30 Dec 2019 17:33 IST

What the trek to a Himalayan peak taught me

Pushing your limits and focusing on small, everyday wins will help you achieve your goals

Earlier this month, I undertook a journey to one of the Himalayan peaks in Uttarakhand. With a team of IIM Bangalore students, we trekked to the Kedarkantha peak in waist-deep snow and sub-zero cold as part of the IIM-B Himalayan Mountain Challenge course organised by India Hikes. Such cold and steep climbs threw us out of our comfort zone, as we camped, cooked and survived the three days of ascent and two days of descent. There were times when we almost gave up and broke down as we negotiated the harsh cold of the long Himalayan nights.

But as the days passed and we witnessed pristine sights and trails, we also began to discover the untapped and deep reservoirs of resilience within us. The first few days were tough — physically and psychologically. However, on the summit day and later, the challenges looked no longer daunting, and we found humour in the situation.

The summit day was the toughest, yet we were better prepared, and our expectations were better calibrated: we woke up at 3 am, had our breakfast, washed the utensils in freezing water, un-pitched our tents, and began the steep climb by 5:30 am while it was still dark. This time, the climb too seemed easier, even though it was steeper. We reached the peak by 10 am, climbing faster than in the previous two days.

A view of the Himalayan mountain range from the Kedarkantha peak

 

Once we reached the summit, a dose of adrenaline, released by the sense of achievement and the unadulterated beauty of the Himalayan peaks, overpowered us. Now, we had another challenge — descent — which would take another six hours until we reached our base camp. It was tougher than expected, as it put significant stress on our knees. But, by now, trekking had become fun. Well, sort of. Some of us slid in the snow, others played Antakshari. There were still discomforts. For example, the snow was in our boots and our feet were freezing. Yet, it all seemed trivial in the face of the adventure.

When we reached the base camp, we pitched our tents and cooked food for a big dinner party, and despite the long cold day — this time, we were more content, not complaining, and enjoying the company and what we had with us. Here are the three lessons I learnt from the trek:

We are more than we think

We often live our lives assuming we have only one gear in our bodies. We usually live far below our full physical and mental potential. We do not push ourselves. We give up at the first instance of discomfort. But when pushed to the limit, our body responds terrifically and changes its gear to a higher level. How many gears do we have? We can only know if we challenge ourselves.

This realisation made me appreciate sports stars such as Roger Federer and Mary Kom, who have truly pushed past their limits. The locals who live in the cold, rugged Himalayan terrain, also possess extraordinary endurance and strength, just because they have adapted themselves to new limits.

Challenges become easier with humour

When we face discomforts, it does not feel good. But worrying or complaining does not help. Humour helps. Making light of the situation, some self-deprecation, and a little leg-pulling works. The company of lively people soothes too. Being in the present helps , as it allows us to respond to uncertainities in a better way.

Small, achievable wins are important

Harvard academic Theresa Amabile in her book The Progress Principle teaches that instead of targeting one big win, we should focus on several small wins. Winning motivates us. But when we keep our targets big, and for long durations, and when we fail to fulfil those targets, it demotivates us. In contrast, when we split our targets into smaller achievable wins, like dividing a long day trail into smaller segments, we are achieving “wins” more often, and this boosts our motivation.

Each day of the trek was a long psychological journey, and when we fulfilled the goals, no matter how small, it filled us with motivation. Beyond physical endurance and strength, I learned how our psychology had a significant impact on our ability to face challenges.

These three ideas — pushing our limits, living with humour and in the present, and staying motivated with small everyday wins, taught me what I now call the Himalayan mindset. Now that I am back to the usual routine in Bengaluru, I am attempting to apply this mindset in my everyday life. The world around us may not be ideal. Sometimes it gets harsh, frustrating, and disappointing. But the Himalayan mindset is a useful reminder of our untapped potential and agency in the world.

During World War II, while facing Nazi air raids, the British public had found, in my view, a perfect phrase to capture this mindset: Keep calm and carry on. To this, I will add, ‘turn the humour on and carry on’.

(The writer is Assistant Professor of Strategy at IIM Bangalore.)

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