High point of the year

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This month is dreary for most of us but heavenly for hikers, with some of the best walking and climbing conditions of the year. But the elements aren't the only reason fans of outdoor pursuits are gravitating towards the mountains of Lochaber, the outdoor capital of the UK.

For the sixth annual Fort William Mountain Festival, celebrating all things peak-related in the shadow of Ben Nevis, is pulling in punters. In this part of the world you can't fail to be awed and inspired by the landscape and the annual festival shows that our love of wild places permeates not just outdoor life but the whole culture. It proves that climbers have more to do in their downtime than stroke their beards over a pint and discuss who's bagged the most Munros.

This year the word "film" has been dropped from the festival's title. This doesn't mean the movie selection has been neglected, but it reflects an extension into more diverse activities. Festival co-ordinator Ali Berardelli says: "The organisers decided that the festival has grown so much since its inception that it's now a much wider event than purely a celebration of film. The idea is to embrace all the events and become the country's premier mountain festival. So, while film is still an important part of the festival, it's no longer the only focus."

Another bonus is that a bumper 16 days of activity have been arranged, rather than the usual eight-day programme. A much-extended line-up has been designed to celebrate the Highland Year of Culture, 2007.

"The additional funding thanks to the Highland Year of Culture, has meant we've been able to expand and run more events," Berardelli says. "Next year we'll go back to the original format of eight to ten days."

As in previous festivals, there are evenings focusing on outdoor activities such as snow sports, mountaineering, mountain biking and kayaking. But, this time, as well as exhibitions, workshops, talks and whisky tastings, there's a focus on open film, photography, art and writing competitions, providing a showcase for new and emerging talent. Some events have been organised independently at various venues around Fort William and Glencoe, including The Lime Tree, Glencoe Visitor Centre and Clachaig Inn - which is holding a fringe festival for the first time.

Special guests include American climber and comedian Timmy O'Neill, who'll be performing as Dr Steven "Death Zone" Clark in his self-penned play Mallory Revisited, on Wednesday and Thursday evening. If you're not familiar with O'Neill, he's a world-renowned speed climber whose favourite quote comes from deafblind activist Helen Keller: "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." His live show is expected to be irreverent, fun and very cheeky, so please check in any prudishness at the door.

If you agree with mountaineer Chuck Pratt's words: "I don't want to write about climbing; I don't want to talk about it; I don't want to photograph it; I don't want to think about it; all I want to do is do it", then try the high-octane exhilaration of ice or rock climbing at the workshops for adults and children with such visceral titles as Taste the Rock and Hit the Ice.

These taster climbing sessions take place on the world's biggest indoor ice wall or 50ft rock wall at the Ice Factor Indoor Climbing Centre at Kinlochleven. Alternatively, there's a chance to simply celebrate the landscape at one of the photography exhibitions, such as Bill Birkett's show, A Year in the Life of Glencoe, at the NTS Glencoe Visitor Centre.

Or, for a truly unmissable experience, visit the Antarctic Witness exhibition which takes you into the private realm of the men on board the Endurance as part of Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1916. The pictures are on loan from the Royal Geographic Society and are part of what Berardelli calls "a superb exhibition".

So whether you're a climber who lives life on a vertiginous edge or you just appreciate the mountains from the comfort of your armchair, there's something for all degrees of interest at this year's festival - what we've listed here is just the tip of the iceberg.

Timmy O'Neill is at the Nevis Centre, Fort William on Wednesday, 7pm, tickets 6/2; and in a Mountaineering Evening on Thursday, tickets 10/8.

Fort William Mountain Festival runs until 3 March. For full programme and bookings visit www.mountainfestival.co.uk or tel: 01397 700707.

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