Time in India was a great reminder of the complexity of life. How do we flow and flourish and engage with all the choices and possibilities around us, meet the needs and expectations of everything that we are committed to, and maintain a sense of strength, calm and balance? It is an art that takes practice.
It feels wonderful when we get it right and things feel to flow; less joyful when we get out of balance and we have that sense that there is ‘never enough’ time or energy.
Thanks to this time in India it has re-focused me on what I really enjoy, and that is exploring and tuning our mindset so that we can be our optimal selves. We have the ability to shift our perceptions, to employ strategies to support us through change and to new aspirations, as well as to tame any rising ‘not enough-ness’, fear or vulnerability. We can strengthen our natural energy to change and adapt. We can be open to receive support from the connections, communities and the natural world that surround us. We can be kind and compassionate to ourselves to navigate from the busy-ness of more challenging times to a place where we re-connect with our sense of calm and our solid foundation.
I am excited to share with you ‘Innergoldlife Retreats’: opportunities to do just this, set in the beautiful natural environments of Mallorca (Spain) and Scotland. These one-week retreats will bring focus to sculpting your mindset and changing your perspectives to support you with changes, challenges and transitions in life. The programmes are designed to enhance your natural energy and to inspire you with special environments and people, with time in nature and in the spirit of an aligned group. Perhaps you would you like to join one of these opportunities to explore some ‘Inner Gold’? Or know someone who would?
I will host a discovery call on this theme and the retreats on Thursday 29th February, 5pm UK. If this lights any curiosity in you, please come and find out more by clicking this link to REGISTER.
We all have psychological barriers: things that seem daunting enough to feel impossible. Climbing Kilimanjaro by handbike should have been in that category…read on to find out why it wasn’t!
The intimidation of the unknown can be enough to stop us, as does our tendency to ‘ambiguity bias’: we tend to take decisions favouring known outcomes rather than taking chances on choices with unknown probabilities, or to favour a narrative of likely ‘failure’ and in doing so we almost inevitably generate that outcome. But this wasn’t the case for me with Kilimanjaro.
Climbing Kilimanjaro had never seriously been on my radar. After all, how would I? Climbing mountains was something I did before becoming paralysed from the chest down. But a ‘four-minute-mile’ effect impacted my mental view of it. For years, runners had been striving against the clock, but the elusive four minutes had always beaten them. It was a seemingly unconquerable mountain, until Roger Bannister succeeded. Within months, many other runners broke the four minutes and it became common place. Wharton School professors analysed the lessons for business of the four-minute mile phenomenon, in a book entitled ‘The Power of Impossible Thinking’. It wasn’t human evolution, genetic engineering or physiology that made the difference, but the shift in the mental model. Others suddenly saw how they could do something they had previously thought impossible.
Kilimanjaro had circled around me for decades: the volcanic slopes of the world’s largest free-standing mountain inevitably caught my eye when I once visited Tanzania, and soon after that I met an American paraplegic guy who had made an attempt up Kilimanjaro. He had reached Gilman’s Point, the first point on the crater rim. Following that I heard of the first paraplegic to summit Mt Kilimanjaro unassisted, by handbike, and more recently Martin Hibbert, paralysed in the Manchester arena bombing, summitted Kilimanjaro in a special wheelchair. The logistics company I contacted even had a ‘recommended wheelchair route’ for the mountain and as a small team of us gathered with the summit in mind, I came to the assumption that climbing Killmanjaro by handbike would be no problem, “Hakuna matata!”
On summit day, our fifth day on the mountain, clinging to aggressive scree, I wondered what on earth I’d been thinking. Inching forward then sliding almost as far back again, I waivered in my belief. The scree steepened, the slope finally too vertical to hold the rocks and volcanic rubble. As I looked up, I felt the doubt creeping into my neurons. “How?” It was impossible to navigate assisted, never mind unassisted! The steep, broken slabs of rock were way beyond the capability of my handbike, and it was an amazing set of wheels, The clearance and gearing on the ICE trike and the terrain it can manage is astounding.
Positive mental models are wonderful. They stretch us, challenge us, enable seemingly impossible things to unfold. But sometimes our desired end state, a compelling goal, our natural cognitive mechanisms and the overall mood of a team can take us into an optimism bias. All of this is good, as long as it doesn’t blind us too much or get in the way of thorough preparation.
