Progress, one of the central themes of human existence. The past month or so has been a fantastic period of progress for me personally, prompting me to reflect not only on my process, but the question of why. What values underpin my motivation for progress and what influence does that has on how I choose to progress.
As most of you know, the Vertical Year project grew from a dream to climb a mountain called Alpamayo in Peru before turning thirty. Alpamayo, like most mountains in that part of the Andes is glaciated and the climbing involves long stretches of steep snow and alpine ice. Therefore, being a strong ice climber, competent in moving efficiently over this terrain is a valuable asset.
This was one of the motivating factors for me to come to Canada for the winter climbing season. Though I had climbed water ice on several occasions, they were often for a week or less at a time. Not substantial enough to consolidate and build the necessary skills. So, I decided to spend a season climbing in the area with one of the highest densities of long, difficult ice climbs in the world. The Canadian Rockies.
When I first arrived, I was a competent grade three leader and could follow grade five (ice climbing grades range from one to seven). Over the last eight weeks I have spent more than thirty days out climbing water ice, more than all my previous experience combined.
It started off with mainly following. Climbing after the leader has sent the rope to the top of the pitch and set the anchor. It is relatively safe and provides a great environment to focus on technique. Ensuring tool placements are solid and footwork flawless. Furthermore, it presented an opportunity to investigate, with relative safety how lightly I could place my tool into the ice to make upwards progress. Knowledge that certainly helped when it came time to be on the sharp end of the rope.
As I progressed I started leading more frequently. Progressively increasing the difficulty and complexity of the routes. Initially I would place protection every couple of body lengths, no matter what the terrain. However, as I grew to be more confident I placed protection only as required. Just before a bulge in the ice or coming to a hard section after a long stretch of easy ice. Now, it is not uncommon to place only four or five pieces of protection in a fourty-meter pitch, or run it out for fifteen meters on easy terrain. Invaluable when part of staying safe is conserving most of your energy for the hard climbing.
As spring time came around and the temperatures rose I was forced to deal with varying ice quality. From bullet hard blue ice where you are forced to beat it into submission to sun-baked rotten ice where protection was worthless. Having the ability to manage these variations is crucial and a good test of my confidence and skills.
Climbing, as with life can always throw you a curve ball. When it does, it is reassuring to know you can handle it.
This all culminated in climbing Polar Circus last week. A seven-hundred-meter climb with more than five hundred meters of ice, progressively increasing in difficulty as you move up the route. With no less than twenty avalanche zones above, you and your partner need to move efficiently through a lot of terrain to minimise your exposure and stay safe. It was the ultimate test of my progression and I am proud to say that we climbed well.
We alternated leads and I lead my first grade five pitch at the top of the route, after approximately six hours of climbing. Something I am proud of and a memory I will treasure for a lifetime. We completed the route in a respectable time of nine and a half hours car to car, including a half hour casual break at the bottom of the route to have a celebratory drink of tea and some food. You can view a short video of the climb here.
As I approach the end of the ice season I am confident that I now have the capability to climb the mountains of the Peruvian Andes with much greater efficiency and safety than I did two months ago.
I have progressed.
“Good on you mate, but how does this pose any relevance to me?” I hear you say. So, let me, if you will, talk about my process for progress and the values associated with the Vertical Year story.
I wish to only make one point about the process. That is to get out there and start walking the path.
Most of us, myself included get overwhelmed by choices. Where do I start? In what order should I do things? What are all the skills I require? What if I get it wrong? The burden of choosing which path to take can paralyse us from taking any path.
The answer – just pick one. Any path. You are never going to get it right and that is the point. The decisions of our present are heavily influenced by the experiences of our past. Start gathering those experiences and understand how they are influencing your progress.
For me, the key has been to recognise that any experience can be beneficial. You will make mistakes. Learn from them. Without doubt you will fumble, stumble and fall (hopefully not literally if ice climbing!). However eventually you will start to improve. The consequences of your mistakes will lessen in severity and become less frequent in nature.
As you progress, your confidence will grow as you start to recognise you are capable of more. This is not to say that progress is easy or linear in nature. In fact, it is quite the opposite in both respects. It is more a recognition that one of the fundamental keys to progression is to continue walking a path. Any path.
