3 min read

Climbing Mount Everest the hard way

What are the benefits of having an adventurous mind? A Q&A with Dr John Allan, Head of Learning and Impact.

Are there really benefits of having an adventurous mind? There absolutely are! Dr John Allan, our Head of Learning and Impact, tells us all about his experience helping a team of elite climbers climb Mount Everest, and the essential character traits he and this team needed to undertake such a challenge. It’s not only about the preparation to take on a challenge, it’s the willingness to take substantial risks, learn through uncertainty, and most importantly the belief in yourself and your team.

As John states, everyone has or will have their own Everest to face. Nurturing confidence and resilience from a young age, through supported outdoor learning experiences, creates a wonderful foundation of personal development to build-on: enabling young people to not only face life’s challenges but take them in their stride.

Read more in this fascinating Q&A…

Q: What inspired you get involved with a team climb climbing Mount Everest?

I have always been inspired by big mountain ranges at home in the UK and abroad. As a student, I was a member of an unsupported team who traversed the entire high level route of the Pyrenees from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean in 50 days. As a university academic and outdoor practitioner, I was asked to provide psychological support within a Military Joint Services Expedition to climb Everest by arguably, its most difficult route – The West Ridge. This route, from the Tibetan side (North), has only ever been climbed once previously by two climbers. The audacious intention was to get an entire team to summit. This process was an enormous team effort and was three years in the making.  

Q. Why do you think it’s important to push yourself with these types of challenges?

Everyone has their own mountain Everest. It is a necessary part of healthy, human development to build and expand our adaptive capacity to deal with life’s ups and downs. Taking risks and failing is crucial for getting better. Being educated to take risks, rather than avoiding them, enables us to broaden our emotional capacity and intelligence, helps us regulate our behaviour and to develop new competencies.

Q. How did you help the team in training for this type of challenge?

I was mainly involved in the psychological profiling and preparatory work in building a resilient mind-set of climbers for the collective challenge, before the trip and at basecamp. Resilience links to personal growth through the deployment of strategies learned through previous experiences with adversity. This form of growth allows us to bounce beyond our original position and to face future testing circumstances with greater capacity. My belief is that resilience is catching, by sharing positive experiences with others in training (involving mountains and across other social contexts) I was able to prepare climbers for the high altitude mountaineering ahead - with rapid environmental change, demands and risks are significant.

Q. What psychological skills do you think you need to climb Mount Everest?

Psychological skills in the outdoors, as in life, do not operate in isolation. We are all composed of physical actions, thinking capacity, feelings, instincts and morals. Although we are all unique, to climb high altitude mountains represents a willingness to take substantial risks and learn through uncertainty. For this challenge, climbers and the wider support team were purposefully selected by the leaders based upon their compatibility. All team members were highly committed and united in their drive to succeed, giving up three years of their lives in this joint endeavour. A list of 10 skills was democratically devised by the team, which helped establish the ethos of the expedition. Each person carried a credit-card size list of these expectations throughout the three years of preparation to reinforce the agreed-upon principles. These were:

Honesty in yourself; tolerance of others; loyalty; teamwork; mental robustness; communication; attention to detail; sense of humour; total commitment to the task, and physical fitness.

This range of qualities resonates with accepted hallmarks of resilience.

Q. How high is Mount Everest? And did the team reach the summit?

Everest is 8,849 metres high (29,031.7 feet). This is the altitude that commercial airlines reach. Having been in Tibet some 70 days, culminating in three years of training and preparation to get to this point, as the team attempted to summit, due to life-threatening avalanche conditions, they could not progress. They were virtually within touching distance of their goal.  

Q. How did you and the team cope with not reaching the summit?

Lots of things went well to enable the team to get into a historic position on the mountain. There were many setbacks and challenges which were overcome. Most importantly, there were no fatalities. In the shadow of the mountain at basecamp there is a graveyard dedicated to individuals from different nations who have lost their lives attempting to climb Everest. In fact, two ski mountaineers who had visited the team’s basecamp were killed while attempting to descend the mountain from another route. The huge disappointment and frustration everyone felt at not summiting was palatable. The skills which were held in esteem by the team listed on the credit card lists, and which denoted their resilience, were severely tested. As difficult as it was to assimilate the deflated feelings, to retreat with dignity was acknowledged as a strength-based behaviour.

Q. Was it helpful being part of a team? And if so, why?  

Potential hazards in adventure necessitate that groups develop regard for each-others’ well-being. Humans are social creatures and the development of harmonious relationships in adventure is necessary to succeed in complex tasks requiring co-ordinated effort. Though some may like to believe that the creation of teams is a magical process, it is better undertaken with clear thinking, common sense and care for others. For the whole to be more effective than the sum of its part, good leadership and interpersonal skills development was warranted. Due to these needs, the web of connectivity developed in this expedition was profound and long-lasting.

Q. What did you learn about yourself?

I learned that resilience is infectious and is integral to human functioning especially in exceptional circumstances which require courage. I was stretched but didn’t break due the support of others.

Q. What are the benefits of having an adventurous mind?

Deeply satisfying adventurous experiences, especially those placing balanced demands on our physical, social and emotional capabilities, can create a tool-kit of skills that can help with future challenges. This includes problem-solving and foresight, attentiveness, staying power, curiosity, empathy and trust. This positive psychological thinking is consistent with modern adventure education philosophy in which growth occurs and change is best achieved when learners feel challenged and supported yet are still free to make informed choices.

Further reading

For further insight into this expedition, read the following:

The book Mountaineering Training and Preparation, Cooke, Bunting and O’Hara (Eds), Human Kinetics, 2010 (Chapter 11 Psychological Skills in the Outdoors, John Allan and Jim McKenna. And Chapter 12 Resilience, Jim McKenna, John Allan, Steve Cobley and Mark Robinson).

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