JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE
By Margo Talbot
We all go outside to clear our heads, but some of us have more clearing out to do than others. Margo Talbot delves into the destructive forces of post-traumatic stress and how nature’s healing power can bring us back into balance.
This article was originally published in Volume 1 of the Canadian Rockies Annual and was a finalist in the Mountaineering Article category in the 2016 Banff Mountain Book Competition.
I CAN STILL REMEMBER the first time joy swept over me. I was twenty-eight years old and living in Jasper. My boyfriend had convinced me to buy climbing gear so that we could spend the winter scaling frozen waterfalls along the Icefields Parkway.
Sometimes life bends effortlessly to our will. No sooner had I begun to look for equipment than it sprang up everywhere around me. Within days I had the requisite helmet, harness, crampons and ice tools. The following morning, we took the parkway south to climb Melt Out, a 100-metre strip of ice that is perfect for a beginner. As it turns out, it was the first of hundreds of frozen sculptures I would scale in the years that followed.
UP UNTIL THAT DAY in February of 1992, I didn’t know that happiness or inner peace were possible for me because I had never felt them. Having grown up in a stressful and chaotic atmosphere, I re-created these conditions everywhere I went and, at the same time, sought to escape the pain through self-medication. By the time I tried ice climbing, I had been on street drugs for sixteen years, a habit I outpaced only by my use of its legal counterpart, alcohol.
The rope was up and it was my turn to climb. Years of construction work had given me a strong upper body and an impeccable swing. The rhythmic quality of the movements felt soothing, and the inherent aggression of swinging sharp objects into ice provided a safe way to exhibit my turbulent and socially unacceptable emotions.
Psychological theory suggests that repressed anger is the root of depression and studies show that depressed people have low levels of neurotransmitters in their brains. It is also said that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Regardless, what brewed on that mid-winter day was a drug-free cocktail so potent and effective, it was magic – a combination of physical activity, mental focus and chemical balance.
For the duration of that climb, my body was engaged and my mind quiet. I had inadvertently stumbled upon a miraculous discovery: that the intense and stressful emotions that accompanied me everywhere couldn’t touch me while I climbed. It is a practice I now know as “wilderness therapy,” a nature-based healing experience that is being used to help those suffering from stress, trauma, addiction or mental illness. I instinctively knew that it was only a matter of time before I could transpose this freedom into other areas of my life.
AT THE SAME TIME as I was using the healing power of nature to get off drugs and rebuild my life, I met someone else who had dealt with his own serious psychiatric issues by going into the mountains.
Climber, author and mountain historian Chic Scott is a legend in the Canadian Rockies. A cutting-edge mountaineer in his time, he did the first winter ascent of both Mounts Assiniboine and Hungabee, and in 1973 climbed Myagdi Mathi, making it the first Himalayan summit to be reached by a Canadian. In 1967, he pioneered the Jasper to Lake Louise high-level traverse, a trip he repeated at age 64 along its valley counterpart.
Beginning in his teenaged years, Scott was devoted to mountain adventuring; he built his entire life around a relationship with nature. Although he first landed in the psych ward of the Foothills Hospital in 1975, it wasn’t until Scott’s second breakdown in 1979, at the age of 34, that his relationship with mountain adventure came to a grinding halt.
Scott can trace his breakdowns back to a series of stressful events. In 1969, he got involved with drugs, and although this didn’t cause his breakdowns it had a destabilizing effect on his life. This was followed by tragedy on an expedition, a failed romance, and the death of a co-worker on the set of The Eiger Sanction. Pressures added up, and he went over the edge.
For the next eight years, he laid low, taking a job in the biology lab at the University of Alberta and living a quiet life in suburbia.
But the mountains called him back, and in 1988 Scott left his job and his suburban existence. He returned to the healing power of the mountains, not through extreme climbing adventures, but by going to Alpine Club of Canada huts to chop wood and sit by the fire. It was in such a setting, at the Wates-Gibson Hut in 1992, that I first encountered Scott. Little did we know at that first meeting in the Tonquin Valley how much we had in common. Unbeknownst to Scott, he would be a role model and source of inspiration for me in the ensuing decades.
I caught up with Scott recently and found out he still espouses the same philosophy. For him, the essential element in healing a stressed-out psyche is a relationship with nature. He is only half-joking when he says he is a “serious user” of the outdoors – as if climbing, or other time spent in nature, were forms of addiction. But, like Scott, many of us find that when we are in the mountains, we feel most at peace and our minds feel at rest. Ask Scott what the antidote to many of society’s ills is and his answer is simple: “Fresh air, blue skies, and lots of exercise.”
OUR STATE OF CONSCIOUSNESS, or worldview, is developed in childhood, a time when the human brain is most elastic and able to bend to the conditions of our environment. When these conditions are adverse, our brains do not develop properly, leaving us with coping mechanisms that become personality traits. These may later be diagnosed as mental illness, the basis of which is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Our ordinary state of waking consciousness remains the same unless we are shocked out of it. The trigger depends on the individual; it can be a beautiful piece of classical music, the birth of a child or falling in love. For me, it was ice climbing and wilderness therapy.
Adverse childhood conditions, such as the ones I experienced, are the most prevalent cause of PTSD, though many readers may be more aware that it affects people who have lived through adult trauma. Examples of this include rape victims, emergency responders and combat soldiers like Brent Peters.
Peters is an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces, whom I first met in 1998. In 2002, he moved from Edmonton to Canmore in order to transition into a life of climbing and guiding, and to offset the intensity of his military career. He most recently served as the operations manager of a tank squadron in Afghanistan in 2010. He is also an alpine guide and runs a company called Peak Stratagem, which specializes in instruction, coaching and mentorship.
Before Peters went to Afghanistan, his ideas on wilderness therapy laid the foundation for the Outward Bound Canada’s Veterans’ Program. As a guide and combat veteran himself, he knows that coping mechanisms determine the extent to which a person can successfully deal with traumatic stress. For various reasons, some people’s psyches are more resilient to stress, or they haven’t yet been exposed to a situation they can’t handle. Peters likens this to the deficit zone in an avalanche path, where one step too close can set off a slide. All of our psyches are like that avalanche path; some of us have a critical weakness that is going to slide every time, while the rest of us have smaller or larger deficit zones, depending on our experiences, upbringing, genetics and what we’ve been exposed to.
Peters knows it is critical for the veterans he works with to manage their own deficit zones, and he uses the arena of alpine climbing to help them do this. By dissecting problems into their individual components, and then solving them sequentially, big challenges get reduced to bite-sized, manageable tasks. By staying focused on what matters (safely achieving goals in the mountains), the body is brought into the present moment where stress from past events recedes into the background.
Having the ability to compartmentalize – to put things into boxes until you have time to deal with them – is important to surviving life as a combat veteran. “The most valuable thing I can offer as a guide,” explained Peters, “is an experience that creates space between the client and their trauma. This space, combined with regaining trust in their abilities, allows my clients to re-establish the lost connection with themselves.”
ITS NOT ONLY THE emotionally stressed who seek out an experience of transcendence in the wilderness environment. In recent decades, we have seen an unprecedented interest in extreme sports and the athletes who chase a state of mind that has become known as “flow.”
Psychologist and climber Geoff Powter is perfectly positioned to see this phenomenon from multiple angles. To explain the recent upsurge in the glorification of extreme sports, he points to evolutionary biology and suggests the idea that, as a society, we have become too safe and too comfortable. In essence, we have it too easy. So, while we may fight against and judge the people who act as social disruptors, we may also find ourselves fascinated that someone wants to wear a wingsuit and jump off a cliff. We may even be tempted do to it ourselves.
