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The world's longest suicide note: ONE MILLION words.

I write about life with bipolar disorder (a.k.a. manic depression).

All opinions are my own.

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On Probation

7 min read

This is a story about being on tenterhooks...

Book quote

I'm a living contradiction. I choose security and certainty over the vain hope of hitting the jackpot. If I was given the choice between having a "B" grade, but not having to do any work or suffer any uncertainty, versus the potential to achieve an "A+" then I would take the "B" grade without a moment's hesitation. If you think that's settling for mediocrity, you're wrong - I choose my battles and I achieve "A+" grades all the time... as an accidental consequence of pursuing the things I'm interested in and passionate about.

The other part of my contradictory personality is that I choose to take incredible risks. I jump out of planes. I climb rock faces. I scale high mountains. I ride gigantic waves in gale-force winds. Why the hell would I do that?

There are a lot of risk-reward-cost-benefit calculations that go on inside my head.

I've gathered a lot of data.

The decision to take dangerous highly addictive drugs might seem like one of the most baffling choices that a person would elect to do. For example, taking heroin is seen as an indication of character flaw, but being a BASE jumper is seen as cool, although the latter carries the same risk of premature death.

Let's do a bit more in-depth analysis, shall we?

Cost of being a rock climber:

  • Rock boots: £45
  • Harness: £75
  • Chalk bag & chalk ball: £15
  • Rope £150
  • Helmet £50
  • Belay plate: £20
  • 10 quickdraws: £150

TOTAL: £505

So, for somebody who wants to climb a rock face safely, the minimum amount they're going to have to spend is over £500. Also, you might fall and die. Let's re-iterate that: It's pretty damn obvious that if you climb up a vertical rock face and you lose your grip, you can fall to the ground and be killed on impact.

Cost of being a mountaineer:

  • Crampon-compatible boots: £200
  • Crampons: £120
  • Base layers: £40
  • Mid-layers: £80
  • Shell layer jacket: £250
  • Shell layer salopettes: £180
  • Ice axes: £250
  • Helmet: £50
  • 9mm waterproof rope: £175
  • Ice screws: £120
  • Warthogs: £40
  • Deadman: £40
  • Backpack: £150
  • Survival bag: £20
  • Down sleeping bag: £300
  • Down jacket: £200
  • Tent: £350
  • Sleeping mat: £60

TOTAL: £2,625

So, for somebody who wants to climb a 4,000m+ mountain (Mont Blanc etc) then you're going to have to shell out more than £2,500. In fact, it's going to cost you a lot more, because you're going to need lots of things I didn't list, like spare pairs of socks, spare base layers, and also a stove, cooking utensils, plus all the other expedition gear. You're not going to have much spare change out of £3,500. Did I mention that you're highly likely to be killed by falling rocks, avalanches, falling into a crevasse, or simply plummeting to your death.

I shan't follow the same process for kitesurfing, yacht sailing or skydiving, but the financial cost of putting your life in danger can be staggering, especially when we consider that rugged outdoorsy types are somehow healthy and laudable people of good character and moral fibre; made of the right stuff.

Another group of people who we might consider are the entrepreneurs. Who are these people who reject conventional employment - salaried jobs - and instead choose to make their money by means other than selling their singular body and brain. Are these people risk takers too?

In fact, all the celebrated members of society have one thing in common: they've had the financial means to pursue avenues that are not available to most of the populace, because the need to eat, be housed and be clothed is an insistent demand which is too pressing for all but those who enjoy considerable economic advantages. Do not believe the bullshit - rugged adventurers are not brave souls and entrepreneurs are not gifted geniuses... they're all people who've had the financial backing in order to pursue their expensive dreams. Don't believe any of the "self-made man" bullshit. Behind every "self made" man are a whole bunch of people who've underwritten their risk.

I busted my shoulder up pretty badly - broken bones - on a beach in a remote part of Brasil. My startup co-founder broke his leg very badly indeed in roughly the same part of Brasil. That part of the world is many hours away from a good hospital with a surgeon and operating theatre where complex orthopaedic surgery could be performed. Would we have been so adventurous if we hadn't become somewhat complacent about the bubble we live in?

