HALFWAY up the unrelenting north-west ridge of Ben More on the first big mountain test of the winter season and I'm feeling slightly off the pace.
The short hours of daylight are quickly transforming: the darkness has passed through its subsequent half-light phase and the sky is a pristine blue, the perfect complement to the brilliant snow-white of the surrounding peaks.
The freezing wind whipping across the slope is making harder work of every upward step. We are in that familiar territory where the crampons are a boon one minute, a nuisance the next.
The leg muscles seem to be taking their time to reacquaint themselves with the required effort. Yet Nick Gardner doesn't seem to be having the same problem, his leisurely gait steadily increasing the gap between us. Not bad for an 81-year-old.
Nick is more than two-thirds through a remarkable charity push to complete a full round of Munros starting at the age of 80. Ben More will be No. 200 and its partner, Stob Binnein, 201, keeping him on track for a planned finish on Cairn Gorm in August. Nick is fundraising in support of Alzheimer's Scotland and the Royal Osteoporosis Society, two causes close to his heart. His wife, Janet, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and vascular dementia in 2018, having previously suffered with osteoporosis since 2002.
Despite his best efforts to care for her at home, eventually it proved too much and she was moved into care near their home in Aultbea. Nick felt he needed a challenge to channel his grief, and his Munro mission is regularly punctuated with visits home to see Janet.
A full Munros round may seem a natural goal for a man who has spent a large part of his life climbing and walking in Scotland's mountains, but Nick had never before felt the urge to climb them all. With so many magnificent mountains such as An Teallach, Liathach and Suilven right on his doorstep he was spoiled for choice, and allied with his dislike of long drives, there was little appetite to go farther afield.
His progress over the past 18 months is all the more remarkable considering the complications thrown up by the Covid pandemic, but his challenge has caught the imagination of many and he has had plenty offers of company on the hill. When I arrived to meet him for the Ben More climb, this softy-spoken man was already working the hillwalking crowd, handing out his cards to everyone about to head up the hill.
We set off as six in low light, a steady plod up the stepped path of the lower slope. Behind us, the landscape was being bathed in copper, the whitecap peaks pulsating, a scene that temporarily disguised the biting cold of the ascent. Reality soon kicked in; the ice coating on the path became progressively thicker and when we hit the snowline it was time for crampons. As the snow deepened, the walking became more staggered, especially with the strong wind barging into our sides.
We emerged from the shadowed slope into a nuclear sun and flawless blue, the summit rocks frozen solid and the chill of the wind even more brutal, everything that comes together to make up the raw beauty of a classic winter mountain day. I can only imagine the torrent of emotions that must have been running through Nick's mind as he stood at the trig pillar and drank in the grandeur of the forever views from his 200thsummit.
Stob Binnein reared up across the divide, another massive triangle trapped in shadow, the ascent slope shying away from the sun. The drop off Ben More was in deep, soft snow, the sheltered southern aspect of the descent producing a marked rise in temperature. Then we were climbing again, and Nick was pulling away again. It also didn't help my weary legs to see one of our party, Jay, bounding effortlessly despite lugging around heavy camera equipment as he filmed Nick's progress from above and below.
The conversation until now had tended to be snatched due to the wind and the required concentration on foot placement, but we were able to chat more on the way out in quieter conditions. Nick told me that although Janet had loved the outdoors she was never a mountain walker, and for that he was now glad: the thought of doing something she would have loved without her by his side would have been too painful.
There's still a way to go but the back of the challenge has been broken. He reckons his fitness has improved appreciably over the course, and he's enjoyed breaking new ground. He still has the formidable Skye Munros to do, an earlier attempt having been thwarted by poor weather, but having already traversed the ridge four times, that shouldn't prove an unsurmountable task.
He won't be going it alone, though. As an octogenarian, he accepts that ageing starts to affect balance and erodes confidence, so he is happier walking in company. There's been no lack of willing partners, and his exploits have seen many new friendships forged on the hill.
I look forward to joining him again soon – and next time I shall try harder to keep up.
Anyone who would like to donate to Nick’s Munro Challenge can do so athttps://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/nmc-asand you can follow his progress at nicks.munro.challenge on Instagram.