What we can all learn from the mountains about fear …

Hi, this month I’m going to talk to you about something we all experience from time to time – and that’s fear.

We all feel fear from time to time, and right now, although there is more of a feelgood factor around, I am seeing people who are fearful of making key decisions whether they be ‘positive’ – growing their business or exiting – or less so, such as seeking a formal insolvency solution.  Fear can paralyse.  It can cause people to settle for a lesser outcome than they’re capable of.  Fear holds us all back, it’s just a question of how much we allow it and where.

I’m going to tell you a few personal stories about when I was afraid, indeed in fear of my life in the mountains, drawing on the circumstances, my thoughts, my and others’ actions – you see the principles that apply in the mountains also apply in business!

Firstly, let’s set the scene … I’m a member of a mountaineering club, a small team of us within it are ‘ticking off’ the highest mountains across Europe… and doing so has got us into a few scrapes.  Here are just three of them…

Let me take you back to my first European trip, all those years ago…

Here’s me part way up Gran Paradiso, Italy’s highest mountain.

Taking a break, high above the clouds, I was feeling good – I’d already put a lot of effort in, I was enjoying myself.  Sure, I wasn’t exactly in my comfort zone and had no idea what the next few hours would bring, but all was good, I was feeling strong and moderately confident.

Over the next few hours as we climbed higher, more of my colleagues fell by the wayside – the combination of intense heat, effort and reducing oxygen levels was taking its toll.  20 steps before stopping gasping for breath and waiting for the pain in my legs to subside became 15, then 10, then 5.  The slow plod up the snowfield then became more technically challenging, the penalty for a stumble more serious – if I hadn’t been roped up to an experienced climber who’d been along a similar, even though not the same route, before, I wouldn’t have got this far, I couldn’t have gone on.  But I was, and could.

Eventually we got to the top.  Euphoria!  Staying there for half an hour we drank in the views.

How many countries, how many mountains could we see?  Then it dawned on us, the snow and ice was melting in the afternoon sun… descending is always far more difficult and dangerous, and can be slower, than ascending…  even more so as the snow and ice softened.   It seems as suddenly things had got far more serious.  Our plan needed to be bold… our actions decisive… we had to implicitly trust each other and our equipment.

This was the plan…  I’d belay the climber down the ridge until where he could safely belay me, then  we’d swop; if there was no safe belay stance, we’d both walk carefully down the ridge, as close to the top edge as we could so that if one of us fell down the steep snow slope (this seemed more likely), the other would instantly throw himself over the cliff (3,000 foot drop) the other side to counterbalance the fall.  A fall or slip not stopped by the other climber would mean certain death for both of us.

God I was scared… I’d been afraid on the way up but this was altogether another level … and I was uncomfortable having to place my trust in one person for so much…I’d not had the opportunity to train with him before, there’d been no dry run.

4 hours later we arrived down safely at the hut, exhilarated, a real thank God moment .

Then there was Liechstenstein…Grauspitz

In the restaurant at the top of the cable car, we took ten minutes out in for a coke, today was going to be a long day…  today’s objective was a simple climb up a mere 2,500 metre peak before crossing the ridge to the hut.  You see we were following a route set out in the trusted Cicerone guidebook.

I guess we should have listened to the restaurant owner, he’d been to the top 200 or so times.  But we were taking a different route – one he said didn’t exist.  Surely, we can trust the guidebook?  ‘Which hut?’ he asked?  ‘In one day? – that’s impossible’.  Maybe we should have listened.

We started on our way…the scenery was stunning, it was Spring in the valleys, the flowers were incredible, the lakes a magical colour, the views across to the high mountains stupendous.   So this is where the Swiss army do their mortar practice?  They weren’t firing today so we carefully picked our way up the firing range, avoiding the UXBs stuck in the mud, posing for photos with the remnants of those that had gone off.

A check on the GPS, yes, this is the climb, time to rope up…there were no telltale signs of climbers having been here before, but checking the guidebook, this looked like the route.  Anyway we’d be ok, we’d been training for months, we had done this before.

50, 100, 150 metres up the climb … things were getting progressively more difficult.  And there was no way of retreating – there were no safe anchor points off which we could abseil.  We had just one option, to keep climbing…

This is a photo of me at one of the advanced belay stances.  The look on my face says it all.  A few minutes before this was taken a rock the size of a fridge had come down, dislodged by my climbing partner, missing my head by inches.  I’d never seen it, my colleagues yards from me had.  There had been no warning shout, it had happened so quickly.  This was serious: I had just one piece of gear attaching me to the rock – the norm is 3 – and it was poor, it wouldn’t hold  a fall; the rope to my partner then ran out, he hadn’t moved for several minutes, he’d dislodged a ruck of rocks, it was obvious he was stuck; and on the way to where he was now stuck he’d been complaining he couldn’t get any gear in. There was a good chance he’d fall from 30 metres + above and straight past me – unless I could somehow jump on him as he went past.  We’d probably both fall straight to the bottom – 400 ft or so.  Look at the concentration on my face! – I was listening what was happening above, feeling, reading the rope, hoping to make the right decision in a split second should my partner fall – what was happening on the climb next to me was ignored, we had our problems, they had theirs, we couldn’t help them right now, 100% focus on the here and now.

A shout came down ‘ I need you to leave your stance, start climbing with me, I’m ten metres from a ledge, I might be able to make it’.  Leaving such an uncomfortable, unsafe place wasn’t too hard a decision, yet it still meant making a gigantic leap of faith… sure it might not work, but what was the alternative?  And it meant climbing at a grade above my normal lead climber capabilities, up a collapsing route, essentially with us both operating at the very limit of what we can do for a short while.