There is no smooth, wheelchair accessible trail up Kilimanjaro. It takes intent, desire, resilience, the right equipment, a positive energy and a good team. There is a compelling, beautiful mountain awaiting and clearly, the possibility exists to make it.
Thanks to the team of guides and porters, we did make it to the roof of Africa and to the summit of Kilimanjaro. It was harder than we anticipated, the effects of altitude tougher, the length and difficulty of the scree magnified beyond expectation. I needed help. Between pedalling I was pushed, pulled, shoved and carried. Lucas the Masai was targeted as the strong, tall, blood-drinking main man for piggy-backs!
If you fancy Kilimanjaro, whether you are walking or going with wheels, please go to this mountain with the mantra of ‘pole pole’ (slowly, slowly in Swahili). Nothing about a four-minute mile will help you get up, other than adopting a mental model of moving beyond what seems impossible. Be optimistic, but also be wise to the facts. It is not a walk in the park: you will likely laugh and cry on the journey, there will be headaches, the scree is long and steep, the crater rim is spectacular.
Once again though I am reminded of just what is possible when a good team, good technology and a bit of tenacity come together. Thank you all involved! Special thanks to ICE trikes and to my team-mates Kevin Benstead, Steve Bate, Mike Webster, Sherrill Mason, Bow Monk, Amelia Monk, Jannie Johnson, to African Scenic Safaris, and to the charities who partnered with us: Voice of Specially Abled People and World Jenny’s Day
His finger was fissured from years of hard work as he pointed it toward me, a flicker of memory dawning.
“You…” he began a kind of wagging at me and I smiled back. “I remember you! It was my first week at Aberdeen Coastguard. We rescued you. I’m Gramps. At least that’s what they all call me.”
Gramps leaned forward and shook my hand.
I was sheltering from the smirr of late July rain beneath the bulging yellow cockpit of a Sea King helicopter at Morayvia, an aerospace experience near the Royal Air Force base in northeast Scotland. Above me sat my teenage nephews, playing at pilot and co-pilot. Before me stood the man who in one decision thirty years previously, had probably saved my life.
In 1993, at the foot of sea cliffs just south of Aberdeen, my body lay crumpled after a fall. What should have been an innocuous day rock-climbing had gone awry, transformed into a rescue dilemma for my friends and the emergency services. Gramps told me the story of how he had made the call to wait for the helicopter that was on its way from RAF Lossiemouth instead of hauling me out by lifeboat. He knew there was a newly adapted stretcher on board that would reduce the chance of further damage to my spinal cord. Retrieval of my body via the big yellow bird meant a whole lot less moving and handling and exponentially less risk to my spine. I had an unstable neck fracture and a body teetering on the brink. His decision all those years ago had at least saved my arms from paralysis, and most probably my life.
“Thank you” I held his craggy hand longer than was usual. I felt such gratitude to this fellow human. “Thank you for giving me this life”. It was Gramps’ first day volunteering at Morayvia. He introduced me to the man beside him, Bob, another volunteer who was behind the new style stretcher that had lifted me out of the precarious sea-cliff scene.
“Thank you too” I shook Bob’s hand also, tingling with a sense of connection and appreciation for these two men who had committed their lives to service.
It was thirty and a third years after becoming paralysed, and in the smirr of that benign afternoon, I sat in deep appreciation.
In that incident all those years ago, I was the unconscious and unaware recipient of so much help. Without it I would have been unable to experience this precious gift of life.
When we are vulnerable, when things seem a little desperate, when we are in need, that is when we must learn to accept. Being paralysed has taught me to accept help in bucket loads. There is so much that I cannot do alone, so acceptance and trust have become woven into my fabric and way of life.
The memory of that day was fossilised deep in a fissure of Gramp’s eighty-year old mind, reactivated by our meeting. Our serendipitous encounter.
Serendipity literally means ‘finding something good without looking for it’. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts of becoming paralysed is the practice of that. A constantly challenging environment is best navigated with a peaceful inner landscape, with a curious and optimistic mind. Where we allow our mind and energy to go impacts our reality. The night before I was paralysed I spoke the words “I”d rather be dead than paralysed. I can’t imagine anything worse”. Did I attract it in? Who knows, though the opposite of serendipity might be called misfortune.
