It feels a little surreal to be sat back at my desk reflecting on what was, without doubt, the adventure of a lifetime (well so far 🙂 Only 1 week ago I was relaxing in the 30 degree heat of Mendoza with a long lunch and a book, reflecting on the previous 2 weeks trekking into, climbing up, over and back down Aconcagua. Having the space to reflect has been really important and a feature of the whole trip actually – I have probably never had so much ‘thinking’ time, whether it be on the long daily trudge or resting in the tent in the late afternoon. As a result I kept a journal to record how I was feeling and what I was learning, hopefully this blog is a way of sharing some of those key insights and learnings.
Having just re-read some of my earlier blogs it is interesting to reflect on why I was doing it – “pushing myself out of my comfort zone” was my first stab – I was clearer by the time I pitched up at the park gates. I set out with 3 objectives which the adventure absolutely and completely delivered against:
- challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone;
- learning about myself, creating insights and experiences to share with others; and
- getting up, around the mountain and down safely!
It was definitely the hardest 2 weeks of my life by far in terms of physical, mental and emotional challenge! Over 75 miles walked, 7300 metres of ascent and descent, 2 big blisters, 2 weeks of extreme camping and sharing a tent with someone I had only just met. Six days spent at over 5000 meters, a number of challenging wind-blown outdoor poos (I have mastered the bin bag technique), a score of new friends, temperatures of -25 and winds of over 60kph. Sleepless nights wondering if the tent was going to survive, stumbling in the dark and cold to secure the tent, loss of appetite, constant headaches and getting out of breath just turning in your sleeping bag. Hours of dull, soul destroying upwards trudging, step by tiny step with a pack of over 20kgs, at altitude, battling very high winds!
I made it up, around the mountain and as far as the 6000metre Camp Cholera on the other side, an altitude record for me! I’m afraid that’s where I reached my limits or ran out of courage, confidence and most importantly desire (getting to the top was just not important enough) to push on further for the summit! Strange feeling knowing that I pushed myself so far out of my comfort zone, but not prepared to push myself to the absolute limits, ‘come back safely’ ringing in my ears! It is all in the head – I was physically stronger than I have ever been, but a mountain exposes mental weakness like nothing else! Proud of how far I got, enormously respectful of anyone that summits as it is one of the toughest 7000 metre mountains in the world. As a starter not a finisher (that much is evident lol) 🙂 having the tenacity to prepare so well, physically and mentally is probably my biggest achievement, training for over 7 months has probably been my strongest concerted effort ever! One of my biggest concerns was not knowing what it takes to succeed, part of the deal when you step out of your comfort zone I guess, now I do, it is always about the will and the why!! It has also made me hugely grateful and appreciative for the little things we take for granted but so many people don’t have access to – running hot and cold water, a warm secure bed, a flushing toilet, good health, good food and ample nutrition, (I lost over half a stone) the support of friends and family when you most need them and probably most important of all, the chance / privilege to break out of the constraints of current living and to try something so completely different! Thank you so very much to my family and friends for their support, patience and tolerance in this crazy dream!
Re-reading my journal and reflecting on the insights and experiences, there are a number of lessons that I would draw from the experience that are pertinent to us all, corporately and personally.
- You can only deal with what is in front of you – I was hit by a significant setback on arrival in Mendoza after 3 flights and 2 days of travelling – no bag! I cannot describe the sinking feeling of sitting by the conveyor belt watching the diminishing pile of luggage go round, desperate to see my bag, but knowing that it wasn’t coming. Pretty well all of my gear was in that expedition bag – stuff I had trained with, was familiar with, needed and wanted. I could of course try and hire kit, but you just know that you are not going to get all you need. However, I am immensely proud of my reaction – one of the cornerstones of Stoicism is the philosophy that there is very little that you can actually control other than your feelings and response to a situation. As Viktor Frankl said “when we are no longer able to change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves,” I cannot claim a fraction of the challenge that Frankl faced, but going to bed that night, calm, resigned to accept the fate of the morning and deal with the implications of the bag not having turned up was a real growth moment for me!
