Mountaineer Jo Bradshaw has scaled five of the world’s Seven Summits, including Everest and Aconcagua, and has her sights on summiting the remaining two before the year is out. But she wasn’t always so gung-ho. In fact, rewind several years and Jo was a self-confessed ‘no-sayer’ who lived well within her comfort zone.
Here Jo writes about how, through experience, choices and failure, she was able to build a resilient mindset and go on to conquer her fears as well as the world’s most iconic mountains.
SOFA-SURFER TO MOUNTAIN CLIMBER
‘Barriers dear, you are always putting up too many barriers!’ said one too many people in my past life as a no-saying, height-hating comfort lover.
It was true, I did. I used to say no a lot, an awful lot. I used to come up with this whole list of reasons/excuses as why I couldn’t do something.
‘I’m not capable’
‘I’m not fit enough’
‘I can’t afford it’
‘Ohhh, I’m not one of those people’
‘Why would I want to do that?’
‘It’s too high/cold/hot/long/expensive…’ and so on.
Resilience isn’t something I had much of in my past life, but it’s something that you build when you go through bad experiences or when things just don’t turn out the way you thought they were going to. I’ve had a good few times in my life when both of the above have happened but in the past I didn’t really learn from them; I simply felt that life was out to get me. I chose to be a victim of my misgivings rather than victoriously rising above them, learning from the experiences and building an ever-thicker coat of resilience.
Choices not challenges
When I started mountaineering and leading expeditions, I soon learnt that things didn’t go according to plan a lot. The weather is a big factor and something you cannot change; you just work with what the planet is giving you to stay safe, rather than trying to fight it and stick to your agenda. There are many other things which are in your control but, again, sometimes just don’t go according to plan. These things are now great learning points, but back then I used to get really annoyed.
‘Why am I feeling tired? I had a good sleep’
‘I didn’t have a good sleep last night, therefore today is going to be a bad day’
‘We’ve been trekking longer than I thought, therefore I’m grumpy about it’
‘I’m hungry because I forgot to eat, therefore I’m grumpy about it’
It’s taken me a while to learn that we all have choices and my attitude, above all, is the most important attribute to me on any expedition, or actually in life. Gratitude and attitude are choices, not challenges. I have choices, just like everyone else. I can generally choose my mood. I can choose how I deal with any situation. I can choose the words which come out of my mouth. I can choose the tone and intent with which those words are said. On expedition I can choose when and how much I eat or drink and know the impact the lack of sustenance will have on me. Usually not a good one! Choices, choices.
So what is resilience?
The dictionary meaning of resilience is two-fold:
1 – The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.This is something that we all think about – the usual British stiff upper lip, crack on and everything will be OK mode. “The often-remarkable resilience of so many British institutions.”
2 – The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity, flexibility, pliability, suppleness, durability, ability to last, strength, sturdiness, toughness, strength of character, adaptability.“She displayed an indomitable resilience in the face of misfortune.”
I generally focus on the second meaning, the ability to bounce back. Learning from things that go wrong is so important, but most people hate it when things don’t go according to plan. They feel like a failure, they feel like they’ve let themselves or others down. They feel that their perfectionist character has been compromised. When teaching navigation to DofE (Duke of Edinburgh) students, they usually beat themselves up if they’ve gone wrong, but getting navigationally challenged is all part of the learning. If you don’t go wrong, you learn less and I remind them that they weren’t born with a compass in their hands; they need to learn the intricacies navigating over time. It doesn’t all come good at once. Going wrong is setting in place the building blocks of a great memory of how to get things right.
Focus on what’s important
I use a few simple ways of helping me through my tough times, either when I’m starting to beat myself up or when I’m fearful, and these have helped me build up my resilience in life.
I used to have a huge fear of heights but over the years I’ve worked on putting a lid of those fears and working out how I can use the fear to my advantage. Fear is a good thing, letting a fear take over is not.
Before I climbed my first 8000m peak in September 2013, I read Rebecca Stephen’s book “On Top of the World”. Rebecca, who is the first British woman to summit Everest and to also complete the 7 summits (the highest peak on each of the 7 continents) is like me in the fact that climbing came to her later on in her life and completely by accident and surprise. She wrote in her book: ‘Your eyes are like a camera lens; you focus on what’s important.’
