Surviving the Coronavirus!! What mountains have taught me
As I sit in quarantine pondering how life as we know it suddenly changed in what seemed like a blink of the eye, I think to myself-how the heck are we going to get through this? I realise that we all have different ways of dealing with adverse situations. And as I piece together the foggy reality of the past few weeks, I wonder how I can defrag the current reality of the Coronavirus pandemic into something more positive and less debilitating on my mind and soul. What can I share, not only with myself, but hopefully with other people out there to help ease their anxiety?
The answer might just be mountaineering!! But before I dive into philosophical mode and bore you with my ‘woe is me’ story, allow me to start at the beginning. Bare with me if you please. ( and that doesn’t mean run around the streets naked either) It is imperative that I include an introduction to create a prenuptial to the context of what mountaineering has taught me, and how I can use it to help deal with the Coronavirus pandemic. Hopefully it will all piece itself together in the conclusion of this article and leave you with some deeper wisdom on how we can get through this hectic situation the world has found itself in. And please remember, I am a mountaineer. I spend a, large portion of my life in the mountains. Having said that, you will notice that I do not make any reference to politics, social systems, news feeds and so forth. I have purely tried to give my advice on how to get through this pandemic from a more mindful perspective.
Why climb mountains?
I get asked this question all the time. Why do you climb mountains Darren? Why do you push your mental and physical boundaries so much? Why are you so intent on reaching the summits of frikken high mountains the world over? Answering these questions is not a simple thing that I can just blurt out instantly. And so, I have tried to find a few quicker ways to express this burning passion within my soul for mountaineering. A passion so strong that I quit my corporate job 10 years ago to pursue. And what a journey it has been!
Not only have I been continuously broken and humbled by the mountains I love so much, but I have also been blessed with priceless lessons that only mountaineering can give. I have come away with an altered sense of reality and perspective on myself, the world and the people I have climbed with. I have learnt the art of patience, perseverance and comradeship that only mountains can teach you. I had to totally forget about the person I was in the corporate world and reinvent myself. I basically had to adapt or die in the mountains. Yes, I had read many books on mountaineering and had acquired a smattering of knowledge on these deities of the natural world. But wisdom is nothing without the experience. And so, began the baptism of fire on the mountains of the world. Nearly 15 years down the line and still going strong. I have since been involved in multiple expeditions to many mountains in the world from the Himalayas, Andes, Russia and Kilimanjaro and the humble Drakensberg here in South Africa.
I have spent many a day in temperatures of -30-degree Celsius with winds blasting up to 100 km/hr. I’ve been on treacherous slopes filled with avalanches and crevasses. I’ve been at extreme altitude so high that each of your step requires you to take ten breaths. And trust me, as a seasoned mountaineer, on every mountain I have been in the world, I get haunted with the thought- ‘Why the heck do I do this?’ I could be chilling on a tropical beach somewhere or losing my temper on the golf course instead. And you know what? The answer always comes back to me. The answer I seek may not necessarily be on the mountain, but in retrospect, a few weeks later, the answer dutifully comes. (usually over a few beers with mates) Mountaineering is rewarding!
Adapt and press forward
Every moment spent on a high-altitude mountain grows on you so that you are forced to continuously adapt and press forward, never giving up, faced with the world’s greatest natural challenges of standing on the highest point of your existence. Mountaineering is inspiring, because it is the sport where you are challenged to risk everything, in essence your life, to endure adversity for a goal or a dream which only exist in your mind and is of significance to you only.
WHAT IS HIGH ALTITUDE CLIMBING / MOUNTAINEERING ALL ABOUT?
Mountaineering, especially to the higher alpine peaks used to be exclusively reserved for the crazy or elite. And I am not crazy-just ask my toaster. A lot of people refrained from participating in the sport thinking it irresponsible. We disagree. It is a sport that tests the human spirit like no other. The pain, headaches, the lack of oxygen at altitude, the deprivation of sleep, getting stuck in a snowstorm on a precarious ledge, and the bone numbing cold that one is forced to endure is compensated by the goal. Now this is the incredible thing about mountaineering. All these perceived negative factors are absorbed by the climber’s determination to make it to the summit. A climber escapes any thoughts of his future or past and steps into the moment. The corrosive emotion of fear is substituted with the ignition of your primal instincts of survival. Keep warm. Stay Hydrated. Focus on every step. Every movement.
