High on a peak in Greenland
Breathing is something we rarely consider. Like our heartrate, it is a reflex governed by our body and mind, almost without reference to the soul. Our body naturally fills our lungs to access the vital oxygen we need, but it can also bring in pollutants which endanger our very existence. The pace of our breathing can race our emotions or bring them to rest.
We need to learn control…
I was brought up in the Derwent Valley, a land then filled with foundries, cotton mills and Oil Refineries, all which aggravated my childhood Catarrh. My mother took me out for long walks to help clear my lungs of dust and also help me breathe.
Clear sunny days were ideal, but whatever the weather, we were out. We were a family of the outdoors with a huge vegetable garden and the Peak District on our doorstep. We used both well and found fresh air a saviour from the industrial plume. Over the years the industry has gone, but the gardening remains, and I still help my parents grow fresh veg.
My early working career saw me digging up roads and working on electricity cables. Being in the open air was wonderful, but we took in vehicle fumes, dust and industrial solders, which today would probably be banned. We even drilled asbestos panels. Yes, we had respirators, but no-one used them, and they weren’t enforced. I used to hold my breath and stick my head into the cloud, before gasping for air as I rose from the chemical fog and dust.
Regardless of the fumes, I never caught colds or flu during this time of my life. I worked physically hard and kept incredibly fit. It was only later, when I became office bound that the colds came. I find air conditioning an abhorrence to my lungs, but a necessity of work.
Only seconds before I fell off Ama Dablam
Being a mountaineer brings breathing into the fore. The thinning air of altitude forces us to work harder, but also pace ourselves. Walking at low level raises my rate slightly, but when on the face, I count paces with my breaths. It starts with a breath in when placing my left foot and then out when I place it again. Then in with the left and out with the right, getting to a full cycle per step. You concentrate so hard that you keep a slow and steady pace. Its desperate work sometimes, but your lungs define your speed.
I once had a rope snap whilst I was abseiling at over 6000m down Ama Dablam.
It is here that breathing comes into its own.
Gravity took its hold and I careered down a snow slope, thankfully stopping before a 2000m cliff face. I was scared, shaking and hyperventilating, all whilst teetering on a huge drop.
It could have all gone horribly wrong, but I managed to control my breathing.
Only a few feet away were ropes that would lead me to safety, but they required a leap of faith to hold. With nerves on fire, I closed my eyes, steadied my mind and took my breathing under control. I slowed it to a normal pace, brought down my heartrate and calmly moved for the ropes. I gently took them in my hands and descended safely off the mountain.
At 6200m on Himlung after abandoning a summit attempt
Nowadays, I work in an environment known for its stress. The levels can quite literally ramp up in seconds but take hours to release. I find controlling my breathing helps mitigate the days irritations and allows me to relax my ever-tensioning muscles.
When I’m outdoors, I often sit, close my eyes and slow my breathing. I let natures aromas cleanse my lungs and allow my mind to empty. I find places which hold memories for me help. Woodlands that I played in as a child, open moorland that inspires and my local river all have places in my heart.
I never tell people where as these are, as they are my special places, but I’m sure we all have them.
Find yours, sit peacefully, and learn to breathe…