“Adventure; The Greatest Learning Ground in Life”
The tears sting as they roll down my sunburnt face, my lips are swollen and cracking from the UV reflecting violently off the glacier. The skin underneath my nose is completely raw. I've been continuously wiping snot away since 2 am. My diaphragm heaves in guttural sobs. It's a perfect bluebird day, not a breath of wind and I sit alone, crumpled in the snow watching the rest of my climbing team walk away.
They are on the last pitch of our summit push on of the famed Seven Summits, Mt. Elbrus in Russia. I feel ridiculous. I feel ashamed. I'm heartbroken and weak. I have just pulled out of the climb, knowing that continuing would pose a severe risk. Logic, however, is a scarce comfort when you are experiencing failure with every fibre of your being.
Let me rewind a little; I am an A-type personality - ambitious, competitive and driven. The youngest sister of two brothers, one who held the record as the youngest Aussie to climb Everest for ten years, and the other, a highly specialised adventure photographer and survivalist. I'm the daughter of a world champion rower and a mum who was skydiving the original round parachutes in the early 70s! Needless to say, adventure is in the blood. I've made my career out of being a traveller and earned the nickname MissAdventure, one I wholeheartedly embrace. I'm not a natural athlete, I'm unaccustomed to failure, and my deepest fear in the outdoors is to be the slowest link in a team, So much so that I've often avoided saying yes to adventures out of fear I couldn't keep up.
A few months ago, my very new husband, Mike who is a world-class mountain guide (like he's climbed Everest six times and owns a guiding service called Climbing the Seven Summits) asked me if I wanted to climb a mountain with him and some of his clients. I'd never done any technical mountaineering, but I was excited. Mike assured me that it was a perfect entry into mountaineering. I had lived at Everest base camp for six weeks with my brother, so I assumed I'd be totally fine with the altitude. Climbing was in my DNA and now in my relationship too.
I had shiny new Black Diamond crampons, a beautiful blue ice axe and the most expensive pair of shoes I've ever owned - a $1000 pair of La Sportiva double boots. I had all the gear and no idea.
Fast forward to find me deep in the Caucasus mountains on the border of Georgia, in Russia lying in what is known as The Saddle. We had woken up at 1 am, gathered our gear, forced a carb-heavy breakfast into our still sleeping bodies and set out into the cold starry night. Almost immediately, I found myself out of my element and floundering. The team formed a chain gang line, moving consistently forward in each other's footprints, but all I could think about was how much I already needed to pee. Rookie error. I kept trying to spy a place that offered a skerrick of privacy to no avail. My husband's offsider and right-hand woman, Russian guide Sasha had warned us ladies that seeking dignity when nature calls could kill us.
Her best friend, an experienced climber, slipped down an icy slope and fell to her death trying to pee behind a wind roll because she was too embarrassed to go in front of her male teammates.
I get to a point where I just step to the side and pull my climbing pants and harness down, bare butt to the wind and try to go. I can't. The cold on my backside or the stage fright wins and frustrated I hastily pull my pants back up, bladder still full, arse now frozen. My climbing team don't even give me a second look.
We march on, straight up the mountain in what is known as the ‘duck walk'. I'm unaccustomed to my crampons and push them deep into the icy slope. Forgetting they are on, I pull my foot up as if I were walking normally, but my crampon stays lodged, and I twist my ankle badly inside my boot. I feel something give, like a snapped elastic band - my tendon seems to be travelling back and forward across my ankle bone in the most unnatural way. Each weight-bearing step becomes agony, but I'm too embarrassed to speak up.
My husband is in his element, his team responding well right behind him, and they're pulling away steadily. Meanwhile I'm a total mess with my pants half hitched into my climbing harness, still needing to pee, snot pouring from my nose in the cold air and now my ankle feels loose in its socket. I sense the first pang of failure rise in my stomach and nausea overwhelms me. Hands on my knees I hurl a mix of half-eaten muesli and bile all over the snow narrowly missing those expensive boots! My head is pounding. I look up, and I'm now a league behind the team. Sasha, our Russian guide slows down beside me. She can see the fear of failure written on my face.
She takes my heavy pack, swapping it out for her lighter one, and very calmly asks me to look at her. Looking into my eyes she asks me to think of nothing else but stepping as she steps, I do as she says, but nausea keeps coming, and the distance between the rest of the team grows.
Every time I vomit, which is every few minutes, Sasha hands me a flask of warm, sickly sweet cherry juice and insists I drink it. It is the last thing I want to consume, but I trust her and sip away. I am now suffering the effects of acute mountain sickness, and the cherry juice has turned my vomit fluro pink. Every few steps I leave another pink stain like some grotesque version of Hansel and Gretel in the virgin white snow. Bouncing in time with the pounding headache, vicious thoughts assail me: I'm a failure. I suck. I'm embarrassing. I'm too slow. I'm embarrassing him in front of his work clients, how can he love me if I can't do this?
To add to the thoughts, the demoralising position of exhaustedly reaching a rest stop just as everyone is preparing to go again.
Eventually, we make it to The Saddle, a distinct point between the East and West summits of Elbrus where most people who turn back do. I need to make the right call. Mike is in charge of six other climbers who are all going strong. We'd already previously agreed that he wouldn't baby me or coddle me and I decide that this is where I have to stop. To go any further risks putting my entire team in a rescue situation and I now know, that I am suffering from altitude sickness; the persistent vomiting and unbearable headaches a sign of cerebral oedema. Going any further would be plain stupid despite it being only another 200 odd vertical meters to the summit. I hug Mike who gives me a radio and collapse against Sasha, my hugest ally on this climb. I bid the others good luck. They move on, and I sit alone in my grief with an abundance of time to do some reflection.
Sitting in the snow and over the coming days this is what I have learnt from my 'failure' on Elbrus:
1. Blame or Shame?
When we're experiencing failure, mentally two things will be most likely to happen to us, we either go into a state of blame or shame.
Blame sounds like this: I didn't have the right gear. I got altitude sickness. The people in the tent snored, and I didn't sleep, so I wasn't in my best form. Blah, blah, blah.
It's much easier justifying something we can't accept with blame and externalise the situation. Even worse and a far smoother skid down the slippery slope into is shame.
Shame is humiliating, debilitating and self-sabotaging. With shame, we point the criticism inward. Shame rises in you and attacks the core of your being, not the situation, but you, bouncing beyond the scenario and into your self-worth like one of those bullets that mushroom on impact to inflict as much damage as possible. A hero of mine, Brene Brown, a shame researcher, calls these thoughts ‘Shame Gremlins'.
Ask yourself, when you fail, do you blame or do you go into shame? And how can you move past it without doing either? That day I learnt that the only way to pass through failure is in gracious acceptance of yourself and self-love.
I can already hear you asking "BUT how do we reach that?"
The answer is through vulnerability. To be vulnerable, we have to be ok with who we are and where we are at. To do that, we have to be brave as hell, which leads me to my second lesson that day.
2. True Bravery is Vulnerability
So what do I mean by being brave? I've been an outdoorsy girl all my life, but bravery is not what I learnt throwing myself off cliffs in the face of my fears or cave diving through tiny holes with no margin for error. Bravery was what I discovered surrounded by fluro vomit on Elbrus.
Bravery is not how well you can hide your fear or pushing through physical limits irrationally and getting into more dire situations. Bravery is being completely vulnerable to the possibility of failure and being ok with whatever happens. It knows that you're still you, and you are good enough, worthy of love, and still just as valuable.
Being courageous enough to show up, being willing to face your limits and turn back, admitting that sometimes you can't, and still wake up the next day and say ‘I'm enough, I'm worthy'.
“Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage. Tell me how vulnerable someone is willing to be, and I’ll tell you how brave they’re willing to be.” Brene Brown
3. Success is not always guaranteed
My third learning high on that mountain was that in adventure, success is not always guaranteed.Sometimes, despite your training, despite your attitude, despite your spiffy gear, your previous experience, your mountain climbing husband guide, the perfect weather, or your sweet Russian buddy handing you cherry juice, sh*t happens, and you might not make it.
That day everyone else scooted back down the mountain like they'd gone for a pleasant afternoon hike. They didn't even look tired as they bore grins like Cheshire cats. For me, I felt like my adventure no longer counted because I was the only one who had failed.
I've been goal orientated for as long as I can remember and only recently realised how cruel I am to myself when I don't achieve what I set out to and how damaging it can be to have an attitude that says "there is no room for failure". To allow those Shame Gremlins full reign is as dangerous as running through a crevasse field. It can completely corrupt your ability to experience joy. It also makes you a sucky adventure companion.
I became a victim of my making. Brooding, morose and sad. Before I could move on, I had to process my shame and find joy in the journey, not the completion or the accomplishment.
Part of our Elbrus journey had been a ski descent, and while I may not have made it all the way to the top, I came damn close, and I still clipped into my skis and carved some powder turns with my team on the way down. In the weeks to come, flipping back through photos, I can look at that daggy, surfer girl standing tough on her touring skis on a mountain in Russia and think to myself ‘that doesn't look like failure to me, that looks like a rad adventure.'
Success is not always guaranteed, but adventure isn't about success. It sounds naff but it has to be about the journey and the little moments you can scrape off and savour despite the challenges.
4. My fourth learning stems from the above: Adventure is an attitude
Adventure is not how hardcore you are, or how crazy your feat is, or whether you have goals to break world records or set them. Adventure is an attitude, a state of mind that is as simple as moving outside of your comfort zone. You might be into bushwalking, or base jumping, but under my definition of adventure, that's all equal. Stop discounting where your adventure begins or ends. Adventure is relative. The only benchmarks that should matter are your own. Was I challenged? Yes. Was I brave? Yes. Did I do something I am proud of? Yes. Did I summit? No. Should it still count as an achievement? Absolutely, Yes.
5. Beware the pressure you self-inflict.
We live our lives very publically these days. Social media is ingrained in culture and way of life, as enjoyable as it can be, there is a flip side. One of the challenges we face is the breeding of unrealistic expectations in a culture of comparison.
We don't necessarily think of the pressure we are amounting as we boast about setting off on our exciting trips. "Look! Here I am in Moscow about to go climb a mountain". "Here I am in the foothills training for my climb". "Here I am climbing with all my cool gear". Before we know it, we've set ourselves up as this badass mountaineering chick. The next logical post then has to be - "Here I am on the summit, look at me!"
What happens when we can't measure up? When unexpectedly we've defined ourselves by our posts or goals, and been validated by the number of likes we've received? We become accountable not only to ourselves but thousands of other strangers too. Our admission of failure becomes public property, our shame broadcast to the world. It makes it near impossible to swallow and feels a hundred fold worse.
So remember to be kind to yourself, don't compare your behind the scenes (sitting in a puddle of pink slurpee vomit) to everyone else's highlight reel (picture perfect elite athlete models summiting effortlessly with flawless hair and ice axe aloft)
Our achievements do not define us. We should not be characterized by what we do, but rather by who we are.
Cue learning number six.
6. The Double-Edged Sword of Inspiration is Intimidation.
It's easy to find inspiration in other people's feats, but buyer beware, it is also just as easy to be intimidated into not trying or giving up when we fail and sneaking off into the darkness with our tails between our legs. In the world of adventure, it's easy to compare ourselves to others. On Elbrus, I compared myself to my man (who arguably is a born mountain goat who has spent over 4000 nights in a tent and undertaken over 120 mountaineering expeditions, many above 8,000m) and to my fellow climbers, who had all climbed before and lived at altitude in Colorado. I expected to be like my heroes, those who have inspired me like my mountaineering brother or Alyssa Azar who now holds the title of the Youngest Australian to Climb Everest. I was disappointed when I didn't measure up.
I had to accept that I am merely on another part of the spectrum to those people. They didn't wake up one day and just climb Everest, they took steps, earnt their stripes and achieved their goals. Failing doesn't mean you aren't capable or that those adventurers who inspired you are a different breed. They too failed. Ask any one of them. Seek to find inspiration and moments you can relate to in your heroes rather than allow intimidation to run rampant and put you off.
Inspiration in place,
I have already set some new goals; I'm off to climb a volcano in Mexico in a few weeks and a mountain in New Zealand the following month. My failure on Elbrus isn't going to stop me.
7. The secret to it all is gratitude.
My mum, a psychotherapist, once addressed my anxiety with the simple statement "The cure, Caroline, is going into gratitude."
I know it sounds corny, but if you can find gratitude, you will find joy in every adventure and even in every failure. If I brewed only on what I didn't do, I would still be stuck in shame and failure, but by clearly focusing on what I did achieve, and the experiences I did get to have, everything changed.
I got to ski down Mt. Elbrus! How sick Is that? I got to climb with my husband, how cool. I got to spew cherry juice, which was at least as yummy on the way down as it was on the way back up. Gratitude changes everything.
I was recently chatting to Australian Adventurer of the Year, Sandy Robson, who remarkably spent five years paddling a sea kayak from Germany to Australia. I asked her, her most valuable learning and she said whenever she hit an impossible obstacle, like pulling her kayak through knee-deep, thick mud, she would just put three words after it, e.g. "MUD. My favourite thing" and then laugh…
Cherry Spew. My favourite thing
Adventure; it's an excellent learning ground in life. Use it wisely.
Photos: Anatoliy Savejko, Mike Hamill, Caroline Pemberton, Paul Pottinger