The psychology of climbing a mountain - Part One

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Last autumn a good friend of ours, Kim (a Clinical Psychologist), was part of a 14-member group that set out on a 30-day trip into the Himalayas. The itinerary included an attempt to summit Mera Peak (6,476m), a cross over the Amphu Labtsa pass (5,780m), and final summit of Island Peak (6,189m). This two-part article captures Kim’s observations of the traits and techniques that characterised this group’s journey. These ideas are applicable to all aspects of endurance sport and may be applied to your performance-related goals. 

 1)   Focus on the journey not the summit. Beginning our mountain expedition with an acclimatisation trek through a dark and damp forest seemed to challenge our group; we longed to leave the leeches and rush to the glory of the glacier. However, this was the journey and just as important as the time spent climbing higher up. Unbeknown to us, this time was our training and an important time to rehearse the psychological skills that would condition us for summit day. Patience, perseverance, and positivity were needed to survive both ends of the physical spectrum from a monotonous rest day to a strenuous summit push.   

2)   Keep your mind in the present. Long days spent walking in silence can give your mind the opportunity to jump ahead of itself. This was most evident when thoughts became preoccupied with summit day. How cold would it be? Would the weather allow us access? Did we each have the strength? We had a long way to go and we could not know what lay ahead waiting for us. It seemed most helpful for our group to break things down and focus on one task at a time. This way objectives could be overcome hour-by-hour, day-by-day, and with small victories came greater confidence. 

3)   Be a team player. At times, it was difficult for us to stay connected as a team; individuals had their own ideas about how we should be progressing which led to a wish to separate from the shared needs of the team. However, it was vital to remember that we were part of a bigger picture. This consisted of the UK-based expedition team who had meticulously planned our itinerary and acclimatisation; our mountain leader; and the Sherpas, porters and kitchen staff who made it possible for us to even spend one night on the mountain. Although it was necessary for each of us at times to withdraw inwards and find the personal resources to withstand the hard times, we existed within a networkand were stronger because of it. It takes courage to let your team and your leader truly know you, and for you to come to know them; but in doing so, the connection you build will give you a deeper understanding of what the other needs from you. 

4)   Keep an open mind. It became an emerging pattern that predetermined expectations, rituals and routines could interfere with flexible adaptation to the situation at hand. The weather will not always conform to forecasts, favourite socks will not always dry, and available food may not always be to your taste. Be prepared, but also be prepared for those plans to change. 

In Part Two, Kim will explore detachment, finding humour and how to capitalise on it.