When I was going up through the ice fall on Manaslu and I came to some tricky sections or a ladder crossing a crevasse, I used those words like a mantra, over and over. I could either choose to look at the gaping chasm of oblivion under my feet when crossing a metal ladder and choose to think of what would happen if I fell, or I could choose to focus on the rungs of the ladder which were keeping me safe, my sturdy foot placements which were also keeping me safe and the ropes that, again, were keeping me safe. All of the good stuff. I use that mantra in my life too, if I’m starting to get overwhelmed by stuff or have got too much on. Simply focus on what’s important.
Adversity builds resilience
Being in a potentially life-ending event can have a big impact on the way you think. I was caught up in the earthquake which rocked Nepal in 2015. My climbing partner, Rolfe, and I were at Camp 1 on Everest when the earthquake struck. We both thought we were going to die and some of our amazing crew plus a few friends did pass away during those fateful 30 seconds when the earth shook us off our feet. It gives you a certain perspective on the way you deal with things and I didn’t want to waste a second chance.
I’m not suggesting you go and hunt out an earthquake to get the same experience, but we all have personal earthquakes during our lives, however big or small they may be, and each little (or big) tremor or earthquake is a building block to our armour of resilience. It’s not what happens in our lives, good or bad, that makes us the people we are but the way we choose to deal with them that counts, which comes back to the ‘we all have choices’ section above.
Find your own strategy
Many adventurers I know have their own ways of dealing with the good and the bad times, the happy and the sad, the challenging and the ‘whoopee!’ moments on expeditions. Anna McNuff has her Cheerleaders and Soldiers of Self Doubt, Sarah Outen has her peloton of friends and family pushing her along the way, and I have two characters, Positive Polly and Negative Nelly, which I use for myself and also when guiding clients on big mountains.
Polly sits on my right shoulder and is all the good things about life. Nelly sits on my left and is the little demon who chips away at my confidence. When I was on Everest in 2016 and on my second attempt to summit that year, Nelly was having a good old chunter into my ear. I was having a particularly difficult time emotionally and wanted to walk off the mountain. I’d had enough of the white noise going on around me, I’d come to climb the mountain, not to be belittled and bullied.
‘You’re not good enough to do this you know,’ chuntered Nelly. ‘Why are you here, you don’t fit in, they don’t think you can do it, they’ve told you so,’ she went on. ‘You’re not as fast as the fastest, you’re not capable of climbing this mountain, what on earth gave you the idea that you were?’ and so on.
Polly chipped in: ‘You are capable, you’re here because you’ve earned the right, you’ve earned your mountaineering stripes, you have the skills, the fitness, the mental aptitude. Don’t go down, carry on up!’ The main thing I remember thinking was ‘the short-term pain of what you are going through at the moment will be insignificant compared to the long-term disappointment of how you will feel if you walk off now’ and that was when I chose to stick it out and get on with the job I had come to do. I reached the summit of Everest two days later thanks to Polly chipping in and getting my mind back into the right place.
Everyone has these moments of insecurity, I’m sure. I wrote a blog for my website last year where I asked a good number of badass expedition comrades to tell me how they get through the bad times. It’s an interesting insight from adventurers in many walks of life so grab a cuppa and have a good read.
Expand your normal
We are not born with resilience; we learn it as we go. Surround yourself with people who will be your champions, who will nudge you in the right direction but tell you when you are heading off on the wrong tracks. It’s good to expand your normal. My normal used to be doing a 9 – 5 job. My normal now is leading big expeditions on gnarly mountains. I never thought I would be capable of doing anything like this, but I am.
These days I worry less about the things I have no control over but care more about the things I do, and I don’t sweat the small stuff. Life is a series of highs and lows and you need to experience the lows to appreciate the highs. You don’t get a rainbow without the rain.
I’ll leave you with a little poem which I just love and I feel that it sums up what I have said in this blog post:
You have to take the good with the bad, and smile with the sad,
love what you have got and remember what you had.
Always forgive but never forget,
learn from your mistakes but never regret.
People change, things go wrong,
but just remember life goes on.