Reflections on the beautiful but unforgiving nature of the mountains (published September 2021)

It has been six weeks since I returned from my mountain expedition to the beautiful Peak Lenin in Kyrgyzstan. Normally I would have written about my trip and the lessons learnt very quickly on returning but it has taken me some time to start to reflect upon all that happened to me. I know I still have more to process but I’m feeling able to put into words some of the amazing experiences I had, both positive and heartbreakingly awful, and so I hope you don’t mind me sharing them with you.

In Spring 2019, I booked myself onto a trip to Peak Lenin, a stunning mountain 7,100m high which sits on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. I had previously trekked in Nepal, which I had loved, and I wanted to challenge myself further. Peak Lenin is one of the technically easier 7,000m + mountains to climb, which suited my skill level, but it is a high mountain expedition. For the first time, I would need to carry my own load on the days on the mountain (up to 20kg), put up tents to camp on snow in very cold temperatures, eat (or try to eat!) freeze dried food to keep me fuelled and work towards the goal of summiting through rotations on the mountain.

I had a dream of standing at 7,100m looking out on our amazing world. I wanted to challenge myself to achieve something that I didn’t know would be possible for me. I’m a beginner mountaineer (I am still not sure if I really should use that word at all!) who is afraid of exposure and drops. I have to fit my training around a busy career that I love (and a few marathons!). And in training for this expedition, I wasn’t able to go to the mountains to build my skills as much as I had planned due to the pandemic. Getting myself physically and emotionally ready for such an expedition was therefore challenging but a joy. Walking locally with my large rucksack filled with heavy weights kept my mind off the worry of the pandemic and, I think, kept my neighbours entertained! I spent time learning mountaineering knots in my garden and when we were allowed to travel, I hurried to the hills and mountains to try and build my confidence in these beautiful environments.

In the strange world that we have found ourselves in, I wasn’t certain I was going to be able to travel until 2 days before my departure date. The trip wasn’t confirmed as running until three weeks beforehand (I shed a lot of happy tears after receiving that phone call) and then, two weeks before I was due to leave, my wonderful husband caught covid. Thankfully, he had very mild symptoms but living separately from him for two weeks until I had my ‘fit to fly’ test was the toughest thing I did in preparation for the trip. When I received my negative test result, I felt so blessed and privileged to have the opportunity to travel to do something I love.

The first two weeks of the expedition were incredible. I had my first mountain river crossing, I climbed up scree slopes, I screamed and swore (!) as I slowly navigated the same scree slopes on the way down, I crossed crevasses, I learnt how to put up tents on snow, I sat and watched stunning sunrises and sunsets over the mountains, I learnt how to boil snow for water and I discovered that I really didn’t like freeze dried food! My body was physically challenged, particularly going up the mountain, as the steepness and the lack of oxygen took its toil. My mind was challenged due to the fear I felt coming down such steep slopes and the loneliness of being so far away from those that I love. Despite the challenges, I was very happy. The beauty of the mountains, the feeling of pushing myself to overcome my fears and the sense of joy in doing something that brings my soul alive were beyond even my highest expectations.

After two weeks, we had successfully reached camp 3 on Peak Lenin, which is at 6,100m, and were heading back down to the advanced base camp to rest and recover before our summit attempt. I knew that the next few days would be the toughest I had ever had on an adventure but I was excited about what lay ahead. And then the trip was brought to a tragic end when one of my group lost their life on the beautiful mountain.

I know that people sadly lose their lives in the mountains but I had never imagined (or allowed myself to imagine) it happening to someone in my group. For it to be someone who had been incredibly kind and supportive to me made it even harder for me to comprehend. I headed home with my emotions in turmoil. I have never been so pleased to be in my husband’s arms and to be surrounded by so much care and love from my family, friends and colleagues.

I always try and reflect upon what I have learnt from a situation and I know that I’ve learnt a huge amount from the expedition, for which I am very grateful.

‘If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough’

This was my first big mountain expedition and a lot of the time I felt out of my depth. I have only been on a few mountain trips and therefore so many things were new to me. Some I absolutely loved – camping in remote places, feeling like I was on the top of the world, sitting in the snow as the sun beat down on me and the camaraderie of the groups we shared our camp with. Some I found very tough – the scree slopes, the steepness of the snow steps that had been cut into the mountain side mainly by men with generally much longer legs than me and carrying my heavy load for hours at a time in conditions that are hard to imagine being based in the UK.

