Strength & Endurance… of the Mind

Posted: February 10, 2012 by None Smith in Climbing, English, Training
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

With such a project and journey at hand, it can be difficult to wrap your head around it all. Even in this modern age, where the world is (mostly) mapped out and a major airline can bring you virtually anywhere on the globe, envisioning how this can be completed can be difficult. It sometimes feels like trying to imagine the edge of the universe, the end of infinity. “What do you mean walking across the poles?” my family members asked me after I told them about my recent decision to join the 360Extremes team. Have you ever taken a look at the North Pole on Google Earth? It’s all blue. It’s a massive area of water that is simply covered in frozen ice – there is no land beneath it as there is in Antarctica. Our changing environment also poses a challenge for crossing the North Pole. With the pack ice decreasing in thickness each year, the opportunity to journey across it by foot may not be feasible for our grandchildren.

There is a certain level of mental endurance needed to complete this expedition and it is as important, if not more so, than our physical training and technical knowledge. The expedition will traverse numerous environments and ecosystems. We will need to know at least the basics of mountaineering, climbing, backpacking and back country skills, bicycle touring, and sailing to name a few. Many of these skills will also need to be used in different environments – from summer to winter, rain, snow, diamond dust; desert sands; high winds and more.

Even now as I read through my go to textbook, Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, my head swims with all the knowledge I am trying to absorb. Anyone can learn technical skills. What is going to make the difference for us and really help us get to our final goal is the mental endurance to persevere, keep each other’s morale positive, and keep our wits about us when things don’t go according to plan. So how do you even begin training for this? Hiking is usually my go to for a day adventure or when I need to get away without doing something overly strenuous (Ramapo Mountains and Harriman state park don’t top out much above 1,000ft/304m).

However, for training for this journey, I will be using these hills for extremely long day hikes – hikes that when I get to the trail head in the morning, seem too long to complete in one day. This will force me to think in survival mode and “what ifs” – What if I get stuck in inclement weather, or hurt myself, or don’t move fast enough? Packing for all possible situations is just as necessary on a day hike as it is on a global expedition. Many climbers have died from a day hike or climb that they have done many times before – check this recent story about a New Hampshire climber. This isn’t meant to scare anyone – it is to show how serious preparation and planning is for any outdoor excursion and how seriously we will be taking it.

For those of you up to date with this years winter in the north-east of the United States, it’s been quite mild. About a month ago we had a little snow storm that dumped around 6-7 inches across the hills. The storm started at around 4am. At 7am I was waking up and by 8am I was at the trail head. What was an unplanned hike at first turned into a 7 mile trek during the storm with ever-increasing ground snow.

It was at the 2 mile mark where I made the decision to take a long route that, once started, would be better to push through than turn back. I looked long and hard at my map, wondering if this was a good idea. I then looked down the snow-covered path seeing a mysterious trail with unknowns ahead of me. How long will this take? What time will I make it home? How much snow will be dumped in the next couple of hours? I opened up my pack to check my contents – medical kit, head lamp, extra food and water, and a few extra dry articles of clothing.

I then realized that it’s the mystery, the unknown that makes it exciting.

I came out in a snow storm on purpose because I didn’t know what the trails were going to be like. I took a step forward and began my long trek home. Hours later, the snow became a burden, and going uphill was painful. I was pushing five or so hours of almost non-stop hiking in 6 inches of snow with only my winter boots. As I approached the last mile away the trail head, my mind found excuses to kneel down, or lean against a tree.My rest periods kept increasing in length. I got tired more quickly. I remember a paragraph from a book I read called “War” by Sebastian Junger. (See full New York Times review here). He talks about exhaustion in a war-like setting – places where not only are the elements against you, but other human beings. The mentality of constantly hunting and being hunted. I’ll paraphrase but he relates exhaustion as going down into a valley from a ridge. By the time your mind thinks the body is drained of energy and cannot go on further, you’ve only barely made it off the ridge. In truth, you have so much further to go into the valley before you’ve completely bonked. In essence, it’s all a mind game.

I plan on doing more of these long hikes and hope, as the weather improves, to start doing long cycle tours, working my way up to overnight trips to really get into the habit of land travel, camping and survival. Physically, I hope to not only to gain enough strength to endure these long journey’s but to get my body used to using and consuming that many calories.

Mentally, I hope to realize long journeys are simply made up of smaller parts. Joe Simpson crossed the crevasse field after a long and already strenuous ordeal by breaking the crawl into small portions – x amount of meters here, y amount of meters there. He was severely injured and lived! Surely unhurt people can do the same!

Lastly, I’ve heard great reviews about Arno Ilgner’s “The Rock Warrior’s Way”. Not only are the mental tips and tricks useful for climbers – but for anyone when it comes to overcoming fears and doubts. Next week a friend and I will be heading up to the Catskills in New York State to hike the 24 mile Devil’s Path. Considered one of the hardest hiking trails on the East Coast, I hope the 18,000ft (5486m) of elevation gain and loss will give me an inkling into what alpine conditions are like. It should prove to be a fun, exciting and challenging time as well as good training for the 360Extremes Expedition.

In the mean time, I’d love to hear the community’s take on this – what have you done to train your mind for tough, run-out type conditions?

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