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.




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.



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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


Getting the blues

All of it supporting the motto I live and coach by which is “you have to leave your comfort zone , because outside of it is where the magic happens”.

You might remember, if you follow my blog that Sam (Mrs McLovinMountains) and I recently learned to ski and had headed out a month or so ago to Les houches nr. Chamonix for a few days  of slipping and sliding.


We headed back this week after the lack of Scottish winter climbing or skiing options drove me back to the web and Air BnB in desperation and desire get back on it.

This time we left the comfortable familiarity if Les Houches to join friends Menna and Steve in the more extensive slopes of Contamines. With many more runs, longer pistes and steeper, more challenging blues we certainly had to “face the fear and do it anyway” .

Tough? yes, scary ? At times hell yeah but overall  fun , exciting and it certainly pushed our skills up !


Followed by a days incredible and invigorating climbing on Cosmiques aréte (see  “Friends in high places“) then a day back in Les Houches bombing around easy greens at speed and the more pedestrian and shorter blues with ease it turned out to be a great example of Type 2 fun.. the type that can be scary at the time but afterwards you look back on as awesome and rewarding. (As opposed to type 1 – simple.pleasures like sex, good food or the cinema or the terror and never doing it again of Type 3)

One fundamental lesson that climbing and mountaineering have taught me is to progress, to really grow – to live really you need to do things that stress you (just a little), frighten you (just a little) and challenge your norms, whether it be physical, mental or spiritual.

If you have ever learned to drive you will know that feeling. In the beginning its all new and scary but son it becomes the new normal. We don’t learn and grow as people by repeating the things we already know and are utterly confident and comfortable with – or we’d all still be wearing nappies, eating rusk and living with our parents.

I don’t expect to be on the reds any time too soon, but I know I will at some point and  the smiles say it all.


All of it supporting the motto I live (and coach) by which is “you have to leave your comfort zone , because outside of it is where the magic happens“.

comfort zone

Already I feel my motivation for climbing, training & challenging myself returning. Trepidation about the Mitt ridge has turned to excitement, planning now taking over in my mind rather than doubt.

Onward and upwards , the pendulum back squarely where it belongs.

Rising Up for opportunity was lucky enough to be asked to help out at the Urban Uprising event hosted by the TCA (The Climbing Academy) in Glasgow this weekend. was lucky enough to be asked to help out at the Urban Uprising event hosted by the TCA (The Climbing Academy) in Glasgow this weekend.

This day (and night) long event included a bouldering comp (amazing route crushing btw from ALL competitors and ages!) lectures/talks by Niall McNair and none other than the climbing “machine”  that is Dave MacLeod , raffles of some awesome gear and a bar offering a unique range of craft beer from TopOut Brewery.. all topped off with banging tunes later in town (I didn’t make that bit sadly!)


For those (including me until now ) who don’t know what Urban Uprising is,  we will have a more in-depth look in a future post but in brief it started to support an already up and running outreach program to help gang kids find a new focus by getting into climbing , based in the heart of a Rio Di Janeiro favela it offered a rare opportunity to escape the drugs, violence and downward spiral that is almost impossible to avoid in a sprawling unofficial town of an estimated  150,000 souls  packed into a valley  at the foot of Sugarloaf mountain .


Urban Uprising exists to raise both awareness and much-needed  funds for this Rio based program but also outreach initiatives closer to home and is now opening doors to kids in areas like Ayrshire ,Glasgow and soon to  Edinburgh,  which despite their affluence in city centre and leafy suburbs still retain areas that sorely need our support if people are ever to escape generational poverty and the other social challenges that follow it.

Police patrolling a favela, in a tank

More than just teaching kids how to climb it offers a window to a world of community, comradeship, trust, personal challenge and success, and structure that many sadly don’t have today. For many of us our comparative comfort and financial more stable background means we can head to a wall, or buy gear or go travelling to climb with ease, where for many this would be a pipe dream or put you at risk of being shot by a gang.

Urban uprising aims to change that.

The day kicked off with a multi class comp with kids under 7 right up to the vets category (more my sort of age! ) and everything in between. The climbing was incredible, routes deviously challenging and we witnessed some true grit as people dug deep even with seconds to go to send the final routes.



Prizes were donated by some big brands like Scarpa, BlackDiamond, Sidetracked magazine and Szent chalk. The outdoor retailer Ellis Brigham were also a key prize contributor.

Now that the climbing was done it was time for the lectures, so after us setting up the sounds and screen (my job for the day) the guest speakers got down to business.

Niall McNair, ambassador for UU opened with a very engaging visual  insight into how the project came around, the challenges faced by the Favela daily, a  tour of climbing on Sugarloaf mountain and the work Urban Uprising has been doing  which educated  and stupefied many of us who didn’t have the deep awareness of the harsh reality of life in these modern-day slums. (Think police using tanks for patrols due to risk of gun violence on a daily basis!). By the end I know everyone was pretty blown away and sees that the opening of opportunities that UU brings to a local community is unquestionable.


Niall Mcnair, Urban Uprising ambassador


After a short but exciting raffle ( my better half won a harness but as the true superstar she is swapped it for a case of TopOut ale – taste review to follow!) it was time for Dave to take to the floor.

Dave MacLeod is well-known for incredible climbing both on trad (think Rhapsody E11 7a – possibly the hardest trad route ever)  and Scottish Winter/mixed  with many first ascents to his name at eye watering grades (The Hurting XI,11 and Anubis XII, 12) but is perhaps less well-known at bouldering, despite his incredible skills!