I'm on probation at the moment. I'm on best behaviour. I'm trying to impress my new girlfriend. I'm trying to prove that I'm a good boyfriend.

But, do I really think that I'm going to fail?

Have I ever been worried that I'm going to fall to my death?

Have I ever been worried that world-class medical establishments and all the many wonders of modern civilisation aren't rapidly available in an emergency? Have I ever been worried that somebody wouldn't patch me up as good as new, if I had an accident?

It's never really crossed my mind that I might not get what I want. Of course, I've had heart-stopping moments when I've suddenly realised how staggeringly exposed I am. I've spent so much of my life living on the edge that I've become desensitised to the worrying fact that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the more times I put my life at risk, the greater the chance that I'm going to be badly injured or killed.

I was worried that I was too fat, old, mentally ill and addicted to drugs and alcohol to ever meet somebody who'd fall in love with me. I was worried that I was too indebted and lacking in any assets - such as a fast car and big house - to be attractive to any object of my affections. I was worried that I was a washed-up loser; a has-been.

Our whole lives are lived under Damocles' sword, somewhat. We could mess up our exams. We could mess up our careers. We could mess up our relationships. There's never a single moment when we can really relax and feel like we're not on probation in some way.

I guess I'm pretty sanguine. I get anxious and I torment myself a very great deal with catastrophic thinking but ultimately, I feel the fear and do what I was always going to do anyway. I'm well aware of the innumerable and virtually unimaginable risks, but if you examine my behaviour - as opposed to what I write - then you'll see that I never choose the low-risk option; you'll see that I continuously pursue the very best that life has to offer, despite stress levels which are almost intolerable.

Tomorrow is an important day, but I already know that I'm going to be OK. My risk is underwritten. What's the worst that can happen? Death? Hospitalisation? Been there. Done that.

 

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Death or Glory

16 min read

This is a story about the value of life...

Camden Pirates

According to my anecdotal observations, people are taking more and more unnecessary risks with their lives and health. I've been heavily involved in this trend, since my teens, when I fought a fairly cowardly childhood with some fairly extreme stuff.

Everything from adrenalin sports to body modification seems to be going through exponential growth. The limit of what is survivable by a human seems to inspire a new generation of people who are pushing the envelope further than ever thought possible.

Let's talk about extreme sports, firstly. The guy who taught me how to rock climb had himself learnt using unimaginably dangerous equipment. The ropes had no stretch to them, and a fall could break your back just from the hard shock of the rope stopping you so suddenly. A lot of the equipment was improvised: large engineering nuts were threaded through with a bit of thin rope. People didn't even use harnesses to abseil and belay a lot of the time, they just let the rope slip around their bodies.

Kitesurfing might look extreme to you, but 15 years ago you basically hooked yourself up to an enormous kite that you couldn't release in an emergency, and you couldn't 'de-power'... that is to say that you couldn't let the wind go out of it in a strong gust, you were just yanked into the sky or dragged along.

I can't really talk about skydiving too much, as I've only done 21 jumps, but I was pulling my parachute at 5,000ft... plenty of time to pull my reserve parachute if I had a malfunction. Special care was taken to ensure that every skydiver was far apart from each other in the air, and it was scary when somebody fell past me and then opened their parachute only a few hundred metres away. If somebody crashes into you at 125mph, thousands of feet in the air, it's not going to end well.

Now we have climbers who will happily jump off a suspended platform and fall the whole length of their climbing ropes, just for the thrill... like a bungee jump. They trust their equipment so much that they actually choose to fall. Most of what I was taught as a climber by my old-school mentor was simply "don't fall".

Now we have kitesurfers who are jumping over hard objects that could kill them. One of the UK's best known kitesurfers famously jumped over Worthing Pier. I've had two close encounters with a pier myself, one of which destroyed my kite, and the other involved a jet-ski rescue of a friend's kite. When I learnt to kitesurf, the idea was to stay away from rocks, cliffs, buildings and anything hard that you might be splatted against by the pull of your kite.

