Retaining the Balance

As I first mentioned in the later sections of the Long Game of Education, it is necessary for me to find and retain a balance between my physical and psychological well-being to supports resilience within me.  Everyone has their own unique way of finding balance and each of us will have specific and individual thresholds where balance and risk resides.

For the purposes of this blog and to share my own balance retention techniques, I will use this section to explore my own journey and the holistic effects it has on my Professional Doctorate deliverable, balancing my physical and psychological well-being.

2018: the Starting point of this year, 142 Munro’s climbed.


Deb’s, Eileen and CJ, American friends.

01/01/2018 – Conic Hill Balmaha, a handful of friends had come to stay over Christmas and New Year.  Ok when I say a handful of friends, I say this if you have shovels for hands.  Just to be clear before we carry on, I did not study at all during this festive period, I simply allowed myself some downtime.  After feasting over Christmas and into the New Year, the need to get out and do some physical activity is essential.  Our group arrived in Balmaha in torrential rain and by the expression, on their American faces, they were not overly keen to get out of the car let alone walk up a lump of a hill.  However, we gave them no option and up they went.  After only a few minutes of misery, the rain stopped and the sun came out just in the nick of time as I think there was some dissension in the ranks to turn back.  We did the slip and slid all the way to the top and to the delight of our guests the weather held and the views opened up.  Ben Lomond was holding onto its snow-covered cap and the rest of Loch Lomond looked spectacular.  As the body burned up the calories of the festive season and the mind took in the views balance was once again restored.  I did have a thought albeit momentarily that I perhaps should be doing a little reading during this holiday!  Until someone suggested a pub lunch at the Oak Tree Inn,  oh well it’s important to note that balance is constantly on the move.


04/02/2018 – Meall Buidhe and Stuchd-an-Lochain in Glen Lyon – Steven Fallon Mountain Guide – (Emma leading.)   The most spectacular weather you could ever hope for, blue sky and inversion clouds lifting in the distance.  Full panoramic views in all direction and a good group of climbers ready to take on the day with a smile on their faces.  We climbed Meall Buidhe first, a gentle walk in before the uphill assent began and the first Munro of the year.  The thighs were burning early on, but the weather and the conditions inspired and ignited the legs up, up and on.  There was a longer than average food stop at the top as the weather allowed for good conversation and photos.  A quick pace back down to the dam, passing only two other climbers on their way up.  The next hill was Stuchd-an-Lochain, which was not in the sun for the first 40 minutes, a demanding test on the legs, a big effort to pull up into the sunshine which eventually emerged.  Whilst engaged in this long pull up, my brain began to have thoughts of the Literature Review which I had been struggling within, I was getting lost in the reading, data mining deeper and deeper with no end in sight.  I had to stop and accept the level I had reached, without losing the thread.  I did not have a eureka moment on the hill, I simply allowed myself to accept I have done enough reading and needed to apply this to the literature review, as the deadline was insight, just like the Munro summit.  The long walk along the top to the Munro summit brought a serene sense of peace, it became quiet as our breaths steadied, heart rate dropped and the landscape reviled itself.    Photo, Photo, Photo, we were all like tourists on the summit a quick bite to eat and onto the descent.  This was to be the highlight of winter climbing, once we had made our way to the slopes which were so demanding to climb up, we were then able to take full advantage of the snow and slide all the way down using our ice axes as a break.  I have never traversed down with such controlled speed and with such a big smile on my face.  The day was simply epic, best winter climbing ever.  And as I author this post, I have added 800 words to my literature review and will be getting stuck in to complete a section by the end of the week, balance and risk propelling me along.

30/03/2018 – Munro – Ben Vorlich – Loch Lomond side.  Up early 6:15 start from the house, got to Loch Lomond side at 8:15 and started to climb.  The first two sections were good to fair with a steep climb up.  But the top third was covered in ice and snow, creating a good challenge and a longer day than expected.

02/04/2018 – Munro – Beinn Bhuidhe, Warning don’t go up it when the beast from the east has raised its ugly head again, according to Walk Highlands website Beinn Bhuidhe “is a neglected Munro, being shyly hidden away between Glens Shira and Fyne at the head of Loch Fyne.  Its uppermost ridge is surprisingly steep and rocky and is a tremendous [03/04/2018].

