Overcoming Adversity at 5000 Meters

[ posted by Kim on 4th of July, 2013 ]

Today’s article isn’t about shooting a puck or skating faster.
But hopefully reading this story helps you to understand how
you deal with adversity on and off the ice.

I recently came back from an amazing 7 day hiking trip in Peru where we hiked for
an average of 11 hours per day and went over five different 5000 meter high passes
(that’s over 16,000 ft or 3 miles straight up).  At that height, the biggest risk is altitude
sickness, which we thankfully managed to avoid other than a few killer headaches.
The other big risk is falling – or more specifically, losing your footing while walking
along a thin little path on the side of a mountain and falling thousands of meters.
You have to be pretty sure-footed up there to make sure you don’t break a leg,
wrist or neck.

I’ve always been a pretty good climber – it must be the “hockey legs” I’ve been
training for the past 15 or so years. But I have to admit that I do get a little nervous
when it comes to walking on the edge of a mountain. I’m not afraid of heights
but I do avoid looking down when I know the drop could really hurt me.

On paper, the toughest part of our trip were those 5000+ meter summits.
But for me, the hardest part of the trip by far happened during 1 hour of hiking
on the 4th day of our trek.

After lunch, we started what we thought was a 4 hour hike to our campsite
for the night.  We were supposed to be hiking down and around a very small
village that had a beautiful lake in the middle of it.  It wasn’t going to be very
challenging physically, but I soon found out it was going to be a huge mental
challenge for me.

First of all, it wasn’t a 4 hour hike. It ended up being over 6 hours. This is always
hard for me for a few reasons. First, I’m not the most patient person in the world.
Second, I like to keep things on schedule and if we’re behind, I start to worry that
we took a wrong turn or that we’re just out of shape and slow, which isn’t entirely
rational but that’s what happens when you’re on the side of a mountain and
short of oxygen. But I’m starting to learn that you have to respect the mountain and
know that it doesn’t have a stopwatch.  The point of the trek wasn’t to keep a tidy perfect
schedule – it was to enjoy the experience.

The mental challenge started off with the realization that I’d be hiking on a skinny
path on the side of the mountain with an over 1000 meter drop for over 3 hours.
That meant I’d have to be laser-focused the entire time, even though we were on
our 4th day of hard hiking and we had already hiked for our 6 hours that day.
Not an impossible task by any means, but it meant that my body and mind were
in a state of stress for a very long period of time.  I was managing that stress
very well for the first 3 hours, and then a huge mental and physical obstacle
came my way.

All of a sudden, our lovely 3 foot wide path with the 1000 meter drop went
from being flat to being on a sharp angle with loose rocks and mud.  To be
honest, the section was only 5 meters long at most, but it made me stop dead
in my tracks.

My two hiking partners made it through by using their poles and their balance
to run over the section to the other side.  I watched them go over without any
issues, which should have comforted me. The problem was that when they
went through it, I had to watch the rocks and mud that they displaced rocket
down the side of the mountain towards the river below. And immediately my
mind starting thinking about what would happen if I went in the same directions
of those rocks and mud, instead of across the path safely.

It took me a minute or two to get my bearings.  And with a few scary steps
while reaching out for the poles of one of my fellow hikers, I made it across
safely.  But I didn’t have time to celebrate. I didn’t even have time to catch
my breath.  The sun was setting quickly and we realized that we still had
over an hour to hike. Instead of being able to collect myself, I had to move
even more quickly as my stress level stayed high.

We soon realized that we were going to have to cross the river down in
the valley below to get to our campsite on the other side.  That meant
that we had to get down the side of the mountain quickly, cross over
the rapids that marked that part of the river, and hike up the other side
of the valley – all as it was getting darker and darker.  We basically slid
down the side of the mountain (it looked more like downhill skiing than
hiking) and waded across the raging rapids.  My heart rate was through
the roof the entire time as I used all my energy to stay focused on the
task at hand.

Once we started hiking up the mountain on the other side
of the river, it was dark. We only had one small headlamp and very little
sign of a trail.  We took a shortcut so that we could cross the river while
there was still a little bit of daylight, and that meant we had to try to
find our way to the campsite without a real path in front of us and very
little light to guide us.  After an hour of hiking straight up in the dark,
and 12.5 hours of hiking total for the day, we found the campsite.

And for the first time in 3 hours, I could start to breathe again.

Why am I sharing this story with you today?

What does this have to do with hockey?

After all, we don’t really risk our lives every time we step on the ice
and we don’t have to play in the dark after 12 hours of training.

I could tell you that this story is all about overcome your fears,
and having patience, and persevering, and staying focused.

And it is…

… But what it is really about for me is learning how you as
an individual deal with unexpected obstacles on the ice and in life.

I’ll be honest – I was scared out of my mind for a while there.
That first obstacle of crossing the loose rocks and stones almost
knocked the breath out of me.  Not exactly a great response to stress.

And over an hour later, once I slalomed down the side of a mountain,
waded through rapids and hiked in the dark, I was a wreck.

I had no idea when I woke up that morning that I would have to face
those challenges. I didn’t have time to psych myself up or prepare
in any way. They just happened – and I had to deal with it.

That’s how it works with adversity. It rarely gives you a heads-up
and let’s you know that it’s coming.

Adversity usually just shows up unannounced in the midst of your
game or your day and smacks you in the face. And you have no
choice but to deal with it.

I definitely wouldn’t say that I dealt with adversity perfectly that day.
My stress levels were still through the roof for a few hours after we
got to the campsite. But I did learn a lot about myself in those last
few hours of the hike, and that’s what matters. I wasn’t perfect,
but I made it and I’ll be better for it the next time I’m faced with
the unexpected adversity that pops up.

So take a moment to think about this…

:::: When was the last time you faced real adversity?

:::: How did you deal with it?

:::: What did you learn from it?

:::: And how will it change how you deal with it next time?

Work Hard. Dream BIG.

Your friend and coach,


Kim McCullough, MSc, YCS
Director, Total Female Hockey
Girls Hockey Director, PEAC School For Elite Athletes



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