June 30th 2018. It had been in my diary for months. I am going to climb Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. This is no easy feat. It is in the harshest wilderness we have in this country and people still die trying to climb it.
I’d been training for this day for several months. At first I struggled to walk even a mile without my toes cramping up (I was diagnosed with Parkinsons in 2009). With the invaluable help of two local therapists who have worked hard on my legs and lower back I have largely overcome the cramp and had trained hard. I climbed Snowdon earlier in June and fared well. But Ben Nevis is higher (at 4,413 feet,) longer (a 10 mile round trip of constant ascent and then descent) and very unforgiving!
My preparation had been hampered by a slight chest cough which meant that I hadn’t trained for two weeks. My equipment was well prepared and I was confident after Snowdon. Ben Nevis is only slightly higher I thought. How hard could it be?
I had prepped everything within my control; food, drink, clothing, equipment, OS map, insect spray, first aid pack. I even added a hat and sunscreen to deal with the freak heatwave (Scotland was over 30 degrees!).
After a hearty breakfast, we started to climb around 8:30 to avoid the worst of the sun on the way up. The first couple of miles were the hardest and progress was slow but steady.
We zig-zag up craggy boulders and I’m starting to find it hard going, my left quad starts to fatigue. No problem, I’ll just have to push more with my right leg. Half a mile further and my right leg starts to tire. After a rest, an energy gel (which tastes like wallpaper paste) and half a bottle of Lucozade I start to feel a bit better.
The route to the very top of Ben Nevis is tough, it twists and turns without offering you a view of the summit. You have no idea how far there is left to go. Both of my legs are hurting by now and I start to wonder whether I should carry on. Then, as if to test your resolve, the mountain throws one last challenge at you; a large patch of snow the size of a football pitch right across the path. Snow in 30 degree heat? I wasn’t expecting that. But there it is, cold and wet and slippery.
This is where, exhausted and with tired legs, and faced with an unexpected challenge, mental resilience kicks in. One final test. Once overcome, the mountain rewards you with a view of the summit and the adrenaline kicks in. A few hundred metres and you’re there, on top of the world, and in the hot and cloudless sky the views are simply awesome!
We rest at the top, celebrating, having lunch, taking photos and taking in as much energy as we can. The atmosphere is one of euphoria; to be on top of this awesome mountain on one of the best viewing days of the year. It’s a real privilege.
But then reality kicks back in and we realise that we are only half way there. We still have to get down. And by now the sun is out in full force.
To cut a long story short, the descent is much like the climb, except that you start it already tired and with depleted energy. After more fatigued legs, cramp in my hamstrings and very sore feet, we are back down. By the time we reach the Ben Nevis Inn I can hardly put one foot in front of the other. I have honestly never felt so tired.
So what parallels are there for life in an urban environment? Surely somewhere so remote, where ill-prepared people can still die occasionally (the body of a 32 year-old man was found on the day we climbed) is totally different from working in a city office. On the surface yes, but dig a little deeper and there are lots of lessons for us all to learn.
Firstly, I was preparing for a specific challenge, which was very clearly defined. We all have these challenges in our working environments; a project to implement or a target to achieve. We prepare for it to the best of our ability, given certain constraints, and we plan for every eventuality we can reasonably think of. However daunting the challenge, there are always variables that are within our control and those which aren’t. When we manage those that are, we minimise the risk.
We also try to perform at our very best, both physically and mentally. We know that we will face unexpected challenges and how fit and strong we are, will determine whether we succeed or fail, or stay healthy or become ill. And we can be tested to our limits, but are still expected to succeed.
Before the climb I had been reading “Don’t Die Hesitating”, a draft version of a book on survival protocols by Barry Howard, an old friend and a Wilderness Guide and Survival Specialist. In it he explains that everything you do in a survival situation should be pro-active: drink before you become dehydrated, eat before you become hungry, “layer up” before you become cold, rest before you become tired, etc. This pro-active approach maintains your performance and reduces the likelihood of a serious incident.
Given the above, doesn’t it make perfect sense to prepare ourselves pro-actively in order to meet the unexpected challenges in life? Whether that is a twist in the road, an event beyond our control, or a medical issue. When we are mentally and physically strong, these issues can easily be overcome. When we are not, they can overwhelm and defeat us.
Whether in a wilderness or urban environment, our bodies have the same survival mechanism, with risks and threats all around us. The risks are more physical and immediate in the wild, whereas they are more subtle and less physical in a city. But a lack of pro-activity can still result in an accident (or disease) in either, which can often lead to a serious situation and premature death.
Barry also talks about being “cool” in a survival situation. When the “shit hits the fan” how do we react? Do we lose it, panic (an emotional response) and make sub-optimal decisions? Or do we remain “cool” and use all of our experience to calmly assess the options and change the plan. In the wild, if you do the former you could make the situation much worse and it might be the last thing you do. In the City, if you react in an emotional way, you risk getting very stressed with a very similar result, it will just take a little longer.
It is no surprise then that so many people talk about being mindful, or staying “in the moment” in order to respond in the most appropriate way when unexpected challenges occur. The fight or flight response is sometimes helpful in the wild but it is inappropriate in an urban environment. There is also no ‘trigger’ to turn it off, like running or fighting. If left unmanaged, the stress response will eventually make you very ill as a result of the physiological changes that occur in the body. It is very hard to overturn thousands of years of evolutionary development but it can be done, or at least managed.
You wouldn’t think that there are many similarities between a wilderness environment and an urban one. The difference is that in the wilderness these lessons are brought into sharp focus but they are just as applicable to an urban environment. So, in summary, my 5 lessons are:
1. Be as fit and healthy, both physically and mentally, as you can be. Start now, today.
2. Manage the variables that you can control. You are more in control than you realise.
3. Be as prepared as you can be in order to handle the threats when they occur, and they will.
4. Be pro-active in all things, especially your health. Later, is too late.
5. Be “in the moment” when dealing with the unexpected challenges that life is going to throw at you. How you deal with them will determine whether you succeed or fail, live or die.
If you can do all of these things, you will be better prepared for whatever life throws at you, whether it’s surviving in one of the harshest environments in the UK or thriving in everyday corporate life.
And finally, don’t be content to stay where you are. Be the best “you” you can be. Find your limits and see just how great you are.
Have a great day. Paul Heywood. Halcyon Life Founder.