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Challenge mindset - Part one: Tip-toeing through the Andes

Adopting a challenge-based mindset would appear to be key in building resilience to adversity and optimising behaviours under stress. At 6000m in the Bolivian High Andes I struggled whilst succumbing to altitude exposure and extreme cold. Luckily I had prepared well using a snorkel in the gym. On the treadmill...





In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!

I had trained hard for this trip back home, even being witnessed in the work gym running on a treadmill with a backpack and breathing through a snorkel! (“Oh that’s just Dave!” the gym instructor would say when new initiates came in and noticed this weirdo huffing and puffing in bizarre manner.) "

Summit fever and frozen toes


Adventure provides opportunity for growth. This may entail a degree of sufferance which though at the time may be somewhat traumatic, nevertheless can confer lasting psychological benefits (rather than ill-effects). It is down to how you appraise the situation and the decisions made at the time. Indeed, this can have a marked effect on physiological responses to stressful situations, as shall be outlined in more depth in part two of this piece. Firstly, an anecdote involving high altitude, bronchitis, and a snorkel…


In 2014 I found myself suffering at 6000m. My breathing was incredibly laboured. I had next to no energy. I felt nauseous, parched, and cold. Very cold. I had eaten practically nothing all day and had only 2 sips of water in the last several hours. I somehow struggled up an icy bergshrund kicking into rock hard ice with my crampons and hoisting myself up using an ice axe for purchase. It was pitch black. Had I any reserves available I could have appreciated the views: a vast field of snow stretching below, to the far distant horizon where a faint glow indicated the vast urban scape of La Paz, whilst above the dark sky was peppered with stars. All I could do though was to push onwards and upwards, tuning my mind to each step forward.


My climbing partners regrouped above this barrier separating the heavily crevassed field of snow below and the knife edge summit ridge beyond. In the moment of pause I took stock of my ailing physical condition. Something had been nagging at me for some time but held at bay in the effort to just keep moving. My toes. I couldn’t feel them. They were numb. Beyond merely cold.


A year earlier, on a different icy continent I had experienced something similar. But naively, or stubbornly, or resignedly, I had just pressed on, believing that it was just an inconvenience and that mind over matter will heal any ills. I paid a price. My feet froze then. All the toes turned white and wooden. The prognosis was multiple toes frost-nipped, and my left big toe frostbitten. Anguish over many subsequent days in an unforgiving Arctic environment fortunately yielded to recovery without significant damage. I was lucky. Some slight deformation of the main toe and acute sensitivity to cold had resulted and which still troubles me to this day, but it’s manageable.


Nevertheless, with prior experience and sensitivity to the warning signs I now began to wonder if I might not be so lucky the second time. I tried to explain to my climbing partners that I was somewhat concerned about my left foot as it was prone to frostbite. It was lost in translation in a climate of limited English spoken by my companions. The planned excursion was meant to involve my normal climbing partner, we were going to tackle this straightforward Andean peak (Huyana Potosi) together, camping up on the glaciated slopes and to follow the tracks, more or less, of the guided parties that regularly come up this way. Things rarely go to plan on mountain expeditions it seems: my partner’s cold had blossomed into something approaching oedema on a foray to 4500m to acclimatise prior to our push for the 6080m summit. He was not at all well and had opted to return to lower altitude (the nearest to sea level in these parts is La Paz, the capital of Bolivia which sits at 3500m on the edge of the High Andes!). Prospects of a joint expedition had gone up in smoke despite this being early in our 3 week trip intended to climb several peaks of increasingly technicality, with Huyana Potosi as our warm up. I decided to jump onboard with a guided party anyway and hopefully get to up the ante afterwards.


I was worried.


Up to this point we had been climbing steadily and slowly in the rarified air from a refuge at around 5200m where we had snatched a few hours ‘sleep’ after arriving there that morning from 4500m. Up at midnight to prepare for the upward push I had not slept at all that afternoon, as I could feel the onset of respiratory issues and a headache – my previous acclimation had been compromised by returning to La Paz with my associate and perhaps picking up his cold. Within an hour or so of setting off in a rope of 3 my Camelback tube froze. I’d had a couple of sips of water prior to that and a single chunk of chocolate. For the next 11 or so hours of hard physical exertion I had no more water (save for a mouthful on the way down from one of the others). I had no more chocolate as I couldn’t stomach it and it would likely have snapped my teeth! Bugger all calories in, lots of calories out!


I had trained hard for this trip back home, even being witnessed in the work gym running on a treadmill with a backpack and breathing through a snorkel! (“Oh that’s just Dave!” the gym instructor would say when new initiates came in and noticed this weirdo huffing and puffing in bizarre manner.)


Nevertheless, one cannot necessarily predict one’s susceptibility to high altitude, or in this case catching a cold of my partner...


It was bloody awful from start to finish!!


Nevertheless, this experience presented me with a challenge that provided opportunity to stretch myself and push through discomfort. How we choose to deal with stress can literally affect how our energy reserves are made available (or not) to cope with (or thrive) in stressful situations. Part two will elaborate on this, including the mechanisms involved, and the traits we can develop in life to make the most of this capacity…

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