Mountaineers walk a delicate line between life and death. High on a mountain you literally have one foot in the living and one foot in the dying. There is no-one coming to fetch you. No sweeping vehicle to help you. If you decide to sit down in the snow, you will die. And strangely enough, being that close to death ignites this incredible and addictive feeling of aliveness. Hard to explain I know….. you will know what I mean the next time you are standing on a high-altitude mountain whether it be in the Himalayas, the Andes or even Kilimanjaro. On mountains, climbers are forced to endure great adversity with severe consequences where the balance between how much you are enjoying it with your misery is all dependent on the relative perception of the individual.
It’s not the mountain we conquer, its ourselves
As a mountaineer we not only have to keep each other alive but also become psychologists and motivators. Surges of discomfort and negativity must be thrust aside to keep focused. And we have learnt the many ways of aiding this process. Sometimes it comes in the form of my bad jokes or even a delicate play on a climber’s ego or inability to endure. Stirring up emotions is always going to be a great motivator in the mountains. Sir Edmund Hillary had a saying-“ Its not the mountain we conquer, it ourselves”. And that is what mountaineering boils down to. Climbers look up at a kick ass mountain with fear, and on their terms….not fears terms, make that choice to take the first step upwards towards conquering themselves.
We reach the top of the mountain and scream in triumph, knowing that something fundamental has changed inside of us. Yes, there might have been a tear or two, but guess what? The climb taught us this: All our doubts, fears and uncertainties are left behind. They are left back there on the summit, rapidly evaporating like our footprints. All our imagined horrors have dissipated, leaving a new, more positive reality in their place.”
THE TRUE REWARD OF MOUNTAINEERING
So, as the years rolled by, my hair got whiter, my jokes got worse and the more mountains I climbed, the more I realized that mountaineering is all about perseverance, perspective, patience and dedication. Is mountaineering all about getting to the summit? Or is it all about the journey? Let’s face it. Mountains are dangerous and volatile places. And every person who sets foot on them has to accept the “terms and conditions’ of these solid Sentinels of another reality. Even though we know the dangers, there is something inside of our soul that compels us to overcome the fear and achieve our set goal of reaching the summit. Doesn’t make logical sense does it? Or does it?
Emotion is stronger than logic
Humans are naturally drawn towards challenges greater than ourselves. This is how we grow. This is how we get perspective. Though pain and suffering. Something that mountains give us. But is that not what life itself is all about? Going through moments of misery and suffering with the thought of never giving up-to endure and keep our focus on the goal, whether it is the wellbeing of your family, a new house or conquering the Coronavirus. And that is where perseverance comes in. Perseverance is the state of mind following that urge to challenge one’s own fears. But of course, we also need to realistic. Emotion is stronger than logic. Your urge to actually survive and come back alive is an equally important factor. So, what does that mean to us ego driven, puffed up mountaineers? We need to take a step backwards and be totally honest with ourselves-a realm that few dares enter for fear of what they may find hey? But a path that indeed needs to trodden. A famous mountaineer called Ed Viesturs had a saying, “Getting the top is mandatory, getting down is compulsory” What are your limits? Swallow your pride and ego on a mountain and make responsible choices. And that is probably the most important aspect to surviving on a mountain from a mountaineer’s perspective. We need to be the logic when emotions cloud judgement. Maybe the logic today is stay at home and not to roam the streets. Or maybe the logic is help others in this difficult time.
Mountain emotions vs Corona Virus Emotions
As the world is gripped by the relentless strangle of the Coronavirus, many people are undoubtably going through a variety of emotions. The unpredictable future is something humans naturally struggle with. There is an incredible amount of fear in the world at the moment. Will I die from Coronavirus? What about the economy? Will the world get through this? But what exactly is fear? Having climbed many mountains and been in some really hectic situations, there has been many occasions when I have looked fear unwillingly in the face. But the fear us humans now face is not a relentless drop into the abyss of a seemingly endless crevasse, a thundering avalanche or a nauseating icy precipice. The fear has taken on a different name-Coronavirus.