What the narrative fails to tell you is that this blurb like all Munro’s in Scotland is dependent on the weather.  The narrative I would have created in support of climbing this Munro’s on the 2nd of April 2018 would be, “a challenging and demanding ascent of a gorge where frozen water in the form of a thin sheet of ice makes staying on the rocks almost impossible.  Followed by an intermittent snow and ice packed gully, where full use of ice axe is required, sadly not enough compacted material for crampons, therefore, a treacherous toe banging zig, zagging climb up to the final section. With wind gusts of up to 60 mph, fine powdered snow blasting the epidermis layer of skin from my face and forcing my eyelids to narrow into slits, I successfully traversed the last section.  The photo above does not reflect the pain felt by the blast of the wind and as you can see there are no tremendous views to make it all worthwhile” O’Neil (2018).   The challenges however scary and demanding taught me a remarkable lesson; I had to grow my courage mussel on this climb, and the closest I have ever come to giving up pm a mountain.  Without my husband Brian’s determination and encouragement, I would have stopped and turned back.  What I did take away is that I feel the same way about the PhD literature review.  I have grown serious mental monsters in my head regarding my academic abilities.  I needed to find a way through the negativity and the fear of failure.  The climb down was a reflective one, I said some prayers of gratitude and by the time I got to the bike, I knew what action I had to take the literature review.   The action was simple, I had to stop multi-tasking and focus on the top of the mountain.

21/04/2018 – Munro – Ben Chonzie, totally different experience from the last two Munro’s, another early start 6:15 start from the house to Comrie in record-breaking time and on the hill for 8:10am. On leaving the carpark there were only three cars, which equated to only two groups up ahead.  Making good time we were quickly met by the now descending walkers and had the top of the Munro to ourselves, and enjoyed a brunch at the top.   Surprisingly and to my horror, our decent looked like the contents of Sauchiehall Street were making their way up the hill.  The parking was transposed into an ant march in a straight line.   Thankfully not wedged in we made a quick escape back to Glasgow.  A wonderful morning on Ben Chonzie, such a privilege to have had the mountain to ourselves, at least for a while.

Glen Affric – 150 Munro’s 

04 – 07/05/2018, just getting into Glen Affric is a demanding adventure. The track had been eroded due to heavy snowfall and 4×4 vehicles churning their way through the glen, however after what seemed like a very long time, we eventually arrived at Strawberry Cottage at around 11pm.  Ann and Colwyn had arrived earlier and had the log burning stove going and the cottage was warm and welcoming.

05/05/2018 – day one in Glen Affric, Sail Chaorainn, climbed with Justine, Philip members of the JMCS Glasgow hillwalking club.  What I would like to point out before I describe the hill and the adventure up it, is that I had no sight in my left eye? Don’t ask me why I have yet to uncover the reason but only my right eye was functioning.  Sail Chaorainn was a pleasant hill; we walked directly out of the hut onto the hill, a longish walk along the base of Glen Affric before pulling up steeply to a bealach, continuing right along the long meandering ridge to the summit.   From the summit, there were good views of Sgurr nan Conbhairean and Carn Ghluasaid which can be hiked up from Glen Cluanie.   We made good time to the top and enjoyed our second lunch of the day whilst watching the cloud pass overhead.  A more leisurely descent back to the lower ridge, whereby Justine navigated a different descent from which we had climbed up.  We encountered only one challenge on the way down, the wind, which was buffeting in places, not sure if this was an increase in wind-speed or simply that the glen itself produces wind tunnels which, can become buffeting periodically.  Either way, we made a quick descent of this area and moved to a more accessible descent.    After about an hour of zigging and zagging down we made it safely back onto the base of the glen and enjoyed a relaxing walk back to the hut and to banana loaf heaven and a big pot of tea, magic.

