Helvellyn (Vertigo – human 1, dog 0)

Many studies are contributing to what we know regarding the effects of the outdoors. It’s an evolution in terms of therapeutic techniques, a counterbalance for mental health complaints, and a firm aid for general wellbeing. The results are heavily weighted towards positive factors, but how are we determining what is positive? Here at BDO, we like to evidence our thinking. We will continue to tell you to join us, and we also share with you why.

The research is vast, and these short articles could not hope to give an all-inclusive scope of the research available, but references are included for further reading.

Black Dog’s sniffing out the research…

Vertigo – human 1, dog 0

I come across countless head scratchers on my road to become a mountain leader, it’s a big learning curve; group dynamics, the route’s impact on the mind and body and there’s one which causes me to scratch my noggin more than the rest – a scrambly ridge. Now, I’m comfortable on a scrambly ridge. I began climbing after my love affair with the mountains began, and although I still find myself being tested frequently, I’m leaps and bounds ahead of the chaotic, fearful confusion I was on my first climb. As I gawked up at the route, full of heighty fear, my belayer, through his concern, responsibly checked in to ask me my name and date of birth before letting me climb – just to check that I was compos mentis – in control of my mind. Through teary eyes I squeaked “Steph… Steph Miller” and began to climb.

July 2020. I had decided with my social bubble friend to have a girl’s weekend away and she wanted a crack at her first mountain with her doggo Ava. Our destination was a quiet area just outside the Lake District. We had one day to spend in the Lake District. Like a kid in a candy shop I had an array of mountains to choose from. Ooooh which one to pick? After getting out the map, considering the travel time, parking amongst crowds, this day took us to the beauty of Helvellyn. A confessed influential peak for British mountaineer Alan Hinkes OBE, favourite mountain of Trail magazines photographer Tom Bailey, previously voted Britain’s no. 1 walk on ITV and Trail magazine’s no. 4 UK mountain.

Helvellyn offers a horseshoe ridge route around Red Tarn, its own body of water, unseen from the foot of the mountain and perched beneath the summit, surrounded by clouds in the sky. Avatar eat your heart out, Helvellyn is something truly spectacular. The weather was set to be good. Little wind, clear skies with views for miles, how could I not treat her to this one!

Helvellyn and Striding Edge

Helvellyn picturing Striding Edge and Red Tarn

Photo credit http://www.mgb-stuff.org.uk/helvellyn.htm

Now, I think I heard some of you flinch when I stated I’d chosen Helvellyn peak season. I get it, I’m a fan of quiet in the mountains. I like the space and peace from the hoards. I also like to keep parking simple, no faff and no stressful searching and crossing of fingers, toes and eyes to find a parking space. (Don’t cross your eyes for luck when you’re driving, it’s dangerous). I knew Helvellyn wouldn’t tick those boxes – peak season and during a year when so few people are travelling abroad. Nevertheless, I was leading a friend, a sufferer of anxiety, on her first mountain (and her dog’s first mountain too!). I’d chosen a stunner. We would get up early to avoid the faff.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the mental health manager for BDO. I’m in the business of mental health and I am specialising in mental health in the outdoors. We in the mental health game can become inconveniently infatuated over the workings of the mind, fixating over what keeps people ticking and what holds people back. When not being approached for help, it’s none of my business… but it is my business… (in the professional sense) … get it?? It’s the rabbit hole to wonderland and it fascinates me.

Credit “me.me” 2020

Mental challenges are part of my everyday planning. Helvellyn checklist for the day:

Helvellyn is known as an accessible mountain. One which families climb and they take their woofers too – tick no. 1.

When taking Striding Edge, its route is dynamic. Combining many elements; a steep-ish start followed by a plateau upon which the sights can be absorbed without breathing through one’s proverbial bottom, and some scrambling to enhance the fun – tick no. 2.

Sarah’s got this one I thought, if the pace up the mountain is regulated to maintain confidence and perseverance and negate the fear, anyone can climb this mountain – tick no. 3.

Game on!

When leading a mountain, I’m a plodder. I’m a firm believer of the tortoise and the hare. Firstly, so as not to overwhelm the body and mind and secondly, to enjoy the views. Many of those who are not familiar with mountain terrain but competitively power up the steep slopes, need to take frequent, longer rest breaks and quickly burn up energy. The trick appears to be, keep moving. For those who are keen mountaineers or confident for those in the outdoors, they can maintain their pace, but for those not so confident, the feeling of lactic acid burning within their legs and lungs working overtime may be an unpleasant experience, so… we plodded.

