The headgame: Scotland winter mountaineering - The Mountain People
What are the mountains of your mind?

The headgame: Scotland winter mountaineering

This is part five in our ‘Getting ready for Scotland winter mountaineering’ series, designed to help you prepare physically and mentally, putting in place realistic strategies and effective tactics.
Training and fitness for Scotland winter mountaineering
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
Winter Climbing Part I – Getting started
Winter Climbing Part II – Training
Managing yourself on the hill for Scotland winter mountaineering


“I’d just taken a good size fall and I knew had a choice. I couldn’t do the move in front of me, I’d proven that when I’d fallen about five metres and almost crushed Sam as he valiantly held me.”
The emotions going on in this moment are intense, everything in my head – my body – said stop, it’s too hard and you’re not going to make it…

Flight or freeze

We all know those times when the choice in front of you is stark, fight, flight or freeze – in other words go for it, give up or turn into a gibbering wreck.
While this may be a dramatic example, it is not the only element of the headgame. It is much wider, for our trip to Scotland it has already started.
Am I fit enough? Have I got the right kit? Will I get on with everyone? Can I trust these people? Will the weather be good enough?
It is that combat that goes on in the mind, the voices that both want to lead you into a wilderness of despair or loneliness, and yet also draw us to lofty thought of great achievements, the amazing beauty of the mountains and deep meaningful time with friends.

The different levels of the headgame

As we gather most of us will all be dealing with the headgame on one level or another. Some are hyper confident, some excruciatingly nervous.
Some of us quietly deal with the messages going around in our heads and just get on with it, some over communicate – a type of nervous verbosity to lower expectations of those around us.
And some are blissfully unaware, though they’re usually those annoying types that operate very happily in their comfort zones.

Discipline for the mind

The headgame works on many different levels, from those intense feelings as we operate on the edge of our abilities, to the much more mundane and simple choice to go out and exercise or work on a specific skill.
The outdoors is a challenging environment, it requires us to discipline our minds as much as our bodies.
The bravest person in the outdoors is not necessarily the most disciplined in their training, and vice versa.

Developing defensive strategies

I am no shrink, but my wife has been training to be an Art Therapist, so for the last year the conversation around the table has been centred on psychology, psychoanalysis, Freud, Lacan and some terminology that I wish I had never heard.
I have learnt, second hand, how complex our minds are, how incredibly adept they are at adapting to situations and developing defensive strategies for the situations we find ourselves in.
The mind does it’s best to protect itself and the body.
However, just like our bodies – it needs disciplining, exercising. Left to itself it can all too easily drift into dark and dangerous alleys.

Saunas and ice baths

Winter mountaineering is demanding at so many different levels. Physically it is clear that it is significantly more challenging than a simple dander in summer conditions.
However, we are not always aware of the effects on our mind. It is has been clearly documented that when our core temperature drops and we stray into the hypothermia zone, our minds start packing up.
Last week Nick talked about the simple decision to re-tie a boot lace, and the consequences of not doing so.
When you’re dangerously cold, even if your boots are falling off – you are almost incapable of deciding to do anything about it! So, don’t get cold – and don’t be afraid to ask your buddies if they’re cold.
If you suspect sluggish thoughts – and they don’t have a secret stash of hard liqueur that they’re suffering from – then it may be time to act decisively and get them warm.

Don’t drift into neutral

The main thing is – don’t let your mind drift into neutral, keep it active, keep on being aware of what is going on around you.
When you add tiredness to the formula, especially during the descent at the end of a long day, that is when you need to kick your mind into action and keep it focused.

See through the fog of confusing thoughts

We depend so much on our senses to help us in the mountains, our sight to see what the terrain is like, our hearing to listen for streams, roads, trees rustling.
However, often in the Scottish winter – you’re in a white out, so you can’t see anything – and the wind is howling, so you have no meaningful input from your hearing.
Only too often our heads tell us that something is wrong – don’t trust the compass, listen to your instincts – and before you know it you’re way off course, lost and now it’s getting dark.
Discipline your mind, don’t let it grope for answers or courses of action that are unreasonable, when it comes to navigation take it step by step and decide to see through the fog of confusing thoughts.

What to do when it all goes wrong

Then comes the question of what to do when it is all going wrong.
Whether you’re metres above a dodgy ices screw and you’re pumping out, or maybe you’ve just gone down the wrong side of a mountain and you’re tangled up in cliffs, or you are exhausted and unable to keep up with everyone else?
It’s easy to say DON’T PANIC! ‘Cause it’s too late, were already there – something bad is gonna happen!
Always choose a positive decision over a passive slipping away; fall properly taking care of those axes, turn back – rethread the route that got you tangled, overcome your pride – tell people to slow down.
Often the brave decision is the right one, learn when it is right to tune in or tune out those conflicting thoughts in your mind and more importantly – learn how to manage them.

Positive corporate attitude

If this is your first Community event, you are in for a treat. Generally there is a very positive corporate attitude, with plenty of positive encouragement for people to find their potential.
However, in the end it is up to you whether to take captive your thoughts, discipline them and direct them towards a positive outcome, or whether to aim too low and potentially feel disappointed at the end of the time.
There is a lot of experience out there, and the instructors are all very personable (Just ignore Nick’s jokes), so get over your own internal barriers and get used to opening up about the headgame that is going on in your mind.
You’ll be surprised – you won’t be the only one feeling trapped by your thoughts and feelings. However, the best way to get over it is by being open.
A great article on how to deal with the issue of fear, with both a personal and scientific look at the subject.

Getting ready for Scotland winter mountaineering series

Training and fitness for Scotland winter mountaineering
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
Winter Climbing Part I – Getting started
Winter Climbing Part II – Training
Managing yourself on the hill for Scotland winter mountaineering

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