6 Practical Ways To Build Mental Strength For The Mountains

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.

2. Trick your mind into getting started


The human brain is one of the most complex entities on this planet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fooled easily. One thing I like to do is trick my mind into doing some type of exercise. Exercise is, at least for me, the most valuable tool I have to build mental strength. Why? Because believe it or not, it is typically something my mind does not want to do.

Especially first thing in the morning. Here’s how we can utilise exercise as a tool to trick the mind.

Your laying in your extremely comfortable bed which you don’t want to leave.

And you tell yourself….

Get up and turn your alarm off. Put your shoes on, get out the door and just run ONE mile, after that, you can come back home and jump back into this comfy bed. Deal?

Ok, deal.

Negotiate with your mind.

Of course, once you are out the door in the fresh air, breathing deeply, you’ll probably end up running much more than that and you’ll walk back into the house sweaty and ready for some stretching and mobility. You’ve won the victory, you don’t feel like going back to bed because you’re hot and sweating, so you stretch.

With the stretching and mobility done, you’ve got yet another victory trophy to hold over your mind, and then you’re on a roll. If you do this each morning you’re likely to steamroll your mind for the rest of the day based on those first two wins, you got off to a great start!

So trick your mind into doing the tiniest amount of workouts. Start small if you need to, and celebrate each workout as if it was the top of the mountain, because those small victories are actually far more important.

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.

4. Create a system of accountability


Having someone to hold you accountable to your goals is perhaps one of the most effective ways to make sure you have regular victories over the mind. Very few people who are truly successful have achieved success on their own with no support. It’s basically goal suicide to take on a challenge with no mentor, no feedback or no support from a pro, or from friends or family. So find a coach (cough, link here) or even a knowledgeable friend who you can enlist to keep you accountable to the changes you wanted to make.

What about just sharing it on social media?

Sharing your goals, your journey and your progress on social media is in some way a very loose version of accountability, and there certainly are benefits to come from it.

I know for myself, that having a small following on YouTube has helped me stay focused on my training and keep me on track with my goals. In a way, I feel like I owe it to you guys, my followers and clients to keep focused on training and to keep challenging myself, but it can be a double-edged sword.

Apart from the obvious anxiety and pressure which it brings, sharing your progress and your goals on social media can actually be harmful to achieving it. The surface-level satisfaction we achieve from simply declaring that we are climbing a mountain is not so different from the sensation we achieve when we share that we HAVE climbed the mountain. By sharing things before we do them, we’re in danger of becoming so gratified by the concept, that we no longer have the desire to achieve it – so just keep that in mind and tread carefully on social media!

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!)

mindset for mountains

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.


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