Things were going well, we made it in good time to the hole in the wall and carried on for another half an hour around the plateau, stopping to take photos. By this point, the ridge of Striding Edge was in full view and caught the eye of Sarah. Fear took hold of her. Those pesky mind-jacking gremlins I’ve mentioned in previous blogs escaped into her neuro-networks and began to fuel an alarm sound off – “you can’t do that, look how frightening it is… nope!” A normal reaction and although scrambling commands great respect, as does everything mountain related, grade I scrambles can appear more complex, daunting and technical than they are, and being on a ridge, it looked rather steep. This combined with what we see in reality Vs how the mind’s eye chooses to see it, you have yourself a fear inducing conundrum right there.

This was a good point to stop, refuel and recalibrate. Not only is it hard to address fear when wandering in unchartered territory, but the hunger gremlins… now those are some ferocious little blighters!

Sarah is strong in mind. That’s fact, I know this to be true even if she at times, doesn’t. She is incredibly strong and has a beautiful heart, I’m so lucky she is my friend and of course, I want to do well by her. One’s own self-reflection is an interesting thing. We frequently discount compliments and wait to hear the worst of ourselves but why? Most people are far more wonderfully resilient than they initially believe. I had my own fears at that time, that I might put someone off mountains for good. Sarah’s first mountain… will she ever want to climb another?? Well, this would be a learning curve for me too. I just hoped she would enjoy it!

As we walked to the ridge, the gremlins began to quiet. As with most things in life, by taking one step and then another, by not trying to plan the bigger picture and just concentrating on one footstep and then the next, life’s adventures continue. I took Ava. The only thing I hoped Sarah would concentrate on was her feet moving forward. I took the lead (dog), then took the lead (in front), and off we set, scrambling that delicious grade 1 scramble, 3 points of contact, one step at a time, trusting our feet and beginning to enjoy and embrace the adventure once again. I kept looking back at Sarah and I can say with total honesty that the pride I felt for her, embracing the exploration, against her mind’s fears and just moving forward was heart-warming. Watching and being able to support those conquering mental barriers which they believed they couldn’t conquer is one of the best parts of being in the realms of mental health and mountain leadership. To see the process working its way through, first tears then determination and strength in what might perhaps be a cyclitic cycle, back and forth, but all the time moving forward… It’s something very special.

As you traverse the ridge, some of the scrambles become a little more exposed and a little harder but with each section, Sarah was going forth and conquering! Ava… however…. Did you know that dogs could get vertigo???

Oh dear… I’ve overestimated the hound haven’t I?? What started out as the “Notorious D.O.G” was turning into Underdog. I naturally assumed that our four-legged friends were great on most terrain even if it is a slight scramble. Well, as we say, every day is a school day! I lead her way, she followed. She maintained her forward motion and by doing so, showed her trust in me to lead her. Just before the final summit push at 850m, there’s a long step down from the ridge. A steep step to scramble. B*ll*cks I thought. It’s a four-point climb down but this hound isn’t going to do it. I’m in the business of humanoid mental health, I’m not Mary Puppins, this was going to be tricky.

Referring to the start of this blog and planning stage, it was peak season, it’s one of the UK’s most popular mountains and it was bloody busy! People had begun to rush the mountain in numbers. The step acts as a bottleneck when it’s busy so we found ourselves in a queue. By this point Ava had tried to retreat to where we’d come from several times and was quivering and glancing up at me with every step nearer the ridge, begging me with those beautiful browns which would make Bambi envious, to not take another step. My heart was truly breaking. Keep moving forward, keep moving forward. Sarah’s got this; Ava’s got this.

At the step, I asked Sarah to step out of the line and asked her to stand in a safe place so no-one would need to try to get past her or ask her to move. I handed her the lead – “stand there, I’m going to go and have a look”. I went over to the step to observe how other dogs were getting down – something I’ve never had to think about before. Spaniels and those upwards in size were bounding down faster than I could see where their paws were going, not giving a care (and I’m not sure some were even noticing) a face-plant or two. Smaller dogs were being carried on the backs of owners with 3-points of contact still on the rock. I assessed the climb down with Ava, imagining her trying to claw my eyes out for picking her up and not trusting me down this step. It was a possibility. At this same time, a solo man, one I would assume by his nature was pushing his comfort zone, was climbing down the step. I looked at his stance and my butt-cheeks clenched so much that I wondered if they were trying to grip the rocks of their own accord. I asked him if he needed assistance, the only way I could safely do this – perhaps taking his backpack or spotting from below, involved him climbing back up and my descending first. He looked at me, exclaimed “I don’t like this” and carried on down. Fair play I thought, here’s a man who’s pushing through some fear boundaries! It was at this point however, my fear gremlins started whispering. How could I carry a dog down here, manage my own step down whilst possibly being clawed at by a distressed Miss Barks-A-Lot, and then manage my friend’s safety getting down?