06/05/2018 – day two in Glen Affric, Ciste Dhubh, climbed with Colwyn again a JMCS member, this was to be a demanding and torturous 9-kilometer cycle into the bottom of the hill direct from strawberry cottage.  I had no experience of cycling in this type of terrain before.  I had to quickly grow my courage muscle and my confidence on the bikes capabilities.  Again the harsh winter weather and use of 4×4 vehicles have churned up this track.  Another issue was the water levels which initially looked like shallow puddles and suddenly the bike was submerged above wheel height in parts.  Eventually and very happily we dismounted the bikes just beyond Glen Affric youth hostel.  Next challenge was the river crossing, Colwyn found a good spot and quickly stepped across effortlessly.  I on the other hand, took two or three confident steps and then plunged into the river up to bum height!!! The loss of sight in my left eye had tricked me into thinking there was a rock to stand on when there was not!  Not wanting to seem like a novice on the hills I just smiled and continued to walk.  Colwyn had mapped out a good line up the side of Caste Dhubh, no particular path but just using the line of sight and referring to the map gave what felt like a decent line up the hill.  The weather produced zero views to either side of the hill, this created a good number of false sensations of being close to the top, however, the cloud retained the true height of the Munro and gave discrete outlines every now and again of the size and scale of the mountain.  On the way up I did find a rather nice antler which I tucked into my rucksack.  We eventually hit the top of the Ciste Dhubh and were welcomed by six other climbers having their lunch on top.  Embarrassingly as I stepped forward to touch the summit, I miss placed my footing and slid not very gracefully back down the summit.  Shaking off my embarrassment I quickly took a bow and attempted to hit the summit, this time with more care on where my feet were being placed.

Colwyn quickly set up his Transmitter Ariel as he is part of the Summits on the Air (SOTA), an association for radio armatures that encourages portable operation in mountainous areas.   SOTA is fully operational in nearly a hundred countries across the world. Each summit earns the activators (Colwyn) a score which is related to the height of the summit.  Colwyn made contact with several other activators from Spain, how fantastic.

I joined in the conversation with the other six climbers from Edinburgh who had climbed from Glen Cluanie.  What a nice group of people they were.  The climbers all worked within the financial sector and were out on the hills to build both their physical and psychological resilience.  The financial sector has been a difficult and challenging place to work over the past decade due to the 2018 financial crisis.  Therefore it was reassuring to see this group of climbers acknowledging the importance of team spirit and collective experiences.  Good luck and thanks for your company and chat.  Your physical and psychological resilience will support economic well-being and recovery in the long-term.

After about 30 minutes of transmitting from the top, it was time to set off back down the hill.  The sun by now was beginning to come out and at last, we could take off a couple of layers.  The walk back down was easier and on my way back to the bikes I found another two antlers, a four and a six-pointer.  Colwyn made a speedy return to the cottage by bike whereas I decided to take a more leisurely pace and walked a fair amount of the track back to strawberry cottage and another big pot of tea.

07/05/2018 – day three in Glen Affric, Toll Craeagach and Tom a’ Choinich, climbed with Justine and Philip.  We packed up Strawberry cottage in record-breaking time and headed out on to the hill by 8am.  This was a much easier start to the day, with a very good track up to the dam, followed by a wet and boggy stackers’ path to the bealach.  The weather was interchangeable throughout the morning but nothing overly demanding.  We stopped just before the top of Tom a’ Choinich to have our first lunch of the day and shelter.  Beyond the first summit, we began our long walk across a broad and grassy ridge across to Toll Craigach.  Food on the hill is always very welcome and we enjoyed a second lunch of the day tucked into the summit of Toll Craigach. The descent was equally unchallenging, Justine navigation was superb and we found a good line off the hill which also avoided any river crossings and within a short period of time we were back at the dam and have a quick cup of tea before the easy track path back to the car.  Thank you to Justine and Philip for transportation and company, a good weekend on the hills.

The most amazing thing about Glen Affric was its remoteness; I had no signal, no communication with the outside world.  I was initially uncomfortable with this disconnection however after the second day, I just gave into it and allowed my mind to be still.  I did not think about the ProfDoc at all over the entire weekend.  I was, however, a little bit concerned regarding my loss of sight in my left eye.  Overall a good weekend of climbing and good company.

