The Festival began in 2003 when the town hosted the Mountain Biking World Cup for the first time. Realising that evening entertainment options were limited, a group of outdoor instructors got together and put on screenings of the Banff film festival’s touring films. It was a huge hit.
Mountain guide Mike Pescod got involved that year and has helped put the festival on every year since. Now a festival director, Mike sees the event as a brilliant way to celebrate the area and introduce more people to Fort William and Lochaber.
“The landscape around the town is absolutely spectacular,” he says. “I don’t think enough people appreciate how incredible it is. The quality of experience you can get here is as good as anywhere in the world. I wanted to put what’s available here on a stage next to everywhere else in the world, to celebrate that.” Over 20 years the organisers have experimented with the length and the focus of the festival. “We’ve always had a real range of themed events, like skiing night and climbing night, but things are changing a little bit,” says Mike, “we’ve more environmental themes, sustainability, and more to do with culture.
“We recognise not everyone wants to go ice climbing or kayaking down rivers but everybody can enjoy the outdoors and benefit from it in some way. Whether it’s taking photos or writing poetry, painting pictures, making music, sharing all those experiences. It’s all the outdoors. We enjoy it in lots of different ways.” Under-representation is still a problem, Mike admits. He adds: “We’re trying to reach into all areas of our communities that don’t really engage with the outdoors at the moment.”
It’s hoped that affordable and practical workshops will help address this.
“We’ll help get people off on the right foot, knowing the right stuff with the right kit, and send them out informed and prepared for what to expect and able to look after themselves.
“The benefits of getting outside far outweigh the drawbacks,” Mike says. “Look at the huge number of people who go out and have a fantastic time and benefit through physical health, mental health, spiritual wellbeing. If we can strengthen that link with the natural world, people will start to care about it more and think about how they live their lives.”
The atmosphere at Fort William Mountain Festival is what makes it truly special.
Mike says: “A lot of our speakers go to festivals around the world, and they always say how friendly ours is. It’s the vibe, the craic. Getting all these people who love what they do together. It’s magical.”
Anna Danby, outdoor instructor and coordinator for this year’s Festival, says: “It’s a privilege to be part of organising the 20th anniversary festival and bringing together everyday adventurers, elite athletes, mountain professionals and local residents to share stories under the same roof. Our hope is we have curated an ambitious programme, not only with more events and greater diversity, but also full of inspiring entertainment that truly encourages everyone, from all walks of life, to fill their days and evenings with adventures of all shapes and sizes wherever their interests lie.”
Bike Night will see Scots Asian diversity pioneer and mountain biker Aneela McKenna take the stage to discuss her groundbreaking film After The Storm. Also on the line up is Tommy Wilkinson discussing environmental awareness and mountain biking, and a screening of Flow State II directed by Max Rendell. Ultra-runner Jamie Aarons heads up Running Night (see page 20). The dedicated can join the PETZL-guided night hill run beforehand. What better tribute to the record holder than to arrive mud-splattered?
Other highlights will be white water paddle boarders Sam Garthwaite and Cameron Hopkin introducing their film Runnable about their attempt to run the River Etive, and climber and BASE jumper Tim Howell telling hair-raising tales of his exploits, including completing the first ski BASE jump in the UK from Buachaille Etive Mor. Festival goers will also have the chance to meet Hamza Yassin, the wildlife cameraman, TV presenter and winner of Strictly Come Dancing 2022.
There’s an expanded range of ‘Explore’ events for 2024, giving an opportunity to learn new skills in partnership with local activity providers. Events include mountain illustration, nature writing, wild swimming, trail running, mountain biking and, of course, winter walking, mountaineering, and skiing. Indoor events include understanding mountain weather forecasts, adventure filmmaking and yoga. Anna Danby says: “The overriding aim of the Festival is to encourage everyone to be inspired by, respect and protect our natural landscape and with our 2024 programme we are confident all our visitors will leave feeling motivated to do just that.”