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.

 

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.

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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!

 

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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 )

The Pendulum

The Pendulum is swinging further and further from my passion

My life is usually taken up with work , gym, climbing and socialising but recently the house move I have mentioned in previous posts has been  dominant almost to the point of suffocation.

Life has  at times been a crushingly monotonous hamster wheel of packing boxes, moving boxes, building wardrobes and trying to shoehorn all our belonging into a smaller and unfamiliar environment. For my wife its also been an enormous task (which I think secretly she relishes) of cleaning and home making  and I’m so proud of the effort she puts into making us comfortable. We said goodbye to our beautiful home of 10 years a little over two weeks ago but really the move has been happening since late June and is only now coming close to and end.

Lately we’ve been enjoying time with each other exploring our new town, eating out, going for coffee and most recently I spent the weekend with friends at a music festival. No -one mentioned climbing or the gym – and I didn’t either.

 

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The Pendulum is swinging.

At first I was able to put missing the gym and climbing to one side, telling myself I’d be back soon. As time ticks on though its clear I’m swinging further way from this certainty. I tell myself a rest is good, socialising and being “normal” is good for us, we cant always be climbing or training or out in the mountains… but the words are getting hollower by the day.

The Pendulum is swinging further and further from my passion towards pedestrian pace urbanism and I don’t feel it slowing.

That my wife (and best friend) is with me of course softens the blow but I know from experience that the Pendulum is very real entity in my psyche and in my life and if I don’t stop the swing (and reverse it ) I can’t be certain of it ever returning me to my chosen life of health and well being based out in the mountains. I’ve not been at the indoor ice wall for months, climbing wall for weeks and the gym only once or twice in the last few weeks.

In the past the Pendulum has taken me on other life journey’s. I was for a time almost a permanent fixture in the weights room, training 5 or 6 times a week. Before that it was (briefly thanks goodness)  Golf – I had “all the gear and no idea“. For many  years before it was DJ’ing and producing music – and being a full time clubber.

 

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The Pendulum swings and my life follows, consumed,  leaving little room for other interests. How much control do I have over where it goes?

A Pendulum needs to swing or it stops in a no mans land of the “middle”. Not moving one way, or another. When it stops?

I’m not sure I want to find out about that.

Autumn will come and soon after Scottish Winter. The rubicon of the arc will come then.

The Pendulum is swinging.

Mental Mountains

Or rather, I’d been stuck for 30 years, forever perplexed by an apparently impossible series of crux moves on some distant soaring crag.

A post by Andrew Mallinson our resident expert and Mountain Guide

 

I suddenly realized I’d been stood stock still for nearly two hours. The digital figures of the central heating timing clock in the kitchen told me that. I was stuck, not knowing what to do next, like being on some desperately difficult rock climb. Only, I’d been stuck for three years. Or rather, I’d been stuck for 30 years, forever perplexed by an apparently impossible series of crux moves on some distant soaring crag.

 

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The word “stuck” is probably wrong actually. It implies being stationary…and I hadn’t been. I’d been going down, sliding down the inside of a black funnel. Stood in the kitchen that day I realised I had reached the funnel neck – you know, that bit where it gets narrow and heads straight down. I wondered, quite dispassionately and with increasing curiosity, what it would be like when I shot down the tube and the light went out….

As I have since realized whilst lost in the kitchen, the last residual vestige of my inner voice spoke. A connection with some apparently unrelated occurrence the previous day, someone from thirty years ago had made an electronic communication. I can’t remember who, probably a friend, once told me that an alcoholic heeds to reach the bottom in order to move forward. I was no alcoholic but I’d hit the bottom. I was dizzy as if I was drunk, but it was accompanied by tears. I needed to ask someone for help. Neurons connected with electronics.

Texts, emails, and finally tearful ‘phone calls opened my ears to myself, to my inner voice. Two ostensibly simple questions opened the floodgates…who was I born to be ?…..what is the life I was born to lead ? Finding the answers within, (now I was listening!), revealed what I had always known but was afraid to admit for thirty years, to either myself or those around me. Massive anger ensued on an unimaginable scale, occupying every conscious moment. How could I have just wasted all that time? What was the point in changing things at nearly fifty years of age, it was too late anyway? Anger, massive anger, directed at everyone and everything, but principally me.

I wake up in the mornings now, three months later, and look forward to every day, glad to be alive….literally. I am being me and gradually, step by step, beginning to live again the life I was born to lead. It’s not been easy, far from it. Deeply upsetting at times, the overwhelming anger was at one time consuming me. I still have the odd bad moment even now, but it is only a moment and they are increasingly few in number. Oh yes, and I’m increasingly happy again after thirty years of, at most, periods of contentment.

 

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So how did I manage to change? How did I manage to get to the great place I am now in? If I were to sum it up in in one word, it would be “belief”. Belief that it’s OK to be me and not what others wanted me to be or what I thought others wanted me to be. Belief that who I was born to be and the life I was born to lead were as valuable as any other life and just as good. Belief that everything would be OK. Belief that I could and should be happy, not for anyone else, but for me.

And where did I find my belief? It was within me, always was. I just needed help (don’t we all?) to crank up the volume on my inner voice to enable me to hear it again. My Guide, (rather like a mountain guide), She has seen me over and through the crux moves on the rock climb. I hear my own inner guide now as I head for the top – I will get there. Belief is everything. And happiness. The journey is worth it – do it…..do it now….

Andrew Mallinson is a mountain guide based in the Cairngorms, Scotland. For more information see http://www.mountainsummits.co.uk

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.

Dreams of Chamonix

I learned the hard way that we need to accept a few things in life.

While we did have a few days in February and loved that time we didn’t make it to Cham this summer like we did the last 2 years. Each June for those 2 years we’d spend a week under the expert guidance of James Thacker , well known Alpine Guide, awesome climber and altogether very good skier (broken ankle aside).

We gained so much in those  short sojourns in terms of skills, experience, and most invaluably; awareness of ourselves . We awed at the vista’s, struggled with the altitude, reveled in the nightlife and celebrated our achievements (pedestrian as they may seem to some).

Sitting in a bar in Cham , listening to our friends talk about their achievements, goals, failures and fears I also learned the hard way that we need to accept a few things in life.

There isn’t time to do everything.

We aren’t good at everything. Not everyone likes the same adventures. Unless you are a full-time alpinist you simply aren’t going to achieve everything you aspire to ( or maybe its about resetting my aspirations?).

And I learned , most agonisingly that – it’s ok for all that to be true.

We set such high expectations on ourselves and it can be a catalyst for others expecting a lot of us (in our minds anyway). That pressure can steal the fun.  Life is about balance . Mind, body and soul. We need a stop by the roadside sometimes to appreciate the view and remember why we are making the journey.

I didn’t make it to the alps  this summer and I truly miss it . But you know what. That’s ok.

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Photo copyright of James Thacker, Aguille d’Entreves