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 )