Now we have skydivers who are wearing wingsuits and flying within a couple of feet of rocks, trees, cable cars, bridges, roads, houses... just about anything on a steep mountainside. When they open their parachute, they have barely enough time to unzip their arms from their wingsuits so that they can grab the control toggles, let alone pull the cutaway and reserve handle... but the reserve parachute would never open in time if they had a malfunction anyway.

Given that a parachute will malfunction every 10,000 jumps, and there's hard data that supports that statistic, then you can precisely say what the probability is of you dying from a BASE jump or wingsuit flight with a low canopy opening.

I've known people who've had accidents climbing, kitesurfing and skydiving, so why would I continue to do these dangerous things? Well, there has been incredible improvement in the quality of the equipment in just the last 15 years. However, I think the main reason is that us adrenalin junkies never think that an accident is going to happen to us... we tell ourselves that we're too skilled, too careful, too lucky... accidents happen to other people because they made a mistake. We all think we're infallible.

By my mid twenties I had experienced plenty of close calls, but thankfully never been hospitalised.

Camden Tree Man

Getting into the extreme difficulty grades of rock climbing starts to be a game of russian roulette. The 'protection' that you can place to save your life if you do end up falling, starts to be very inadequate in certain parts of the climb. You have to accept that injury or death is going to occur if you fall in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Pulling off the hardest kitesurfing tricks can actually injure you pretty badly, even though you're doing them on water. One of the first times I tried to do a 360 degree spin, I accidentally looped my kite and hit the water going at about 40mph. It doesn't sound like much, but it could have easily broken a rib. The higher you go, and the stronger the wind, the more chance of you crashing into the water at high speed, and the more the water acts like a solid surface.

Waves are probably the biggest danger to a kitesurfer though, and without your kite you can be in big trouble. I once got pummelled into the seafloor down in Brighton, catching waves that had reached the size of houses. It was only because my kite pulled me to the surface and onto the beach that I didn't drown. Sadly, somebody we used to kitesurf with in Southbourne was not as lucky when he lost his kite and perished trying to swim to shore in big waves.

For a skydiver, you can obviously calculate the risk of having a double parachute failure, but most injury and death seems to occur when trying to land, when your parachute is actually open. At the place where I learnt, there was a motorway, a high-speed railway line, loads of buildings and trees and all sorts of other hard things that you could fly into, that would injure or kill you.

The very first time that I jumped, my lines were all twisted up. Not exactly a malfunction, but sometimes people have to cut away from their main parachute and open their reserve because the line twists are causing them to turn in a tight spiral downwards. Why was it not more off-putting that I actually had a problem with my parachute to sort out, while dangling in a harness, thousands of feet above the hard ground?

 

Skydive Road Junction

As you can see, I'm above a fairly major road junction, and heading towards a nearby town. The ground is approaching at over 120mph. I chose to jump out of the plane. Nobody made me do this. I decided to take the risk. An accident will never happen to me, right?

What I can say about all of this, is that personal experience is a very poor way to judge risk, but it's an unavoidably human thing to do... to base our perception of danger on our own individual lives, rather than looking at the wider statistics.

I've had a lot of hospital visits during my recent troubles, but I have no lasting health damage. Obviously, I never died. I didn't even feel much pain or discomfort that I can remember. To all intents and purposes, life has taught me that no matter what ridiculous risks I take, I seem to be immortal and virtually indestructible.

If I look at all the times I've put my life on the line, put my head in the lion's mouth, as it were... statistically I shouldn't be around to tell this tale. I should be more mindful of the fact that I'm one of the lucky ones... the one that got away, by the skin of his teeth. However, that's not how my psychology works. For every brush with death, that just seems to reinforce my belief that I can get away with unimaginable risk taking.

Why should it not be that way? For every harrowing event that you survive, why shouldn't it make you braver, less risk-averse. To all intents and purposes, the Universe seems to be speaking to you... that your life was spared, that you escaped catastrophic injury or death, just proves that you're special, you're different... you can put your life on the line and get away with it.

