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Mental focus and high-altitude climbing — the Gurkha team's expedition doctor examines the psychological aspects of climbing Everest

As all followers of this website know, the 2017 Everest season has been stop-start and somewhat behind schedule. Some climbers hoping for an early summit a week or two ago, behind the rope fixing team, were disappointed when their attempts were thwarted and they had to return to Base Camp. More than a few climbers have packed up and gone home. Similarly, as time goes on, illness (particularly a bad dose of flu that has been doing the rounds) has been trimming the numbers of climbers who are still waiting patiently for their shot at the summit.

With this in mind, the Gurkha Everest team's expedition doctor, Maj Raj RAMC, has written a short piece about the psychological aspects of climbing Everest:

In addition to the physical rigours and challenges of climbing Mount Everest, the key to success on the mountain is the psychological aspect. Most climbers train their bodies to cope with the demands so most will arrive at the mountain with a similar degree of fitness. What differentiates climbers from one another is their psychological and mental focus. This can be the difference between succeeding on the mountain or not.

Altitude itself can do funny things to the mind. There is a belief of a phenomenon of high-altitude anxiety, whereby little things start playing on people’s minds. Things that normally don’t bother one at sea level can manifest at altitude. Generally, I see this more in trekkers, whereas I expect climbers to have a more robust mind-frame in order to cope with the challenges ahead. Experiences that climbers have been through before, and life experience in general, will help to mitigate the risk of the anxieties that altitude can bring on.

Everyone needs a psychological coping strategy to deal with the mountain. There can be much time spent waiting at Base Camp and climbers will need a “go with the flow attitude” as summit window of opportunities can change in an instant. Climbers mentally pumped up to head up for the summit may have to change plans dramatically due to adverse weather or other unforeseen circumstances. They will need to learn to cope with switching plans from one moment to the next and from being psychologically ready to go to having to relax and chill the mind.

Unfortunately, the nature of Everest is that year-in year-out there are normally some tragedies and other dramatic events. This too can play on climbers’ minds and can lead to some packing up and going home without having stepped much on the mountain. Climbers have to prepare themselves psychologically for the risks and accept that bad things happen. They need to stay focused and on task. Many scenarios and thoughts will go through their minds just before climbing the mountain. However, once on the mountain, I can’t stress the importance of that mental focus and not to be distracted and affected by other events. It's only when down the mountain should one allow the mind to wander and think of the various scenarios that could have permeated higher up, leading to failure or tragedy. On the mountain, though, the focus is essential to harness the skills and experience of the climber to succeed.

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Articles by: Charlotte Lycett Green
Images by: Alun Richardson

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