Extreme athletes may be seeking a “reset” button, a recalibrating experience that makes them feel incredibly alive. It is not unlike a transformational drug experience, except that there is a reward feedback loop that brings you closer to life, as opposed to one that descends into addiction.
Powter points to research that shows we can’t underestimate the deeply rooted power that comes from being biologically connected to nature. Wilderness pursuits help to lift us out of our jumbled, stressed minds and reconnect us to our bodies. This helps us to be in the present moment, since bodily sensations and feelings are rooted in the here and now. At the same time, being in a sublime natural landscape helps us to feel part of something greater than ourselves, which can set the stage for a transformational experience.
Powter has worked with many trauma survivors, which has given him an understanding of trauma’s causes and treatments. In PTSD, there is no physiological basis for the fears, yet our reactions to these fears are still in our bodies. This is part of the reason why physiologically based therapy, such as Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), works better than talking.
Experts have identified three differentiated types of PTSD, and Powter has seen all three in his practice. The first type is seen in people who are simply “wired differently,” and more vulnerable to life stressors that others would shake off. The next type is seen in people who have lived through continuous, high-level stress, such as combat or adverse childhood experiences. And the third type is seen in those who are exposed to incredibly ferocious single events.
Ken Wylie lived through this last type of trauma. In January 2003, in a high-profile and controversial tragedy, Wylie, along with twelve others, was caught in an avalanche and buried alive for thirty minutes. Unlike long-term stress, which affects the mind slowly and over time, what Ken suffered caused an immediate change in his perspective on life.
“I trusted in the hierarchy before the avalanche,” he said. “I trusted that somebody else knew more, and could decide better, than I could. The accident taught me to stand in my own integrity; to take responsibility for my actions. In order to do this, I had to find a way to love what had happened to me, to turn it into a gift.”
This was no small feat. Ken had been the assistant guide on that day, and seven clients perished in the disaster. In addition to surviving a near-death experience, he suffered classic survivor’s guilt and found he couldn’t return to the mountains he loved. He went on an internal adventure to make sense of the accident and his life leading up to it, transforming the energy of pain, anger and loss into courage, peace and connection.
Seven years later, he returned to his guiding career, and now sees the mountains as a place to heal rather than a series of peaks to conquer. His Mountains For Growth programs, which he established in 2013, use outdoor adventures to help people, including those suffering from trauma, to gain personal insight and wisdom.
Eleven years after the event, he published Buried, and credits owning his story as essential to moving him from a state of victimhood to one of personal empowerment. The mountains were integral to this process.
PROFESSIONALS IN THE FIELD of wilderness therapy often see a moment in their work that they describe with phrases like “the re-ignition of a spark” or the attainment of “some sort of clarity.” These are akin to Powter’s reset button, the “space” Peters provides for his clients, Wylie’s internal adventure or what Scott experiences when the clutter of distraction falls away and his mind regains focus.
This idea of a reset button is perhaps the most apt description of what happened to me on that winter day back in 1992, where past and future fell away as I picked my way up that frozen waterfall. In the intervening years, I have learned to transpose this feeling of freedom into other areas of my life, forging a connection with myself that I had thought was lost forever.
Margo Talbot is an author, speaker and climber based in Canmore, Alberta. She works with youth-at-risk, addictions programs, and organizations looking to enhance their wellbeing through a focus on vitality in the workplace.
A sponsored athlete with Outdoor Research, her travels have taken her from the High Arctic to Antarctica, and the mountain ranges in between.
She is the author of All That Glitters: A Climber’s Journey Through Addiction and Depression, and the creator of The Vitality Spectrum, an essential tool for both recovery and optimal mental health as outlined in her 2013 TEDx talk.
This article was originally published in Volume 1 of the Canadian Rockies Annual. You can support our independent publishing efforts with a subscription, becoming a ROCKIES member, by buying a single copy or magazie bundle or by purchasing our mountain culture merchandise.
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