The mental game / by Joe McCarthy

Its difficult to summarise what is required of an individual when it comes to backcountry travel and survival. It is something that I continue to ask of myself. It keeps me on my toes; forever searching for new methods that will benefit how I experience nature. In their broadest form (and in no particular order) I've narrowed it down to these four:

  • Equipment (and knowing how to use it!)
  • Skills & Experience
  • Physical Fitness
  • Mental Fortitude

But which of these attributes is of highest importance? Equipment can be bought, physical fitness improved from hours spent exercising, and outdoors skills gained from attending training courses, reading books and leaving suburbia behind. Mental fortitude is something that we are taught far less about. Being mentally focused is the glue that binds the other attributes together; from which we can make clear decisions as the circumstances of each trek change. With the recent high profile male suicides of Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell its become apparent that us men are not as thick skinned as once perceived, and thats okay. We have been programmed from a young age to repress our emotions; an unhealthy way of being in the wild. It is crucial to approach difficulties with a positive mindset and a problem solving attitude, to understand that mistakes will be made when learning,to communicate clearly with yourself and to the group you travel with.

In my life I have found that anxiety is healthy if kept in its place, panic is to be avoided at all costs, and fear is a welcome mechanism that enables the body and brain to work at their best.
— Ranulph Fiennes - Fear: Our Ultimate Challenge

And so why the focus on this psycological aspect? In all honesty it was something I spent very little time on until recently. In May I found myself in the Eastern Cairngorms with an awfully negative mindframe and a lack of commitment to the challenge at hand. After 3 days with no human contact I was depressed and lonely (remember I chose to walk in an area which sees a low footfall so this should hardly have come as a surprise). The dry conditions of the land after weeks without rainfall did all but lift my spirits:

The ground snaps with each step. I stop and look down at the pitiful heather; a bare skeleton of bleached, leafless twigs. As I ascend further the heath is replaced with pockets of pink gravel and clumps of dry, yellowed grass that resemble wire brushes. Over the winter months little snowfall has been able to settle as brutal winds scour the flat-topped plateau lands. Here only the hardiest of plants can survive. The delicate upland flora has lain unprotected in its important time of hibernation and it shows. Open to the elements and unwatered for much of this dry spring the place has become a sorry, yellow land.

Even in May a steady northerly still bites. I climb down into a peat bog to avoid the worst of the wind; looking for any diversity of life. There is no wet softness to the bog as I jump down from the heath. No slick, oily mud waiting to swallow my boot as I walk. Just the rock hard ground, cracked from a severe lack of rain. The burn that winds its way down into the glen below is no more. Just a dry, jagged scar remains, peppered with more pink. The land screams for water and the sun beats down. I rue my decision not to carry extra water into the uplands (not for the first time!) and after another hour and four sips my water bottle shows 100 measly millilitres of tepid water. I continue on, a lonely nomad wandering across the crunchy, beige sea.

Creeping Azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens)

Creeping Azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens)

Spring arrives late here on the sub-arctic plateau and the only specimen of flowering plant I can find on my ascent is the dwarf shrub Creeping Azalea: clinging to the windswept, gravel slopes of Beinn a' Bhùird. Creeping Azalea is an extremely hardy plant which can withstand temperatures and scathing winds down to -40C. Because of its hardiness it doesn't require the protection of the snow blanket in the winter months and each plant can live for up to 60 years. I sit and eat my lunch, appreciating the minuscule pink flowers amongst the surrounding vastness of brown, tan and yellow...

The moment the door shuts behind me I switch into an expedition frame of mind, and so should you. From that point forward you must pay proper attention to the journey, run over the details so that you are completely au fait with the minutiae. You must become active and sharp, spotting signs in the airport ahead of others, and thereby preparing yourself for the kind of alertness that makes the difference when you are in the bush. You must become willing to adapt to new circumstances and bend with the flow of the journey, like the proverbial tree on the mountain.
— Ray Mears - Essential Bushcraft

With this quote in mind i think back to my application to this walk and realise the importance of a positive mental attitude in the wild. Leave your worries and misgivings at home, focus fully on knowing where you are at all times and on planning escape routes for when the weather turns. Check once and then twice your kit and provisions for the journey ahead (I mistakingly left half of my rations at the car on this one). Train yourself physically to deal with any challenges that may arise. And lastly, engage with the landscape around you, just because it is dry and wind beaten doesn't mean that it is completely dead. Embrace the place! Embrace the struggle! Use the creeping azalea as inspiration, for the smallest flower can thrive if only you take the time to look for it.