Failing Forward

Will at 6100m (400m below the summit of Mera Peak).

Setting off from High Camp Mera Peak at 0300 in the morning with my rope buddies Lyndon, Chris and Alec I already had quietly accepted that things weren’t looking good for me and my summit bid.

Sleeping at altitude brings its usual discomforts and complexities (high winds rattle the ‘torture tent’, frozen boulders for pillows etc) but it was the sleep apnea that I had been experiencing for the last couple of nights that was really challenging me. 

‘At altitude, the reduced oxygen content of the blood induces breathing instability, with periods of deep and rapid breathing alternating with central apnea. This breathing pattern is called high-altitude periodic breathing. It occurs even in healthy persons at altitudes above 6000 ft. It may lead to sleep disturbances with frequent awakenings and a feeling of lack of air.’ (jamanetwork.com)

The frequent awakenings / no flipping sleep at all, had left me feeling pretty run down and understandably knackered. The associated feelings of anxiety due to lack of air were reminiscent of times when I have been less resourceful. I was certainly feeling immersed in the lower segment of Joseph Campbells’ model

(psychologytoday.com)

So what do you do? I decided it was an awesome opportunity to think less and simply put one foot in front of the other. The challenge was to be observant of how I was feeling, both physiologically and emotionally, but not get hijacked by any catastrophic thinking and take myself out of this opportunity unnecessarily. So one foot in front of the other it was (and in the cold dark of 0300 your world is pretty limited to your torch lit feet).

A couple of hours in and Alec decided to go at a slower pace and make his summit attempt with Sherpa Kharma leaving Lyndon, Chris and I to continue as a three. I was running on empty at this point but the strategy of one foot in front of the other was still working so I elected to continue. However at around 6100m the feet, and the body, would no longer listen. I’m not going to pretend that I objectively and simply turned around and thought ‘chalk that up to experience’. I was gutted that I wasn’t going to be able to summit with my fellow veterans on Remembrance Sunday.  More importantly I was desperately aware that if I couldn’t continue then Lyndon and Chris would also have to turn around to accompany me back to high camp safely and hence also abandon their summit bid. 

In the distance a group of seemingly stationary lights indicated another team resting on the steep slope. With the support of Lyndon and Chris we pushed on (with the occasional crawl from me!) and got within shouting distance of the team to discover expedition leader Dave and his team with two Sherpas. 

Dave Bunting on the Summit bid (@lyndonclimbs)

Salvation for me as Lyndon and Chris could join the others for the summit bid and with little objection I was sent down to high camp with Sherpa Ram. During the descent the sun was starting to rise and the vista was incredible with Mount Everest front and centre in the distance. I silently descended with Ram and my thoughts were starting to get the better of me; had I failed? Had I given up? I was entering a pattern of habitual thinking about the meaning of failure. 

Upon reaching base camp I realised that this ‘failure’ was simply another opportunity. This was an opportunity to practice what I believe in; to take control of my internal state no matter the outcome or environment. For me personally, summiting may have been less of an opportunity for growth than failing to summit. I had taken the opportunity to go for something already knowing that there was a high chance I would fail. I had chosen not to be afraid of failure. Now I had the opportunity to be happy, strong and supportive in the aftermath of failure. After all it is so much easier to be those things after a great success. 

And with the decision to ‘try it on’ with that approach I could be genuinely happy for the successful summit team and be present and mindful of my own experience now back at base camp in this incredible Himalayan valley.  

The team on the Summit Mera Peak at 0900 11th November 2018 

Experience.

But what do we experience?

Here we are in Nepal, trekking through the lower regions of the Himalayas, on route to our goal of Mera Peak. We are experiencing new sights, sounds and smells. A new culture, new friends and, for most of us, the first effects of altitude. But is this really what we are experiencing?

Only if we choose to. Maybe we experience our thinking about our experience. Hence why being immersed in such a unique environment can be so good for us. If we have become habitual in our thinking, actions and behaviour in response to a known environment then a complete break from the known can be a great opportunity for a reset.

When life is normalised I believe we really do experience mostly our thinking about our experience. And often this is through analysis or evaluations of our situation or comparisons to others or comparisons to how we think we should be.

When immersed in the unknown, the ‘not normal’, we become much more aware of the real world that we could be experiencing. We have been trekking for four days now, starting our routine at 0630 and generally arriving at the next camp by 1700. The days have been pretty long and (for most of us) harder than expected! There has been plenty of time to find oneself stuck into a pattern of thinking while struggling to put one foot in front of the other. However, the difference is, when you raise your sight to the horizon you are confronted with an incredible scene which is somehow so contrasting to the one just moments earlier. You are suddenly present, in the real experience of the world around you.