A few hours later, exhausted we go to the top of ‘the climb’.  We’d made it… or so we thought.  A plod up a rubble field led us to a col ….

The summit was a mere hour’s round trip to the left, the hut a very long way down, you can just see it left of the mountain.  As it was early evening we took the difficult decision of abandoning the summit attempt despite traveling all that way just to bag it!  Our plan of crossing the ridge was also abandoned – it wasn’t a ridge as the maps had suggested, it was another immense climb – our plan, based on books and maps, was unachievable – foreign maps are so unreliable!

Contour around, pick up the path, it’ll be easy, won’t it?  8 hours later, 2am at night, in the pitch black, exhausted physically and mentally, we collapsed into the hut – having improvised on our crossing of 2 precipitous snowfields (we’d abandoned our snow and ice gear in the car as we’d been told there was no snow up there); done several via ferrata in the dark, above huge drops …etc.  We’d been the first to cross from the col this year. Although hardy mountaineers this relatively small one had pushed us to our limit, and beyond, time and time again.   We’d given it our best shot, but we’d failed… but we were alive, no one had died – our pride was dented.

Then there was Germany…Glossglockner

Getting up any 4,000 metre peak is hard work, they don’t give in easily.  A long walk up the valley, across the glacier, up a scramble led us to the hut at around 3,500 metres.  I was really struggling – the speedy climb to such a height meant I had ‘mild’ altitude sickness. I couldn’t eat, I had a raging headache, I ached all over, I was shivering uncontrollably, my breathing was shallow and very rapid.  I doubted whether I’d be able to get up in the morning, let alone have a crack at the mountain.

After a night of no sleep, things hadn’t really improved, yet forcing some breakfast down, and with some encouragement from my fellow climbers, I decided to give it a go as I’d come that far.  The problem was Andy, our most experienced guy, suggested that I should lead the team!  I hadn’t lead climbed a 4,000 metre peak before.  And I was feeling terrible. My pride meant I simply had to give it a go – the nickname ‘bunk-bed’ given to one of my climbing friends who had had similar altitude issues but stopped in the hut on a previous trip had stuck with him!

Slowly I started off, zig-zagging up a snow bank that steepened until eventually the snow gave a way to a scramble, time to ditch the snow gear.   I still felt terrible.  Huge drop to the left – memo to self – be aware of it but don’t let it detract from my focus – always keep three limbs on the rock; plan half a dozen moves ahead; find and stick to a rhythm; test each move before committing to one that might be fatal; look out for and use what protection you can when it’s there, but if there’s none, trust yourself; small moves, no big ones; stop and re-appraise strategy when you can; expect a crux – don’t worry about it until you get there, and then just deal with it; control the emotions; trust in your team but keep watching them to monitor their performance; expect someone, in this case the foreign guides, who somehow think you’re inhabiting their space to try to walk all over you.

This is a photo of the ridge, that I led us up to, across and back down…with pride, with increasing confidence and adrenalin overcoming my physical difficulties and mental uncertainty.

So what comparisons can we draw to being in business, especially one that is struggling?

  • Being in a comfortable place is only temporary.  Make the most of it because it’s not the norm – the norm is being out of the comfort zone, continually stretching yourself.  
  • It’s ok to aim high and miss, because even then you’re still achieving far more than almost everyone else!
  • If pushed, you’d be surprised what a normal person can achieve…especially if they’re supported, even tacitly, by an expert who’s got real, practical, experience along a similar route. 
  • It’s important to have the right equipment / tools around you.  It’s vital you have the right team around you.  You may be able to improvise on the equipment/tools, but don’t ever consider compromising on the team.
  • After someone has got used to operating outside of their comfort zone, decisions and actions that were once considered to be impossible become easier.   And that breeds self-confidence.
  • Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it, however hard it becomes.
  • Desperation is not always a bad thing, even if it did feel like the worst thing in the world at the time. 
  • Pride can either get in the way of achieving something major or drive you on to do it – it’s neither entirely a good nor bad thing, but it’s important to know how it’s effecting your decisions and assess whether you should allow it to, or not.
  • There must be an end game and a plan, but neither should be set in stone – it’s a good idea to adapt both of them as you go along to reflect changing circumstances.
  • You can never stop working on your skills – it’s not enough to just rely on the experts.  Everything that’s worthwhile achieving involves a good degree of self-help. 
  • What’s going on inside a person’s head is key – your own self belief and a willingness to take calculated risks are vital when the chips are down.  To others, even you at an earlier moment in time, this may seem reckless, but it’s not.  Having overcome any sort of challenge in your life, even in completely unconnected areas, can be a help to taking tough decisions now.  
  • Sometimes to survive it’s essential to focus on one thing at a time, ignoring everything else that is going on around you.  The ability to blank out things you cannot influence and are irrelevant right at that moment in time is important.   
  • 99.9% of the time there’s no need for you to take big steps – there are only small steps strung together to make one big step.  Looking no further than the current step can be a good thing.
  • Things take longer than you’d anticipate.  Everything… always.  
  • It’s ok to be scared, even out of your wits, and to lack confidence.  But it’s vital to harness your fear, to control your emotions, to maintain your cool, to dampen down any uncertainty even if things are going against you – doing so will sharpen your awareness, up your game if only to enable you to live for another day.  In business what’s the worst that can happen? – after all, you can rebuild!

As an insolvency practitioner, I have to deal with stressful situations similar to those I’ve encountered in the mountains, every day.  I believe that these experiences help give me the right balance, help me best support the clients I work with.  Sure, not everyone wants to go on such a journey, but that’s ok, because plenty do, and for them the world is their oyster.

Paul Brindley
Midlands Business Recovery

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