He took us on a journey more about mentality and his approach to climbing, than how to crimp and hook, the anti logic he came to apply to his training and diet, and how his sheer stubbornness pushed him beyond what he felt his climbing skills should have allowed (his words not mine). With some glorious video footage we saw him climbing in Patagonia (new route on the Fitzroy range) and  his successful attempt at the F8c of Practice of the Wild at Magic Wood solidifying this 37 year olds place in the climbing polymath hall of fame.

Dave speaking about how the science doesnt always know best

All of these feats coming from a place not always as positive as I certainly aim for mentally before any climbing.

And this was the crux of his talk.

Dont always assume the science and common wisdom is right, for you. If it works for you, if it feels right the  try it. maybe its a new training technique, diet or just attitude. Dont always feel if you arent 100% positive you can’t climb, maybe it’s that doubt that drives you.

I term it anti logic and it certainly has me thinking. I have used a bad mental place as a reson not to push a grade or get off my butt and do a route, I’ve not gone to the wall because I don’t feel fit , and its an excuse.

Just because the crowd think says do this , do that… – maybe do something else!

By the end of the evening everyone was completely enthralled and I certainly left the event both totally stoked to go climb but also very humbled by the work Urban Uprising are doing.

And of course I enjoyed watching some great climbing !

Look out for more on Urban Uprising to come in a future blog but to find out  more now and to donate (get your hand in your paypal pocket folks ! ) go see Urban Uprising


Get a plan.

A goal. They say a goal without a plan is just a dream.

For any regular readers its been clear I have been finding that my motivation, drive and energy for Mountain related activity has been somewhat dampened by very human realities of house moves, work and having fun in more traditional adult ways like eating out and enjoying beer gardens and bars.

My previous piece “The Pendulum” verbalised  my very real and constant fear of losing love of the mountains permanently.

They say admitting the  problem is the first step in solving the problem.

They say it for a reason. It’s true.

I was touched by the number of people both personally close and on social media who expressed both appreciation of the writing but more intimately their concern for my mental malaise. One in fact even noted it was ironic that it was this deep concern that made him feel it was my most powerful piece yet.

Admitting the problem is the first step. But whats the next?

A goal. They say a goal without a plan is just a dream.

So I got a plan.

Not long after my post I was contacted by a good winter climbing buddy Steve Dunne who mentioned to both myself and another close mountain partner Davy Wright that he was thinking about doing something challenging in Spring 2017 and do we want to team up.

Within 10 minutes and once the  discussion turned to the main objective and the plan I was back –  full tilt , my mind running at pace, thoughts of ice and snow, of gear, of that delicious alpine mix of excitement and fear that only mountain climbers can understand.


While I will be sharing details of the plan over the coming months already I am back in the gym working my body hard, my diet has focused again on being strong and light, I’ve been out on the dust magnet that was my mountain bike , I’ve started reviewing kit, booking accommodation, discussing routes on forums and have a very real spring in my step.

I got a plan!

That halo of happiness is clear, I’m more motivated at work, more relaxed at home and being nicer to those who matter. Cue booking a romantic weekend for my wedding anniversary! I’ve dropped that lazy fat , can already see the climbing machine re-emerge.

The Pendulum is back to its correct position in the arc and I am working hard to prepare for May. Its a long way off so just to keep it swinging I’ve already booked the CIC hut at the base of Ben Nevis’ north face for 2 days of the unique experience that only a Scottish Winter climbing trip  can offer!

So it appears for me the process is Admit the problem, get a goal, make a plan and dial it all in.

Alpine spring here I come , you better be ready!


Oh an PS.

Plans are made to be changed – and that’s all part of the fun. Like all the best road trips , you might deviate and take in some new scenery along the way but you need to start in the right direction. Have a plan. Stick to it. And if you cant – make a new plan!



Photos are , in Order

Climbers on the Midi Ridge, Mont Blanc Massif

Steve Dunne Traversing Alladins , Cairngorms

Alan McIntosh, Boomerang Gully Glencoe (Credit John Gupta, Mountain Expedition )

Man up

Keep going.
Its not hard , come on!

Keep going.
Its not hard , come on!
You should be able to run up this.
Stop being pathetic its just a hill!

This is what I hear when I’m struggling on a climb or a hill or even in the gym. It’s not my voice. It’s my dad’s.

Man up.

As its father’s day I decided to post a short piece about my dad – Derek – who passed away very suddenly a few short  years ago.

To say it all boils down to these things I hear him say is of course totally inadequate, and ludicrous if you knew the man we all loved who was in equal parts the soul of the party and old school gentleman.

When I say I hear these words its not with derision, but a rueful smile he will always be remembered for.

Like my grandfather before him he worked extremely hard, he expected the same of others and he entrusted the responsibility of the household to me as a young boy without siblings when heading off to work away from home.

I like to think I have adopted his gentlemanly expectations. I have manners, I work hard , I respect others . And now that I’ve found the mountains I’m happy to know I’m making him proud in my physical achievements.

On our summer holidays we would head north and spend time in the highlands and only looking back now do I realise how much he loved getting outdoors i was privileged in the true sense to experience it with him.

He’s with me on my mountains now and I raise a glass of Speyside whisky tonight to him.

Man up.