My 2014 New Year’s resolution was to have the best and most productive 12 months of my life. Plans were bursting out of my brain, and within weeks my diary was filled to overflowing – speaking engagements across the UK, ski racing in Greenland, climbing in Scotland – the list went on.
This tsunami of adventure ran high on its crest, underpinned with a full-time, shift job in engineering. Like many waves, it rose quickly and ran hard, impressing many with its power and force. I surfed its white horses, screaming with excitement as it threatened to engulf me. Time and time again I escaped the bubbling mass running close behind me, and I enjoyed the thrill of the chase, but the game could not last forever. When it finally crashed down, its force, spray and mist caused chaos in my life. By the time I had reached August, I was wondering what the hell had hit me. I didn’t know my arse from my elbow, and spent every waking hour running between my job and my life. The pace was too hot both physically and financially. My family, friends and health had begun to suffer from my unending work ethic, but there was only one person who could slam on the brakes. People had been telling me for weeks that I was running too fast, but I hadn’t listened. Only the pain of my mistakes would sound the alarms loud enough to hear, and hopefully slow me down. I took a little time out, hoping to stem the loss of my energy, but it was too little, too late. We are not machines, (yet society now demands that we work like them). We cannot connect ourselves to the mains overnight, thinking that we will be fully recharged by the morning. At 18 I could run around day and night, but I’m finding that at 45 I cannot. Perhaps my injuries don’t help, but they are no excuse for my actions.
Being British and a bit old-fashioned hasn’t helped. I should have acted earlier, but I didn’t. I should have asked for help, but I didn’t. My stiff upper lip held firm, when perhaps it should have wavered. Eventually I did ask for help, but fell upon a sword that I have abhorred for years – medication. I have nothing against the medical profession, but it seems that all of life’s ills can be treated by tablets. ‘Take some of these and see how you feel’ is a phrase I never want to hear again. I’d been a testing ground when I suffered frostbite, and at one point was on 26 tablets a day. Every time I coughed, I rattled. The cure was not medical, and sat right under my nose, but I had failed to see it. It’s an old phrase, but prevention really is better that the cure. So how could I begin curing myself..
By complete luck, I was heading into Annapurna, to climb Himlung (7126m/ 23379ft) during October and November. Five weeks away from work was the ideal time to think and reflect. The trip started well, with excellent climbing partners, bright sunshine and great prospects for the climb. The insomnia and stinging pain I had suffered in my left eye were gone within a week, and for the first time in months I felt relaxed. There was no mobile telephone service, and for all I cared my job, and half the western world could have evaporated into thin air. As ever I wrote an expedition diary, admitting in my own private way that my life was a mess, yet in the mountains I felt freedom again…
‘There is some comfort in the emptiness of this place. Here, the world of digital media means little, and the umbilical cord of the western world can finally be cut. No calls, no texts, no tweets, just wind, sun and rock thus far. How long this dream world can last is unknown as High Voltage electricity lines are creeping through the valleys, and Wi-Fi is smothering the Annapurna Circuit. Though many people see this as a requirement of modern travel, I see it as a silent invasion. Silence, what an understated word that is. Not just the silence of the outside world, but also silence in the soul. It is something I have quested for over many years, yet rarely found. Why do so many people hang on the end of a digital link, convinced it is all that is important in this world..? Over the last few months I have received messages demanding instant replies, as if the world is in a permanent state of panic. Do we need to tell the world everything..? Does the world even care..?
Life may have taught me much, but there is a great deal here that I do not understand. The mountains may stand silent, but they speak in a voice so spiritual, that it disarms me without effort. It is here that I have found the first untroubled sleep for many months. The wind may howl, the snow may fall, but my slumbers are sound, even when only canvas and down separate us. During the day the sunlight is bright, the air clear, and the raging waters pure. Heat and cold both have their bite, but it is refreshing to feel.
Such is this mountain life, but here in the clouds we dream, beautiful dreams…’
The cold almost caught me out in the Himalayas, and frostbite threatened my right foot, but I took a calm, yet painful decision to retreat from Himlung. Something I have learned about myself over the years, is the more critical the situation, the calmer I feel. I have known people running around me like headless chickens, whilst I sit and take critical decisions without fuss or flap. I breathe slowly and smile. There may not have been headless chickens on Himlung, but I have no regrets about what I did. Any decision, no matter how difficult, if taken for the right decisions should hold no guilt.
I do not presume to understand the course of my life, but I do know that if it was to end tomorrow, I’ll have had one hell of a good ride. Much of society view us mountaineers as strange and even irresponsible folk, and we are loved and derided in equal measure. Over this last year I’ve been called everything from an embittered old man, to a lunatic, and a legend. People’s perceptions have changed little over the years, and the question ‘Why..?’ rarely leaves our side. People’s passions may never understand how a Mountain of Ice can create such hearts of fire. You have to be there to truly understand how it feels…
I have determined that change is needed in 2015, but I’m not going to stand here and carve those changes into tablets of stone. Too rigorous a demand can make life too inflexible, and too huge a change is like performing a hand brake turn in a super tanker. The swell would be huge and I’d be riding that tsunami again. Quieter waters are required…
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
Alfred Lord Tennyson
May I wish you all a peaceful and prosperous 2015