11. Steph McKenna, Award-Winning Mountain Campaigner
In February 2023, Steph McKenna won the Fort William Mountain Festival's "Scottish Youth Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture" - an experience made all the more surprising because she had no idea she'd be nominated. But look into why she won, and it's hardly a surprise at all.
Though only 22-years old, Steph has lent emotional support to those that need it volunteering and mentoring for her local charity Lochaber Hope, overseen positive changes for young people and helped them grow a sense of "camaraderie, place and purpose" in the Lochaber Youth Theatre, worked as a seasonal ranger for the John Muir Trust on the Nevis range, co-founded the Lochaber Foxes (a mountain biking group focused on encouraging and empowering women riders), and even found time to gain a first-class degree in Psychology for which she wrote an award-winning final year dissertation entitled "An Interpretation of wild swimming in the Scottish Highlands. The relationship between flow, the therapeutic landscape and wellbeing".
Women's spaces in the outdoors open up the conversation for women to be a bit goofier, or less formal, or just a bit gross!
How does one achieve so many things by so young an age? Where does the energy to tirelessly help others come from? Which Lord of the Rings character did she pretend to be as a child? Can you ever run out of adventures in the Lochaber area? How does Utah compare to the West Highlands? Are you ever too young to be covered in mud or submerged in an icy river? What ties together carbon sequestration and the future of the highland water vole?
When speaking with visitors, I really wanted to encourage them to care for the landscape they were in
All of this and more in Mountain Air, Episode 11:
00:00 - Introduction
02:50 - Welcome, winning the Fort William Festival "Scottish Youth Award for Excellent in Mountain Culture" award… but not having a Fort William accent. Also, Utah.
08:38 - Volunteering and mentoring for Lochaber Hope, "teaching people that they have it in them to heal themselves". Building a "garden of hope". Using the landscape and green space.
14:37 - Lochaber Youth Theatre "a real sense of camaraderie, and place and purpose… and the positive changes in the kids involved… that made me want to study psychology".
20:40 - Motivations for volunteer work: "I just get excited about something and I say yes, and then I do it. And I enjoy doing it, so I keep doing it" … "I just enjoy the vibrancy of meeting different people and opening up the dialogue about wellness".
21:43 - It was Benjamin Franklin!
22:20 - Seasonal Ranger(ing) for the John Muir Trust on the Ben Nevis range. Spending days "absolutely covered in mud". Sequestration. Water voles. Raptors.
28:38 - Mountain Biking, working with bikes and riding for pleasure - Lochaber Foxes, "opening up a space for those just getting into biking, maybe being a little nervous, and just wanting to ride with some other ladies".
33:30 - "It's a little bit easier to be silly and embarrassed about some of the girly stuff… or simply beings scared… women's spaces in the outdoors open up the conversation for women to be a bit goofier, or less formal, or just a bit gross!".
35:00 - Pretending to be Frodo Baggins, with the dog.
36:20 - Discovering outdoor sports. Wild swimming ("I was always swimming in the river as a kid"), falling through ice.
39:00 - Hillwalking and mountaineering, an epic sunrise around Steall Falls. Ice climbing. Scotland as a "huge open space with limitless potential".
43:10 - Greatest Mountain Memory: a childhood visit to the Steall Falls, remembered later in life.
45:35 - All the time, money, freedom… where do you go and what do you do? Research into the effects of mountains on mental wellbeing.
47:25 - Gardening and putting the bumper back on the car.
Peatland restoration: I don't think I've ever been covered in so much mud...!
Interview recorded 10/03/23
Mountain Air podcast is made, recorded, hosted, edited, released and occasionally sworn at by Dan Aspel (he didn't, however, do the theme tune). Dan has teamed up with UKHillwalking to produce a new series, his second, and we'll be publishing regular episodes over the next few months. You can listen to the ten episodes of his first series here: