As the snow fell across northern Scotland and the UK plummeted into sub-zero temperatures, some “special” people thought it a good idea to descend one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Scotland.
Located 8 miles south of Fort William on the A82, close the Corran Ferry crossing, Vertical Descents is a 10 year old activity centre offering spectacular events for all of the family. One of those activities is Canyoning, a fairly new sport in the world of adventure sports, but becoming increasingly popular around the world, and particularly in the highlands of Scotland.
Starting from the Vertical Descents building at Inchtree, the group for the day consisted of the Instructor – Simon, a Navy Diver, a Dad with his three girls, aged between 12 and 16 and myself. Simon had a calming demeanour and spoke with calm and considered intonation, which was a good sign as you could tell from the childish giggling emanating from the girls changing room that his patience could be tested today. The initial briefing was short and not-that-informative, other than to suggest that all questions would be answered and fears allayed once we were en route to the top of the falls.
We were shown through to the outside racking, where a large choice of footwear was on offer for use. I had to slap myself out of a couple of immediate trains of thought 1) should I go for the Brooks or the Asics size 10’s, as I’m always partial to my asics running shoes and you never know who may see me, and 2) that these did not represent the lost souls (no pun intended!) of never to return, past victims of the falls.
The rest of the kit was either laid out already – helmet, harness, cagoule, or given by the instructor who seemed to have the knack of determining size at a glance, 10mm 2 part wetsuit, neoprene socks and gloves. The rest of the amenities at Vertical Descents were pretty basic. The hut was clean, with male and female changing rooms, an equipment store and that was about it. Apart from having no toilet, with a few separate murmurings relating to “the great outdoors”, that’s all you really need. It’s all about getting ready as soon as possible and heading out on the adventure trail as soon as possible.
There is a 15 minute walk to the top of the Inchtree falls, mainly by fireroad but once at the top and particularly at this time of year, it gets a bit muddy as you head across to the first entry point. As expected, it’s a bit of a shock to the system, you’re well advised to wet your head and avoid the inevitable brain freeze that often follows your first plummet into the crystal clear pools and white water torrents.
“these did not represent the lost souls of never to return, past victims of the falls.”
The rocks are covered in black algae, creates a couple of potential problems – 1) it is damn slippy and 2) it makes it difficult to tell the depth of the pools. Point number one becomes absolutely clear the second to step foot into the depths, thinking you’ve successfully planted your weight firmly on solid ground, only to find that solid ground isn’t always enough. Simple tip; stay low, be deliberate and use your hands. It is impossible to do this gracefully so forget about it! The second point is an interesting one. It is for this reason that Canyoning is an activity that unequivocally requires properly trained and experienced instruction. Most importantly, you need to have already jumped into the plunge pool before you can categorically know that it is deep enough for you to safely launch yourself into knowing you are not going to impale yourself on solid granite. This is where the instructor earns his keep and fortunately, Simon had the confidence and knowledge to impart unto the uniformed and slightly nervous.
The first jumps are relatively small, aimed to test the individuals technique and general metal as a precursor to the later obstacles. The youngest in the group was unable to make the first jump, but there was an alternative, lower height ledge for her to jump from. It was very much the case throughout the trip that there was nearly always an alternative – it could be as extreme or sedate as needed in a really considerate “caters for all” style and the instructor was as patient and informative irrespective of your desired route. A combination of sliding, rope work and jumping saw us down the first three plateau’s in majestic style. The main highlight being the 25ft leap from a small ledge halfway down the face of a large drop, following a rope led descent on your belly. However, this was just to prepare for the pinnacle of the route, a 50ft leap from a high vantage point with a focus on hitting the white water plunge pool below. To cap it off, a small crowd of well wishers at the viewpoint above were heckling and taking photos, ready to catch the slightest slip or non-vertical entry.
“The views out across Loch Linnhe to Ardgour and the snow capped mountains beyond, the thunder of the ice cold water tumbling down the mountain side and into the pool below.”
Taking the leap, soaring out into the cold, crisp air with snow falling from the blue sky above, I wish I could say that I had time to take in all of the fantastic elements of the experience. The views out across Loch Linnhe to Ardgour and the snow capped mountains beyond, the thunder of the ice cold water tumbling down the mountain side and into the pool below. The mist and spray rising back up and creating colourful rainbows. But I didn’t. Before you know it, you’ve hit the water and been raised back up to the surface by your buoyancy aid. A quick rub of the eyes to adjust the contact lenses and then think about where you need to go next. And it’s done. Whoop whoop all round, high 5’s and hugs. Not so much the extent of the jump itself, just the summing up of a fantastic trip when others may have preferred to stay at home curled up in front of the fire and TV.
So, in all, well worth the £50 for a half day trip. Also worth a look is the full day excursion out to Nathrac, but only once you’ve completed the Inchtree initiation. The Vertical Descents staff were good, nothing flambouyant or extravagant (other than Simon’s shorts, perhaps!). Most people would believe a toilet to be a necessity and I tend to agree. Other than that, the no frills approach definitely works. You get everything you need and getting ready is as quick as you allow it to be. In the summer, activities run most days so getting onto a session shouldn’t be too difficult other than they may fill up quickly. The challenge we had was that in the winter, the weather plays a massive part and the access to the canyon is dependant on the water levels primarily. A lot of sustained heavy rainfall makes the canyon inaccessible, so always best to check beforehand.
The other problem is that activities, whilst remain open well into late November, do not necessarily run every day. We phoned well in advance of our trip, and were told no need to book as it was likely activities would be running. We phoned when we arrived and a combination of the weather and other bookings made it more uncertain. So, you’ve either got to be flexible and able to react when you get the call or go in the summer, when it is more definite, but either way, do it – you won’t regret it.