A guest blog by Mags MacKean
Mountains have always inspired me – for their lofty heights and exhilaration in scaling them. I’ve immersed in Andean shamanic practice that venerates the mountain as wisdom, home to the Gods. Their earthier grandeur used to compel me upwards into new vista and weather – exposed to Nature’s surprises, her hidden habitats and unruly expressions as wind, rain, sun, snow and everything in between. Weeks at a time in remote hilly places reset my sense of scale. Geological history pulped all clock time, which could run me ragged back home.
Off the mountain, as a journalist, I faced another kind of ascension – a career ladder. Newsworthy stories and their deadlines could also hold the thrill of sport. Still, my restless nature that drove me to climb, scramble and roam rarely let up at sea level. My sights would be set on the only thing that mattered: the next escape upwards, the promise of adventure. After years of seesawing between the worlds of up and down, I finally quit my job for a mountaineering life. Chasing the seasons from one hemisphere to the next, I practiced skills to set me up for the rigours of altitude. The unimaginable happened: I discovered a crippling fear of heights, and was as burnt out as I’d ever been. There were always more routes to tackle and summits to attain. There was no neat finishing line when the effort and struggle stopped. Mountain – as unconquerable force – had something to teach me – and took me to the brink of endurance ‘til I got the medicine…
It was bitterly cold and the ice glistened in glaring sun. The silence felt full and charged, a weight of sound – cracks of melt ricocheted across the glaciated terrain like a shotgun. My arms were aching and trembling, clenching two ice axes for dear life, the blades of my crampons the only other connection to dubious solidity. I was scared – so much so, I was frozen into inaction, my arse protruding over a two hundred foot fall to where my friend waited for me to join him. Gavin resembled a drop of blood in all the white. I could feel his impatience in every hollered encouragement, “Keep going Mags. Nearly half way!”
Mount Cook National Park was no ordinary alpine destination. Within a lick of the Southern Ocean, storms were a continual threat. Exposure was part of the package – laying out time-consuming protection had to be weighed against volatile weather which could erupt without much warning. This was serious climbing – rope too heavy to carry and too short to protect the descent of large ice walls. And to compound my distress, I remembered the helicopter that could have picked us up to take us back to civilization within minutes. Instead we opted for the adventure of a lifetime – relying on stamina and skill to climb and traverse our way out of the Park. There was no plan B.
Time slows in the hell of fear. I had wrestled with this demon time and again, knowing it as part of the thrilling deal. Only this time, alone and with no chance of rescue, fear rose unchecked, overwhelming all instincts to hack and kick my way down the ice. Inertia is dangerous. One move. Breath. Then another. Breath. One more. And again.
This slow staccato rhythm, never natural, willed me down eventually to Gavin. The relief was a reprieve. Nightfall close, we had to navigate the crevassed glacier to the refuge of the valley. We had also run out of water, hours from the snow-melt. Battling with exhaustion, the soft glow of lights taunted us from the closest settlement – still miles away. In the end, it took twenty-two hours to reach Gavin’s front door. That walkout was to prove my last ever ice climb. It was the turning point when my dream crashed: the pursuit of high-altitude trials and rewards for overcoming them. I was safe – but at what cost?
At last I began to see how I’d traded the office commute for the climb uphill: those values, my values, were the same: invested in outcome, driven by achievement – the satisfaction hard won and short-lived. Lasting change meant transformation – and that could never be external. Changed circumstances – a new peak, relationship or job – were spiritual fast food. I would remain the famished denominator in all the disappointments, triumphs and fatigue.
The initiation came later in France. Exploring Mount Bugarach, ‘the upside down mountain’, its wisdom radiated as a force-field. I felt its instruction, the way up is down. Bad weather forced me to retreat from Bugarach. But the message went deeper. If ascent represented ideal, dream, eventual arrival – then descent, I was to discover, meant shifting my focus to the present, to embrace my own body’s here-and-now sensuous intelligence. The first step was to address the restlessness that trailed me as a psychic twinge. That unrest was persistent and lurking, whatever the distraction. Exploring its cause was a gateway. And I could choose to really meet it, by descending into it, to discover what the ‘twinge’ itself would teach me, and what inner terrain it might reveal. I had to stop moving. Struggle and fear playing out on an external stage no longer had to be an exchange for the freedom I craved. Accepting my restlessness allowed it to be felt fully, until it transformed. What would such an earth-bound voyage mean for a fulfilling life – consciously swapping the summit for the opposite direction?
The Upside Down Mountain tells the story of my descent – to find out why no manner of thriving prospects inspired the happiness I yearned. Among the wild landscapes of the Pyrenees, the Amazon swamps, Tibet and Egypt, I chose to penetrate the depths of darkness so long avoided. The journey not destination was what then mattered. I no longer wanted to be cut off from the neck down – but to welcome my full-blooded sensuous humanity, however uncomfortable. Experience made life meaningful –not the ideas, thoughts or beliefs about it, including the story of ‘tomorrow’. A new map guides me now, in, down and through – to embody the change I seek. I don’t have to climb a mountain or travel anywhere to remember that. And when I forget – again – there is a map to reset my inner compass, feeling my way ever onwards: the way up is down.
And more about the book here.