I recently spent a few days in the Lake District, surrounded by mountains, desperately seeking respite from all the troubles of the world for a short while. I was hoping for the mountain top epiphany that I’ve enjoyed so many times before, when the struggle to the summit mirrors the struggles back in “the real world” but the silent, expansive skies allow a freedom of thought that invites answers where before the oppressive noise of daily life just created questions. Unfortunately things didn’t turn out quite as I’d hoped…
My normal practice when in the Lakes is to open a map, find a few mountain tops, link them with 10+ miles of path and start walking. It’s not unusual to be standing on a mountain, see another interesting mountain and decide I’m going to walk to it right now. Many times a morning in the hills has turned in to a 15 mile all day epic, I love it out there, I feel at home.
And yet this time, something was different. I made plans for two big hill days and neither worked out. Day one my navigation completely failed me and when the weather turned a bit so did I. In fact I turned 180 degrees and walked out over the exact same 3 miles I’d walked in. This was instead of the 10 miles across 4 mountains I had planned, but as soon as I things got a little edgy thoughts turned to retreat rather than embracing the challenge. I told myself it was for the benefit of my slower, less experienced companion but truth be told I was feeling something completely new on the mountain that day, FEAR. The second day was even worse. I’d planned a solo effort, a truly gargantuan day of summit-bagging but one that should have been well within my ability, on paper at least. In reality, I got 30 minutes up the side of a mountain when the weather closed in and I found myself facing an ascent of a snow-covered scree slope in a blizzard with minimal visibility and no crampons. Now I’ve been in worse, I’ve reveled in the danger and I’ve taken calculated risks that have seen me achieve some great things. In this situation I knew where I was, where I was headed, I was warm and dry and there is no logical reason I couldn’t have continued up and on to the fell tops to walk amongst the Gods for the rest of the day. What I actually did was crap myself, turn and flee, spending the day in the relative comfort of torrential rain in Grizedale Forest paying £14 for two hot chocolates and cake. I’d been beaten by the FEAR again.
It’s also worth noting that for 5 days my mountain bike was in the back of my car. I almost got it out on day one, but it was raining a bit and after walking some of the trails in Grizedale later in the week I dropped the idea of riding there on my last morning too. They looked much too gnarly, guaranteed to cause a bone-shattering crash, way beyond the ability of me and my old bike – although the reality is I’ve ridden those exact trails, and others like them, many times before and my bike is bloody brilliant. I was just lacking the balls to get out there and challenge myself.
So what’s changed? Why have I suddenly lost all my confidence when it comes to the great outdoors?! It wasn’t until the hills were at my back and I was heading home again in the car, a mass of disappointment and frustration, that I realised just how detrimental those defeats had been and how out of character. It was then that I started thinking about the FEAR, of the reasons why I now struggled with what was once simple…and now I’ve had a chance to reconcile those thoughts a little I wanted to get them down in writing.
Fitness – I know I’m carrying a few lbs, and there’s always the ankle issue (I say always, hopefully it’s getting stronger and will not be a concern for much longer). It’s true that I’d not run up the hills as easily as I would have done a few months ago and maybe that was causing me to view the experience negatively? BUT… that’s ridiculous, I’ve been climbing mountains since long before I even thought about running. I was climbing mountains when I played rugby, a stone heavier than I am today. I’ve climbed mountains before whilst strapped, medicated and pretty much broken, and I’ve never let it stop me. So I guess it wasn’t my fitness that destroyed my confidence, was it?
Exposure – It was rotten out there. Day one the strong southwesterly wind was driving rain and hail straight in to our faces, it was only a couple of degrees above zero and the light was poor and getting worse. When I went alone the forecast was for snow and freezing temperatures, and when the blizzard came in visibility was down to under 20 feet. I wasn’t yet on the tops so could easily expect worse as I climbed. Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun yes, going out in a winter whiteout though, that’s not sensible is it? BUT… I’ve been known, once or twice (a day), to utter the phrase “there’s no such thing as bad weather just bad kit”, and I didn’t have bad kit. I was all tucked up in some of the finest protection money can buy. I was dry, warm, and could have stayed that way for a long time. I could have done with some glasses/goggles and crampons would have been a nice touch but actually I’ve been out in worse and smiled my way through the elements without FEAR, enjoying some truly awesome mountain days. There was absolutely no reason to believe any of my kit was going to fail, so that won’t be why I bailed will it?
Alone – I can’t remember the last time I was in a slightly precarious mountain situation on my own. On day one I did have company, but as I hadn’t shared the route with her or shown her the map all morning and had totally miscalculated how fast we’d be moving it was hard to take any confidence from that. Day two I was solo, just me and the mountain (and the snow and wind). Maybe because I was alone I was being more cautious? BUT… when I think about it, it’s very rare that I’m not the most experienced mountaineer in our party. It’s rare that someone else will be responsible for the maps or safety, and although I may bounce ideas off people or get agreement on dubious decisions, it’s usually down to me to get people up and down. Given that, I can’t really blame the rest of the world for not being on the mountain with me that day. I had the intellect and ability to happily plough on, yet I didn’t. Why?
Regret – This is a weird one, and I only fully realised it when I started writing this blog, but I was stood on the side of the mountain and decided I would rather regret not seeing through my plan than persevere. I was more comfortable with the idea of telling people I’d failed, of calling my companion to be picked up and go do something easy, than I was with the idea of testing myself or indeed of trusting myself. Something had shaken my confidence so much that I no longer have the self-belief necessary to do what was once easy. That’s a scary thought, especially when you can’t pinpoint what it is that’s had such a deep-rooted and detrimental effect on your psyche!
So, where do I go from here?!
Well the enforced lay off from exercise has put me back on square one with my running, I haven’t done any serious sustained riding this year and I have no events in the diary to train for until March, so I guess it’s time to start from scratch. In the next few days I’ll put together a plan that builds not only my fitness again, but also my confidence. I’ll build trail runs and biking days in to my programme for cross training, add some squash for a competitive element (I can’t lose every game, surely!) and make sure I get out in the hills more whatever the weather, after all I definitely don’t have bad kit! Hopefully as I remind my body what it’s capable of my mind will follow, because if I can’t get that edge back and find my happiness in the hills again them I’m not exactly sure where it’s going to come from…and that’s a terrifying thought.