Here in the UK there are no predators, no wars, no unavoidable hazards. The biggest risk to your life is a road traffic accident. So, does it therefore seem logical that my latest adrenalin sport is playing in traffic? Deliberately dodging black cabs, red double-decker busses and Toyota Priuses driven by people who can barely drive.

I sawed my bicycle's handlebars down to the same width as my shoulders, so that I can fit through ridiculously small gaps, provided I keep my elbows in and ride like hell. Occasionally I see a gap, and then decide to abort at the last minute because I sense that something's not quite right. The sensible thing would be to avoid those touch-and-go situations altogether, but more often than not I'll lay my life on the line simply for the thrill of it.

Living on the Edge

I never really think that living on the edge like this is disrespectful to those who haven't been as lucky as me. I do feel guilty about wasted NHS resources where I've been treated in hospital, but when doctors have told me how close I came to dying, it doesn't really have the intended effect.

Trying to scare somebody into taking less risks doesn't work, as we have seen with smoking. Printing "SMOKING KILLS" in big bold letters on cigarette packets looks particularly ironically ineffective, when a smoker is reaching into that packet twenty times for a 'cancer stick' before discarding the empty wrapper, and purchasing another box of fags.

I mentioned body modification, right at the start of this blog post. People are willingly submitting themself to the tattoo artist's needles, or the plastic surgeon's knife. These procedures are not without danger, but they are also painful, uncomfortable, as well as producing irreversible bodily changes.

You would have thought that people would have seen tattoo disasters, or had one of their own, and decided that making a permanent alteration to your body is a foolish thing to do. However, we find the opposite... once people have one tattoo, they often get more, and some people are going further, with piercings, stretched earlobes & lips, subdermal implants, deliberate scarring of their skin.

Ok, so London is gritty and urban, but there's a whole subculture where huge tattoos are totally normal and accepted. In every hipster cafe and trendy bicycle repair shop, you're likely to be served by people who have whole arms covered in richly coloured tattoos, necks, hands... these aren't the kind of thing you can cover up.

If you earn shit wages as a coffee shop barista or whatever, and there is literally zero hope of you ever being able to afford to buy your own home, why wouldn't you do something with your money that feels good? Blast all your cash on booze and tattoos. Money is just fun tokens... it doesn't buy you a lifestyle anymore, for most young people.

The long-term hopes of people have been dashed. There's no career ladder anymore. There are no good jobs full stop. There's just student debt and some low wage, and whatever you can do to fill the empty void. The idea of saving money for a rainy day is just insulting, when it's a hand-to-mouth existence.

This counter-culture of piercings, tattoos, beards, moustaches, vibrant hair colours and extreme haircuts. This fixation on image. So many selfies... I can empathise. I feel that I know where it's coming from. What have you got, other than the skin you live in, and the clothes on your back? Feel good in your own skin, because you'll never have a home to call your own, to feel good in.

You might as well get that big tattoo on your neck, because you're never going to work in an office, hoping to get that big promotion, like your Dad did. You might as well spend all your disposable income on alcohol and drugs and expensive coffee, because you're never going to be able to afford to settle down and start having kids in a nice big family home, as a housewife, like your Mum did.

The extreme sports are pretty much banished for those on a low income, so extreme drinking, extreme drug taking, extreme risk taking on your bike in traffic, extreme sexual behaviour... extremely short-term decisions. That's the only life opportunity that's offered. People have to get by however they can, and part of getting by is seeking reward, pleasure.

I don't think we're living in an era of hedonism at all. In fact there's a certain bleakness to everything. There's a certain amount of sorrow that is being drowned. Young people's lives are harder than you think, and those lives are very sparsely punctuated with what few highlights they can afford.

What was once a subculture, something extreme, something for the minorities, something for those who were excluded from the mainstream, is actually now becoming the mainstream. The "jocks" who are flawlessly good looking, fashionably dressed and are following the prescribed path of academic and sporting prowess, followed by a great career in a big company... these people are the freaks now.

