Aug 31, 2015

The People You Meet Along the Way: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” Wise words by American author Jack Canfield. The meaning of these words had been playing in my mind over the past three months since the Nepal earthquake. When the earthquake struck on April 25th, 2015, my climbing Sherpa Lhakpa and I felt its terrifying force as frozen tsunami-like waves rolled under our feet and sent us sprawling across the glacier while avalanches tumbled down around our 6,000m perch in the high Himalaya. At the time of the earthquake, we were enroute to Camp 1 on a mountain called Shishapangma, the 14th highest in the world. 

I hadn’t fully appreciated how much the earthquake its 250-plus aftershocks had affected me until I returned back to the UK in early June. I realized how constantly ‘on edge’ I’d been during those 5 weeks in Nepal after the quake. Old habits die hard. Despite being on significantly more stable bedrock of the UK, I continued to sleep with the door open to facilitate a ‘quick exit’ from my flat and felt imagined aftershocks on an almost daily basis... Even the dull rumbling of the London Underground deep under my flat would send my pulse racing. In a room or building I’d always look for the nearest exit... 

Exhausting hypervigilance.

Wouldn’t it be nice’, I often wondered, ‘if we received an email or a text message before an earthquake arrived…’ 

For me, life has now returned to ‘normal’ and hypervigiliance has been dialed down. But ever since my return from Nepal I’ve wondered, would I still be ok in the mountains? Those who know me well and understand my passion for mountains and mountaineering, will understand how this ‘fear’ has gnawed at my emotions and the longer term impact its had on my personal ambitions. This gnawing fear became subtle undercurrent, a controlling force, a domino effect that continued to grow and gnaw at my rational, intelligent thinking self and stopped me from pursuing two of my passions – planning to climb and climbing itself. 

My friend Nick House and alpinist and guide Jon Bracey helped to break the ice last weekend. Back in March, pre-earthquake, Nick and I decided that we would return to Switzerland this summer to climb the Eiger, a project we started 2 years ago but were knocked back on because of dangerous snow conditions. Trusting the guide, trusting your climbing partner, trusting yourself – these were aspects of climbing that had become part of my usual ‘routine’.  These elements were and will always continue to be part of the journey and are controlled aspects of climbing that fell within my comfort zone. A number of years ago I overcame a massive fear of heights. But now, I had a new challenge to overcome - trusting the earth was something that I perhaps took for granted and a new stake in the game…. 

But then we arrived in the Alps and I saw the panorama again – a mountain vista framed by blue skies and mighty snow covered peaks. Last weekend, during our acclimatization climbs on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif, I took a few deep breaths and said out loud, ‘You’re ok. You’re ok.’ 

And I was. 

But I know that I’m lucky.  I’m incredibly fortunate to have formal and informal support networks in place to help deal with these fears in a safe, controlled and rational way. And I feel blessed to again realize that I’m safe and happy in the high mountains… that seismic shifts are part of the inherent risks involved in mountaineering - risks that I’d perhaps never considered but have always been present. Afterall, my rational self reminds me, mountains are born from earthquakes… 

But I can’t help but wonder, what about those hundreds of thousands of people in Nepal that eek their daily lives out of the mountains, where aftershocks are now part of the new normal and the threat of the next ‘big one’ is an omnipresent and inescapable reality…? 

Whilst the headlines may have disappeared, the people of Nepal now face a silent threat that will linger long after the aftershocks have disappeared. Helping these people and doing what I can to play a role in the rebuilding – both physically and emotionally – has become part of my ‘new normal’ and a new proverbial summit and a much longer journey.

We didn’t summit the Eiger last weekend. The day of our ‘summit bid’ called for an unleashing of yet another of natures’ forces – the weather. The threat of electrical storms, heavy snow and white-out conditions had us reassess and rejig our plans for an ‘atmospheric’ and shorter climb of Trugborg while the weather system rolled in. The climb offered everything that I love about the sport – heart stopping exposure, snow/rock mix, a breathtaking sunrise, sharing a rope with new friends, and a bit of character building 4am trail-breaking…

It's also helped me to realize that my climbing journey is far from over. It’s only just begun. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from my experiences in Nepal and with these lessons come a new chapter and new opportunities – a strengthened soul, inspired ambition, and a new vision of success.  It turns out that everything I wanted was on the other side of fear all along. 

Onward and upward to the next climb and the next chapter…


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