Love mountains? Love winter? Love getting active swathed in epic scenery? Well, you’ll love Fort William and the Lochaber region in winter. I’ve travelled to over 100 countries as a travel writer and, for me, the Outdoor Capital of the UK is hard to beat for a snow-laced adventure, whether you want to enjoy a low level walk admiring the snow-capped peaks or really to test yourself with some serious ice climbing deep in the savage winter mountains.
The Outdoor Capital of the UK title is an apposite moniker as it grabs your attention quickly and is no idle boast. This umbrella also gets lots of local companies and operators under one banner working together, joining up some of the dots for the visitor as they go. They have a lot to work with, from the might of Ben Nevis (the UK’s highest mountain at 1,344m), to the steep slopes and forests of the Nevis Range, and then on to historic, mountainous Glencoe, the spectacle of the Great Glen and the wild peninsulas of Rannoch Moor, Morvern and Ardnamurchan.
Mountain biking at the Nevis Range
I’m mainly a spring-autumn adventurer but lots of the pleasures I enjoy in Lochaber are still available in winter. You can stroll along the banks of the Caledonian Canal taking in views of ‘Big Ben’ and, if the snow allows, get out on a few of the world-class mountain bike tracks that snake their way around the Nevis Range. Mere mortals can still hike up the mountains in winter, but you need to have the right gear, such as crampons and ice axes, and the correct navigation tools. Always check the weather and avalanche forecasts, as well as leaving detailed route notes of where you are headed with someone back at base.
Wintry Caledonian Canal
There are some sports, though, that you can only tackle in the wilds in the winter season. One of the most challenging and rewarding is ice climbing. During the winter months, the high peaks of Lochaber are covered in a mantle of snow and ice, making them the perfect playground for keen winter mountaineers with the right skills and gear. There are classic gullies to tackle, as well as snowed-up rock climbs, water-ice and thin face snow-ice climbs. There is so much variety that you can even try them all in an ultimate ice climbing day.
Robin in the wintry Lochaber Mountains
Then, of course, there are the popular snow sports, as Lochaber boasts not one, but two, ski centres. Between Nevis Range Mountain Resort and Glencoe Mountain Resort there is the full gamut of ski and snowboarding options. There is tuition to suit even complete beginners, lessons for those looking to brush up their skills and then testing red and black runs for more experienced skiers and snowboarders. There is plenty of off piste action too for the adventurous taking all the usual precautions.
I am a big fan of the Nevis Range. The sheer range of facilities they have is impressive and not just on the slopes. They have a café at the bottom of their handy mountain gondola and a restaurant tucked by the top station. There are further lifts up here on the higher slopes of Aonach Mor to help you access the more testing challenges of a ski resort that caters for all ages, skills and ambitions.
Deer in the wintry Lochaber Mountains
Such is the quality of Lochaber in winter that there is now also a dedicated winter festival. The Fort William Mountain Festival runs from February 17-21. This mountain extravaganza will see five days and nights packed with films, as well as speakers, presentations, workshops, art exhibitions and even live music to help get the evening parties started. The Fort William Mountain Festival is backed by presenting partners Jöttnar and Three Wise Monkeys Climbing.
The snows tend to linger on in this part of the world, with an impressively long season. When they do finally melt that is not the end to the ‘winter sports’ action though. This year the Ice Factor in Kinlochleven will be re-opening. Here you can tackle an ice climbing wall without having to face the fierce elements you may face on the mountainside. They have conventional indoor climbing walls too to help you hone your summer skills.
I’m excited about a new arrival too. Three Wise Monkeys is set to open this spring. The team have spent the best part of six months renovating the old MacIntosh Church in Fort William so expect big things from a venue that will not ‘just’ be a climbing centre, but also offer yoga classes!
When venturing out to tackle any of Lochaber’s winter sports securing a good base is key. I rate both the Glencoe and Glen Nevis Youth Hostels. Not only do they have a great range of accommodation options and spectacular settings, but they are great for meeting people to head out with. They are also invaluable for gleaning local information and contacts that can be vital in Scotland’s wild and wildly beautiful winters. If you really want to get away from it all, then try a night or two at Loch Ossian Youth Hostel. Less than an hour by train from Fort William to Corrour, you then need to walk the last mile but are rewarded with a cosy eco-hostel in a stunning location.
*I’ve been up to Lochaber in summer too. You can check out my last visit in the video I helped shoot with the Outdoor Capital of the UK guys.*
Biography for Robin McKelvie
Robin McKelvie (www.robinmckelvie.com) is a Scottish travel writer, broadcaster and blogger who has been covering his native land since the 1990s. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Robin is the author of a number of guidebooks, including National Geographic’s Scotland guide. He regularly contributes to a variety of newspapers and magazines across five continents, such as the Times and the Scotsman, as well as doing travel slots for BBC radio. Robin can be found on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robinmckelvie.