Many of you people may know, last year was rather full on. I had invested everything in my second business, Goals for Giving, and it hadn’t worked out, you can read more about that here. A month after closing my business, I married an amazing and understanding woman, Sophie Radcliffe. I was completely burnt out leading up to the wedding and Sophie and I decided that we needed to have a proper break and focus on our future.
One of the key steps to my recovery was an inspiring and, dare I say it, life changing climb I completed that pushed both my physical and mental boundaries leaving me exhausted but liberated.
If this sounds a bit over the top then please let me try and explain.
A Creativity Block
After our wedding in May we set off for Chamonix and kicked it all off with a week at the Chamonix Mountain Festival. Everything seemed to be coming together, we were climbing stunning routes, meeting incredible people and generally having the most amazing time.
I was still not complete though. After the burnout I had suffered with Goals for Giving, I was still lacking my creative flair. I’m used to coming up with ideas, bouncing them off people and quickly exploring new and exciting opportunities. I couldn’t do it though. Every new idea Sophie and I talked about, I found myself focusing on the negatives and the impracticalities and never give them a chance to breath.
Complete Focus and Commitment
Sophie had won a place on the Big Blog Exchange and had jetted off to Singapore leaving me on my own in Chamonix. I had been fortunate enough to make some amazing friends at the Chamonix Mountain Festival and one of them, Graham, was dossing at my place.
We set our sights on a not very travelled route, the Eugster Diagonal Couloir. This is a very unusual route in that it runs directly under the main lift taking tourists and alpinists alike up to the Aiguille du Midi – we were planning on climbing the best part of 1200m of steep snow and ice, with an audience of Japanese tourists!
This was going to be the biggest and most committing route I had climbed but I had amazing faith in Graham and felt fit, acclimatised and keen to go!
I had two major concerns for our route that day. First, that it was 8.30am and the exit slopes were already in the sun; and second, to climb 1200m in a day meant we were going to have to either solo most of the route or move together, this involves being roped up but placing protection as we moved as running belays.
The vast amounts of recent fresh snow made for a slow start. The 1.5 hours guide book time for the approach stretched out to over 3 hours. If the whole route was to be like this, we would never make it up before nightfall.
As we made it to the base of the route, we looked up. Without saying a word, both Graham and I knew that even moving together was not a possibility. With firm snow ice, we could move fast but protection would be sparse.
Roped up, if one of us fell, we would end up pulling the other off the wall too.
As we climbed up the route, it got better and better, at one point I was there soloing up 75 degree ice.
The glacier got further away as we wound our way up the couloir. We were planning on roping up for the more technical steps half way up but the large amount of snow had turned them into easier ground and so we agreed to leave the ropes in our bags and just carry on through. Graham cautioned me with advice I had heard before:
“Don’t get into a position where you need the ropes but can’t get them” – basically, don’t overcommit!
Graham’s words made me pause but his swagger and demeanor gave me confidence in moving on unroped. Graham has an incredible presence in the hills. Having only met him a few weeks before, we had climbed a few classics in the area and it was quickly clear that he was a very competent and composed mountaineer with a remarkably cool head. He was often heard saying “No drama” when someone else seemed to be getting in a flap and he came along to help resolve whatever drama was about to unfold.
As I set off up the mixed pitches, I paused a moment to reflect on what I was doing. It might have been quite easy ground, no more than 60 degrees but I was soloing with an 800m drop directly below my feet.
All that was keeping me on the face were the tiny points on my crampons and two ice axes. It was liberating!
My heart rate picked up but then I looked around at the stunning scenery, squeezed my ice axes and realized that I was where I was meant to be. This was what I had been dreaming off since my first steps in crampons – not just climbing in great conditions with a strong partner, but feeling that I belong there, deserve to be on the route and that I was ready to be here.
We dug in and kept on going. On the regular stops I took to pant and recover from the now 3400m of altitude I noticed Graham singing away to himself while he climbed up too.
As we made our way to just below the summit arête, it was clear that the route was following a 100m traverse across a steep wall, this was the section I had spotted earlier as having been in the sun all day. It scared me. This was soft snow at about a 70 degree angle with pretty much no way to protect it.
With 1200m of exposure below my feet I set of.
All I thought about was each step, each axe placement, one at a time. It had to be perfect. A slip here would be fatal.
