Friday 23rd June 2023, 2:04pm
Andrew Walker, Mountaineering Scotland’s Director of Communications and Member Services, reflects on his challenge to summit 40 Munros for WaterAid.
Approaching the final slope to ascend Cairn Gorm, having traversed the plateau from Ben Macdui, I could feel the end point was near.
Not just the conclusion of a great day in some of the most spectacular hills in Scotland, but also the end of a personal challenge set two years before, which had its roots thousands of miles away in the heart of Africa.
In April 2021 as we came out of one period of restriction and looked ahead with uncertainty about what would come next, and with the far away mountains of Scotland out of reach for large numbers of people, I decided to set off on an adventure with purpose behind it.
In my day job for Scottish Water, I had the lead role in organising the Munro Challenge – trying to get as many employees, friends, families and colleagues onto the summit of as many Munros as possible in one day to raise funds for our charity partner WaterAid.
But the pandemic restrictions put paid to our plans to run the event in 2020. In fact, it would be another two years before it would be able to take place.
So, in the meantime, and with funding for WaterAid projects firmly in my thoughts, I came up with the idea of climbing my next 40 Munros for the charity – which had just marked its 40th anniversary supporting the delivery of clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene in countries where it is needed most where many people are still denied access to those basics that we take for granted.
I was about to embark on my own 50th Munro – having started bagging them in March 2017 – and was pleased to reach a bit of a personal milestone.
What would push me towards my next milestone? How could I make a difference to the water projects in Malawi? In September 2019, I was able to visit Scottish Water-supported WaterAid projects in the rural districts of Machinga and Zomba in Malawi and see first-hand the life-changing difference having access to clean water and toilets makes for people there.
For me it was an extraordinary experience to meet people – village elders, medical and nursing professionals, teachers, children, parents – whose lives were dominated by the lack of access to water; and how transformative basic clean, safe water supply and sanitation facilities are when they are available and more easily accessible.
With those encounters still very clear in my memory, setting off to climb 40 of the highest mountains in Scotland seemed like the least I could do to play my part in changing the lives of those people in those communities.
And with that, the first of my 40 summits was bagged. On April 25 2021, Sgòr Gaoith, unremarkable from the A9, a growing sense of the drama as the path meandered up through the pinewoods and onto the open hillside, and the jaw-dropping view at the top overlooking Loch Einich and into the heart of Scotland’s iconic Cairngorms.
We picked a lovely spring day too, most of my climbs coincided with decent weather, pretty much a prerequisite for a day on the hills in my book. T-shirts at the top, snow patches in the sun and not a breath of wind. You could hear the conversations from other groups dancing over the summit. A work colleague made the same climb the week after in full winter conditions, proving that even in spring the weather in Scotland comes with a sting in the tail.
There was no plan to climb any specific mountain or complete any specific range or routes. There was also no set timescale for the challenge. I knew I wanted to try and complete all 40 in as reasonable an amount of time as possible, but also that I was limiting myself to weekends, the odd day off work or annual leave.
As it turned out, all 40 were completed in 23 months, which I was quietly pleased about – as the task went on, I had decided to try and get the job done in under two years. Slow pace by some measures, but it’s not a race, right?
There were some monumental days; a completion of the South Glen Shiel Ridge (traversing the final three Munros and finishing what was started in 2017 when the first four were climbed - I take my hat off anyone who does all seven in a day), climbing in the Lawers hills with my daughter, Anna, who had donned a pair of walking boots for the first time, a solo day on Ben Vane – a hill I have a dubious history with having twice failed to make the summit previously, and a glorious day on Beinn a Ghlo, which started off shrouded in grey clag only to become a bright clear warm hike across some really beautiful landscapes.
The ascent of Tolmount and Tom Buidhe is best forgotten. Both summits were claimed but my internal engine blew a gasket that day hiking up Jock’s Road from Glen Doll and I began questioning my choices of a hobby.
And then to the final day – Ben Macdui and Cairn Gorm; a day made more challenging by weather conditions and winter hanging on in the high ground. But with every step closer to the fortieth summit, the goal was within sight. Sitting on the cairn in the snow and worsening visibility (but knowing it was a short haul down the car), I allowed myself a quick pat on the back (my two brothers were on hand to mark the occasion) and signed off on what became my own epic adventure.
With funds totalling £2250 raised, I am delighted to have put a focus on the work of WaterAid by celebrating Scotland’s wild high places, and know that when I do return to Malawi at some stage, every step will have made a difference.