It seems apt that when I first meet Nick Gardner, it's on the summit of a Munro. Weighed with thoughts of ageing and loss, I'm driving south to see my ill Father, already suspecting that this will be the last time. Height can sometimes afford a shift in perspective, or at least the chance to become absorbed in something else for a while, and with some hours to spare I turn almost on reflex for Sgor Gaoith, seeking wide spaces and sunlight on spring snow. From the sharp summit, three walkers watch me approach.
"My name's Nick Gardner" one says, pressing a card into my hand, "I am 80 years old, and I'm trying to climb all the Munros. I'm raising money for Alzheimer Scotland and the Royal Osteoporosis Society." It transpires that we are practically neighbours in Wester Ross, and agree to meet up to talk more about his project. We manage it a few weeks later.
White-bearded and ruddy-cheeked, Nick Gardner looks the archetypal jolly octogenarian, a wiry Father Christmas, but his soft spoken warmth belies what must be an uncommon determination and drive. This is a man who's response to an unspeakable grief has been to channel it into positive action. Climbing all the Munros, starting in his 80th year, has, he says, given Nick an unexpected lease of life and sense of purpose, refuting through literal get-up-and-go the expectation that old age must always mean the decay of ambition and ability.
"I can't believe it" he says, "this is not how I'd pictured ageing!"
I am lucky to have a working body. I'm relishing the challenge, and intend to go on climbing hills and fundraising for the rest of my healthy life
Nick and his wife Janet relocated to the Northwest Highlands three decades ago, growing old on the croft they worked together.
"We had both been married before and had four children between us" he recounts. "We both wanted to live a similar lifestyle, so when the children left home, we moved up from suburbia to the 10-acre croft. The land was mainly moorland but with an acre of good soil and the area was devoid of trees. We wanted to create a woodland on the croft and grow fruit, vegetables and flowers. We were quickly able to be almost self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables, but establishing the woodland took much longer. It was not easy, but by working together we witnessed the moorland gradually blossom into woodland, at times even with a temperate rainforest atmosphere.
"We were able to live the dream for 30 loving years."
Janet developed osteoporosis in 2002, but in recent years Nick began to suspect that something else was wrong. Then in 2018 came a life changing diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease and Vascular Dementia. Having tried at first to care for Janet at home, Nick eventually struggled to cope, and she was moved into a care home close to him in Aultbea.
Newly alone, and grieving the woman Janet had been, he felt he needed a project beyond the life they'd shared - a challenge with purpose, and one that would take time to complete.
"I could have trained for something achievable like a half marathon" he says, " but once that was done, what would have been next?"
He happened on the answer in an Alzheimer's Society magazine, where he read an article about a woman who'd raised money for the charity by climbing a number of Munros. "'I could do that', I thought. 'But I'll go for the lot'."
A desire to raise as much money as possible for charities in which he has a very personal stake would be bound to create a pressure to perform, but at his age, it occurred to him, if he didn't succeed then it might not be regarded as failure. "That realisation was the clincher" he says.
Having turned 80 in April 2020, he got started on the day that the first Coronavirus lockdown lifted. The course of the pandemic may have thrown up unanticipated hurdles, but progress has been steady, and so far he has bagged 75 of the 282 Scottish 3000-foot peaks. The aim now is to tick off around six per week.
A climber from his early years, Nick's affinity with the hills runs deep; but with climbing to occupy him, until taking on this challenge he had never seriously considered walking up all the Munros.
"Bagging Munros is illogical" he admits. "For example, arguably our greatest peak, Suilven, doesn't even qualify as a Corbett [Scottish mountain between 2500-2999 feet]. Besides, I don't like driving, and living in Wester Ross I'd always been happy with the hills on my doorstep. I must've traversed An Teallach 100 times. But for fundraising purposes the Munros are something that everyone's heard of."
One suspects that now he has the bit between his teeth, Nick's enjoyment of the Munros goes beyond using them as an easily recognisable vehicle for raising money. He has the air of a man who is relishing the chase, and delighting in treading new ground at a time of life when horizons typically grow narrower rather than broader. One of the joys frequently cited by followers of a hill list is in getting to see unfamiliar places that might otherwise remain off the radar.
"I've never been to the Loch Quoich area" he confides, "so I'm looking forward to that trip soon."
From his base on the northwest coast many of the inland or more southerly hills are a considerable distance away and require an overnight mission. For each trip he picks his target based on where the weather is due to be best in the runup to leaving.
In the mountains, I feel relaxed and happy
Driving down the night before, and sleeping in the back of his estate car, the initial solution to the question of transport and accommodation would have steadily worn down most walkers half his age. Recently his daughter Sally convinced him to buy a camper van. "On its first outing, en route back from buying it, I backed it into a ditch at the crowded car park under Schiehallion" he laughs, "But I know it is going to make things a lot easier."
Other hurdles so far have been more weather-related. With deep snow lying unconsolidated on the high ground for several consecutive weeks over the winter, twice he had to turn back from Ben Wyvis, and once from his local hill An Teallach, exhausted by the slow toil of post-holing. "I found the high stepping particularly hard on my knees" he says, "and I really didn't want to risk damaging them and jeopardising the challenge. So I went about three weeks with no summits."