What is fear?
Let’s start by analysing what exactly fear is? Is fear not something that exists in our imagination? Without our imagination, without the ability to see our place in the future, to work out the consequence of a particular event in all its gruesome detail, we would be quite fearless. I suppose that is why serious violent accidents, such as car crashes, avalanches, and crazy falls while climbing are frequently described as not frightening while actually taking place. It’s the fear of what might happen that really gets you all worked up. Let me take climbing a big ass mountain for example. There have been many times when the fear of slipping down an icy ridge consumes the small confines of my mind. The corrosive emotion gnaws away at the fabric of my soul and leaves me in a state of virtual panic. However,…. when the inevitable fall does come it is not as bad as you think. It’s as if so much is happening to you, so much information is rushing into your mind that you have no time to imagine what the outcome might be. Things seem to happen in slow motion, as if the speed at which your mind is operating is affecting your perception of time. The future is simply a matter of fact, an emotionless reality – you will be dead – and that is that. Only the present, what is happening to you at this very instant, concerns you. Because of this, you are unable to extrapolate what the future will be like as a result of what is happening to you now. All you can do is to experience the present, nothing more. Deprived of the ability to imagine the future, you are fearless; suddenly there is nothing to be scared about. You have no time to ponder on death’s significance or fear what it may feel like. In the cataclysmic violence of the fall you lose not only the future but the past as well. You lose all possible reasons for fear, unable as you are.
This may seem a tad dramatic or ludicrous I know. And you are more than welcome to tear my thinking apart. In fact, we have a direct complaints line if you would like to voice your opinion. Please forward any complaints to 保持自我@wedontcare.com. And what the hell has this got to do with surviving this Coronavirus pandemic anyway? I don’t know. Maybe I’ve been on the mountains too long. But what I do reckon is that people are spending too much time feeding their imagination through sources like Facebook and the internet and allowing themselves to be drawn into the fear of the worst possible outcomes. Me included. On mountains, once the avalanche hits, which it most definitely has with the Coronavirus, mountaineers move into the moment and deal with what is. As easy as it is to say, maybe it’s time for society to move into the moment and try reducing the anxiety gaps by not thinking of the future. Again, I include myself in this thinking.
How my fears have shifted
As a mountaineer and the owner of a travel business in South Africa, my whole existence, as with many thousands of other people, has come crashing down around me. My fears of avalanches, snowstorms and surviving a treacherous summit ridge have been replaced with the fears of a different and unfamiliar kind. How will my business survive? How will I afford to pay rent? How will I be able to look after my family. How will I afford medical aid? How will poor people survive? STOP!!!! As frikken hard as it is too deal with, we still have perspective, don’t we? If I look back on my life, from both a mountain and personal experience, I can most definitely say I have perspective to fall back on. What is the definition of perspective? Perspective is the thing that in the face of unwanted circumstances allows us to say, “It’s been worse,” or, “It could be worse.” In that moment, we’ve asserted mental dominance over the perceived oppressor, whether it be an icy summit ridge or the Coronavirus. Now please calm down sunshine. I’m not playing down the severity of the situation the world finds itself in right now. Yes, this a hectic situation. But there is always perspective. From my perspective, I have already been through the scenario of losing everything and having to build myself up from nothing. And once again I find myself facing the same scenario. And does it scare me? Yes!! More than any situation I could find myself in on the mountain. However. I have the fortunate weapon of perspective and hindsight to get me through the challenges ahead. Yes, it will be frikken challenging but things always sort themselves out. From the world’s perspective, look at our past. Two world wars, Spanish Flu, genocide…..and the list goes on. We may have to take a few steps backwards but we will eventually go forward.