I forget who it was who once said "if you want to be different, to stand out, then don't get a tattoo". Those words are ringing very true today.

I chose to get into extreme sports because I was bullied and ostracised a lot at school. Now it seems like anybody who's got the money is an off-piste snowboarder, kitesurfer, skydiver or whatever. It's no longer an exceptional thing to risk your life in pursuit of your little moment of happiness in an otherwise bleak existence.

Bluffing Balls

A strange thing starts to happen when you pressurise and threaten somebody who has spent a long time contemplating life and death decisions. Instead of being bullied, cowed, pushed and shoved in the way that you want them to, they double down: they will raise the stakes.

As danger approaches, I find that I run towards it rather than away. I don't try and make the last few pounds in my bank account last as long as possible... what would be the point of that? To disappear off the face of the planet with a whimper?

I'm a very bad person to play chicken with. If you think that risk of death, or anything inbetween is going to instill fear in me that will control my decisions, then you're very stupid and deluded.

If you think I'm the stupid one, you're wrong. Obviously I avoid pain and discomfort. It's actually the smart thing to do, to avoid the unwinnable battle, but at the same time to not submit yourself to a life of sustained misery. I'll avoid the fistfight with somebody who just enjoys the thrill of violence, but yet I'll use the very last of my energy, money - whatever I've got left - in some final roll of the dice that will leave me far more beaten and broken than any battering I could receive from somebody's fists.

You think that decisions like that are stupid? Well, you simply haven't calculated the odds. What do you do when you're dealt weak cards? Go all in. Push all your casino chips into the pile with an icy calm. Fortune favours the brave, and a life of cowardice is no life at all.

Some people are able to eke out a life, continuously looking over their shoulder in fear. Some people are able to live under Damocles' sword, with a continuous threat of redundancy, bankruptcy, mortgage default, reposession... not being able to feed and clothe their kids, not being able to pay the bills. Even though this miserable existence was once possible, the route is now barred. Why would you want it anyway?

Do I hanker for a time when I was drawing a regular salary, hoping for a big pay rise and bonus every year, paying my mortgage, trying to save enough money to put me ahead of the game? It's bullshit, you're never going to get your nose in front. You've been set up to fail from the start.

My instinct to nurture is rather unfulfilled, especially now that I no longer live with my cat, Frankie. However, I've got no skin in the game besides my own. There's absolutely no incentive to curtail my risk taking. There's absolutely no incentive to be subdued, beaten down into submission, and to accept an intolerably miserable existence. Of course I'd rather die.

It's not even about depression or mental illness. It's just a response to the world, to circumstances, to my environment. It's sane and rational to consider the final solution: a premeditated suicide.

Actually, when I think about my quality of life, I wouldn't give up the last few years for anything. I've had the ride of my life. If I skid into an early grave as a crumpled mess, then at least I lived. I know that "live fast, die young" is such a horrible cliché, but I 'get' it now. Having had both lives, I choose the one with extreme risk every time. Dying a long drawn out death of anxiety over whether my pension fund is big enough, is my idea of torture.

I wonder whether those young people, with their complete fixation on the short-term, share my lack of fear of death. I wonder if they have also made a rational decision to reject a life of constant anxiety over an unknowable future filled with pathetic threats... torturous death by a thousand cuts.

Why on earth would I want to be wealthy in my old age, when I'm stalked by cancer, cardiovascular disease and other age related shit that's going to make an active lifestyle increasingly improbable? I'm glad that I've lived and loved and lost, and now life hangs by the slenderest thread.

Am I being melodramatic? I don't care what you think, actually. You can call my bluff... I can't lose. I might end up without any fun tokens left, but that's all part of the thrill, the adventure... the joy of living your life, rather than waiting to die.

Wakeboard Jump

Cut the thread, and I'll fly

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Hump Day

8 min read

This is a story about determination to succeed...

