Updated: Nov 7, 2018
5 Things I Learnt With Less Oxygen
What me? Walk up a mountain? You have to be kidding! I don’t walk up anything. In fact, I actively avoid it. If there is an escalator or a lift… I’m on or in it. It’s one of the many joys of skiing, getting on a moving chair that effortlessly takes you up the mountain. There’s no need to even bend down and take off your skis!
So when my better half suggested the Rocky Mountains might be the destination to celebrate my 40th Birthday, I honestly thought it was a big joke and a pair of tickets to the Maldives would soon materialise. This never happened.
So there we were, booked on a flight that left in six months to Jackson Hole in Wyoming to climb The Grand Teton. A 14,000 foot imposing pointy peak known simply by locals as ‘The Grand’. The air is so thin you have to think about your breathe every step. And more than this, it involves ropes and climbing – a far cry from an indoor climbing wall I once visited on a hen party in North London.
So I had a choice… blag my way and hope I make it, or take a giant leap, get fit and give myself the best chance possible. Fear more than ambition made my decision for me. And in February, I dusted off my running trainers and went out into the cold to take my first step into the unknown. Little did I know that I was about to do something that would change my life forever.
The lessons I have learnt were so profound that they changed and influenced my everyday life, especially in my work:
1. Never underestimate the power of a scary goal – I had no clue I could actually do it. In fact, every bone in my body was telling me I was being ridiculous. Unless I had set myself this challenge, booked the flight and bought myself a journal to write it down, I would still be sat here thinking “I don’t do mountains”. Interestingly when I got home I suddenly felt a little empty, I didn’t have that one thing driving me and giving me focus. I had nothing to write down my progress against and keep me moving.
2. The first step is what counts most - Just put one foot in front of the other. Don’t over think it. You can talk yourself out of anything. In fact, the more I thought about not wanting to go outside for a run in the rain, the more I physically felt tired. I worked out that if I just pretended I was going for a walk and nothing more – it was all fine. Mindset is key.
3. Learn how to eat elephants - Our climbing guide Joe Kauffman first question was ‘How do you eat an Elephant?’ What an odd thing to say. What he meant is that you could never do it all in one go. Any big challenge is the same. You would tackle it bit by bit and he was right. If I focused only on reaching the summit, I’m not sure I would have made it. So I kept just thinking I need to walk for the next hour. This didn’t feel so painful, or unachievable. We can often be daunted by a big goal just because it feels scary, when actually, piece by piece is much easier and manageable.
4. Physical activity is actually food for the soul – I realised that my mental wellbeing had never been better. I felt smug in the morning; my clarity of thought was 10 times better and I felt less emotional and frustrated by small stuff at work. What was even more interesting, is that I actually felt more tired doing less. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I will ever enjoy the actual act of getting out of bed early and going for a run, but the after effects are worth it 100%. I also found my rest days even more like a treat.
5. Clean air = clear thinking - Everyone should get up high, pressure breaths are a life lesson. It is something I continue to do even at ground level. Take the deepest breath possible and blow out as quickly as you can, as if you were blowing out a candle. The air may be thinner as you go up, but the views are just indescribable. It teaches you that all those things you worried about don’t actually matter. And as my phone ran out of battery, I didn’t feel a need to take photos or check my Instagram. I was living in it. The pure air fuelled my creativity and gave a fresh perspective and ideas. Suddenly everything became crystal clear. Life was a little slower and still tough, but things were calmer. Then when I did return to ground level, it made me look around and feel humble and appreciate everything I had, especially hot showers and flushing loos!
From that grey day in February all the way through to approaching what felt like the top of the world on the 4,000 metre summit, I never knew if I would actually make it. I wept like a baby at the top as we all hugged each other. I’m not sure if these were tears of relief or amazement that I had only blumin’ gone and done it!
“NEVER AGAIN” I distinctly remember shouting. When we arrived back at ground level and sat with a beer staring up at the massive mountain we had just conquered, we blinked in disbelief. An older American lady then sat next to us and asked what we had been doing whilst our ‘men’ had climbed The Grand. I couldn’t hide my smile.
Never again!?... But something inside me had changed and life would never be the same again.
We leave for Everest Basecamp next month.