In the life zone

This land unchanged for millennia, carved over eons of ice, rain and wind. The deer and birds running and flying paths led by their ancestors for time untold.

For high altitude (and armchair) mountaineers its common to hear about the death zone, that area above 8000m where due to a number of complex physiological reasons you are effectively dying. Your body degrading every minute, at the tissue level.

The drive to go higher, push harder, suffer more, be more gnarly and generally prove your one tough mother is common in mountaineers and adventurers.

In recent times I’ve been a fully paid up subscriber to this “suffer” club (not the over 8000m club yet! ). Loving coming back after a tough day, where we went higher or pushed harder, hiked longer  or climber something more tricky. Even if I actually found it really tough , afterwards that was a badge of honour.

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My preparation, training , diet and psychology of “being ready” can  also be completely unforgiving. Beating myself up for missing a hill day, doing something “mundane” meaning I didn’t get a full on gym session in, being “weak” and letting my diet slip… all of it an excuse to use a mental baseball bat on myself – beating myself until I’m (metaphorically) bruised and bleeding  .. and of course that blood gets on others .

Those around you are dragged into the fugue, the stress and the frustrated sniping. Totally unfair but at the time, you just cant see past your own “failures” and its only right to be cantankerous. Their patience amazes me, especially my long suffering and awesome wife Sam. Allowing me the freedom to head off on adventures with friends, climbing with me when she can, always keen to try new things ,  but also making sure we have a beautiful home and a life that is comfortable and fun, beyond the summits I continually seek.

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For those able to stand outside it or in those rare moments of personal clarity this of course is also recognised as a path to a death zone of sorts. Ok… so you’re not about to actually die from cold, altitude, hypoxia, HAPE, HACE, hunger, fatigue or any other number of high altitude afflictions but certainly its unhealthy.. and continue it for long enough and your health is going south – physical and mental (as well as I believe, spiritual).

So it’s with 4 weeks out from a big alpine adventure coming up that I was crashing headlong, ice axe in hand, eyes wild and heart racing  into this emotional death zone. The house move of which I talk about a lot has become crushingly time consuming (for the right reasons I know…), business travel has killed my training and diet and I’m feeling way off track in all my prep. Fear of difficulty or failure is rising, with it anger and frustration and opportunities self flagellation increase.

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Then, listening to the calming voice of some very bright souls around me , reading about alpine heroics with the honesty and vulnerability of those who have done much more incredible things than me , I grab a hold of myself, get the gym back in check, start running, lock the diet in and all of a sudden I’m descending back to a safe haven .

But there is more to adventure than gym life so of course I get an overdue hill day in with Sam. We head out , taking advantage of what looks like a great little weekend weather window, and arrive in Glencoe ready to head up Buachaille Etive Beag. Out the car, on the path and heading up, breeze keeping us cool a move quick and start to ascend. we chat as we always do and as we pass others, stop to shoot the shit, a common collective of outdoor loving folks – knowing we are the luckiest people in the world to have all of this available, any time we want it.

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Up we go feeling fitter than in ages, to the bealach then head for the summit, wind picking up now , along the summit ridge to the summit cairn. Fast and comfortable, often tired  legs carrying me better than in ages. I make myself stop to just drink it in.

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The view as always are breathtaking, remembering you are 1km up and on a rocky mountain ridge miles from the nearest town, the world spread out below you, people in towns driving, shopping, eating, stressing, commuting, arguing, hustling, bustling and everyone of them oblivious to the “life zone”.

 

This sacred space where it’s just us, the mountain, the valley below, the sky above. This land unchanged for millennia, carved over eons of ice, rain and wind. The deer and birds running and flying paths led by their ancestors for time untold.

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You see, when you are stressing about this weeks gym session or that meal you shouldn’t have eaten or if one more run is needed the life zone doesn’t even blink an eye, or furrow a brow. It carries on, inviting you to a different way of “being” but at the same time oblivious to your troubles, to your struggles and striving.  It continues to sail its voyage through time,  and will do for eons to come. You are insignificant in this enormity, but also welcome anytime. A beautiful paradox.