Chamonix Mont Blanc

When I finish this blog post, I will have written 50,000 words in two months. My aim is to write 300,000 words this year. I'm on target, but just hitting 100,000 words will be hard... that's the length of a novel.

So, I'm re-centring myself for the next push ahead. I know that I have rambled and lost my way, and confused myself about why I even started writing this. However, I have continued putting one foot in front of the other, in the hope that I will reach some unseen summit at some point in future.

Why do people climb mountains? "Because they're there" is the usual response you will get from a mountaineer. For me, I like the view and I like knowing that at the very moment I reach the top of the peak, I'm amongst a group of people who are similarly blessed or cursed with the desire to put themselves through great hardship and work very hard to achieve some abstract goal. Very few people in the world will be enjoying such great views at that moment in time, as a reward for their efforts.

Sometimes work is its own reward, and I certainly feel a bit of premature pride, knowing that I have produced half a novel already. Ok, so it wouldn't be a very good novel, but if I can write 3, then with some aggressive editing, there might be something readable there.

Even if I throw away everything I've written and start again, after a year, at least I will know that I have the stamina and discipline to sit and write every day. I will have some ideas about what kinds of things I'd like to write about, some themes. I can then structure and guide my writing, to produce something that is more coherent.

Ok, so writing about oneself is conceited, and nobody cares who I am because I'm not some Z-list celebrity who's famous for being an idiot on a reality TV show or whatever it is. I don't actually care who reads this now. In a lot of ways this is an insurance policy.

I wrote before about how I had written my own obituary. When I read it back, it was barely a few bullet points. I often think of that Nina Simone song that goes:

Well I'm just a soul whose intentions are good; Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood

I'm actually crying as I write those words, because it feels as if I have now re-centred on why I am writing all this stuff. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm very upset about the idea of being buried as some kind of black sheep. A convenient dumping ground for other people's guilty conscience.

I've been fighting to be heard and understood my whole life and unfortunately, when you are sick and tired and exhausted, the bullies and the abusers find it very easy to drown you out. Yes, the weaker you get, the easier you are to quietly brush under the carpet.

The problem with character assassination, is that if the person still lives and breathes, they can still call you out on your preferred version of history. They can still raise their voice and say "Hey! I'm not dead yet! You didn't finish me off, despite your best efforts to bury me!". That's inconvenient, embarrassing.

I want to do something called hedging. I'm not sure if I'm going to live or die young, so I want to have some kind of life insurance policy that is more than monetary. I want to make sure that I leave some kind of useful legacy beyond cold hard cash.

So, I want to speak out on the topic of bullying, and the abuse of men. I want to speak out on the topic of depression and suicide. I want to end the stigma of being a little boy who cries at sad films. I want to end the acceptance of bullying as a "fact of life" and instead get the world to recognise it as abuse, plain and simple. I want to raise awareness of depression as a sane response to an insane world, and deal with the root causes of it: loneliness, isolation, stress, pressure, abuse, bullying, war and every other kind of human suffering.

Does this all sound ridiculous? Yes, it's rather silly, eh? Of course I'm not going to make a blind bit of difference to the world. It's set in its ways and there are problems everywhere we look. One wide-eyed, naïve, over-optimistic, non-celebrity, non-rich, non-famous 36 year old man who came from nowhere and is going nowhere... what could he do?... nothing!

I don't actually give a damn. I know how to do a few things reasonably well, so I'm just going to do them to the very best of my ability. I'm going to use all my wits and cunning and hustling abilities, combined with my lack of fear, and my strong feelings of empathy towards humanity, and just put myself out into the world and push hard.

I'm going to do what I do when I climb any mountain. I'm just going to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and not think about the summit. I'm just going to keep grinding and grinding the trail. I'm just going to keep gaining altitude little by little, knowing that if I keep going up and up, I will eventually reach the summit.

Portland Climbing

I've always been a natural climber. I can't help climbing. I just want to get high, naturally or unnaturally. Actually, just being alive is unnatural. Well, highly improbable anyway.

