I’m sure that you are used to getting emails out of the blue from strangers wanting to chat about climbing. I often enjoy reading your blogs answering questions, so I’ll pose one.
I find coming home from expeditions really hard. Beforehand the focus of training hard, planning logistics, organising gear, psychologically preparing and training some more is all consuming. Then the expedition is so intense, spending 24 hours a day with one or two other people for weeks at a time, giving more than you think possible for the route and dealing with the fear.
Then you come home and it feels like a full stop. I doubt I’m the only one to feel the post-expedition emptiness. After years of trips have you learned to deal with this, and how have you seen your climbing partners cope?
As an aside, I remember reading a slim volume you published, thin air (?), with a piece about Patagonia with the final line that after months of standing at home thinking of Patagonia you stand in Patagonia thinking of home. Honest, for all of us.
Sorry for the late reply (I think this is coming a year after I got your email, so if you’ve topped yourself with post climbing frustration - my apologies). I’m sat writing this on a plane that has no TV’s (an Air Canada flight that’s so old we have wooden seats and the entertainment is a guy playing the piano), so this could end up a bit rambling (I do the writing for free, but reading and editing the crap is extra), but if you pick through the garbage of my words and random thought and find something edible, maybe even a lump of gold (it’ll be rolled gold to be honest), they know I didn’t put it there (the more I write these blogs and read the feedback, positive and negative, but mainly negative, I realise what I say is nothing compared to what’s lurking behind the eyes of the reader).
Now before I begin I hate to start this with the same old guff comparing climbing mountains to addiction, but well, like all cliches, it’s a good one for a reason, but I do apologise for the cod metaphysical bullshit (I make it up as I go along).
So here we go (having re-read it’s a winding trail as usual but stick with it)
The problem with addiction is often not just the chemical dependency (the pusher being a guy on a dark street corner or some gland inside your brain), but the fact that your ‘drug’ is the key to leaving what appears on the surface to be a flat, bland and mundane world. Give anyone a magic pill with which to fly from life’s demands, commitments and anxieties, or for some - poverty, desperation and depression, and it’s pretty hard to turn it down (pushers come in all flavours, both qualified and unqualified). This escape - the ticket to ride - is the driver behind most drugs, the legal and the illegal, the natural and the unnatural, heroin or the BASE rig, Meth or a surfboard.
Consider for a moment what it really means to ‘lose yourself and how it’s those people that seem in the least need to be lost from themselves, the stable and the self-assured, who go in search of such disengagement.
I once knew a German woman who said in East Germany, under Communism, there was a world of rampant and casual sex, complete strangers propositioning each other at the bus stop, the reason being perhaps that only in that moment of raw animal passion did the mind of the beast forget it was caged (I’d sum up sex addiction as the need to return to that single moment in which everything else is blocked out, connecting with your partner but with nothing at all). The ‘hit’ in itself, that pill, whatever it is, is never really the problem, that’s not the addiction, the damaging part is the desire to be lost again. Perhaps this need is something wrong in the code of some humans, something that manifests itself in both healthy and unhealthy ways, why we populated every corner of the planet, not for a room, or to escape famine, war or disease, but to be lost.
The more you escape this world - to begin with at least - the more faded this world tends to become, while at the same time that single-dose no longer creates the bridge needed to get where you need to go, a dangerous mix that can make you lost a little to both realities. One day you’re top-roping an easy climb on some Yorkshire outcrop, then in a blink, you’re climbing a new route on the hardest wall in Antarctica, and yet it feels the same. In climbing, being unhitched from both realities is captured well in the common tale all writers and filmmakers like to tell about being at home missing the mountains, then being in the mountains and missing home. Addiction breaks down the bonds between your true reality - where you do belong - while strengthening the power of the other reality, that world in which you cannot stay. Some people imagine there can be a total disengagement, a transcendental shift from this reality (home, work, kids, partner) to the other (climbing), and they’ll never have to come back. In reality, your reality, the hard one, always comes with you, and most often than not what you end up wanting is what you already had.
