Standing in the carpark the snow was still falling in large, soft flakes as I unpack my skis into the back of the SUV in view of the Grand Teton – the emphatic rocky pyramid that stands 4200m and anchors the Wyoming national park that takes its name. The snow crystals melt cool on my cheeks; some as big as a coin.
It was now mid afternoon and since early morning we’d been hiking up the face of the range in sight of the peak. No lifted ski resort; only the silent climb. Before we earned the mountain: to ski glades in deep powder deserted: floating, silent, deep and alone.
Now back at the peak’s base, I let my euphoria wash. I hugged my ski guide, Brian Warren. He’d stood three times on the summit of Mt Everest. So could he understand? For me this was different. Different to a year ago. Much calmer, and without the fight. Something had happened up there in the Tetons. Without words, Brian smiled. And he put his arms around me.
Of course, today really was different. The valley was a few hundred metres south, the slope was a little more mellow, the snow perhaps another hand or so deeper, my gear this time a few kilos lighter. And then there was the gentle caress of snowfall as we approached 3000m ready for our descent. But these were not what really mattered: the important reasons lay closer to home.
A year before there had been my struggle up the mountain and my fight down. Fatigue and resistance. Pushing against the mountain, not accepting it. Was it technical skiing ability? No. The contest was all in my head. With a heavy heart that day I’d left the mountain. Brian was also there: the day my resilience had failed.
Failure became the turning point. A catalyst for self awareness – and the opportunity to re-learn a lesson I thought I’d honed better on higher peaks. That we are what we think – particularly under pressure – is a lesson hastened by the wilderness. There are already the unequivocal circumstance to strip back who we are. Undistracted, beautiful and non-negotiable. These are the fractals of wilderness. That form a mirror into which we can see ourselves if we care look.
Into the mirror
So, it was strangely beautiful to return last month to the same point in the same national park to resolve what I’d laid bare. I’d returned determined to look anew at the challenge. I’d worked steadily the past six months. Keeping a journal, and recording my emotional pulse. Often vigilant. How did I respond under pressure situations? Did I take responsibility for my own performance? When did I let my feelings hijack me?
Then, on the morning of this year’s climb I did some simple things differently: I did some breathing exercises, I closed my eyes for 15 minutes and settled, and I visualised with joy the climb up and the glades I would ski down. It was a 1500m climb up. During the climb, I softened my thoughts to each breath: one one foot in front of the other. At the top, I reset. Sometimes too on the way down the snow became a struggle, but I reframed the snowpack to gentleness; to a surface where I could bounce – and would not be tugged by the crust. The mountain was as it had always been. But this time I’d created a different frame of reference.
A lot has been written about positive thinking and how we can take hold of our emotional responses. The best of that work is based on science and how our brains work. That dance of reflex and control between our thoughts and feelings. In essence, it explains that what we choose to think is what we do. And what we repeat is what – good or bad – we eventually do by habit. Shifting any of that – as I resolved I needed to do – occurs one step at a time.
There’s a robust path laid down by experts who have emphasised active cognitive structures to boost optimism (Seligman 1992) and revealed the contribution of emotional intelligence – not just raw talent – in shaping our performance (Goleman 1995) and others that have shown how we can use EQ to influence ourselves and lead others (Newman 2007). Other researchers have demonstrated how how our personality can help or derail us (Hogan) and thinkers have articulated how simple day-to-day thoughts can have outsize effects on our behaviour and our impact on others (Webb 2016). Good science, not just wishful thinking, reinforces the link between what we think and how things pan out for us.
Of course, some of some of us are better wired for tough times than others. Be that as it may, there are simple things we can all do to improve our hand – if we set about to do it. And that is the basis of our philosophy and programs at The Everest Academy.
America’s (second) best idea
And back we go to the idea of wilderness – and national parks in particular. Parks for the people by the people are at the very least America’s second best idea. Parks like the Grand Teton National Park that I’d just climbed up and skied. That park was signed into US law in 1929. But the radically democratic idea that created it was unleashed almost seven decades before when Abraham Lincoln signed into public ownership the breathtaking cathedral-like valley several hundred miles to the west – Yosemite.
The national park was an idea almost as defiant and and independent as the democratic traditions that underwrote it, filmmaker Ken Burns declares in his 2009 documentary on America’s parks. That was because before Yosemite, western civilization’s only tradition of magnificent places was having them owned by and operated for the aristocracy. “What could be more democratic”, asked Carl Pope, of the Sierra Club, “than a nation’s most magnificent places being owned collectively?”.
National parks, a radical idea, had taken root on Thomas Jefferson’s hallowed ground and would soon spread world-wide. Every wilderness that has been afforded some protection since – like Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain or regions of the Nepal Himalaya – owe their existence in some way to that moment of extraordinary 19th century foresight.
Going back in, coming home
So why are national parks so important? And how do they relate to our arc of personal or leadership development?
Etched above the portal to Yellowstone National Park and through which all visitors must pass as they enter it are the words of the USA’s 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt is revered as one of America’s greatest leaders and also perhaps its defining defender of the nation’s wilderness as a democratic ideal. “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people”, Roosevelt said. “Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”
At The Everest Academy, we believe life’s challenges at sea level – those of self awareness, leadership and development – can be best sharpened with experience with the wilderness. Time spent with its mirror. Wilderness as the tipping point for self-awareness, reflection and change.
That’s because the wilderness can help reveal us and what is important to us in ways otherwise hidden or perhaps untested. It’s the same broad premise on which the UK’s Outward Bound program started in the 1940s and Australia’s Geelong Grammar School’s Timbertop program was launched in 1953 – and helps explain why both have proved so durable and influential worldwide. By going into those places, we allow the space and time to see our reflection – and deal with it.
It was writer Dayton Duncan – in the preamble to Burns’ documentary – who contrasts being in that state with how most of us struggle to make sense in our work and personal life in busy urban environments. “I think deep in our DNA there is this embedded memory of when we were not separated from the rest of the natural world but part of it…We cross that boundary and suddenly we are no longer master of the natural world, we’re part of it. And in that sense it’s like we are coming home.”
By John Carruthers
Learned Optimism, M. Seligman, Random House, 1992
Emotional Intelligence, D. Goleman, Bantam, 1995
Emotional Capitalists: The New Leaders, M. Newman, 2007
The Hogan Guide, R. Hogan, J. Hogan, R. Warrenfeltz, Hogan Press, 2007
How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioural Science to Transform your Working Life, C. Webb, Random House, 2016
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (documentary), K. Burns, 2009
Jackson Hole Mountain Guides http://jhmg.com/