We are capable of way more than we can imagine. Our mind is powerful beyond belief. We can attract what we fear most, just as we can attract serendipitous events.
When we swim along in the flow of life, whether the sunshine is on our face or we feel a little swamped, it can be easy to forget the emotional portals available to us. Magical gateways into a different, better experience. Gratitude is one of them. The chance to feel grateful is available to us in any moment, from the smallest minutiae to the greatest events. It offers a fast-track into feeling intensely alive.
Thanks Gramps and Bob. In gratitude of you then and now.
I’ve been inspired to write this blog by my dear friend Bernie Nolan, a wise and experienced practitioner of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine. He trained in Japan and Korea and has many decades of practice and experience. He is currently recovering from heart surgery. We spoke today…
“How are you doing?” I asked him.
“Yes, getting stronger” he replied, “I’ve walked out to the café a few times”. There was a small pause before he delved in deeper. “But I keep crying for no reason. I don’t get it as I haven’t got anything to cry about. It’s all gone well and everyone has been so good to me.”
I reminded him he’d just had major heart surgery and we chatted about what the heart represents in Chinese Medicine: the seat of all emotions. The heart houses our emotional and spiritual wellbeing (Shen), which affects our mental function and our vitality.
“Not really a surprise you’re crying then” I giggled, reflecting on how frequently I cry without any obvious cause. When I cry it always seems to release something and leaves me feeling better.
Knowing that our emotions, organs and physical health are intimately connected doesn’t make us immune to experiencing all of it. Despite all the knocks and experiences we have, we often wonder why we are ill or emotional, almost denying or fighting it for fear that something ‘worse’ might follow. But any event can act as a trigger, shock or shift the balance and have an ensuing physical or emotional affect.
I used to think that crying was unhelpful rather than healing. We often view anything that takes us out of our ‘normal’ as threatening, uncomfortable or a cause to worry. But what if being comfortable with being uncomfortable is an important aspect of being human? It may even a very healthy, helpful thing.
When we find ourselves in challenging situations, unexpected or planned for, we face choices about if and how to move through the membranes of fear that inevitably veil us. We doubt our capacity to manage; wonder if we will ever adapt; we grapple with our perceptions of the situation in which we find ourselves. We may enter a psychologically difficult or darker place, a part of us perhaps shrivelled, lost, unconfident or fragile without the comfort and life of what we once knew.
“I would rather be dead than paralysed” was my own judgement around the terror of a life unable to walk, and twelve hours later, I was there. I entered the blackness, the depression associated with loss or decay of our known world. A motorbiker crashed at a hundred miles an hour into a wall; he lay opposite me in hospital, a brace on his spine for a while before he walked away. Then a friend died in a climbing accident as innocuous as my own.
When tough stuff arrives with us, there is no just, no reasoning. We are thrown off piste without a map. We judge or worry that how we are feeling or responding is not okay. We may seek distraction and support from others, medication, healing or therapy or anything for a rapid fix. All of that is good, but what else can we do to help ourselves from within, without the need to look outside? With some simple ‘inner’ steps, we have the possibility to transcend the struggle by alchemising our perception of any life situation. Here are a few of my go-to actions to help when things get out of balance:
Focus on small positive actions. What is one tiny thing you can do now that you or someone you care about might appreciate? Take baby steps, one at a time, focusing on the next small action. The cumulative positive effect of baby actions is great.
Give time to an activity (or activities) that you enjoy and that that take you into the moment. This activates the ‘positive task network’ of the brain, which helps us be in the here and now. It enables us to experience ‘flow’ which releases helpful, mood-enhancing neurochemicals in our brain.
Stop unhelpful thoughts. Thinking about what might be, could be, should be, or might have been all activate the default mode network of the brain. It is useful for planning and organising, but there are negative effects about ruminating too much over the past or future, and it will often cause use to feel down or anxious. Learn more here, https://youtu.be/vo_VANW35b0
Talk to yourself like you would to your best friend or someone you love: encouraging, resassuring, reminding yourself of strengths and replacing unhelpful thoughts with those of appreciation. This can feel extra powerful if you put one hand over your heart, and the other over your stomach area.
Struggle exists in the gap between accepting what is and wishing for what was or might be. The ‘other place’ seems somehow better. We compensate for what is not. But what if where we are and the emotions and physical things we are experiencing are perfectly okay: nothing to fear, nor avoid, guaranteed to shift and change like the weather. The sun will shine again…
I write this with the knowing that this can be hard. For years I sought action and distraction. I set ever-greater challenges. They started small…how to pull my pants on when you’re paralysed, learning to swim… But soon I was handcycling across mountain ranges and continents, then training and competing for Paralympic medals. Others elevated me with perceptions of resilience and ability to overcome. But I wonder if I was a fugitive, dodging something indeterminate. I still forage for freedom anywhere I can. Moving my body. Seeking adventure: other lands, other people, experiences far and wide.
In the process of foraging, we look high and low. We look up to others who seem to represent something that we perhaps lack – resilience, strength, ability, skill. We look down at those who reflect something that we fear is within us – weakness, depression, anger, helplessness. We play in a world that judges and positions and assigns comparative merit. Podiums. Prizes. Awards. We rustle and hustle between being better and fearing worse, aspiring to, aligning with or rejecting others that support our process. Despite the muddle, being out of our comfort zone gradually leads us to releasing pain and past.
We feel it. We heal it.
The philosopher’s stone is the mythical alchemical substance that turns base metals into precious ones like gold. When pushed to probe at our limits, we may resist and wish for easier times, but perhaps this struggle is exactly what can transform. Our own philosopher’s stone.
At those edges, in the extremes of discomfort, we can find our own formula of substances and philosophies that help us live more brightly than we ever otherwise could. Keep exploring, both out and in, knowing that only lived experience can show us the magic.
At those edges of life, the darkness dwindles. Everything can lighten. A glow emerges, a landscape lit by a bright new dawn.
One of my mantras is that “Ability is a state of mind not a state of body”. The original version of this was actually “Disability is a state of mind not a state of body”, but words beginning with ‘dis’ hold little attraction: I spend my days focused on ability and possibility thinking instead.
As we skied back from creating the ‘Pole of Possibility’ in Antarctica last month, my mind burned with a billion lightbulbs. In the previous days I had been listening to an audio book about the structure and neurochemistry of the brain and my own neurons had been fired into a state of illumination. No doubt it was all enhanced by the fractal patterns of ice and the light scattered into rainbows that sparkled across the icescape. But how on earth had we come to be on this exploratory adventure skiing to a horizon that merges the most serene and pristine mountains on the planet with the heavens?
How do surprising and unusual futures come to pass? How do we truly live in the realms of possibility?
I contemplated the decade or more that had led to that moment, noticing the twists and turns, the iterations of the plan and the team. There were occasions when the whole idea had been tossed to the side for something more urgent, or when it had been abandoned and left festering. But this particular project, the ‘Pole of Possibility’ had been like an itch that kept demanding a scratch, constantly recalling my attention. I was often bamboozled by the obstacles. I knew that careful attention, diligent planning and experimenting, alongside medical and mobility technology would enable us to be successful. The daily distractions and ‘sand’ of life often succeeded in pulling me away, but I couldn’t let go. Questions of ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ became more present. It was time to truly commit to delving deeply into possibility.
Committing to a ‘Possibility Mindset’ seems critical to shift us to a view where we are leading, designing and creating with a powerful and transformative lens. With possibility at the forefront, we focus on what we can do, on how we might solve, on how we overcome and negotiate challenges big and small, personal and collective. Starting with the end in mind and then reverse engineering the baby steps back to our current reality is a way to start breaking down the overwhelm of big possibilities. Constantly checking our perspectives, our mental narratives and our fixed ways of thinking enables us to free up the blocks, allowing us to be curious, creative and to challenge the status quo.
So, here I write to encourage you to DREAM. Dream big and bright. Believe that we can. Possibility is at the core of ensuring that we inspire and nurture an attractive, appealing, healthy future. In the realms of possibility we are explorers: seeking, learning, adapting, discovering, ingredients vital to flourish in our uncertain, rapidly changing, potentially overwhelming world.
If more possibility mindset sounds appealing for your life or work, please get in touch about an Adventure in Possibility. Consider joining Karen on 12-16th May in Scotland for the first open Adventure in Possibility or to enquire about future dates and opportunities.
As I shift into consciousness the sounds of our last morning in Antarctica filter through. Snow sliding softly off the tent wall. The squeaky crunch of footsteps. White noise of a windless, peaceful morning. I resist leaving the warmth of my sleeping bag cocoon, but it is time to pack. In a few hours we will fly away to re-enter the ‘normal’ world again, back to continents where more than lichen can live, where living is apparently less harsh.
“A briefing for entry into a harsher environment” the reading was titled.The five of us sat around digesting another dehydrated meal in a bag and the twenty-four hour sunlight super-heated our micro tent world. It was our last night out camping on the ice before arrival at Union Glacier, our start and end point for exploring Antarctica. Celine began reading. We laid about in the billow of soft sleeping bags to listen. The harsher environment of course is “real life”: it can be tough, and the lessons learned ‘here’ are useful for ‘there’.
To my surprise I am not feeling ready to return. I thought by now I would be excited for some simple luxuries: a soft bed, a heated blanket, a delicious frothy coffee or the sight of something green. There are people and places I look forward to again but my soul is already grieving for expedition life, for the dualities that it brings: complexity and simplicity, space and confinement, alone-ness and together-ness, vulnerability and strength, connection and disconnection. I miss waking up huddled closely with my tent-mates and the time skiing silently in big open white-scape. I miss the detailed organisation of kit and systems and the contrasting uncertainty of every hour of every day. I miss feeling small and vulnerable as well as strong and capable. I miss the clear, invented purpose of every day.
I think about the trace we have etched in the pristine landscape. We have left no rubbish and tried to minimise our impact. The wind will blow away our tracks but a yellow trail of urine marks our route. As we re-traced our path back from the Pole of Possibility, I regret that we did not share pee holes or carry it out with us. Peeing in the wilds is normally so innocuous, but stains on pure white look like ugly contamination.
In white landscape and twenty-four hour daylight, a timeless-spaciousness quality permeates where metrics lose their grip. In an environment calling for resilience, a togetherness-connectedness thing evolves where relationships become more vital.
It is harder than we anticipated to leave, but Antarctica has been a reminder that we are adaptable, resilient, purpose-seeking, capable humans. No matter how harsh our environment may be, we seem to find ways to connect, collaborate and create ways to not only survive, but to thrive.
In a tiny corner of Antarctica at Union Glacier, we wave goodbye to new friends. It seems inspiring and against all odds that a camp even exists here. In this wild, inhospitable and beautiful place, exploratory humans seek out a home every year. Despite only a handful of days spent there before our journey, we were welcomed back from our 300km with warm hearts, fancy dress, fun and friendship. It has been incredible to be nowhere and then somewhere, to experience vast expansive space and then immersion in a diverse quirky international family, a super special gathering of people seeking the edge of everything.
Just as a photograph can’t always capture the profundity of a place or a moment, it is sometimes difficult to find words that describe how something has sculpted us. An experience can impact us so deeply that we don’t immediately know how to translate it for others. And may never.
For now though, THANK YOU to all that have been part of this project, for helping us get to and back safely from the POLE OF POSSIBILITY.
This is the last Captain’s blog for a while as we will very shortly enter the icy southern land and the great white silence.
It has been a surreal day. It began with one the grimmest challenges of paraplegia taking effect (too much chilli in Chile perhaps) which triggered my biggest concerns about having limited clothing and cleaning methods in the white wilderness. MY BIGGEST FEAR, luckily a day early from it being expedition critical.
Next came one of the most keepsake moments, collecting our boarding pass for Union Glacier, Antarctica. It seems like Icelandair have extended their operations and gone south. Film-maker Mike shed a few private tears (not so private now, oops) and I looked at it with some disbelief. After ten years of intention around this, it seems hard to believe that we will be there in the morning. We had a moment thinking of team-mates that that almost were, that might have been, that sadly are here no more. We take you in our hearts.
Somewhere amongst that I lost a front wheel, leaving myself ‘three-legged’ in downtown Punta Arenas. The nut had displaced itself with all the rattling over uneven paving. Luckily serendipity intervened: a thoughtful stranger found the wheel and then located us close by; then we re-traced our steps and found the bolt; then randomly a few blocks later we found an old screw-thread skewer that happened to fit the thread; and finally a hack-saw at the Antarctic Logistic offices to finish the job off. Back on four wheels again, and we spent the rest of the day filming and getting chilly overlooking the Magellan Straits, overseen by a statute of Shackleton.
On that note, it’s early to bed for our early start. Wishing you much love and light and laughter this festive season. And now for the great white silence…
Thank you to all our supporters for all you are enabling and in particular to our major sponsors, Sinequa and BBraun. We leave you with some facts you may find interesting about this precious, mystical continent…
Antarctica contains more than 90% of the worlds ice and fresh water. If all the ice in Antarctica melts the sea will rise by 60m.
The coldest temperature ever recorded in the world was in Antarctica, -92.3C on the East Antarctica Ice Sheet on Dome Fuji in August 2010.
We came prepared for minus 35 not 35 C positive, so our bags are bulging with excess insulation as we sweat it out in Santiago, Chile. Replacing a sit-ski and an ICE tractor-trike and other paraphernalia quickly would be likely impossible (did I use that word?!) and would scupper all my mobility options for Antarctica. So, we planned our journey to have around 36 hours in transit in Santiago in case of delayed baggage.
Travel here was another reminder that when things at first seem to be going ‘wrong’, it’s incredible how they can flip around if we remain open. A smattering of snow and mildly sub-zero temperatures seemed to seize up operations in Britain rapidly, so our journey was full of delays and challenges. However, it led us to benefit from the kindness of strangers and a fabulous reminder that when the unexpected happens, be open to FASCINATION!
Captain Nick Lamont who flew us with British Airways from Inverness heard that film-maker Mike had dropped his phone whilst boarding the plane and had smashed his screen. With access to all the apps to operate camera equipment, it was important to have a working phone! Our Captain was finishing his shift and extended himself way beyond regular duties. He waited with us for delayed luggage to arrive, went ‘backstage’ to find the ICE trike in the bowels of Heathrow, drove Mike to a Vodafone shop and back, and got involved in the crazy transport of our kit from one terminal to another: via trains, trolleys and lifts not designed for hand-cranked tractors and giant bags. Our Captain left us with a fabulously helpful BA employee who managed to re-arrange our cancelled indirect flight for a direct to Chile.
In the maze of challenges that wheels and paraplegia and having an adventurous spirit presents, I first-hand, regularly experience the miracle of staying fascinated. Instead of recoiling into stress, it is a super-power to stay curious, open and ask ‘I wonder what might happen next?’. It keeps things lighter, more fun, and seems to lead to wonderful opportunities and outcomes. There is some neuroscience behind this, but that’s for another day as the fascinating journey continued…
Our second angel was Jorge, a retired part-time luggage trouble-shooter in Santiago airport, who happens to find me at the over-size luggage door picking up the monster ICE trike. He asked me simply where we were going next, and I explained that we had an overnight stopover before the next leg to the south. We had to figure out where to store all our kit. He adopted us for the rest of the day, creating possible solutions from Option A until we landed at Option D. He personally locked all our luggage in a buried airport office then took us to our hotel, and did it all in reverse the next day. He says he will be waiting at the luggage belt to greet us on our arrival back from the south in January. Legend!
Here in the far south, the temperature has plummeted to 9 degrees. The wind whips around our hostel, reminding us that we are approaching extreme latitudes. As we tracked the spine of mountains down to Patagonia last night, the lingering twilight highlighted the landscape: giant dune-like mountains, volcanic craters and broad river valleys far below. Now in Punta Arenas at 53 degrees south it is mid-summer and the darkness is short. In three days though we will leap again to 80 degrees south. Eye-masks for sleep and insulation for warmth will become essentials.
Meanwhile, there are things to prepare, ICE trike wheels to fit with studded tyres, Covid tests to pass, and some time to appreciate beds and warmth, running water and abundant food. We know we will soon dream of these simple luxuries we often take for granted. We are feeling inspired and supported by KINDNESS, grateful to be here with all our comfort and equipment, soon to embark on this privileged exploration of a never-travelled route in Antarctica.
Adventure enables beauty in so many things. Please enjoy being FASCINATED with us by all that unfolds. Delight in the unknown…
Condensation is beaded on the inside of the windows this morning and the distant hills are white. Snowfall, perhaps the first of the Scottish winter. I popped to my car to empty it of yet another parcel for Antarctica and had to tug hard at the door to break the icy seal. I long already for the sun, even for the promise of warmth that rises after frost. If a Scottish winter is this bitingly cold and hard to endure, how on earth is Antarctica going to feel?!
On the wall of my kitchen is a world map, and for the first time as I look up at it, I see it doesn’t even have Antarctica on it. Maybe a big white blob across the bottom of a picture was deemed by the designer not to suit the eye, so it has been deleted. And it feels that going to Antarctica will delete life for a while. There will be nothing more important to think about other than travelling to our objective, the Pole of Possibility. Survival and safety in an extreme and unfamiliar environment will be our daily focus.
I feel a bit sick this morning, and my head is banging from muscle tension as a result of hours on the ski-erg in the gym. As I’ve been wimping out of the cold training outdoors every day, there have been some hours indoors discovering weird and wonderful gym gadgets: the cross-country skiing ergometer and the static handbike that I’ve been pedalling in reverse. Ouch, what are those tiny muscles screaming in the back of my shoulders and why have I never discovered them before? It constantly surprises me that I can be using my arms all the time and yet still find muscles to hurt with just a tiny shift in the width or angle of an exercise.
We had our last team meeting last night to go through our packing list and checklist of pre-Antarctic things. So now it is down to last minute shopping for missing items and spare screws for my sit-ski, along with final decisions on how to offset our carbon and make sure we are carbon negative, at least triple-offsetting our footprint. We are happy to have agreed a partnership with Trees for Life https://treesforlife.org.uk who do good quality work rewilding the Scottish Highlands and are going to offset with them. We are also going to put some offset into a blue carbon initiative as coastal ecosystems are a more rapid way to help mitigate climate change. Geological offset projects such as Carbfix in Iceland are also something we are looking at, as carbon dioxide is turned back into rock is a longer-term solution to climate change mitigation. https://www.carbfix.com
Meanwhile, my sit-ski and handbike are parcelled up thanks to a kindly man at Forres White & Co. removals who donated packing materials, and I feel the mix of scared-excited rise in me. Our journey south begins on Monday 12th December, with more preparation time in Patagonia before entering Antarctica on the 18th. This feels like the culmination of a lifetime of learning about mindset tools to stay centred, calm and strong, and on managing paraplegia in extreme environments.
Most of all though, I feel grateful for this incredible and unique opportunity, for all the support we have received, and excited about discovering the deleted continent and sharing what we learn through the film.
I sense excitement rising as our small plane makes its way north. The green expanse of the Bay of Bengal lies below us, patterned with arteries of water that run life from the Himalaya southward . We fly towards the Kingdom of Bhutan, a special ‘Royal Bhutanese Airlines’ flight into the land known for happiness and sustainability. We are privileged to be on the first flight in since Covid. I feel grateful for this rare experience to explore what is known as the last Shangri-La; somehow reverent and with a sense of unexplainable responsibility to share insight and learning from this journey with others.
What will we discover from this magical place that was isolated from the outside world for so long: the only carbon negative country in the world, leaders in sustainable conservation, valuing human wellbeing over finance and materialism? The government makes development decisions based on impact to Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product. Bhutan is a country that maintains its cultural identity, resisting the tentacles of globalisation -television was only introduced in the last two decades, and it is still a difficult place to access without effort and resources.
We are welcomed with celebration thanks to Tourism Bhutan. The slogan of ‘Believe’ accompanies a warm runway welcome as we spill from the plane to dance, music, an early lunch of local fare, photographers and gifts of local honey and Turmeric tea to take with us.
A few days later, we are in an early morning meditation with nuns, later sharing a chili breakfast with them that burns our lips and strips our insides. We walk through the heart of the giant golden Buddha that sits above Bhutan’s capital city of Thimphu and find ourselves somewhat beyond words. We are already imbued with the energy of Bhutan: forest-coated mountains, friendliness and smiles and a spiritual fabric of being that embodies deep-held values of kindness and compassion.
We explore the ideas behind the Centre for Gross National Happiness. We listen to the vision “to create a unique place of reflection, learning and action where nature, culture and spirituality blend in a harmonious way towards happiness and compassion for the world”. We are fascinated and inspired to take the vision home and translate it in our own unique ways.
An unexpected visit from His Holiness Khedrup Rinpoche is the icing on our day. The fifth reincarnate of a lineage, he joins us for dinner and shares insight from his Buddhist wisdom and practice. Marinated in the spiritual culture of Bhutan, sleep is the only obvious fremedy to embody all we are experiencing.
We journey deeper into the Black Mountains to the heart of the Trongsa valley and central Bhutan. We are now pilgrims to Khedrup Rinpoche’s monastery. Clinging to the mountain-side the ‘blessed rains’ fall upon as we toss and turn on hard mattresses designed to ease occupants into a 4.30am rise for morning meditation. Clouds swirl below us and mist hangs on the peaks above as we lift our sleepy selves into the eight-century monastery. We are led by His Holiness through a gratitude practice, a breathing exercise, and a mantra meditation.
A chili-free breakfast prepared by monks leads us into the larger, colourful temple: neither austere nor grand, we sit on mats and between large hanging drums and listen. Distracted only occasionally by the more mischievous monks, the youngest aspirant dressed as Spider man, we learn about Dharma – the Buddhist philosophy of how we experience reality.
Through meditation we can calm the mind and connect with the emptiness within. On encountering that space inside, we experience a form of bliss or peace, and from that place we can see the world around us with new eyes. It is our perspective that manifests all that we experience. I am neither Buddhist nor disciplined in practice as these dedicated monks, but I resonate as I hear the path: the overcoming of suffering, the journey through the emotional spiral from lower to higher realms, the growing sense of peace. The external world is a mirror of our internal, and in tending to our inner nature, we are able to experience more transcendence of problems, perhaps more wisdom and certainly more peace.
Before we leave, I catch fleeting moments with Khedrup Rinpoche, and share the idea of ICE that we will explore in Antarctica: inner gold, connection and environment. He links in his wisdom. The light shining within us is often concealed with ‘dirt’, the layers of suffering, and Dharma is a way to connect within and find the shine inside each of us. When our outer environment is pure it can help us find that too. He expresses the urgency to protect our natural world.
The monks lay planks over puddles and sink-holes in the rain-washed mud road, easing our passage out of the valley, beneath waterfalls and upwards to the misty mountains, the clouds and the heavens. Our bodies feel numb with the shake and shiggle of the bumpy road, and perhaps our minds too. We are lulled into sleep as we pass eastwards toward Bumthang and we each grapple to make sense of all we are experiencing.
In the valley we pass fields and forests, cows and crops, smiles and waves and sense the simplicity and proximity to nature in all we see. It seems that Bhutan, its King and people and Buddhist culture embody values that create optimal conditions for happiness. It is obvious that the problems of being human exist in Bhutan too: circumstances can be hard and there is depression, alcoholism, mental and physical health issues in the country too. However, beneath it all is a fabric based on wisdom and compassion.
There is care and curiosity within our group, and in our Bhutanese support team and guides too. We all seem able to be our authentic selves. There is humour and honesty, care and vulnerability, curiosity and insight. Everything about our journey feels rich in compassion and full of heart. We laugh, cry and explore together.
We chant around the fire, mesmerised by the flames, and I reflect how wonderful it would be if life felt more like this more of the time. In the quiet space within, we all have capacity to feel more ‘happeaceness’.
How? That is for each of us to find, but peeling away layers of protection, tarnish from the past, and reminding ourselves that the wealth within contentment and appreciation of ‘what is’ along with an attitude of kindness is way greater than any monetary wealth. That is inner gold that we all have.
Thanks to all the team at My Bhutan for co-creating this journey and to the special group of people that joined. To Scott Wurtzbacher and his podcast ‘Inspire Campfire’ for attracting a fabulous group, and to our guides Kinley, Sonam, Tshering and Ugyen. To ‘Thimphu Muscle Factory’ for their strength in getting me to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. And to John Baikie for filming.