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Yes, I need to train and prepare, get fit for the mountain, skilled in climbing, healthy and fit and ready but I need to remember that’s not the goal of the endeavor, its only part of the journey.

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Life is in our homes and in the mountains, with people we love. In terms of the mountains I need to be prepared to get there – yes but I have to remember beating myself up along the way takes you further from that which we are actually seeking – The life Zone.

 

A mountain journey like no other.

Yet, I regards myself as a very lucky person, I have studied my demons, I’ve kept these ‘mental’ enemies close

A post from guest blogger Vicky Bikkerstaffe.

Thinking back, I don’t actually recognise the person that made the decision to get back out on the hill.  She was riddled with anxiety, lacked any personal confidence and lived an isolated life due to her mental health demons.  I’m still shocked she actually did anything about her wish to be more skilled in the outdoors.  She was badly equipped both practically and mentally.  However, what she did have where her memories of reaching mountain tops, taking in the views, the sense of achievement and the taste of a cheese butty at 1000m.

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My personal demons are Clinical Depression and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) (info about these and many other MH issues are available on www.mind.org.uk).  These conditions suck the very life out of me every single day.  These demons are my constant companions, one has their infected claws deep inside me, the other spits their endless stream of venom into my mind.  The management of such conditions is a full time affair, ‘staying well’ requires an unbroken stream of time and energy to perform the tasks of daily life.  Yet, I regard myself as a very lucky person, I have studied my demons, I’ve kept these ‘mental’ enemies close, I’ve developed some useful strategies that allow me some respite from the endless chatter.

Doing this has stretched me as a person, I’m far more insightful and compassionate.  I’ve developed a determination and strength that Thor would be proud of.  I have a love of the great outdoors, simply being out in the hills and glens helps me to sustain the burden of my demons but I felt a need to explore this area of self-care.  So I decided I wanted to be more capable in this environment so I could take full advantage of this beautiful landscape we have in Scotland.

So it was time to take a leap of faith and find someone to help me.

I contacted Andy Mallinson (Mountain Summits, www.mountainsummits.co.uk) After explaining my needs and difficulties we arranged to meet for a day on the hill.  To put it bluntly, I was crapping myself.  Every ‘comfort zone’ was pushed and stretched.  The first day was spent rekindling the essential navigation skills but more importantly it was spent talking, relaxing, thinking and daydreaming.  A spark of confidence in my long forgotten abilities came out of nowhere, by the end of the day I felt calmer.  I enjoyed myself and had fun, a real novelty.
Now, if there is anyone who ‘lives’ the mountains, then its Andy.  He has an encyclopaedic mind, the teaching he presents is natural and straightforward and his enthusiasm for his ‘subject’ is deeply infectious.  Best of all, he’s a fellow Yorkshire ‘man’ (sorry, Yorkshire ‘person’ just doesn’t sound right)

I felt I could express what I aspired too.  I explained that I felt at peace within mother nature’s arms.  However, I wanted to acquire the skills needed to feel confident and competent in her arms when she’s unforgiving, mischievous and angry.

As a result of our discussions Andy created the Mountain Summits Mountain Development Program (MDP).

A 15-day plan covering: –

Mountain Skills navigation, maps, reading the environment, weather and camping skills.

Rock Skills ropes, belay, protection, climbing skills, single and multi-pitch climbs, seconding and leading climbs.

Winter Skills winter equipment, winter navigation, snow and avalanche awareness, winter and ice climbing

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Each of my 15 days ticked all the right boxes:-

Informative

Fun

Memorable

Inspiring

Supportive

Enlightening

Educational

Exhilarating

Overwhelming

Absorbing

Happy

Challenging

Powerful

Perplexing
During my 15 days I’ve been over hills, crags, Munro’s, and Corbetts. Through corries, glens highlands and lowlands.  I’ve been up and across ridges, buttresses, beinns, cairns, carns, stobs, arétes and drumlins.

