"Don't do it Dave, it'll kill you"
I tried not to look too dumbfounded at Ed's reaction to me mentioning I might be making the big move from Glasgow up to Fort William.
As I tied my rock-shoes for an E8 lead in Glen Nevis, Ed Grindley, local school teacher and local climbing activist of over thirty years quizzed me about my reasons for planning a move to the hub of the western highlands.
"Basically I just want to be where the action is Ed", I said. "I need a place where there's an endless supply of new rock".
As a young climber in Glasgow, as soon as my horizons opened to the wealth of crags all over the highlands, I visited most of them and got to know the immense variety of landscape and character of climbing between one Scottish glen and the next. But one place I kept visiting at least twice as often as everywhere else was Glen Nevis. I'd spent half my life travelling there - I might as well live there.
On both sides of the glen, buttresses of the unusual pitted and glacier scoured rock poke out from the birch and Scot's pine woods. Many things appealed to me about this glen above others (Scotland has no shortage of beautiful rock filled glens). Apart from the scenic beauty which I will never tire of, the biggest thing was probably the sheer number of separate crags and boulders. After so many years spent jumping around this glen, I figured I should have at least seen all the routes, but every year, I find a new place hiding in the birch woods, with new projects.
Living in the highlands in general will appeal to those who like either complete quietude for climbing, or a small and friendly scene, rather than the relative abundance of climbers you'll find in places like Llanberis or the Lakes. To meet someone else at the crag is pretty surprising at the busy crags, and a downright freak accident at the quieter ones. But to find partners to climb with is not as tricky as the numbers of climbers might indicate. Everyone knows everyone, and you won't have to look far to find either locals, or seasonal visitors to meet up with.
Another major plus point of living in the centre of the action when it comes to climbing is that many of your mates from around the country will come and stay, a lot. If that's what you are into it can be rather handy to have climbing partners arrive super keen just as the weather gets nice. You might well end up seeing good friends more often than you would if you lived up the street from them in the hectic pace of city life (passing ships). Local friends will often pop in for a brew and a chat, something that everyone was always too busy for in Glasgow and a real pleasure.
The biggest potential problem with life in Fort William for a climber would be the collision of our 'maritime' weather conditions and the inflexibility of a 9-5 job. I couldn't imagine it actually. Flexibility, to be able to work when the rain is falling and drop everything when the sun comes out, is about as essential as every other consideration put together. If you do have flexibility for time, you have access to the most beautiful, quiet, unspoiled and adventurous climbing in the UK. If you don't, hair may be torn out because your days off will never, ever fall on good days (the law of sod applies in duplicate in Lochaber).
Most climbers I know arrived without a job and found one after arrival. Finding work is fairly straightforward once you know everyone. In fact, if you have some useful skills, you might find yourself a little overwhelmed with people needing them when you want to go climbing.
So, as long as the key attribute - a flexible schedule - is there, it's an easy place to find your work-climbing balance.
Dan Goodwin has lived in Fort William for around ten years after he first moved to the area to work at the local Outward Bound activity centre. He lives in the quiet area of Inverlochy:
"It's a far cry from the early 'Burnside' days where lots of climbers sat watching a distorted TV in sleeping bags, with bronchial coughs due to it being damper inside than out. We had a very open door policy in those days and often for those arriving late in the night an open window policy."
Dan moved to 'the Fort' specifically for the winter climbing: "It was the fact that I had the crucible of British winter climbing - Ben Nevis on my doorstep and being able to finish work and get a few runs in on the pistes."
"The best thing about living here is without doubt walking off the summit of the Ben after a good winters day with one of the famous West Coast sunsets in the distance."
UKClimbing asked Dan for a little insider knowledge on the best pub in town:
"The best pub? 'Grog and Gruel' on the high street has a good bar menu especially the Venison burger and curly fries. It also sells real ales and is the only pub in town that does!"
With an increase in visitors, Dan is concerned about the main road north from Glasgow, the A82:
"The A82 can't cope with the amount of traffic coming up and down from Glasgow and the south, in places it's not even wide enough for two large vehicles to pass. As the main trunk road for people coming to the outdoor capital it really needs to be made wider and the potholes filled. It would greatly reduce the accidents."
Dan runs an instructing business www.mountainplan.com.
The housing available around 'The Fort' constantly makes my jaw drop at what's on offer in each price bracket. Quite often it seems too good to be true. Prices seem to be fairly immune from the big fluctuations further south - they just stay on the low to very low side. One bedroom houses start under 80K and two bedroom houses from 90K. 200K will get you more space than you could ever need (for a massive training board), or some locations that seem just laughably good.
Mark Phillips, local climber
When the weather is driech in summer a lot of climbers will go paddling or biking (of course this area is just as good for these sports as climbing). I know nothing about these myself I must admit. When it's crap I clear my work and then go to the ever-dry boulder or sport climbing spots like Sky Pilot, The Anvil or Steall. The other option is to escape the rain altogether - the east or even the extreme west often escapes the wet when The Coe is swimming. The Ardnamurchan crags, or in the east Crag Dubh and the Gorms are only an hour away.
When the weather is fine and options are unlimited, they really are unlimited. This could be a long article if I attempted even a run through. For example, to lump "the north west" into one term seems so silly when we are talking about several guidebooks worth of climbing on so many different rock types on mountains, sea cliffs, outcrops and boulders, accessible in a couple of hours. As well as the climbing that has been developed, I could also talk about the crags yet to be touched. Remote of course, but also amazing and very sought after if adventurous exploratory new routing is your thing. This year I'm off into Knoydart to start on some new crags. I'll report back later.
Jamie Bankhead - The Ice Factor
If you like winter climbing then you really are spoiled living in the Fort. Obviously, the endlessness of the Ben, the Coe and Meggie are right on the doorstep, but you'll still only need to roll out of bed at 6.30 to hit the Norries and Torridon/Applecross or Skye are perfectly fine for day trips if you are up early. What more should one say? Perhaps the only threat is getting lazy and saying "not quite perfect, I'll wait till tomorrow".
You better have your affairs in order by the middle of March though, because little work gets done in late March and April if you are a highland 'all-rounder'. The sun is out, the ice is fat, the boulders are crisp, the sunny crags are bone dry. There's nae chance you'll find a climber behind a desk for very long!
Additional notes for Fort life
Take extra time for shopping, you'll meet at least three friends in Morrisons.
Always have a decent brush for cleaning rock in your bag. You'll find new routes a lot.
In summer, you'll look at the wind forecast more than the rain. No wind means midges, and you don't want that.
In Glasgow you might not get into the best pubs wearing a Gore-Tex. In the Fort's establishments you'll not see too many without one.
It's hard to diet for F9a in the Fort. Bacon Rolls from Lochaber Farm Shop's cafe and cakes from the sidings cafe in the train station are tricky to avoid.
Special thanks go to all the contributing photographers in this piece. The stunning night time panoramic at the top is by Pete Leeming, you can see more of his Scottish panoramic photos on his website: Peterleemingphotography.com.
- DESTINATION GUIDE: Polldubh Crags 9 Jan, 2018
- PRODUCT NEWS: Dave MacLeod Announces Children's Climbing Book 1 Apr, 2016
- GUEST EDITORIAL: Winter Climbing - Where Next? 1 Mar, 2012
- Ben Nevis Summer 5 Aug, 2010
- Ben Nevis Winter 19 Nov, 2009
- Ben Nevis Britain's Highest Mountain 18 Nov, 2009
- The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers by Arno Ilg 8 May, 2007
- Dave MacLeod Answers Your Training Questions - Part One 17 Feb, 2007