequent return journey along Loch Leven and Loch Linnhe was particularly scenic in the afternoon light (albeit with waves of rain still blowing through).

Evening light over Loch Linnhe. © Haydn Williams 2012
Evening light over Loch Linnhe. © Haydn Williams 2012
Smiling faces in the camper van. © Haydn Williams 2012
Smiling faces in the camper van. © Haydn Williams 2012

After an abortive attempt at riding my bike the next day (thwarted by mechanical problems), I joined Phil, Ben and John for a late-afternoon departure on a speed tour of the historical sights of Fort William.

John stood on the wall of the fort. © Haydn Williams 2012
John stood on the wall of the fort. © Haydn Williams 2012

We blitzed the fort first of all (built 1654; few visible remains now but did include half a bottle of Lambrini next to a cannon), before moving on to Inverlochy Castle.

Inverlochy Castle, built in the 13th Century. © Haydn Williams 2012
Inverlochy Castle, built in the 13th Century. © Haydn Williams 2012

With the information boards read and digested (built 13th century; site of two decent battles), we sped on to our final stop: Neptune’s Staircase. This series of locks on the Caledonian Canal was built in the 1800s, and we managed to get there just in time to see it before it became obscured by darkness and pouring rain. After some dinner we de-camped to town to sample a variety of pubs in which to celebrate Hogmanay.

Sunset at Neptune's Staircase. © Haydn Williams 2012
Sunset at Neptune’s Staircase. © Haydn Williams 2012

On New Year’s Day John and I drove around to the Nevis Range for the Aonach Mor Uphill race. Starting from the Nevis Range car park, the race climbs to the top gondola station 4km away and 610m higher. We arrived in plenty of time to register and for John to gulp down two or three espressos in the cafe. A well-organised start saw 86 runners heading off up the hill, and as the ground quickly steepened I tried to find the best mix of running vs. walking to conserve energy. I quickly settled into a steady pace, albeit right at the top end of what I could manage. As we broke out of the trees the route somehow got even steeper for a while, before the gondola station finally crept into view. Having passed someone I had been following for a while, I pushed hard to stay ahead and create a gap for some breathing room. Within about 300m of the finish I heard footsteps close behind. Unable to work out how this person could magically have caught me up again, I turned to see John coming up behind like a steam train! The espresso had obviously done the trick, as he thundered past me to cross the line in fine style before we both then collapsed in the snow for a few minutes to recover.

Runners at the end of the Aonach Mor Uphill. © Haydn Williams 2013
Runners at the end of the Aonach Mor Uphill. © Haydn Williams 2013

We both came in under the 30 minute mark, with John in 18th place and me 21 seconds behind in 20th. Recovery took the form of a retreat to the restaurant for soup, and to admire the views from the height we’d fought so hard to gain. While I normally get some retrospective satisfaction a couple of hours after races, this was almost instantaneous for some reason – perhaps because it was so continually hard all the way up? I have no idea if I’ll be near Aonach Mor in future years, but I’d definitely do the race again (assuming my heart can handle another 25 minutes at 180bpm!).

View from the end of the race. © Haydn Williams 2013
View from the end of the race. © Haydn Williams 2013

With another damp and blustery forecast for the final day, Gary, John, Ben and I drove east to ‘bag’ a couple of Munros that Ben still needed. We set off in fair conditions, and quickly entered the cloud base. Rain higher up was blowing cold and hard into our sides as we traversed the summit ridge of Beinn a Chaorainn, but conditions eased again as we descended to a col.

Start of the day, below Beinn a Chaorainn. © Haydn williams 2013
Start of the day, below Beinn a Chaorainn. © Haydn williams 2013

The ascent of the first hill had dragged a bit, being relentless in gradient and devoid of interesting features. The 300m of climb to Beinn Teallach went the same way, until a change in gradient provided a glimmer of hope that we might be reaching the top. Alas, Ben’s prediction that it would be “the final climb before the final climb before the first false summit” proved almost entirely accurate, but we did eventually get to the summit after some excellent work by John breaking trail through very deep snow.

Wet and windy along the summit ridge. © Haydn Williams 2013
Wet and windy along the summit ridge. © Haydn Williams 2013

Rapidly melting snow cover meant that the river we encountered on the descent was in spate and provided an entertaining crossing to finish the day off.

John contemplating the river crossing on the descent from Beinn Teallach. © Haydn Williams 2013
John contemplating the river crossing on the descent from Beinn Teallach. © Haydn Williams 2013

With all gear saturated, and an uninspiring forecast for the final day, we cut our losses and decided to make the journey south a day early. So the ice tools got an outing (albeit indoors) and my running muscles certainly got stretched at Aonach Mor. I was reminded how much fun walking can be when the company’s good, and how uncomfortable Munro bagging can be when the weather’s bad. It wasn’t winter climbing, but it turns out that’s not such a bad thing after all.

1 thought on “Wet & Windy Fort William

  1. I am very impressed at how nice a photo of trees, loch, mountains in evening light out of the van travelling at 40mph looks!

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