Despite questioning myself and my sanity at times, when I think back to the woman who literally shook with fear at walking along the metre wide Great Wall of China just over ten years ago, I am so proud of all that I have achieved so far. I would never have dreamt I would be able to climb such steep slopes in crampons, that I would cross a crevasse via a ladder or that I would be able to climb backwards down a slope using an ice axe. I’ve had such a lot of support to do this – fantastic guides who have understood me and gently coaxed me to step beyond my comfort zone, friends and family who support and encourage me every step of the way and a husband who always puts my dreams before his and makes me believe in myself. We can all push ourselves to achieve so many things and by doing so, I believe we truly live. Dreams aren’t meant to be easy but they will definitely be worth it.

‘Never give up on anything that makes your heart soar’

I have always known that my husband and family, even though they are incredibly supportive, would prefer that I didn’t go on this type of trip. I have, however, always believed that we should do what makes our hearts soar. This trip has shaken that belief. The thought of the phone call that was made to the family to tell them of the tragedy haunts me. It is hard not to think about a similar phone call to my wonderful husband. I have questioned myself as to why I would want to go back into the mountains and put myself at risk. Am I being incredibly selfish? Am I being reckless? Some people may think I am but the beauty of the mountains, the feeling of peace I get when I am there and the challenge of putting myself beyond my comfort zone are drawing me back.

The mountains are simply breathtaking. It is hard to describe how I feel when I am able to look up, in all directions, at mountains that reach over four miles into the sky. The sunrises, the sunsets and everything in between are glorious. It is mesmerising and puts everything else, for me, into perspective. I can’t imagine not being back in that environment. The trip may have shaken my belief but it is still there burning brightly.

‘True friends are never apart, maybe in distance but never in heart’

The last 18 months and this trip have brought home to me just how short life is. I know I’ve used that phrase in the past but I’m not sure I have really understood it. Knowing what our personal purpose is and making sure that we spend enough of our lives with the people we love, doing what we love, is so important. Sitting alone in a tent, thousands of miles from home, trying to comprehend what had happened with tears streaming down my face, all I thought about was my husband, my family and my friends.

The boost I got from receiving messages from them is hard to describe. Each caring and thoughtful message was like a breath of pure oxygen which helped me get up and down the mountain. The level of care when I returned home has been overwhelming and I feel incredibly blessed and thankful to be surrounded by so many amazing people. We’ve all missed loved ones over the last 18 months but our relationships with them are even stronger now that we’re coming through the pandemic. I know I want to make sure that I cherish and nurture these as I move forward.

‘The summit is what drives us but the climb is what matters’

I knew before starting the trip that I may not reach the summit. I hadn’t imagined it would be due to a tragedy but I knew that the weather may not have allowed a summit attempt or that my body may not have coped at the high altitudes. I didn’t know how I would respond to not being able to summit, given that the moment of standing on top of the mountain had been the one driving me through all of the training.

I would have liked to have seen the view from 7,100m but I hope to be able to do that on another day in the future. I found that the experiences I had were far more special to me than the summit itself. Enjoying each moment, taking each step as it came and building memories that will last a lifetime gave me immense pleasure. It taught me that whilst I should continue to drive myself to reach whatever summit I am aiming for, I should also make sure I enjoy the climb.

When people who don’t know what happened on the expedition ask me how it was, it is hard to describe it. It was amazing, challenging, brutal, beautiful, heartbreaking and life affirming. There were moments of pure joy, moments of fear and moments of indescribable sadness. And will I be going back to the high mountains? Without a doubt.

I’ve learnt a lot of things and been reminded of many more. I’ve been left with an even stronger passion to follow my dreams. But a clearer view on what my dreams are. Yes, I love my adventures and my dreams of running more marathons and climbing more mountains are greater than ever. I also know that the perhaps simpler dream, of spending time with those that I love, is just as special, just as important and I won’t ever take that for granted again.

Thank you so much to everyone who supported me, in the training, in the sponsorship for the wonderful charity Cancer Research, throughout the expedition and, so importantly, on my return. I really couldn’t have done it without you and I will never be able to put into words how much it meant to me.

As I walked down the mountain on the final day, I looked back with tears in my eyes. My thoughts that day remain now:

Never waste an opportunity to tell someone you love them. Live the life you were meant to. And follow your dreams. Life is too short not to.

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