Mental Strength – how tough are you?
Early mornings are my favorite time of the day. With few people up and about, the world feels so much more peaceful. This Sunday morning saw me up early and by 7:30AM standing at the bottom of a rock face at Dairy Farm quarry in Singapore’s Bukit Timah nature reserve. As I was preparing for the climb, ominous thunder claps started booming in the distance. Lamby my trustee belayer turned up characteristically 20 minutes late, with his usual happy-go-lucky, good natured grin smeared across his face. I impatiently whipped straight into the climb, in an attempt to try and get to the top of the route before the rain came down and made it even greasier. Dairy farm quarry is the only outdoor area available in Singapore to climb on natural rock. Being a disused quarry, the rock faces are created by human hands, and are not formed naturally. The rock has a tendency to be loose in places and also lacks friction which technically makes trusting your footwork much harder. When it gets wet, it becomes dangerously slippery and I generally try and avoid climbing at these times. Whilst learning to lead climb at Dairy farm quarry some years ago, I was unfortunate enough to witness a terrible accident where a climber fell and died. I will never forget that day and it is always in the back of my mind when I walk into the quarry to climb. Climbing is a sport where the consequences of being careless, overconfident or making mistakes are very real and often very final.
This morning after only 5m of climbing and immediately after clipping into the first bolt, my plan unraveled. Down came an extremely heavy tropical thunderstorm. What is normally (in dry weather) a straightforward rock climb for me, had quickly turned into a challenging, slippery struggle, and much more demanding than I had initially prepared myself for this morning. 20 scary and profanity laden minutes later I topped out and quickly abseiled back off the climb to where Lamby was cowering like a drowned rat at the base.
Every time I lead a difficult rock climb, I get pushed out of my comfort zone. It is an intensely personal struggle where the only things that matter are myself , the rock, and whatever gear I am using to climb that particular route. In these situations, I know I am the only person who can get myself out of whatever position I get myself into. When I get high up above my last point of protection and get ‘stuck’ – I often have to force myself to slow down, think clearly, breath slowly, not panic and look around for some different positions for my feet or my hands and work myself out of the situation. No one else can help me at that time. If I choose to give up, I will fall a long way and I could get hurt or worse. The situation feels very ‘real’ when you are in it!
Today I was in one of those situations. I managed to climb my way through it and come out the other side mentally stronger. This kind of mental toughness is something that I have learnt from experience is a trademark of successful mountaineers (and indeed other professions in life). A successful mountaineer is not necessarily the most skilled rock or ice climber, the fittest or strongest or the most experienced member in the team. Rather they are the people that when the going gets tough, they have the mental strength to keep going and push on through the pain, the fear, the uncertainty, the overwhelming desire to give up, take the easy option and turn back. I have seen rock-climbing superstars, who climb much better than I do at sea level here in Singapore, are stronger and fitter than I am, however when we got to higher altitude, in freezing conditions in remote mountain ranges, they broke down and gave up. On the same token I have climbed with and seen (numerous times) my climbing buddy and good friend David Lim (who has partial paralysis in his legs from Guillan-barre syndrome) perform amazing feats in the mountains. He has the ability to push himself to extreme levels of exhaustion, on dangerous ground where his unstable legs make him work so much harder than an able bodied athlete and still he keeps going. What is his secret? His mental strength is amazing.
The only way to train yourself to become mentally tougher is to put yourself into situations where you are pushed out of our comfort zone. Situations where you are forced to push through and find a solution yourself or with your team. In normal day to day life, it is very difficult to re-create this scenario of complete self-reliance and severe consequences in terms of failure. These days whenever there is a problem there seems to be someone you can call, phone/email/ask etc.. to help you out. How can we expect to get mentally tougher and stronger in this type of society?
On Everest in 2011 – as with many other mountains I have been on, I know that as well as all the physical preparations, the quality of my equipment, the weather, the cohesion of my climbing team and my previous climbing experience, having the mental strength to push on when I am cold, tired and scared will be a vital part of the key to success.
When was the last time you pushed yourself out of your comfort zone?
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