So why do we choose to progress and what does that say about us?
For a significant portion of our history, our progress has been underpinned by either necessity or improving our quality of life. As a species we have progressed from stone tools to those crafted from bronze, from pictographs to complex languages, from hunter gatherer to agriculture. As individuals we focused our energy on finding safe housing, preventing hunger, thirst and living long enough to reproduce.
In a time where our quality of life is pretty bloody good, and where we worry more about how many likes our latest social media post got rather than where our next meal is coming from; what values tend to form the foundation of our individual progress?
Understanding those values is important. They heavily influence how we achieve progress. A person motivated by destructive values such as greed or vanity are more likely to be indifferent to those around them, including close friends and family. They treat people as a commodity, have little regard for the impact their actions have on the wellbeing of others, doing whatever is necessary to get ahead.
These people still progress in today’s world, sometimes quicker and further than others. Unfortunately the culture at most modern corporations indicate these types of values remain close to their heart. Most talk of more admirable values, having policies which outline how they should be exercised. However when it comes to the bottom line, to delivering value to the shareholders these are all too often abandoned.
The pressure to work twelve hours a day, fifty plus hours a week. The pressure to answer ‘urgent’ emails over weekends, blurring any separation between work and leisure. The pressure to cut corners, overlook data and present an argument for a pre-determined outcome. In a world obsessed with image, instant gratification and having more, it is hard to withstand the constant barrage. All in the name of ‘progress’. But progress for who? Progress for what?
As individuals, we are not always in a position to influence the culture of large corporations or governments. However, we do have the responsibility of choosing our own values and acting in accordance with those values. Would a path to progress based on such selfish values be one you are proud to walk? Does the goal, no matter how noble, offset the means we use to achieve it?
Personally, the ends never justify the means. No amount of mental compartmentalisation or gymnastics can change that.
“Screw you buddy! You are taking a year off to go climbing! Who the hell are you to lecture me on values?”
There is no doubt the Vertical Year journey is one of personal progress for me. It presents an opportunity to progress in many areas of my life. Naturally, my skills as a climber will progress. A very personal passion of mine and a selfish pursuit. I am the first to admit that.
The skills I use as a climber however, like risk management, leadership, communication, time management, planning and being self-aware are transferable skills to my life outside of climbing. The Vertical Year provides a platform for me to progress these skills, enabling me to be a more effective employee, leader or influencer within society. The Vertical Year presents an opportunity to fulfill my need for intellectual stimulation if you will.
This year also presents an opportunity for me to connect in a more meaningful way with the world around me. This connection is how I identify spiritually. I am not a religious person and do not believe in any deity or subscribe to any religion. I have made a choice to largely remove myself from modern conveniences, slow down and appreciate mother nature in all her glory. Her beauty, her power, her selflessness, her ability to support life or indiscriminately end it. An appreciation which even I can take for granted during the rat race of modern life.
Social connectedness is important to me. In a time where children spend four times as long in front of screens as they do playing outside, I sometimes worry that our ability to form deep and meaningful connections is at risk.
It is hard to explain the bond that can form between people sharing in an outdoor adventure together, particularly in high risk situations. Life long bonds can be formed through shared experiences in a matter of days, even hours. Having that level of trust, or faith in another person that they will have your back if things go south is one foundation stone for a deep personal connection. The Vertical Year has already provided the opportunity to form some amazing human connections and I believe will continue to deliver, enhancing my ability to form deep meaningful connections for the rest of my life.
The Vertical Year is also providing me the opportunity to give something back. Through raising awareness of the impacts of climate change and youth mental health I am fulfilling my need to contribute something positive to society. To something greater than my own individual needs.
Ultimately this project will help me progress in areas that I identify as critical for living a meaningful life. Intellectual, physical, spiritual, social and contribution to society. I am sure people have other opinions and that is ok.
Progress comes in many forms and is as individualistic as we are. Remember to just start walking the path and don’t get hung up on planning every detail. Just get out there and start! Understand the values that underpin your progress and their influence on how you choose to go about it. I encourage you to make sure that the values influencing your progress are ones that you would be proud of.
Pursue your passions, follow your dreams. The time is now!