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.


Climbing the walls

Do you want to be a rock climber?

Its been a strange few weeks and months on the climbing front.

From sheer excitement and confidence of Ice climbing in the alps in March and the successes of Scottish winter in the Cairngorm’s (my first Grade IV lead) to a time of disruption and frustration as we pack up to begin a house move and a regression of my climbing skills.

I’m not a great climber. In outdoor rock terms I’m not even a good climber but i was getting better.

We were “crushing” it on the indoor walls, running up our local indoor ice walls like an axe carrying Spiderman and in the Alpine wonderland around Cogne and Chamonix we were in our element – but when I headed to the lakes for a weekend of camping and rock climbing with a friend something went wrong.

I’ve learned climbing is definitely a mental game and eve mild disruptions to my mental state, any negativity, stress or in this case (mild) hangover just ruins my climbing – I just get the fear!

And for me its a snowball effect, negative or positive.

My climbing partner Davy Wright and I had a cracking 2 days at the Great langdale campsite, among other things testing stoves, camping food and a new superlight one man tent he had been sent , we had great weather, a superb pitch with a view of the crag and the pub was only a short walk away – Nirvana!


The climbing however was more challenging. We started off up Evening Wall S 4a which while a bit tricky was fairly straightforward and I was feeling ok. Davy leading we made it up to around half way and then the going got a bit harder. I’m watching Davy lead off and the  reach an overhanging , blocky crux . A stronger climber than me he seemed to be finding it a bit tricky and while I belayed I could feel my stress levels rising. He may be able to make it but can I follow? Finally he seemed to move past it with a straddling move that frankly made me feel sick at the thought of repeating.

I moved off, moving well then got stuck on a vertical section with no obvious way forward. After frankly a ridiculous amount of time and faffing I moved right and moved up to pass the blockage.

Stressed and a little shaky from adrenaline , my hangover’s  dull itch at the back of my head and throat I arrived at the move Davy had finally made.

Before I even arrived at it i had checked out. I know that.

I am aware of how defeatist that is, but it’s reality.

I had already decided I couldn’t do it so found umpteen ways to agree with myself .” Its overhanging, its all negative, there are no holds, its sloping the wrong way, its all blocky and I don’t grip well on blocks“… I could go on.

I’m embarrassed to say I gave up and had to lower off -not an easy task for Davy who had to find a belay , set up an ab and rap off as well and then together we had to climb the hill to retrieve the gear.

He was great, no judgement – “every day at the crag is fun no matter what” – but i knew it was less that great. And I knew it was my inability to manage my head , not my ability to climb that had let us down. I was relieved to be on the ground but angry at my weakness.

Turns out we had veered onto a VS crux  (Odin) in error so I don’t feel so bad but the issue was still there.


Fast forward to a local crag and again fear took hold. One move taking me far too long and my lack of confidence limiting the routes.


Pull back, climb lower and confidently, repeat, build more confidence, celebrate every little success, accept we have off days, ask what I actually expect to achieve, is that realistic?, do I even want to climb at higher grades?

Once again another great friend and guide , Andy Mallinson helped my with a great coaching question – “do you want to be a rock climber”?

Answer – actually… not primarily, no.

Mountaineer and winter/ice climber, yes.Rock?- yes for fun but I’m never going to Dave Macleod and  you know what? – that’s ok!

Then house moves and packing up belonging took over. A few weeks pass and training takes a a hit, diet goes out the window – I feel weak, out of shape, angry at my self. Then finally  we get back in the gym, get our diet back in check and hit the Indoor wall at Ratho to spend a day “just seeing how it goes”.  No pressure.

Result? A superb days  climbing, easily making my usual 5+ grade, doing well at 6a. Feeling confident, feeling happy – enjoying it . And when did the climbing actually start? The week before – in the gym, in the diet, talking about it, planning for it , treating it as fun not a goal.

My heads back in the game but with different expectations and some more realistic goals that I am more happy to accept. At some point you have to do it for fun , not to hit a goal otherwise you’re going to find yourself  at home, frustrated and  climbing the walls.