Likewise, when we were climbing, especially the really tough days, I reduced myself to thinking only about an hour at a time, not the rest of the day, or the day after, or the summit day in 3 days’ time. Just getting through what was in front of me, which was an hour of walking before the next rest! To be successful means that you worry about what you can control and the way you respond to situations, don’t waste energy on what you can do nothing about!
- The operational treadmill is what gets the job done – I have eulogised until I am blue in the face about the challenges of being trapped on the operational treadmill / treadmill of life. We all spend too much time on this treadmill and fail to look up or create the opportunities to seek a different option. However, the climb gave me a different perspective! The grind of putting one foot in front of the other (my operational treadmill) was all that mattered and what got me to where I needed to get to. I was reduced at times to literally counting my steps – 1, 2, 3 ……. 10 and start again! Over and over! I guess my destination was set and I was committed – at that stage it is the daily grind that sees you through! If you want to ensure that you get the job done, make sure it is the right job, then stay committed to seeing it through.
- Preparation is important but it is not a guarantee of success – I was probably as prepared as I could be for this challenge – physically and mentally, but it didn’t mean that I got to the top! I read somewhere about the need for people to embrace a little ambiguity and uncertainty because that is what creates the flexibility to respond in the moment! Now – I was a long way from being constrained, but if I am being honest, there were times that my preparation maybe limited my (more mental) resources. For example, I was fixated by weight, I had trained with upwards of 23kg, with an expectation of carrying about 16kg; the reality was that I was carrying closer to the 23kg I had trained with, but at altitude. Did a portion of my brain (in opposition to the lesson of point 1) keep reflecting on this fact and sow seeds of doubt? Probably! The approach of Laid Back Luke (my fellow climber) was definitely different to me, he had trained and was clearly prepared, but was much more laid back about so many things. He only remembered toilet paper at the hotel (I had pre-planned the number of poos, sheets required and therefore amount of paper required). He hadn’t thought about chlorine tablets so didn’t worry about treating the water, where I was worrying at each camp whether to treat or save my scarce tablets. To be successful at work or home – make sure you prepare, but ensure that you have the flexibility to deal with things in the moment!
- Having intentionality creates the best chance of progress – for over 10 months, preparing for and then climbing Aconcagua was crystal clear and well set in my personal and work priorities. I know ‘intentionality’ is a bit of a buzz word at the moment, but I had absolutely set out my stall, in my head and with those around me. As a consequence I was able to muster resources (time, money, effort) that I did not have in abundance, but I made the absolute most of. If you had asked me at the start where I would find the hours to train, I would have no idea, but waking at 06.00 in the morning and getting out with the dog and heavy rucksack was absolutely driven by being intentional about what was important. Waking the morning of the 9th January having endured 60kph winds and -25 temperatures overnight, tent frozen to the ground, but knowing that we have to pack and climb to Camp 2 – again we got up and were intentional in actions and mind, determined to get what we needed to get done. I have said it before, if you don’t have a plan, if you haven’t got something you are intentional about, then you get caught in the plans and intentions of others and they have not got your needs or interests at heart! If you want to make progress at work or in your personal life, be clear what your intentions are and what it is you want to achieve / get done!
- If you lose your ‘why’ you lose your way – I heard this quote yesterday on Radio 2 with Chris Evans and it really resonated. I think in this busy age we are living in, we are all in danger of losing sight of the ‘why’ in our lives, at a macro and micro level – ‘why’ we exist and what are we trying to achieve in life as well as the more mundane ‘why’ do I do this job or ‘why’ do I tolerate where I live? I know that when push came to shove and I was faced with the extremely tough summit day, my ‘why’ wasn’t good enough – I had never set out with the absolute ‘why’ of getting to the top, it was bigger and broader and therefore wasn’t enough to motivate me to the top. There is only one person who is responsible for how your life turns out and that’s you – so if you are not clear on ‘why’ in any aspect of your life, you are potentially setting yourself up to fail.
I appreciate that this is a slightly longer blog post than most I have written, but it was a bigger adventure than most I have been on and there has been lots to share. I hope that some of the insights and observations resonate with the challenges you face at work or at home and I urge you to take some time to reflect and identify an action or two that might make a difference. Good luck and please share with friends and colleagues. Onwards and always upwards! 🙂