The universe doesn't like tall buildings, peaks. It doesn't like things to fight the forces of nature. The highest mountains in the world - The Himalayas - are also some of the youngest. The Universe has a property called entropy which can describe the tendency of things that are structured and ordered to decay and be ruined.

Entropy is busily trying to tear down Mount Everest. Meanwhile, mountaineers are taking on the entire Universe and sticking two fingers up at it, by climbing 8,848m, while it still remains so high... in millions of years time it will be nothing more than a pile of broken limestone fragments.

If you think I overestimate my position in the Universe, you're wrong. I've considered everything in context, from our best estimates of when "time" began, to just how "large" the known universe is (those things are in quotes, because space and time are actually much more complicated than we experience in our day to day life on Earth).

I'm well versed enough in General and Special Relativity to know that most questions about our place in the Universe are more unfathomable than any mind could possibly comprehend. Time and space are such elastic and supermassive things, that it's just laughable to even talk about one tiny speck of an organism being less or more important than another one.

If anybody says that I should shut up because I'm not very important or interesting, they should perhaps consider that in the context of the estimated 13.82 billion years that the Universe has had a concept of time. Assuming that person has an above average lifespan of 100 years, that'd be 100 years in 13,820,000,000, which makes their lifespan equal to 0.0000007% of that time... they're hardly important enough to make such a pronouncement, surely?

Yes, you really are a drop in the ocean:

The oceans of the world are estimated to weigh 1,300,000,000,000,000,000,000kg. You perhaps weigh 100kg... that means you are not even as much of a "big deal" as a raindrop in a swimming pool.

So, when you start talking about which human life is more or less valuable than another, you should get a grip of yourself. You need to have a reality check. Not reality TV. You need to get your textbooks out and actually look at your significance in the Universe. Then you might start realising just how arrogant and stupid you are, if you think you are a superior being.

Things start with good science, and from base principles, not with egos and guesswork. Certainly not with a cult of celebrity and hero-worship. Remember that Einstein was a patent clerk who was not very good at maths. All men are created equal.

Think big.

Mountain Man

Halfway up Mont Blanc on my 18th birthday, enjoying a snack above the clouds (August 1998)

 

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Will You Sleep Out With Us?

6 min read

This is a story about bridge burning...

Sleep Out Centre Point

How many of us are afraid to declare the causes we support, for fear of impacting our professional reputation. Does supporting mental health and homelessness charities make me look somehow less corporate, and consequently, make me less employable? Does the fact that I have even experienced these things first hand make me unemployable?

In fact, if my employment options became coincidentally curtailled at the same time as I have started blogging, despite a successful full-time career of some 18+ years, it would not take a brain of Britain to recognise that this must be because of institutional discrimination, which is probably illegal.

There is absolutely nothing to suggest that I am any less able than any other candidate in the job market, and in fact, my history makes me more of a 'catch' to a potential employer: the man who has nothing has nothing to lose. Plus I have been 'stress tested' to the limit and beyond. I know exactly where those limits are, and I can empathise with my colleagues when they are under stress and pressure.

When 'sh1t goes bad' who do you really want in the bunker with you? People who have never been in that kind of situation before, and are therefore an unknown quantity, or people who know their personal breaking point.

I've been in some hair-raising situations, both through choice and by accident. Challenging yourself, and being challenged by things that are out of your control, teaches you how to handle stressful situations. A certain amount of training, discipline and drills will prepare your muscle memory to pull the "parachute rip-cord" to use a layman's term. But how do you deal with the long plane journey up to 13,000ft? How do you mentally prepare to throw yourself out of a perfectly servicable aeroplane?

Worse still, how do you prepare yourself for people yelling at you and telling you you're an idiot? People do this because they are scared and have lost faith in your leadership. People believe that pain and fear can be magically taken away by those in positions of authority.

Knife Edge

Losing authority can be dangerous, especially if you are the leader in a dangerous place. Generally, most people don't know what to expect when they are entering an extreme environment: the mountains and the sea (the poles and the deserts too, but I don't know much about those places, yet).