My favourite saying in the mountains is this: ‘adversity introduces a man to himself’. And boy have I been introduced to myself on many an occasion. And once again, I face myself. But the icy ridges of a mountain have been replaced with the more ominous reality of the Coronavirus and the impact it will have on not only my life but many around me.
Coping with Hard times
Hard times can mean different things to different people. And coping with difficult times is never easy. But as the old saying goes- ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Each time you endure a difficult time in your life, you build personal character. And it is this character that will carry you through this pandemic.
Character matters during tough times. When you are able to step back and look at a situation, you can form more rational thoughts. You’ll know that what you are feeling is temporary. Tomorrow you will feel a little better, and the day after that, and the day after that. Each time you live another day, you become one day further from the painful event and one day closer to a mor positive reality
The role of pain
Pain is a part of life, and that pain helps you grow into a more well-rounded and mature individual who is more capable of handling the ups and downs in life. But getting through that pain is all about mindset, and it is about choice. You can choose to wallow in an extended period of grief or despair, or you can choose to allow yourself to do that for a short, or specified, time and then move ahead with your life. The important thing is to give yourself the time to work through your normal human emotions without getting too stuck in any one phase of grief or loss.
The world is going through a difficult time. In fact, 80% of the world are going through a tough time at the moment. When enduring a difficult time in your life, it’s important to acknowledge and accept that you can’t control everything. A mountaineer cannot control a snowstorm. You can’t control the economy. A mountaineer cannot control an avalanche. You cannot control another person’s health. And you cannot control what impact the Coronavirus has on the world.
What you can control is your reaction to the situation. While it’s completely acceptable and normal to go through the emotions this Coronavirus has instilled, at some point you’ll need to look ahead and focus on the positive. Do your part.Help others. Be positive.
Another part of the process is to take inventory of the good things in your life. There is always, always something to be thankful for. I have many stories of gratitude in the mountains. A warm sleeping bag in -30 for example. An ice axe when you find yourself soaring down an icy precipice to an ultimate death. So, what are you grateful for? Are you thankful for other people in your life, for someone else’s success or for your own health? Or perhaps you can start with something simple. You can be thankful for the beautiful sunrise, for the bird singing outside your window or a delicious meal. Taking stock of the smaller things in life can help you get through the tough times
Having the endurance to fail
If you look at the success rate of reaching the summit of a mountain, most mountaineers do not reach the summit on their first attempt. Especially high-altitude mountains where the risk and other factors like bad weather, snowstorms and the effects of altitude come into play. Jim Collins, the author of the bestsellers Built to Last and Good to Great, came up with an incredible concept that he describes as ‘fallure’ and not failure. A brilliant metaphor that describes the conscious decision a climber makes to ‘fall’ on a route that he realizes he cannot climb. And by falling, I mean the conscious decision to turn around and not climb higher. And all climbers know that falling feeling and how unpleasant it can be. In fact, some of the best lessons I have learnt in life are from the mountains where I had to turn around. It took me sometimes months to comprehend the significance of my ‘fallure’. I had to go through periods of anger, ‘what if’ and self-loathing for giving up.
Although we sometimes do not make the summit, we still push ourselves to our ultimate limit. We made that commitment to climb despite the odds. As long as you take that ultimate focused and aggressive step into the unknown and what it may throw at you, getting blown of the mountain is okay despite what your bruised ego and pride might be yelling at you.
Now take this analogy and transform it into how we handle this Coronavirus pandemic. All of us need to be focused and aggressive in our approach to dealing with this virus!! Something that will take commitment and dedication with the realization that we may indeed ‘fall of the mountain’ But is that not what life is all about? Managing risks and accepting uncertainty? And what if we ‘fall’ off? We accept and carry on. The lessons learnt will be invaluable for future plans and successes in conquering the virus.
The concept of ‘compounding’ failures and the ultimate ‘compounding’ of wisdom and experience is part of the process. Being focused and aggressive in your approach is way better than the timid and unsure approach.
So we you have it. My 2 cents worth on how mountaineering could help you get reality check on this Coronavirus pandemic. I truly hope it gives you some sort help on how to deal with this challenge we all face the world over.