I’ve climbed, scrambled, jumped, walked, shuffled, yomped crawled and I have loved every nanosecond of it!

Each day I completed created more enthusiasm and motivation for the next.  My personal confidence and sense of ‘self’ began to developed both on and off the hill and my general attitude to life started to relax and soften.

I have discovered that rock climbing to be the ultimate demon deterrent.  The concentration required for organising the ropes, the protection and completing each move of the climb reduces the demons’ venom to a drip.  I don’t think they have a defence for this total focus, enjoyment and peace. Don’t tell the demons I said this but I think they might actually be learning to enjoy the respite…shush!!

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I have learnt masses of essential awareness and knowledge.  Being organised for the outdoors is the number one.  Wild camping is faff free, mountains days are sorted the day before, the rucksack is always full of the necessities and all of this is second nature now.  I find navigation and map skills genuinely fascinating and I find expanding my knowledge of this endless subject a real pleasure.  I’m reading and learning about the mountain environment, weather and ecology and then utilising this knowledge to make the many decisions when immersed in the mountain ‘world’ I love so much.

Who knows where this will take me in the future?
Now that I’m in possession of this enhanced skill set I’ve found I am more relax on the hill.  My mind finds a calmer ‘plane’ to function on.  I feel ‘lighter’ and more balanced (ha maybe not!!)  I’m learning to use this steadier state to filter out some of the damaging thoughts I have allowing me to think clearer.

The bitter truth is that my demons will NEVER leave me, my bad days will always be soul destroying.  The venom in my mind and the infected claws will forever cause me pain that is truly unexplainable in strength.

Yet, NOW I stand taller on my good days.  The feeling of comfort and security while oot and aboot is fuelling my strength and determination and I have an increased sense of empowerment for the ‘fight’ and for my life in general.

Robert Bryne said “the purpose of life is a life of purpose”.  My purpose on this earth has eluded me for countless years but now, having gone through the MPD, I have a spark in my tummy that feels ‘bright’ with potential that’s motivating me to continue my ‘mountain’ life.

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I feel completely at home in the wild-ness of Scotland.

The overwhelming power of mother nature is a true life force to me and fuels me in many ways and I have no doubt that without this I would have to sacrifice myself to my demons.
And so… 11 months after starting the MDP I am a confident, competent and skilled mountaineer.  I completed day 15 of the program on Saturday 4th March in epic style.  I lead the first assent of a multi-pitch grade 2 winter/ice climb on Creag a Choire Dhirich with Andy Mallinson.  We agreed on the name ‘Mocking Grouse’.
My life long appreciation has, obviously, got to go to Andy Mallinson.  I have much to thank him for.  The mountain development program is Andy’s creation. Andy presents himself in a way that is professional, friendly and welcoming.  At first glance the content of the MDP could be said to be universal but it’s the way Andy presents the content that makes the program unique.  His ‘teaching’ ability is adaptive, flexible yet completely natural.  I rarely find learning easy yet I feel that Andy conveyed all the required knowledge in some sort of cognitive osmosis which has certainly worked for me. Anyone can be a mountain guide, not many can be a mountain professor!  Now that I know him a wee bit better I believe that Andy’s enthusiasm and love for the mountains is truly at his core and I would hazard a guess that without the hills he would soon falter.

Andy, aka Coach M, Obi Wan, you have been and continue to be a true inspiration to me, your Young Padawan.

 

Vicky Bickerstaffe lives in Perthshire, in Scotland and has done for the past 8 years or so since moving from her native Yorkshire.

With a background  in fitness and health Vicky is now working part time and studying Degree in Psychology and Mental Health and currently developing green therapy projects.

Vicky has been  living with mental health issues for 25 years.