Let me tell you about crampons. These are a spiked device that attach to your feet, so that you can move safely on ice. I always shake my head in disbelief at people who are blunting an expensive pair of crapons on rocks. If they do encounter any ice, they will certainly not be effective if they are not sharp.

Let me tell you about ropes. These long flexible cords are no use at arresting a fall unless they are attached to something solid. In order to attach a rope to a mountain, you will need a whole load of other heavy metal gear that will need to be secured to the rocks, and the rocks themselves will need to be large and heavy and generally immovable.

So, if you see climbing parties with crampons and ropes, moving on snow - in an area with no glaciers - then these things are only there as a confidence trick. The fact is, that there is very little stopping you from plunging to your death, even with ropes & crampons.

I personally, don't like to be weighed down with unnecessary gear. It's not about not being prepared. It's about recognising that I'd rather have saved the energy, so that I can use that surplus reserve of energy in order to scout ahead of my group for problems, or fetch assistance if necessary. The main thing though, is to stay within personal limits as a leader, so that when people are tired and cranky, and scared and their feet hurt and they are cold and hungry, you don't mind giving them your personal stash of candy bars, you don't mind them calling you names, you don't mind them questioning your leadership skills.

The main thing that qualifies a person as a leader is how they cope under crossfire.

The more I lead people in stressful situations, the more I learn about my personal weaknesses, the more I learn about my personal limits. Nobody should underestimate just how hard I had to be pushed before I cracked, but nobody should consider themselves such a 'rock' or a hard nut that will never crack under pressure.

My best friend and climbing partner sustained life-changing injuries in a 'freak' accident when the chockstone he was abseilling from shattered. I have only just started to deal with feelings surrounding this, so I'm not going to write any more about this today, but my thoughts always turn to him and how I have shyed away from post-accident involvement, as it was such a terrifying reminder of our mortality and fragility. I knew I couldn't do anything to turn back the hands of time. Accidents happen, and the first thing you learn in the mountains is that you can't control all the variables. It's still something that victims, survivors and those connected to them, have to come to terms with though.

Maltease

Ropes have their place in sport rock climbing. Modern equipment is so good - the Petzl Grigri in this case - I don't even have to hold the rope to be honest, but old habits literally die hard (October 2012)

Addendum for climbing nerd trolls: no, I didn't leave the rope all over the place like that. I was asked to step in and belay only seconds (sic.) before the photo was taken. And, no, I'm not even standing on the rope even though it looks like I might be from the low-resolution image. Anybody who has climbed multi-pitch with me will tell you my ropework is above your nitpicking.

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Why Are You Following Me?

2 min read

This is a story of leadership, charisma and madness...

Crib Goch

People rarely know what they are really asking for, and what they are asking other people to do. When friends asked me to guide them up a mountain by an interesting route, of course I thought "what would be interesting to me?". Challenge accepted!

Is this reckless "leadership from the front" that could have gotten somebody killed or injured? Certainly, I'm at the front of the group here, stood astride the ridge taking the photograph. However, we need to acknowledge that our leaders cannot be responsible for the personal decisions of every member of their party. We are all adults, and especially in the mountains, we have to take individual responsibilty for staying within our personal comfort limits.

When we are scared and stressed and tired, beyond our limits of experience and endurance (physical and emotional stamina) we are a danger to ourselves and our expedition party. It is the leader's responsibility to spot the member of the group who is struggling the most and ensure that the party is led within margins that person can tolerate, otherwise you have failed as a leader.

We are extremely tough, proud and stiff-upper lipped people, so it's pretty hard to really read people's fear and stress levels, so the only way to manage risk to any group that you're leading is to never leave yourself without a line of retreat. When it became clear that my group was unhappy to continue on the route I had chosen, they began to accuse me of having led them into a position of no retreat. If I had done, I would have failed my group, as their leader. However...

The Great Escape

All smiling, retreating off Crib Goch, Snowdonia, Wales, UK. We were back on the main path in less than 20 minutes. Descending is a lot safer and easier if you do it early and with confidence (April 2010)

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