Overcoming Isolation, Fear & Setbacks
As various stages of COVID-19 lockdown kick in again, many of us will be experiencing a multitude of emotions. Feelings of isolation and loneliness as social interaction and work engagement is restricted, fear of the unknown, anxiousness at what the future holds. One person who has experienced these feelings better than most is adventurer and Mountain Designs Adventure Ambassador Alyssa Azar. While the peak of Everest provides a vastly different setting to the confines of our own homes, Alyssa has learnt plenty about overcoming these mental challenges and here she gives us an insight into how she deals with them.
1. What have you been doing during COVID-19 isolation?
Isolation with COVID-19 has given me time to focus on my health and fitness, as well as all the other aspects of my life which don't require travel. It changed many of my personal and work plans drastically of course, but a large portion of getting ready for any climb or adventure is the physical training as well as the planning phase. So I have been using this time on rest and recovery, getting organised and researching future trips and expeditions. I have also been able to spend time focusing on university studies, and to do other things that I wouldn't have had time for otherwise. Fortunately I have been close to family and been able to use the time stuck at home to spend time with loved ones.
2. How frustrating has it been for you to stay indoors so much?
I was definitely hoping to make a return to Nepal this year and 8,000m peak climbing. It is a region that is special to me and I cannot wait to return to. As much as I love to travel and explore, I haven't been too frustrated by being indoors so much. Being indoors has given me the time to find other things and work on other aspects of my life outside of adventure and travel. Gratitude for the things you do have in your life is important.
3. As a mountaineer you'd spend many hours in isolated locations, where it would almost be lonely at times; how do you deal with that challenge of isolation and loneliness? Do you have any methods to stay 'connected'?
Loneliness in mountaineering is certainly part of the process. There are many times where you are mostly isolated and even with a team, you will spend long periods of time in the middle of nowhere with only your own mind to keep yourself company and you get through the toughest times on the mountain fairly isolated and alone.
In between rotations up a mountain, life in Base Camp is lonely and tranquil. There are times where you need to push up the mountain using every bit of strength but there are also times where you need to listen and surrender to what the mountain is doing. Part of the process is moving with the ebbs and flows of the climb and knowing when to push and when to hold back.
I used my time isolated in Base Camp at as a two-fold opportunity. First was to enjoy the experience I was living and to be totally in the moment, which can be a luxury. I do not think I have ever been as at peace than when isolated on Everest. It gave me time to know myself, read books, listen to music, and take in where I was. Secondly, I allowed the desire and pressure to build up because I knew I would use it when the time came. I learned from the mountains that it isn't about incessant action and always having to be doing, but to allow yourself to be still, connect with yourself and your why, and when the time is right then you can use it. Regardless of how bad things seem, an opportunity will open up again and it is important to position yourself and work on yourself, so you are ready to take opportunities when the time comes.
Perhaps that is what COVID-19 isolation could be about for us - connecting in with ourselves, reassessing what is important to us, then making the most of life's opportunity when restrictions are lifted.
From the open snow plains painted white in every direction, to the closed-in shelter of a tent, Alyssa knows the feeling of social isolation, being immersed in one's own thoughts for long periods, and the unknown.
4. What other emotions do you go through over the course of a summit attempt?
Over the course of a summit attempt there are many emotions, and every single one of them feels turned up to a high level. I think it is important to embrace this part of a climb and recognise that you will go through a lot. The experience of climbing a high-altitude mountain is about growth over comfort.
There is the obvious feeling of hope and anticipation as all your hard work may be about to pay off. Fear, excitement, pure adrenaline, feeling fulfilled and content, or sometimes humbled and slightly disappointed, are just some of the intense emotions that happen across the spectrum of a climbing expedition. Climbing on a big mountain expedition is riddled with uncertainty and unknowns. Every day is different and the plan will change from one hour to the next. You must be mentally agile and whilst it is good to be dedicated toward the goal you have set, being flexible and open to learning in the process is crucial.
It was only in the last hour before reaching the summit of Everest that I knew I would make it. Before that point, anything could happen, and I knew I was at the mercy of the mountain. A key part of any success I have had as a mountaineer has come from understanding I have a limited amount of energy and focus, and it is crucial I place it in the right areas where it can have an impact as opposed to wasting energy on things I cannot control. Halfway through my summit push on Everest I remember hearing over the radio that there were expected to be hurricane winds on our hopeful summit day that could shut out an attempt for us.
A piece of you feels gutted after so much hard work but I knew immediately worrying about circumstances outside of my control was pointless. I drew my attention inward and knew I had a few big days ahead of me and I needed to bring my focus to climbing at the best of my ability. If the summit window opens then it opens, if it does not, I want to know in my heart I took it as far as I could before making the right decision. Even under chaos and pressure, I have learned where to put my energy. It must be put toward something within my control that will improve my situation, even if only by 1%.
5. You've had to overcome many setbacks in your career - the many hurdles on a 'day-to-day' basis when you're trekking, but also your big end goal of summiting Everest was halted twice. How did you overcome those smaller obstacles? How did you overcome the Everest goal being missed on those occasions?
It was immensely challenging to not have the opportunity to climb two seasons in a row due to circumstances outside of my control. I had trained full-time like an elite athlete to be ready and build the mental and physical skills, and after all the anticipation I was ready to live it and put it all into action. Having the opportunity to climb ripped away twice in a row was a test of character and strength in and of itself. I viewed those obstacles as an opportunity to walk my talk.
The best way to overcome these obstacles was to focus on the reality. Once I returned home from both of those expeditions, I began the process of moving forward toward the goal even 1% every day. I took the forced step back as a chance to re-evaluate and set myself up later to come back fitter and stronger yet again for the next window to open.
6. Any summit attempt would bring stress. How do you manage stressful situations? What techniques do you use to alleviate anxiety?
One of the strategies I use to alleviate anxiety during a climb is to break down my focus to the task at hand. It is good to understand your vision and glance at it occasionally, but throughout the course of an expedition I am immersed in trying to take each day and each task as it comes to the best of my ability. This is what makes up a summit. A summit comes at the end of doing each day right.
During a climb, it creates unnecessary anxiety to focus too far ahead and becomes a waste of energy. It is important to bring your focus back to what you are doing in the present moment. I have found this to be the best way to combat any stress or anxiety.
Most of the anxiety is in anticipation of what is to come. The best way to handle it is to bring yourself back to where you are. I find this helpful on a climb when I am at a limit, red-lining and not sure if I can push on. The key is just to take the next step in the right direction. The more you procrastinate on it the harder it becomes. I force myself into action in a positive direction even if I do not know the exact outcome.
An acronym I have used before is to focus on the WIN - What's Important Now?
Alyssa says that the great heights of a summit - hope, excitement, elation and satisfaction - can often be matched by less affirmative emotions such as fear, anxiety and despondency.
7. Similarly, there would times you might think to give up. How do you build up your resilience? How do you 'keep going' when things get tough?
First and foremost, the preparation is crucial. I go into every expedition knowing I have done the work and that puts me on the front foot as opposed to creating stress and doubt. Whenever I have a major expedition, I know whether I have done the work and if I have, I can walk into it with confidence knowing I can mentally handle the obstacles because I am physically ready.
Secondly, connect to a better version of yourself. Whenever I am in physical training for a climb, I am envisioning a version of me capable of reaching the summit and I consistently stay connected to that. I know through work and dedicating myself to the process I can get there. That is part of the motivation of a climb for me, it forces me to level up and brings out the best in me.
8. From the lessons you've learned, do you have any advice for people who are struggling with isolation? What could they do to stay positive? Physically, mentally and socially?
It is important, despite restrictions, to try and gain some forward momentum in any way you can. It does not need to be all the time, and under such challenging circumstances it is important to not be so hard on yourself. But I think it is important to take some form of physical exercise and there are plenty of great online resources with at-home workouts. If you are mentally struggling especially in a time of huge uncertainty and restriction, have one person you are close to or trust that you can reach out to and have an honest chat with.
Planning or taking time to connect with people online, or activities that are available to you that you enjoy. Whether that is music or a particular show you like, I know for me when I had setbacks when a climb has been forced to cancel, continuing to visualise, view photos of the climb and continue to plan helped me stay motivated and in the loop as opposed to giving up hope.
Like many of us, fitness and family is keeping Alyssa occupied while borders are closed and COVID-19 restrictions are in place.