The mountains have taught me many critical lessons that have enabled me to live life more fully and feel more confident to take risk. I began climbing around 10 years ago and was formerly someone who always considered herself to be unathletic. In school, I was truly the kid who was always picked last for dodge ball! However, over time as I slowly built my experience, trained and ventured into bigger and bigger mountains, the most serious of which was the 5th highest mountain in the world, Makalu, in Nepal.
One of these lessons has been the importance of self-care. First, the concept of self-care assumes that you have a certain level of self-awareness. If you are out of touch with your body, or with your needs, it will be difficult to focus on self-care. Mountaineering forces you to become very self-aware. We preach eating before we get hungry, drinking before we get thirsty, and layering or delayering to regulate our body temperature. Getting any one of these simple things wrong can cost you a summit or in the worst case in extreme environments, it can cost you your life. Failing to regulate your blood sugar through food can cause you to “bonk” and not have the energy to make it to your destination. Dehydration can accelerate or exacerbate Acute Mountain Sickness symptoms. Either getting cold or getting sweaty can be a precursor to hypothermia as water pulls heat away from the body.
Even on mountains where supplemental oxygen is not required, we joke about “putting your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.” So much in mountaineering and in life is about team work. And women especially often fret about being a burden and will sacrifice their own needs for the sake of the group to avoid feeling like or being seen as a burden.
A 13 year old reminds me about the importance of self-care…
One such example occurred on a GirlVentures course I was guiding this summer. GirlVentures is a inspirational non-profit that focuses on providing transformative experiences for adolescent girls through leadership, communication, and technical skill development in the outdoors. This particular course was a 14-day backpack that included an ascent of an 11,000ft mountain called Mt Shinn, a technical canyoneering descent, rock climbing and rappelling. Each girl gets the chance to try out a different role each day (leader of the day, cook, gear goddess, navigator) and on the day that we were ascending Mt Shinn, “Cindy” was the navigator.
Mt Shinn’s approach is a difficult cross-country approach and the climbing, while easy second and third class, needed a great deal of attention. To lessen Cindy’s stress of being navigator for the day, I gave her the instructions of being very aware of her surroundings during the approach. We repeatedly turned around and looked behind us to see how we would figure out how to retrace our steps back to camp. She seemed anxious but was taking it all in.
The climb was very challenging for Cindy who, like several of the girls, has a healthy fear of heights. Cindy worked through each of the scrambling sections and areas with a sense of exposure with the help of the instructors and her fellow participants. It’s a stressful thing to face your fear of heights at that stage, but Cindy seemed to be coping well.
On the way back down, we turned the leadership over to the two “leaders of the day” and to Cindy as navigator. We hike towards the back to provide a controlled environment where the girls have a chance to experience decision making in the wilderness, communicate with each other, and start the long process of finding their leadership styles.
Cindy did seemed stressed that she felt getting the entire tired and hungry group back to camp was on her shoulders. I began hiking closer to her and giving her tips along the way when we would see landmarks we noted on the way up. She was very focused and seemed to be doing a great job. We got back to camp with little delay and everyone began to focus on self-care – hydrating, resting, changing into fresh layers.
Soon one of the instructors ran over to me to ask for help with Cindy. Something was wrong and she wasn’t sure what. Cindy was cold, shivering, and was breathing rapidly. We performed a full assessment, helped Cindy find her dry layers to change into, and continued to encourage her to eat and drink to recover from the day. Her respiration and pulse were high, but her oxygen saturation was also high. Hypothermia is typically indicated with a low pulse rate, and altitude sickness would usually be indicated by a low oxygen saturation rate. We were perplexed, especially as Cindy’s respiration would get back in control when we would doing relaxing guided imagery or controlled breathing with her. I began to suspect that Cindy was actually experiencing anxiety likely caused by initially getting cold, having low blood sugar, and being overwhelmed by this new uncomfortable physical experience.
One of the instructors and I stayed with Cindy through the night, calming her down when she woke up in a panic. All of her vitals began to return to normal as she realized she was going to be all right. I told Cindy what my theory was and she confided that she had felt so much stress and pressure from the challenge of navigating the group back to camp, that she hiked much faster than she had energy for and didn’t stop to eat, drink, or change her layers. She arrived into camp physically and mentally exhausted and never uttered a peep until her anxiety was well on its way.
