An 82-year-old man who set himself a challenge to climb Scotland’s 282 Munros after his wife went into full-time care is just days from reaching the final summit.
Nick Gardner, from Gairloch, in the north-western Scottish Highlands, said he was “knocked for six” when his partner of 50 years, Janet, had to be moved into a care home after developing Alzheimer’s disease and osteoporosis.
Knowing he needed something to keep him going, the grandfather of four set off into the hills to start the mammoth journey in July 2020, three months after his 80th birthday.
Now, about two years later, Mr Gardner only has eight Munros left to bag.
“When Janet went into care it absolutely shattered me,” he told the PA News Agency.
“We were incredibly close as a couple, she was the most wonderful and caring wife, mother and grandmother possible, and now she doesn’t recognise me.
“I was heading into some mental condition, so I thought I have to get myself a challenge, to pull me out.”
Having never climbed a Munro – a Scottish mountain that reaches a minimum of 3,000ft (914.4m) – the former physics teacher gave himself 1,200 days (just over three years) to complete the challenge while raising money for Alzheimer Scotland and the Royal Osteoporosis Society (ROS).
But, with his final summit planned for about two weeks’ time, Mr Gardner is on track to finish much earlier – in under 800 days.
“I am so close to completing it, I really feel like a child in the run up to Christmas,” he said, “I have butterflies.”
Once he makes it to the finish line, Mr Gardner will have climbed more than 500,000ft (152,000m), the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest (8,848m) about 17 times, and walked an incredible 2,000 miles (3,218 km), a similar distance to hiking from Edinburgh to Greece.
One of his two daughters, Sally McKenzie, has nominated him to the Guinness Book of World Records for the oldest person to climb the Munros.
“I’ll probably cry when I make it to the end,” he laughed.
With a compass in one hand and a map in the other, Mr Gardner said he loves the feeling of being on the hillside.
But he adds that he’s never truly on his own.
“I am over 80, and I think it would be irresponsible to climb on my own at this age, so I always have people with me.
“I don’t climb in a rush, and after the first two or three Munros I just started stopping people on the hill to tell them what I was doing.
“People couldn’t believe it, and they started joining me and donating money.
“Now, when I am walking, I regularly hear, ‘Nick’ shouted.
“One man came up to me and said: ‘Nick, excuse my language, but you’re a f legend’.
“I don’t normally get sworn at like that.”
Having been a climber all his life, Mr Gardner has developed immense respect for mountains, so much that he chooses his words wisely when talking about them.
“I have never conquered or beaten a mountain, I have climbed them,” he said.
“If you start trying to conquer them, they will get their own back.”
Out of the 274 peaks he has scaled so far, Mr Gardner said completing the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye about a month ago sticks out as his most physically challenging moment.
“It’s hard for people to do in their 40s, let alone 80s. It was incredibly rewarding,” he said.
“I am not a religious person, but there is something almost biblical about it, certainly spiritual.”
Mr Gardner’s checklist for reaching Scotland’s highest peaks includes a head torch, waterproof clothing, a down jacket and a spare warm garment.
But above all, he said a map and compass are his essentials.
The remaining peaks for the intrepid grandfather are three in Knoydart: Ladhar, Mell Buidhe and Luinne Bheinn; four in Glen Dessary: Sgurr na ciche, Garbh chioche mhor, Sgurr nan coireachan and Sgurr Mor; and lastly, the 282nd summit at Cairn Gorm in the Highlands where he will be joined by friends and family for the final climb.
His target was initially to raise £10,000, but he is now on track to reaching £50,000.
He added: “I will keep walking when I’ve finished this challenge, as long as my legs can carry me.”
Craig Jones, chief executive of the ROS, and who will be joining Mr Gardner on the final climb, said the charity is “extremely grateful” for the fundraiser.
Kirsty Stewart, of Alzheimer Scotland’s, added: “His tremendous effort will help us continue to be there for people living with dementia, their families and their carers.”