An expedition like this provides so many moments of sensory assault that soon the habit becomes to be truly present in the moment. When conscious of the present moment and conscious of our thinking we then have choice about how we want to experience the world.

And it’s easy to think grateful thoughts here in Nepal, and follow that line of thinking to how one can choose to be in the world. With four weeks on expedition perhaps this reset of habitual thinking could be a key to transformation.

The known to the unknown.

So here we are, stepping over the threshold from the known to the unknown. We are about to board the small plane for the flight into Lukla, the gateway to the Himalayas, and start our adventure.

The team arrive in Kathmandu

Joseph Campbell, the American Psychologist, (whose research into mythological stories inspired George Lucas in his creation of the Star Wars movies) identified the stages involved during a mythical ‘hero’s journey’. Campbell’s model is a great metaphor not only for the basis of blockbusters but also for adventurous journeys.

Source: psychologytoday.com

None of the team on Mission Himalaya will appreciate me labelling them as Heroes (!) but we can all be the hero within our own story. We have been living within our comfort zone, in our known and familiar surroundings, but have all had that yearning for adventure. Answering the call to adventure TRBL and the BattleBack team have provided the ‘supernatural aid’ with this incredible opportunity for the Mera Peak exped.

TRBL training weekend

We will all have had to pass our ‘threshold guardians’ and this can represent anything that may have been a barrier to our inclusion on the journey. For me I have been my own biggest threshold guardian, feeling a significant need to remain in my comfort zone with my young family, but I am grateful that with the support from my ‘mentors and helpers’ I have taken the leap.

Stepping into the unknown

Now we are set to embark on our journey proper and embrace the challenges ahead. The team are feeling strong and the sense of purpose is clear. We have laid the foundations to allow space for our own ‘revelations’ and potentially transformational adventure.

With high hopes that we can summit Mera on Remembrance Sunday and return via the Amphu Labtsa Pass and Everest trail. We can all look forward to returning with our own personal ‘gifts of the goddess’ and most importantly a new Dit to spin back in the old known world.

Journey with a purpose

So I decided to call my blog ‘journey with a purpose’ as, for me, this is the simplest definition of an expedition. And this expedition in particular is certainly a journey with a purpose.

I love the idea of using outdoor experiences for personal development and have long been an advocate of getting outside and having an adventure. However, I have never experienced an adventure like this one we have planned; off to the Himalayas for 23 days of consecutive trekking with the 6500m summit of Mera Peak on Remembrance Day our aim.

I have definitely had some personal experience of the benefits of adventure to aid recovery. Having formerly been a Commando helicopter pilot, flying in operations in Afghanistan, going on training exercises in the Arctic, performing deck landings to ships at sea, I suddenly found myself a bit broken. Shortly before deploying on my 4th tour of Afghan I suffered an vasovagal syncope (blackout) which, as you can imagine, is not conducive to being a helicopter pilot. 12 months later and I’m medically discharged from the Navy and on civvy street without a job and still feeling the associated symptoms to my blackout of anxiety and low mood.

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Commando Sea King in Afghanistan 

I was feeling pretty lost at this period of my life and I consider myself so fortunate to have had the support from my then fiancé, Amy, who helped me to recognise my mental health challenges and also the opportunities around me for recovery. Along with support from Amy, friends and family I threw myself into my adventure sports and spent long days at the crags, beaches and rivers.

At the time I just felt that getting out climbing etc was a good distraction from my lack of a plan and I knew that it helped me feel better. But since those early days I have continued to learn and experiment with the ideas around how adventure and outdoor experiences can be of huge benefit to us all.

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Having an adventure in Scotland during team training for Mission Himalaya 

 

In my next blog I will share a few of my discoveries on how and why I believe adventure and outdoor experiences have helped me but essentially I think it comes down to three things:

1. Having a sense of purpose (an autotelic goal).

2. Being totally immersed in the experience.

3. Reflecting and taking the learning from it.

Mission Himalaya 2018 is going to tick all these boxes.

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Mission Himalaya 2018 Expedition

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This October and November, The Royal British Legion and Leeds Beckett University will lead a team of 13 serving military wounded, injured and sick (WIS) personnel and veterans, on a challenging expedition to the Himalayas and I consider myself very fortunate to be included!

In this blog I will be sharing with you my thoughts, images and video on this journey and hopefully I will be able to capture some of the transformational experiences for those of us involved.

Check out the link below to see our planned route:

Map with marked days