Unless some misfortune befalls you, perhaps an overdose of what you seek, and you end up nowhere and forever, the only certainty for most addicts is you must come back. Again consider the terms involved here, of being ‘high’ of ‘coming down’, these go to the root of any addiction. Who doesn’t want to be a kite? One of the twists of such dependency is that the process tends to make you far more aware of everything, removes the polish from your mind so you can see the horror of what you’re doing, aware of each dreadful step. I often use BASE jumping to describe these things in sport (but alpine climbing is really much worse), because it’s so condensed (man climbs to the top of the cliff. Jumps off. Lands alive, or not). But in BASE jumping it’s terrible to see someone see all their friends die jumping, one by one, and yet, in the end, still die themselves. It’s like watching someone drink themselves to death, only in a more Red Bull way (that language thing again…consider those two words: Red Bull).
But this is not about addiction, this is about coming home, about coming down, but it’s good to get your head around what’s going on before you walk back through the front door.
Each time we return we are changed aren’t we? That’s why we do it, to pass over that boundary, to be lost, like a German fucking, then come back the same, but slightly different. You felt it the first time didn’t you, the second you were down and safe, you knew you had to go back. That’s how an addict feels.
That story of Amy Winehouse winning an Iva Novello award is a sad example of this, at the pinnacle of her creative life she admitted to her best friend ‘life’s shit when you’re not on drugs’. Is this anymore tragic than a dad at his daughter’s birthday party dreaming of Cerro Torre (I know, I’ve been that addict), or someone who kicked his habit yet spends the rest of his life haunted by BASE exits he’ll only ever step from in his imagination?
The comedown is easy at first, the drug, the intense memory, is still in your system, as a climber part of you is still there, bound to the experience, and so you have a window of peace, the ‘afterglow’ (few junkies take another hit straight away, they need to rob someone first or find a flat spot to repack their parachute or sharpen their axes).
For me this ‘afterglow’ is the moment I chase, a moment of freedom from that addiction, I’m unshackled from it, it has no hold on me. It’s at this time I go through a ritual of saying things like ‘I’m going to stop’ or ‘settle down’, that I’m over routes I think I’m going to die on. It’s that addict self-delusion, that this time you’re serious. I sent a message to Vanessa from El Cap this year, on about day fifteen of being on the wall, that I just wanted to do routes with her, do fun and adventurous climbs not climbs at the living end. Her reply was I’d sent her a text that was more or less the same word for word from the Eiger two years before.
“Hi I’m Andy, I’m an addict.”
It would take a book to work out the drivers behind this addiction, to “feel alive” to feel like “you’re really living”, but then there’s no need for books when you’ve been there is there? There - wherever or however ‘there’ is - that place more intense, joyful, funnier, brighter, more mind-blowing than anywhere else, it’s like fucking Disneyland. And yet it’s worth working out what you get if you want to square yourself living back in this reality. You may see just what it is that you’re missing?
Now being an addict who’s never been one for drinking or drugs I always felt a bit superior to those who were, especially when quite a few made that transition from cool to ghoul as they got older, most usually the next drink dominating their lives, unable to be happy sober. But looking back, or sideways, at these people, I now realise while they somehow remained to function, held jobs, families and lives together I did not (maybe it’s a universal truth you’re only a junkie looking in?). And yet at forty-five, I do think maybe I’ve finally got my head in order, got to a place where I can apply a little bit more control. Perhaps this is because I’m getting old and that poor impulse control that’s always tripped me up, and stubbornness not to back down, is finally waning. Perhaps it’s because I’m on the methadone of love these days, (but that love is with someone who’s also a junkie, which always makes the subnormal feel just fine and dandy). Maybe now I’m finally acknowledging the wreckage I see around me caused by friends and climbing partners, that it’s a universal problem, and that it comes in all shapes and sizes (the classic mid-life crisis is partly the realisation you’ve been straight all your life and that you need to start caning some drug or other before you’re too old to be as lost!).
