Mountaineering has long been held as the ultimate example of courage and mental strength.
We ask ourselves, what does it take to be so composed, so physically and mentally strong in some of the most dangerous and hostile places on the planet? In this post I share 6 practical tips that you (the average person) can put into practice today, to start building a mindset that becomes a little more mountain proof every day.
I want to preface this by saying that, I am by no means a shining example of the mountain proof mindset. I crumble, I lose focus, I fly off the handle and I go off the rails mentally more than I’m comfortable admitting. But when I decide to pull myself together, when things get so tough that I absolutely must get back into a positive mindset, it is these 6 practises and philosophies that have served me best. I hope that they can help you too.
1. Separate Yourself
First, imagine that you and your mind are two separate entities…
…because they kind of are.
The first time I really recognised this was when I read Eckhart Tolle’s book, ‘The Power of Now’. He recounts a dark time in his life where he was suicidal, and found himself muttering the words “I can’t live with myself”. In this moment, he realised the duality of his existence. He was both himself and the “I” living simultaneously. From that point on, his life changed dramatically.
How does this separation of mind work “practically”?
Take a blank sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle creating two columns. At the top of the right column write “mind”. On the top of the left column write “myself”.
Under the myself tab, list the things that are truly important to your life that you know you will value. Achievements, goals, skills to obtain, languages you want to learn, things you want to master, practices you want to adopt, systems and habits you want to implement in your life.
Now under the mind tab, write the things that you know your mind would rather do e.g. scroll social media, watch Netflix, sleep in, eat junk food, not make this stupid list etc. All the things that you know are bringing you further from what you truly want.
Visualising and thinking of yourself as being separate from your mind will enable you to distance yourself from your mistakes and your pitfalls along the way, and there will certainly be no shortage of them.
Each time you need to make a choice, visualise this list and decide to do something for yourself. If you choose wisely, you have won a victory of the mind. These small victories are far more important than the larger ones, because it gives you a sense of accomplishment every day, not just an idea of a goal that lives in a hypothetical future.
So by picturing yourself as separate from your mind, you are regaining the power to manipulate and control your mind and your life situation. This, for me, is the essence of mental strength. Without understanding the mind and what it wants, without being separated from the mind, we stand little chance of controlling it.
3. Preparing for victory over the mind
Few battles are won with sheer force. More often they are won with tactics, strategy and preparation. So don’t expect victory over the mind if you have no game plan and no tactics. Here is the most basic and well-repeated advice you’ve likely heard a thousand times by now, but perhaps it’s time you heard it again.
Before you go to bed, lay out all your training clothes, your shoes, towel, whatever you need to win the battle. Lay them out on the floor a safe distance from the bed, maybe even in another room, so that they are ready to go when you wake up.
Set your alarm the night before, but again, make sure it is a safe distance from the bed far enough that it requires you to actually get up.
Once you’re up. You’re up. Your shoes and your clothing are ready to go, you remember that your past-self made a deal with your present-self to go for a run and you know you are strong enough to at least put the shoes on.
Now, tell yourself it’s just one mile. After that you can go straight back to bed, I promise.
5. Visualisation of mind victories
Again, this is probably not new to you. Any book about mental strength for sport will have at least one chapter on the power of visualisation. But rather than imagining yourself winning gold at the Olympics, or even imagining yourself on the summit, I think it’s more beneficial to apply this technique to the small things, the daily challenges that you face today as opposed to the larger long term goals that are way off in the distance. If you are visualising your success as this one moment on the summit on a daily basis, then you are living in a world of constant failure. In other words, you are visualising your summit success, but not achieving it within the confines of the day, rendering the visualisation both pointless and potentially harmful to your mind.
What I think is more useful, is to visualise the end of the workout or the challenge that you have in front of you today.
So picture yourself completing the last rep of a big workout.
You’re sweating, your heart is pumping blood, your brain is pumping dopamine, you’re on an exercise high and feel great about yourself! That is the moment we want to capture and visualise, because it is the tiny victories along the way that eventually add up to the greater victory (your final goal).
And it’s worth mentioning that when it comes time for you to climb the mountains, there will certainly be situations on the mountain that are completely out of your control. How would you feel if you visualise your success on the summit every year only to be turned back by weather.
Outside of reaching the summit, there are a myriad of worthwhile things to be achieved in the mountains.
In short, I don’t really believe in the law of attraction, and I don’t think visualising yourself on the summit is powerful enough to make that happen. But it’s certainly powerful enough to get you through your workout! So use visualisation carefully, by focusing on what’s in front of you now.
6. Practising the enjoyment of suffering
If you spend enough time in the mountains you are bound to encounter some weather that will test you, and when this time comes you will hopefully have the mental strength and courage to stay your course and push on towards your goal. The best piece of advice for anyone who is not used to inclement weather is of course to wear adequate clothing that is built for that environment. But in terms of mental strength, there is one tactic that all adventure athletes use.
They adopt an attitude that welcomes suffering, they embrace it.
It’s one thing to be proud of the times you endured bad weather, but it’s another to stand in the face of a snowstorm, to laugh and hoot and feel all that power of mother nature, truly enjoy every second of it. The same goes for the physical suffering that we feel within our bodies as we push beyond our limits.
It’s as easy as keeping a smile on your face as you go through a tough uphill section, or some high-intensity workout.
Smiling is the physical lever you can pull at any time, to bring your mind back into a positive headspace.
This is best put into practice as often as possible and also in relative safety first before you go to the mountains.
As stupid as it may seem, I choose to go out running or to do outdoor workouts in the rain, the snow or even in a storm because there is something incredibly powerful that comes from that choice to voluntarily put yourself in an uncomfortable environment.
I feel the wind whipping at my face, I feel the rain and sweat stinging my eyes. I feel the force of the wind push me off balance. This is nature! She’s here! Even if I’m in the middle of the city, experiences like this remind me what it’s like to be tested in the mountains.
Nature is our greatest teacher and our greatest tool with which to build resilience.
If you are the person running through puddles and laughing like a complete madman in the middle of the storm, does this demonstrate mental strength or insanity? Are the two mutually exclusive? Is it not just a matter of perspective?
So go running out in the wind and the rain and the snow. Smile, scream with joy and let the fact that you are the only person crazy enough to out there, be a testament to your mental strength and fortitude. What does it matter what anyone else thinks? Their opinion is none of your business.
Yes you may be soaked to the bone, covered in mud and jackhammering from the cold, but this practice of embracing suffering gives you an incredible sense of power, and it shows you that you are the one who is in control, not your mind.
(It’s worth mentioning that this could be harmful to your overall health, so make sure you’re eating well to boost your immune system to fortify you against the elements!)
So there are my 6 practical ways that you can build mental strength for the mountains.
Take these practices, implement them, keep your goal in mind but remember that the only change you can make is the one you make right this second.
Learn to be okay with failure, remember that failure indicates that you took some action and that it is far better than taking none at all. Accept the fact sometimes your mind will win and you’ll end up on the couch licking the residue of Nacho Cheese Doritos from your lazy fingers. But that’s ok, the beauty of separating yourself from your mind is that you can absolve yourself of the responsibility when you need to!
Finally, tread your own path and focus on you. There will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself. That’s the final and most important point I want you to take from this post.
Get out there and get dirty, make progress.
I’ll see you on the summit.