As my ribs twanged with pain, drawing hard, my lungs desperately search for just a tiny bit more of the oxygen that was so finely laced in the air. With the wind piercing at the smallest bit of my cheek exposed and my toes stinging with numbness I tried with all my might to take just one more step. Just one more. It is in these extreme moments that you learn everything you need to know about yourself.
A week earlier I had been sitting in a lovely warm English pub enjoying a long Friday work lunch, handing over responsibilities to my business partner. He looked at me like I was deranged. “I just don’t get it? How is this going to be a holiday? And why on earth would anyone want to put themselves through that to climb a mountain!?” Oddly, I had never asked myself that question. In fact, it was a really good question. Why on earth was I going to take my first week off for years, from being a busy mum building a business, to put myself through inevitable pain and discomfort!?
The answer to this lies in the way extreme situations force us to condense and amplify experiences. Every few hours struggling on that mountain would be like years of accelerated emotional and mental learning.
I had first met the 7 other souls, gathered from North Africa, England, Canada and Australia, less than 24 hours before having to make a survival decision with them. All of us were in search of a challenge to test ourselves to the limit. In those 24 hours our group had travelled out to the Atlas Mountains to climb over 2000m by foot. We were high into the snow line and endured temperatures of minus 20 degrees centigrade. Having managed just a few hours icy sleep in a mountain refuge we set off for the last push to the summit in darkness.
Mt. Toubkal, like any mountain, is to be approached with caution. In the summer summiting it’s 4167m peak can be relatively straight forward with a basic understanding of altitude sickness and mountaineering. In the snowy winter that we were attempting, there are lots more challenges. A thick layering of deep snow lined the steep, almost vertical, approach to the summit. The wind can blow in threatening weather changes that happen almost instantly and with a precarious ridge visibility can be a real concern.
Laden with crampons and ice aces we set off in the dark early hours of the morning for our summit attempt. The moon casting a bright glow on the stark white snow. From the first steps it was clear that this was going to be very challenging. Whilst the sky was clear the wind was howling down the valley from the summit. With each step forward the deep soft snow did not have the structure to fully hold our weight. We would slip frustratingly backwards half the step we had just taken. For each meter we climbed the sharp cold air became thinner. One of the girls in the team behind me whaled in agony as she began to lose the feeling in her feet from the intense coldness. Our chatty group became very silent whilst everyone focused on digging deep for every single step forward.
It is at this point - of almost physical exhaustion - that this challenge becomes one of the mind, not the body. This is when climbing a mountain becomes less about achieving and more about learning who you really are in brutal honesty.
My first weakness was that I questioned our leadership, our guide. Although I knew he had done this summit hundreds of times before, could I trust him? Then I questioned my other team mates. Were they going too fast, putting my body under unnecessary strain, or perhaps were they holding me back and I could move more quicker and efficiently on my own? More than anything I questioned myself. Could I actually do this. Did I have it in me to do this. As a range of irrational thoughts along these themes ran through my head there was nowhere to escape. Instead I had to face my fears, prejudices and limiting beliefs head on whilst I continued to force my body to keep taking just one more step. I was able to reflect on how these thoughts and behaviours were not dissimilar (although vastly amplified) to the way my mind approaches all other areas of my life. With little other choice and no easy way to let myself off the hook I began to resolve my thoughts and find a new inner strength.
Hours of pained and relentless walking continued in silence with just the crunching of ice and howling of wind. I had found a new strength of mind and belief. Now my mind started exploring what was really important to me. On the mountain you feel the mighty hands of Mother Nature and realise how much you can take for granted. To an extent it makes you reflect on your own mortality, path and meaning. Feeling overcome with emotion my thoughts turned to those I loved, specifically my children. In day to day life we can become so encapsulated with our routines and chores that we forget to stop and really reflect on the love and emotion we have for one another. At this point on the mountain these emotions came literally flooding to me. It was in this moment that I knew I had got everything I needed from this mountain. It has reignited a deep inner connection that will drive me for many more years to come. This is why I climb mountains!
As we neared the summit ridge the wind continued to howl and its force was too great. Just 400m from the summit our group, who had been mere strangers less than a day before, now huddled together with tears streaming down our faces. It was not safe to continue the last push to the summit. We all agreed to turn back. It is hard to explain the immense amount of emotion these experiences rise in you. My tears were not of sadness but of love. Ok, yes there were a few drops of relief that the upwards ordeal was over, but the main emotion I was feeling was love. The discomfort and solitude of the mountain has put life in perspective once again. The exertion at altitude had made my heart pump so violently that there was no mistaking I was alive and that life is for living with the amazing people I am fortunate enough to surround myself with.
My younger, naiver self may have been disappointed with not reaching the summit. But like most things, this was about the journey and not the destination. It is just your ego that wants to reach the summit and on its own this a very hollow victory. I had got everything I needed from the experience and its lessons will live on in me for many more years to come... perhaps until the next mountain!