Put on your own oxygen mask first!
Cindy’s primary concern was that I would tell someone about the trouble she caused that night and that it might make her ineligible for the next level of leadership training. Cindy and I had a long talk about what it means to be a leader and be in a position with responsibility to others.
First, you must take care of yourself and communicate your needs. Just because you are in charge of leading a group does not mean you are a superwoman and no longer have basic needs. Stop the group, stop what you are doing, and tell them what you need and then do it without apology.
Second, you are serving as a role model for others to take care of themselves. How many mothers do you know that run themselves ragged taking care of others but then tell their daughters how important it is to take care of themselves?
Third, Cindy DID become a burden on the group that night. Two out of four instructors had to provide their undivided attention on one person, taking them away from the other ten girls. It likely would have taken less than 15 minutes to take a break during the descent to eat some more food, drink some water, throw on a warmer layer and admit that she wanted more help with the return navigation.
Cindy seemed to digest all of this feedback, but we also encouraged her to share her experience with the rest of the group and ask for help learning this life skill. The group was AWESOME. Instead of being annoyed with Cindy for having shown vulnerability and having a tough time, they rallied around her and over the coming days when we did difficult things like the Helms Creek descent, they kept asking her how she was doing, when was the last time she ate, etc etc. She would giggle each time but seemed to appreciate the well meaning reminders.
Moms, don’t forget you are a role model for self-care!
I mentioned that mothers are often some of the worst culprits when it comes to self-care. Just a couple of months ago, I ran a custom backpack for a girlfriend of mine from business school. “Kristy” is your typical overachiever and right after getting her MBA she completed an Iron Man – she’s a tough cookie!!! Fast forward 10 years and Kristy is now the mother of two kids who returned to work two years ago and is killing herself to prove she is still a competitive professional. She’s gained weight, doesn’t have time to train, and wanted a goal that would inspire her…hence, the idea for a backpacking trip that would culminate in the non-technical ascent of one of California’s “14ers”, Mt Langley. [A “14er” is a mountain above 14,000ft in elevation.]
It’s a beautiful area, but Kristy had not been able to make time to train, and she suffered on the way up to our camping spot at 11,000ft under the weight of a full backpack for the first time. We went slowly and she struggled to control her competitive self which said “Go faster!” but then her fitness would say “Go slower!” We worked hard on finding a comfortable pace, but it seemed like she had a lot of trouble with self-awareness and kept apologizing, illuminating the fear of being a burden.
I convinced her we should go as far as she could could go – no pressure! We set off Saturday morning to the flanks of Mt Langley and a very slow and measured pace. Slow and steady wins the race! I would say, listening to her breath to try to gauge the pace right. If she was ever in front of me, she would keep pushing a bit faster and faster until she had to stop to catch her breath. I shared with her my theory that after being a mother for so many years and putting others’ needs before her own, she may have lost the art of self-awareness. Surely she had needed to hone her self-awareness when training for and completing an Iron Man, but that was years ago. Could she remember how to tap back into her own needs? She cocked her head, thought about it, and agreed there could be some basis to that theory.
I decided to take over the pacing and keep encouraging her up to the top of Mt Langley at a super slow pace. I would point out when we would get passed by someone (usually a guy) going faster but then we’d pass him as he had to stop and catch his breath. One of those guys turned around because he was feeling altitude sickness. Kristy and I continued on at our nearly agonizingly slow pace, but we made it to the top!
Kristy since then has made comments about how I can get anyone to the top of a mountain, but it really comes from years of experience in self-awareness and how the body reacts to physical activity at altitude. Kristy was mentally tough and really listened – she had faith that if she kept putting one foot in front of the other, she would get there and she did it. It was really hard for her, but listening to her body and finding a pace that would not burn her out or bring on altitude sickness was the key to achieve this major milestone.
The next time you are racing toward some goal, whatever it may be – personal, professional, physical, intellectually, don’t forget to take a moment to think about what you need to nourish and care for yourself. You’ll be more likely to reach your final destination and feel good about it!
If you are interested in seeing the live version of this talk presented in Bend, OR at the SeriousSuccess Motivational Series for Women, check out the YouTube video below: