Scaling New Heights

For those of you keeping up with my adventures via my blog, The Nerdy Vet, you may know that I have recently been to Europe, and specifically the Alps, during which I spent some time not only jumping from planes (as I am prone to do from time to time), but also a spot of paragliding, mountain biking and alpine climbing, something that I had never really done before.

Climbing to the summit of Gran Paradiso

On the ascent to the summit of Gran Paradiso

I had always wondered what the fuss was with climbing mountains, especially given the obvious fact that it has always looked so hard, just to stand on top of a bit of snow, ice and rock. Yet humans seem almost obsessively driven to drag themselves up ever higher in the name of conquering a plethora of peaks. Having now experienced first-hand the feeling of incredible achievement, in addition to the breathtaking views that are afforded to those who summit, I have newly discovered appreciation for the motivating forces that drive people to push themselves beyond their levels of comfort in pursuit of alpine success.

Danny Uhlmann, First Light Mountain Guides

Danny Uhlmann, First Light Mountain Guides

My mountain guide for the week, an effervescent American by the name of Danny Uhlmann (First Light Mountain Guides), was brilliant, not only in terms of his knowledge and ability as a guide, but also as great company, something that is important to have when tired, aching and uncertain of the extent of your own physical abilities. From advising me on initial preparation, kit and discussing the kind of climbs that we could do, to literally coaching me up my first alpine ascent, Danny was the perfect guide. One of the pivotal moments for me came on our very first day’s climbing, during the first bit of proper alpine rock climbing that I had ever done, complete with crampons and ice axe. There was a section of the climb that involved edging out onto and up a crazily exposed sheer cliff face, with nothing but a vertical drop of what seemed like forever below us. Danny explained the route and although I was trying my best to listen all I was really able to focus on was how intense the next section seemed, considering that all I really had keeping me attached to the mountain was my hands, feet, the sincere desire not to fall, and a rope between my guide and myself. As Danny headed off first I had several moments to quietly contemplate what it was that I was expected to do in the coming minutes. I was genuinely concerned that I was going to freeze and not be able to actually push myself to do the climb – the prospect of fear getting the better of me was real. But what if I didn’t do it? What then? I couldn’t come this far and not give it my best, especially on day 1. As such, I focused on the task immediately in hand, concentrating 100% on exactly where every foot and hand hold was going to go, and edged out with my back facing the endless expanse of the valley thousands of feet below. Well, I did it and the rest of the climb went well, a perfect introduction to alpine climbing that set us up well for the following days and the eventual ascent of Gran Paradiso, the highest peak in Italy and the crowning achievement of the week in Europe.

Gran Paradiso, summit

Gran Paradiso summit

I will be the first to admit that at the time of doing it and being there at the summit I was not having the best time ever. In fact, it would be safe to say I was crapping myself and very much looking forward to getting down again. In spite of that fact I would wholeheartedly recommend the experience to every one of you. The journey, including the preparation for the day itself, was an enriching experience of highs (both metaphorical and physical) and lows, with fatigue, fear and doubt always present. Now I am no stranger to heights being a skydiver. In fact I think nothing of leaping into thin air from 13,000 feet for fun. Alpine climbing, however, was truly scary for reasons that I am still working through in my mind.

There are so many factors in play with a mountain that danger literally exists at all times. From navigating glaciers and avoiding (hopefully) crevasses, to climbing round an exposed spur of rock thousands of feet up an exposed cliff face with little more than a bit of rope looped around and just careful placement of both hands and feet, I have come to the conclusion that mountaineers truly are impressive athletes. Danny did a sterling job preparing me and coaching me up, down, over and around obstacles that at times I seriously doubted I could overcome. He was patient and calm, yet encouraging and pushy enough at times when all I needed was just a good kick up the arse. It is amazing what can actually be achieved with the right support and belief in what you’re capable of.

One of the scariest moments of the trip was traversing a lengthy yet impossibly narrow and exposed snow ridge en route to the start of our second alpine climb at the Aguille du Midi in the Mont Blanc massif. Imagine, if you can, the prospect of walking along a path of snow and ice that is no wider than a standard school ruler, with a precipitously looooooooooong drop either side which would literally send you down to your death with enough time during the descent to truly comprehend the fact, and add to that a biting, bracing and strong wind that is trying to push you off said path. Oh, and then throw into the mix fun little features such as a deep crevasse over which you have to step, and quickly at that, because to fall down said crack in the ice would also lead to certain death. When you consider that this experience was at the start of this one day’s climbing then you get a flavour for the sort of challenges that awaited.

Applying to vet school is much like climbing a mountain: a lengthy, at times, demoralising preparation period, culminating in the actual attempt at the big prize, with the trials, stresses and concerns that go along with the process, and with no guarantee of ultimate success. Much as I would either have never reached the summit of any of the peaks I climbed, or faltered spectacularly along the way, without my mountain guide, your chances of Vet School Success are so much greater with the right help, support, nudging and advice along the way.

Those of you about to start vet school are much like those climbers who have reached the summit and are about to start their descent to base camp. The feeling of incredible achievement really starts to sink in as you take in the fact that you have done it, you have reached your goal! However, there is still much work to do during the next critical part of the journey and there is no guarantee that you’ll make it through safely – there are still all those crevasses and rocky drops (exams etc) to test your resolve, focus and determination along the way. Having said this, the descent is always more relaxed and enjoyable than the ascent, as you can beam and glow at the pride of having achieved what seemed so insurmountable before. If you could bottle that feeling then I would implore you to do so.

Gran Paradiso ascentI left the Alps aching but incredibly proud of my achievements, having pushed myself above and beyond what I thought I was capable of. Having had my first experience of mountain climbing I can certainly envisage returning for more and totally now get the addictive nature of the push for ever greater heights that comes with mountaineering. There is something deeply humbling about being in and on mountains, an environment in which in spite of the best laid plans and preparation can be cruel and unforgiving yet can serve up priceless moments of beauty. You’ll face trials, tribulations and moments of doubt during your own ‘ascent’ to the peak that is a successful vet school application but with the right planning, preparation and action, there is no reason why you won’t make the summit and enjoy the ultimate high that comes from achieving that which you’ve been dreaming of. Go and climb that mountain!

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