Munro’s North and South of Loch Mullardoch

09/06/2018 – Day 1 – North Mulllardoch Munros, first time ever taking a boat into the bottom of a Munro, very thrilling, Angus, (ZZ top look- alike) propelled along the lock, negotiating the ‘narrows’ to get us to our landing. First stop was An Socach, and some faint rumbles of thunder in the distance. A hike along An Socach’s easterly ridge, narrow in places, gradually got us down to the col below An Riabhachan. By this point, there were definite sighs of static in the air and we could feel the tingle of the electricity in the air, the thunder getting nearer. The last big pull of the day was Sgurr na Lapaich, with cloud moving quickly overhead, and lightning flash just behind us.  Reaching the summit in good time, we made a hasty retreat off the top and onto Carn nan Gobhar the final Munro of the day.

10/06/2018 – Day 2 – South Mulllardoch Munros, another boat ride in with Angus, still thrilling the second time around.  Up the Allt Coire an Lochain to the foot of Beinn Fhionnlaidh and onto the summit, a well-earned food stop at the top and enjoyed the views. Off again and heading south aiming for Mam Sodhail and Carn Eighe, impressive ridge all around and fantastic views.  The next two Munro’s seemed like miles and miles of football pitches away.  Tom a’Choinnich’s and then Toll Creagach, and to my surprise the snow was hanging on in the eastern facing coires.  All in all a fantastic nine Munro’s over two days, a  great weekend shared with very good company.

Three Peaks Challenge

08/09/2018 – The National Three Peaks Challenge involves climbing the three highest peaks of Scotland, England, and Wales, within 24 hours.  The total walking distance was 23 miles (37km) and the total ascent is 3064 meters (10,052ft).  The three mountains are: Ben Nevis, in Scotland (1345m) Scafell Pike, in England (978m) Snowdon, in Wales (1085m).

There were over 50 participants in our overall group, the groups eventually settled into the smaller walking group.  Our mountain leader was Adam, a splendid human being who held the group together all the way through the challenge.

Ben Nevis was by far the highlight of my day, drenched in glorious sunshine and on home turf; I managed to get up and down the Ben in 4 hours and 19 minutes a joy and a privilege to have had such a pleasant climb.  The organisation was first class and after having a quick cup of team we made for England and for Scafell Pike.  It’s never going to be plane sailing to driving 6/7 hours south, but it was a necessary evil and part of the challenge.

On arrival at Scafell, the weather was turning and not for the better, wind and rain began to hammer down and by the time we got on the mountain, it was a wet and blustery night.  Walking in the dark itself did not bother me, but the pace was fast and I struggled to stay up with my group.  Again thanks to Adam and Ice (another splendid individual) I was able to stay with my group, the downward descent was fast thankfully, and by this time the driving wind and rain had penetrated the waterproofs and the boots.  Sadly by the time I got to the hot food, it was all gone.  I have never been so disappointed not to have porage in my entire life.  Freezing cold and totally spent, I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep for a few hours as the minibus traveled on to Wales and to Snowdon.

Arriving just as the day was beginning to break through the darkness we put on our wet, cold and damp gear and began our final push up the last mountain.  It wasn’t long before I found myself falling behind my group and as the gap became bigger and bigger I found Ice on my heals encouraging me up and up and up.  His anecdotal story-telling was just the tonic to take my mind off the fact that I simply had no fuel left in the tank.  Ice reassured me that I was not slow, just in a fast group and that I was making good time.  After eating several handfuls of jelly babies and downing a bottle of water, I found some energy to catch up with the team and to summit Snowdon.  The descent down was fast and easy and we were all soon back at the finish line and stripping off the wet climbing gear into some dry, warm clothes.  My overall time for the challenge was a very respectable 22 hours and 9 minutes.  One last comment on the challenge, the team I was in, was so supportive as a group and so encouraging, all seven of us crossed the line together at the end, I felt very privileged and proud to have shared this experience with them.

From a psychological resilience perspective, the physical challenge of the three peaks was far less demanding than the psychological challenge.   The human body is incredibly adaptable and when you think you can’t go on; it’s not the body telling you this but your mind.  The body can endure much more than the mind is able to comprehend.  I had been carrying demons in my mind for some time now regarding my ability to carry on with my PhD.  The lesson I have learned from the three peaks challenge is that I have in some way let the demons in and they are settling in and becoming very comfortable.  I have to ask myself if I want to kick them out or hand over the keys.