Before I realised it, the angle started to bank back and I realised I was past the worst of it. As I came to the end of the traverse, I then made my way up and dropped onto my back, exhausted, on the arête leading up to the Midi station. 8.5 hours after setting off from the halfway station, I had made it.
We headed over to the Cosmiques Refuge, an alpine hut that looks like something out of a Bond movie. On the way over we passed a number of guided parties and stopped to chat and share route condition information. It felt amazing, we were stopping and chatting to these professional guides and, once we told them what we had just climbed, all of them gave an appreciative nod and ‘Good effort’. Wow, maybe we had climbed something bigger than I appreciated.
Finally we made it to the hut and I was starting to gauge just how tired I was. Graham and I collapsed down onto a bench with a very expensive but well earned beer, I caught Graham’s eye. We both smiled at each other and agreed that the route hadn’t been a bad day out with the typical understated feeling of accomplishment you have to adopt in the mountains. We chatted away with some other climbers but I kept catching myself smiling and, when I looked up, Graham was doing the same.
After an early dinner, we headed to bed, but I lay back unable to sleep. After the long and exhausting day, my body was wiped out but my mind came alive. All of the problems or challenges I had been trying to overcome over the last few months were being ticked off and resolved faster than I could line them up. Previously where I only saw obstacles and dead ends, I found exciting opportunities to try something new. Where I felt alone and stuck in a rut, I appreciated the amazing support and position Sophie and I had created for ourselves. As I lay there I realised I had recovered what I had lost all those months ago – my creativity.
It was euphoric, my mind buzzing away while the rest of the dorm room snored and farted away.
In an hour, I had mentally planned and built a web application I couldn’t even get my head round the day before. After that I came up with 2 new apps that I wanted to build and test out the moment I got down off the mountain! Even as tired as I was, it was a deliberate effort to get myself to sleep that night.
When I woke up, I felt refreshed. My body was beat and all I wanted to do was go down and sleep some more but I felt so alive. So liberated, So inspired. And so ready for whatever was coming next.
When we made it down to the flat, Graham headed back to the UK. Our new found climbing partnership cemented by a superb day out.
Should I have been there?
Once he left, I slumped down onto the sofa and really started to think about the climb. I had a nagging feeling that I had made a serious mistake. I felt great but had I cheated danger? From the beginning, I knew that the exit slopes would be dangerous by the time we got up there but I went anyway.
Should I have gone there? … Should I just have turned back and made an excuse to Graham?
These questions started to spiral out of control and I found myself getting more and more freaked out by the whole experience. At that moment, Robin, a friend and mountain guide, came on Skype. I messaged him and asked if he was available to talk. When he came on the phone, I tentatively told him about the climb, deliberately leaving out the fact that we had soloed the whole route and that the end was so sketchy.
He was impressed that we had gone for such and route and I felt proud of his approval! However, he noticed my hesitations and started to question me more about the climb. When he asked if we roped up, I quietly said ‘no’. He paused for a moment and casually replied ‘Well, there wasn’t much point, was there?’. His immediate understanding of our decisions started to make me feel a little better.
I tentatively told him about the end and how I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision to even be there. He quizzed me on the questions I asked myself and on my decision making during the route and finally said that I had made the right and right decisions in the circumstances. Alpine climbing can be dangerous but as long as you take every measure you can to mitigate and manage that risk, then you can hope to experience something like what I had experienced the day before.
Getting off the phone from Robin, I felt better but still knew that I had to confess all of this to Sophie. I was really worried about what she would say. Would she be angry?
We had a long talk and when I finally told her everything she calmly told me that, as long as I was being careful, not being reckless, and respecting the mountains for the force they command, that she was glad I had had such an incredible experience.
Liberation, Inspiration, and a Return to ‘Me’
I lay back and really started to reflect more on what I had achieved. Not the climb itself, but internally. To think about how my creativity had exploded back into my heart and soul and how inspired I felt by everything going on at that moment.
I managed to experience a crystallised version of what I had discovered all those years before: that pushing yourself in extreme situations and at the limit of what you can mentally and physically endure, you open yourself up to the most liberating and inspiring emotions.
I was lucky enough to climb more beautiful and inspiring routes that summer. Some with my wonderful wife, allowing us to experience these feelings together, some with new friends and climbing partners. All of them building on this first, life-changing route.
I found the source of my creativity and inspiration:
Climbing in beautiful mountains with incredible people and sharing unique and thrilling experiences.