First off let’s agree that we’re doing nothing wrong. Agree? Well if you do then maybe here’s the problem, that you don’t see that it IS wrong. If you going away in some way hurts those around you, causes them the pain of worry, imagining you dead (my daughter told me each time I go away she imagines the scenario in which she finds out I’ve died), or put a strain on them (looking after a home, kids, working harder to take up the slack) then that’s an issue. Sure you can allow love and the strong bonds of a relationship to take the strain, but they will eventually grow tired, strain and maybe snap. If you’re single, without any love in this world then good for you, but that tends never to be the case. And so often this is where the first problems occur, on your return, that the ‘real world is under strain, strain you caused. Another factor is while you’ve had the most amazing experience of your life, they have had the complete opposite, worse still they were excluded from it. Maybe this is why your partner is cross with you, seems to not like you, be on your case etc, make more demands. It’s not because they’ve just turned that way, but because they actually love you, or miss you, or feel rejected, or angry that you’re already strategising your next great escape. Here we need to be empathetic, to tone down the tales of the greatest experience of your life because it’s like going on holiday with your mistress and telling your wife about all the ‘best sex ever” you had. No, imagine it was you left behind (often relationships that include this tend to be stronger, as both sides are seen). Remember that what you have here is an issue born from love. If your partner doesn’t give a toss if you come or go, live or die, meaning you could come and go as you wish, how would that make you feel…great! Yes, you think that now, but that’s your junkie brain talking.
Right, that’s enough drugs bullshit. Time for some PTSD bullshit instead.
It feels wrong to talk about PTSD in terms of climbing holidays, but days or weeks or even months in often very difficult environments (both physical and emotional, not just nature, but also the people you’re with) can feel like you have that. Again this is a factor that can unbalance your whole life if you let it, but in the short term, you simply need to realise partly what you see as PTSD is something less damaging. I think I have experienced some small elements of PTSD, such as extreme reactions, even physical pain if I dropped something after weeks on edge, but for the rest, it was simply the pain and discomfort of adaption. To go from one world to another is never easy, everything is different. It takes time to engage and be ‘there’, a man who’s everywhere is nowhere etc. You need to give your body and mind time, the same way you should when you go on a trip, the urge to blast off on day one never a good one. The same is true when you come home, and again, part of you is still bound up back there. Give it time and try and check your thoughts, and don’t make any crazy changes in the real world in the belief it will make things easier. You need stability (very often people come back from major life-changing expeditions and split up, pack in their jobs, get married etc when really they’re a little out of their minds).
And then there is the bonds you have created over a long period perhaps, weeks or months, that is now broken. These other people who have shared these experiences maybe know you better than almost anyone else, have seen you at your best and worse. To break those bonds can be a little like waking from a dream and wanting to be back in that dream. This is why old soldiers form groups, it’s not to celebrate the wars, but to be with people who experienced what they did, who understand, and also bore witness to a defining moment of life. It’s like that last scene in Inception, where they all wake up on the plane after this amazing dream, unsure if it was true, then exit and go their own way. You can create amazing human bonds, stronger than many people will ever feel, and so to break those bonds can be very difficult (often when people lose legs and arms in combat they say it is the separation from their comrades that is the most painful).
The other difficulty is very often you return from the simplest form of living to the most complex, a kind of hunter-gatherer. Life in the mountains can be dangerous but it’s also immensely simple, the layer upon layer of restrictive modernity of life (and all its doubts, fears and anxieties) being stripped away. Life becomes about moving, eating, shitting, sleeping and the good stuff in between, friendship, telling stories, oh and climbing (sometimes). The future becomes the next hour, or maybe the next day, but no further than that usually, no bills, emotional responsibilities, far off wars to worry about. You’re down there in the long grass hunting lions, how could anyone not feel strange a week later hunting for bargains in TKMaxx?
And so you come home again, this primal stripped self, and your initial feelings are of the bounty of this modern world, of taps that spout water on turning, flushing toilets, beds, food, sex, all the good stuff. But soon this bounty has to be paid for, you have to start working, demands are made on you, kids, family, work, news, Facebook, and you quickly find yourself longing for the long grass.
So how do you square these two worlds?
Firstly there are not two worlds, no separate realities, just one varied reality, one world. You are not free of being you just because you’re in Patagonia, you remain anchored to what you are, and so you need to prepare yourself for that shock of adaption, to keep a bit back each time so as to make it easier to slip into your costume. Ask yourself what difference there really is between Bruce Wayne and Batman, what difference is there between you in street shoes or in plastic boots?
I think this difficulty on returning can also be misread as a need to go away more, that the more you go away the less you’ll feel it, but I don’t buy it. Someone told me about Jon Bracey crying in Alaska after failing on a new route, as this was his one chance that year to do some hard big mountain, crying a strange thing to do when his whole life as a pro guide is climbing. If Jon can shed a junkie’s tear what hope do the rest of us have?!