Show-stopping injury is a constant risk, but while the cumulative effort of climbing several Munros every week would begin to take a toll on many walkers, Nick's lifetime on the hills seems to be standing him in good stead, and he is managing to recover sufficiently between stints away from home. He puts this down to a daily routine of stretches.
"I'm aiming to get my fitness high enough to manage three decent days on the hills back-to-back" he says, "and that way I'll be able to maximise the number of Munros I can do on each trip. But I've always said there is only one way to train for climbing mountains, and that's climbing mountains."
For an octogenarian, Nick's fitness and stamina are already little short of remarkable, and of course he is highly competent after a lifetime of walking and climbing in the Scottish highlands. But ageing throws up new challenges, he has found.
"I've always been a climber" he says, "though latterly I came to prefer scrambling because it is less hassle. I have done the Cuillin traverse three times, and it's pretty much my perfect mountain day, but it's only worth the attempt in good weather."
For his Munro project, the ideal had been to tick the Cuillin peaks over a full traverse, taking in the true challenge of the ridge rather than picking off summits in ones and twos via the easiest variations, the approach naturally favoured by non-climbing walkers. There can't be many people in their ninth decade with the ambition, let alone the ability, to take on Scotland's most formidable mountaineering route. But it has not been plain sailing so far.
"I headed up in September with an experienced friend" he recalls. "We did the southern peaks, and bivvied near Sgurr Alasdair. Then the weather clagged in. The next morning I was surprised to find that I felt uncomfortable on the exposed, rocky ground, an experience that as a climber I have not had before. I'd heard that an unexpected lack of confidence can suddenly hit as you get older, and it upset me."
They went down, and aim to return to finish the job at a more auspicious time.
With the passing of years, Nick finds he is now having to be more circumspect on the sort of rough, tricky ground that he would formerly have taken very much in stride, and recognises that with age there's been a gradual loss of balance and reaction time.
"I won't do any of these hills alone" he says. "It's a confidence thing, and at my age I think it could be deemed irresponsible. I arrange to go out with hillwalking friends, or meet new people for the day."
A stickler for safety, Nick's respect for the mountain environment is born of bitter experience. In an infamous incident in 1959, five walkers were lost in appalling winter conditions while attempting to force a way over Jock's Road, a high pass above Glen Doll. Their bodies were found one by one over the next few months, all having died of hypothermia. Aged just 18, Nick stumbled across one of the lost party while walking alone over the drove road en route to a climbing trip in the Cairngorms.
"It taught me an early lesson" he says: "Take the mountain environment seriously, because it can kill you. Never be afraid to turn back."
Nevertheless, he is completely at home in the hills:
"When I'm in the house, I miss Janet. But she was never a big climber or hillwalker, so when I'm away I find I don't notice her absence so much. In the mountains, I feel relaxed and happy."
But though the hills are often about quiet contemplation, it looks like Nick has not been getting a lot of that so far on this challenge. As well as lining up friends to join him on the Munros, Nick has been announcing his plans in advance on social media, where he seems to be generating a bit of a buzz.
"Believe it or not, random people come out to join me for the day: I had 10 folk waiting to meet me when I went to the Loch Treig Munros, for instance" he laughs.
Nick seems almost embarrassed by the attention he's been getting, but sees it has value for the fundraising effort.
"I thought I was a very quiet person, but I'm enjoying this! I didn't realise that hillwalkers in their 80s are considered unusual, but people often seem to be amazed to see me up on the hills. I have even been recognised, thanks to my presence on social media. And if they meet me in person out on the Munros, people seem more willing to donate. So I'll always introduce myself, and explain what I'm doing."
To date he has raised around £21,500 for the two charities out of an initial target of £28,000, and being only about one quarter of the way to his Munro full house, he wonders if an eventual total close to £100,000 might not be out of the question.
Assuming he completes the 282 Munros, Nick won't be intending to hang up his boots. Already planning to walk the UK three peaks later in the year, he may also consider the other 3000-foot hills in England and Wales in due course, he says, or even the possibility of something big like Kilimanjaro.
"I am lucky to have a working body" he says. "I am relishing the challenge, and I intend to go on climbing hills and fundraising for the rest of my healthy life."
- To make a donation go to virginmoney.com
- For more details see Nick's website
- Follow his progress on Facebook and Instagram
- The Big Routes: Fisherfield Six 17 May
- REVIEW: Sprayway kid's jackets - Bianca and Belle 7 May
- Meet the activists helping to diversify the outdoors: Pammy Johal 3 May
- REVIEW: La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II Mid GTX 20 Apr
- National Parks without the crowds: Cairngorms 14 Apr
- REVIEW: Mountain Equipment's new Tupilak Jacket and Pants 10 Apr
- Meet the activists helping to diversify the outdoors: Cherelle Harding of Steppers UK 8 Apr
- REVIEW: Mammut Perform Down Bag -7 2 Mar
- REVIEW: Black Diamond Raven Pro axe 23 Feb
- REVIEW: Mountain Equipment Kinesis Range - the ultimate softshell? 16 Feb