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Sunday, March 30, 2014

That one thing

Six days to go until I take off.  Today, I have some thoughts to post about the upcoming climb.

Imagine waking up, stumbling out of bed, tripping on a shoe, and hitting your shin on the end of the bed frame.  I occasionally do that after a long night in the tent.  How do I feel?  Not good.  That feeling then extends to other aspects of my day - slowly gaining momentum until I start feeling frustrated with everything.  Sound familiar?  Well, maybe you are better than me.  That scenario didn't happen to me today but it paints the perfect picture of a series of events that often color my days.  The events are singular and intrusive;  they change the way I view myself, others, or the future.  I call it "that one thing."

I am not a sensitive guy nor am I terribly grumpy but many events nudge me toward a mood or outlook.  A colleague may compliment me, another driver may cut me off, or I may read something inspiring.  These "things" affect me - sometimes against all my willful efforts to resist them.  Climbing seems to amplify that "one thing" more than any other context.  Climbers experience setbacks and triumphs.  How we respond to those experiences often sets up a series of events that color our view of the climb.

Many of you probably appreciate the fact that I am a preparer.  I try to over-prepare for most major things in my life.  When I trained for competitions, I often thought about what else I could do to address a concern, a worry, or a weakness.  I read.  I train.  I think.  That is just who I am.  Preparation includes both the physical and the psychological.  Today's post is about preparing for the psychological problems I am certain to encounter while I climb.

Consider a few relevant "things" that will certainly color my days ahead.
  1. Slow acclimatization:  Every climber acclimatizes to high altitude at a different rate.  Predicting who acclimatizes quickest remains one of the big questions in high altitude medicine.  Several promising biomarkers exist but we never use them nor would we climbers offer our blood for inspection before an expedition.  Instead, we all work at roughly the same rate up the hill with the aim to adjust to the higher altitudes.  Many of us experience minor setbacks in the process; in fact, I doubt anyone is immune to these setbacks.  I recall on Denali that my spO2 fell below 70% after a particularly hard (and memorable) day.  That low level spooked me and I considered slowing down or taking a day off.  Fortunately, I recovered quickly and went on to summit two days later.  I was surrounded by a strong team and their strength gave me strength.  Not everyone was so fortunate.   Several people I chatted with in the high camps became so focused on their slow acclimatization that they focused on the spO2 level and failed to do something more productive.  How we react to the acclimatization signs can color not just a day but many days following.  What am I going to do if I am slow to acclimatize?  Relax.  There are many rest days built into the itinerary.  I plan to focus on acclimatizing for the real summit push and not worry about setbacks along the way.  Avoiding HAPE and HACE are my goal so I have no problem taking my time.  Acclimatizing can be a slow process.  I know I have already put in enough time in my tent; now I need to put in time on the hill.  Relaxing along the way will increase my chances of a successful acclimatization routine.
  2. Expedition conflict:  Climbers tend to be strong individuals; group activities rarely fall into their comfort zone.  Big climbs like Mt. Everest require big teams or expeditions.  The logistics and sheer magnitude of the effort cannot be practically managed without numbers.  Some people - particularly the elite - perform well enough in small groups but it is so rare for anyone to climb solo.  What happens when you mix the rugged individualist with forced team membership?  Conflict.  I have been on expeditions where conflict was the primary memory that lasts well after the climb.  That conflict just drains the energy from the team.  In many instances, every team member strives to distance him or herself from the rest of the team.  A huge blowout may affect the team's performance.  The "one thing" could be a comment or even a sideward glance that trips off further conflict.  Avoiding conflict by discussing differences may reduce the total impact but conflict seems unavoidable up high.  Our brains do not function well and emotions often get the best of us.   I plan to read my books and keep at peace with all around me.  Being a good citizen helps reduce the conflict.  I can only control one side but I will control my side.  Peace.
  3. First signs of illness:  Everyone gets some sort of bug while climbing.  Apparently, Everest offers us a whole host of bacteria and virus that afflict us all.  Those first signs often precede thoughts of dread and hopelessness.  If I know I will get sick, how will I prepare for it?   Prevention:  a) reduce my exposure to these pathogens by trekking a bit faster through the lower, crowded sections of the approach, b) washing my hands religiously before all meals and after all washroom breaks, c) avoid uncooked foods that contain these beasties.  Treatment:  I intend to treat any problem early with the appropriate medication.  Focus:  Finally, I will remind myself that almost all successful climbers experience AND overcome illness.  Getting sick is not a knockout punch for an expedition.  
  4. Speed and social comparison:  Most of us are competitive.  Yep, competition brings out the best and worst in climbers.  Many people compare their times to others.  Mountaineering is not a race.  Anyone who gets caught up in comparing their performance to others loses focus on what matters most - acclimatization.  A poor day climbing (slow up the hill to a pre-defined objective) can send some climbers into a tailspin of self-doubt.  I am not immune to this potential.   We all experience the pangs of doubt.  My plan?  Control the controllables.  A bad day is simply a bad day.  Getting caught up in the potential implications only robs me of important energy resources that could be used in a more efficient manner.  
The "one thing" often shifts our focus to being more future oriented and catastrophic - altitude does not help the process either.  We get caught up in these early signs and over-interpret them to mean something more than what they really signal.  My aim is to BE HERE NOW.  Laurence Gonzales wrote several great books on survival and resilience.  He stressed the importance of being present - "in the moment" - and focused on controllable objectives.  That focus often eliminates the impact of the "one thing" and enables me to move forward without problems.