I turned around to get back to Sarah who was waiting patiently with Ava. The hoards of people in the queue were nearly clambering over each other to get down and were blocking the route back to my friend. I felt cross that I had to ask them to leave a gap for me to come through and explained that they certainly weren’t moving anytime in the next few seconds so could they spare those to let me pass… route planning… busy mountain… minus one tick.

As I made my way through, keeping a social distance from the crowds, I walked around the corner to where Sarah was standing. This is a picture I wish I had to share with you, it’s one which will stick in my mind for a long time to come. Imagine Lady Sniffer, so terrified that she had climbed halfway up her owner in what appeared to be one last desperate plead to get off this ridge! Gazing up at Sarah with eyes of pure desperation, my heart broke. Humanising said doggo, and reflecting on my first climb, barely remembering my own name, this beautiful creature had followed me all this way through the entire ridge route and was mentally falling apart. No more I thought. She’s been through enough, we’re going back. I consulted with Sarah regarding the decision. There was no safe way I could find to get the three of us down the step and there’s no summit on earth worth risking health for. They are there to enhance our days, not to risk them.

There are other route options to get to the summit, Swirral Edge (originally our descent route), is only across from Striding Edge on the opposing side of Red Tarn, so it could have been achieved but wisely assessing her energy levels, Sarah felt she had achieved enough, and I entirely support that decision. It’s not all about the summit. I firmly believe this and have written it several times over previous years. The summit is the cherry on top of the Sunday. It’s nice… delightful even, but just because the cherry isn’t on top, out doesn’t mean the Sunday is spoilt.

I recently read a fantastic quote by Mark and Angel Chernoff:

“Our character is often revealed at our highs and lows… be humble at the mountaintops. Be steadfast in the valleys. Be faithful in between”

I was so proud to watch both Sarah and Ava achieve what they did. It’s a mighty mental push and it deserves respect, hence my wanting to share this story with you. I asked Sarah to write in her own words how she felt the day had gone and I leave these with you now. Hopefully to be inspired to push forward whilst acknowledging the gremlins and to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I learned valuable lessons and had one of the best days in the mountains that I’ve ever had. Thank you for the tremendous company Sarah and Ava xxx

A walk in the Lake District, up my first mountain… 

I’m only just starting to understand my brain and the way it works; the good, the bad and the ugly. A few nights away in the lakes; a break from work I was sooo desperately in need of it, but it also filled me with anxiety. 

During lockdown I walked a lot; it became my survivor… but my walks were generally flat. As soon as I got to any kind of hill anxiety would leap in- “you can’t do this”, “you’re too heavy, give up now” etc, but here I was about to walk up a mountain, with two of best friends; Ava (the dog) and Steph. 

I thought to myself as we started going up; there’s only one reason we won’t make it to the top today and that’s going to be me! Except sorting out a few essentials for the four legged one, I didn’t spare her a thought really. With her bounds of energy pulling me up the mountain hour after hour I started to think wow, perhaps I can do this. The slow and steady plod Steph had recommended to me the day before.

I had a little wobble at one point. I was looking up the mountain and Steph checked I was okay. In her asking that question, the fear descended. “It’s huge, you can’t do this, just turn around, blah blah blah (the usual)”. Then luckily, we started to scramble. Having to think a bit more helped calm the voices! Steph had kindly taken Ava from me so I could concentrate on using both hands and I really found myself loving it! It also brought me unexpected memories; spending some time on Dartmoor as a young child with my Dad, clambering over rocks, up Tor’s, letterboxing. I felt much more comfortable being up there, it increased my confidence. I’d glance up and see Ava looking back at me frequently which at the time I thought “bless her, checking on mummy!” all be-it, little did I realise….

We came to a bottle neck and Steph went to check the route. I stood, admiring the view and looking at the last 100m we had left to the top, boy it looked scary. Then what felt like out the blue, Ava began to climb/crawl her way up me! “Huh!? What was going on with my dog!?” She had pure panic in her eyes and began moulting fur in my hands. Steph observed Ava and rightly assessed the situation. It was impossible to get her down this little section, we had to turn back. 

We took a little rest after we finished our scramble back the way we came, and I’ll remember it fondly. My worry for Ava had subsided. I looked back to where we had come from, back down towards Red Tarn, and had such an overwhelming sense of achievement. I felt so free. It really didn’t bother me that we hadn’t made it to the top, my doggy was safe and what I had achieved was enough. The negative voices had been so loud at the bottom of the mountain, had I been by myself the result would have been very different and to that I owe Steph my thanks. Her and the team at Black Dog Outdoors really do understand what it takes to get up the mountains; they’ve been there, they’ve felt it, they understand…. and look after your pooches really well too. 🖤

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