One natural truth I would promote to climbers is that what ails you, those itchy feet, to be constantly in search of the ‘away’, has nothing to do with climbing, with returning or that away, but is a fault in them. You can run away from it, imagine living in Alaska full time, climb every day, and think it would fade, that angst, but you’d be wrong. It’s in the character of some to never be content, something - the weight and burden of it - that needs to be acknowledged and understood (then you can deal with it).
Another factor is the headlong desire to be gone can lead to the constant destruction of the peace of the other life, the home. Some climbers totally disregard their home lives, work, relationships, even family, looking only for the validation and meaning they think they can only achieve somewhere else. They are not only gone when they are gone but gone before they’ve even left, training and planning and dreaming for months before they even buy a train ticket. The one saving grace of most climbers is that climbing tends to be more ‘project’ based, working up to a big trip, whereas a sport like a triathlon takes up your whole life. It’s an awful thing to know you mean very little compared to this other lover that sucks dry a life and so steals your dreams. Yes, training must be done, climbs thought about and planning made, but don’t let this make you neglect everything else. It is better to be 20% less fit but leave a life behind that is fit to return to rather than 100% fit with a lifelike a haunted house.
On a practical note about training, the idea of building up to a major trip is something borrowed from other cruel life-gobbling sports and may not be that relevant, plateauing etc. Climbers in the past, climbers who climbed as hard or harder than modern climbers, simply maintained a good level of fitness through being ‘mountain fit’, just climbing and walking as most other people did. The idea of super-intense training, like you, ’d do going to do an Iron Man is a new thing, built on the back of books like Super Alpinism by Mark Twight. I’ve known the fittest climber I know and the least fit, team up to climb a 7000-metre new route, and both perform well. What I’m saying is don’t let your big trip bleed into your home life (for obvious reasons), keeping your training super early if it has to be done. This also means when you return you won’t have the double whammy of any longer being away and no longer training like a crazy person.
Maybe the best way to return happy and remain content is to address issues in yourself.
The happiest and most content person I think I’ve ever met is my partner Vanessa, who on the surface appears to have an almost childlike view of life like every day is for “playing out”. When I met her my life was about focusing only on some future trip, the moment I was home in my body the sooner my mind was away (it’s a great skill to be where you’re at). For Vanessa every single day is a gift not to be squandered, running up the Sugarloaf (a mountain behind our house) every day after work, or swimming in the sea, climbing at the wall or Dalkey quarry, a nice tea, Home and Away (yes, that’s what’s on her list, but only that, no other telly apart from the odd bit of Adam Ondra on Youtube). Weekends are planned, days in the hills, the odd night out, meeting up with people. All this AND she has weeks off and summer holidays planned. Sure she looks forward to going away for big trips, but she’s in no rush, she’s got today to look forward to. And so when she comes home, and now me too, we have today, which is engaging and fun enough not to mourn that past expedition and wish our lives away for the future one.
Lastly (phew… the planes almost there) it’s always worth taking the time to question why you go away in the first place as this may give a clue to why it’s hard coming home. Some people are simple creatures and they climb because they just love to climb, but really they’d be just as happy going to North Wales as they would the Northern Patagonian icecap. Chuck them a frozen or rocky bone and they’d be happy anywhere. Then there are those for whom it’s their job, and these people tend to enjoy coming home. The worst are those looking for fame or validation, that bottomless chalice, any time at home simply time wasted when they could be away pushing up their stock (such people tend to stress family and relationships while having no real hesitation putting them last). Then there are people who are on the run, running away from a complex life, maybe a dysfunctional one, hoping to find sanctuary in the simplicity of the mountains (very often their problems sneak into their bags with them). Such people, if they’re lucky will find a strength born from the hills to return and face the storms of the real world - but not that many. Lastly, there are some people who cannot fit into this world of ours, and only shine in that other world, like fat dogs laid by the fire who are meant to run wild.
The art it seems is to achieve some kind of equilibrium between the you who goes away and the one who comes back, to be a master of both worlds, to control it, not be its slave. A life - a good life - is about making a go of it, starting now and never giving up. Going away, all those amazing experiences to be cherished, should not be a cause for unhappiness.
Also never forget they’re just holidays!