In a previous article for Legend, PTSD: Why I Must Conquer Giants, Joe Winch wrote about living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the therapeutic benefits of the mountains. We catch up with Joe in this follow-up, shortly after he has summited Denali, as he offers further insight into the horror of PTSD and reflects on the profound impact of climbing the highest mountain in North America.
Just below the highest point in North America it’s -35 degrees Celsius and the weather is ferocious. The air is so thin that I gasp for each breath, the physical effort of climbing, of putting one foot in front of the other blocks out even the most persistent of my PTSD symptoms. For that brief and hard-won moment, I forget the condition that has taken over and almost destroyed my life, and instead focus on each heavy footstep and the anticipation that I am about to summit Denali.
When I was diagnosed with acute PTSD I went from being a highly functioning, very successful, and recently promoted Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Marines, to a life in complete chaos. My mind and body were trapped in a hideous amalgamation of the very worst moments of over a decade of trauma. Such chronictrauma causes spectacular damage to the brain, which explains why the PTSD sufferer is unable to distinguish past from present, and instead exists in a state of perpetual crisis. Put another way, PTSD is extremely real – it is not just in the sufferers’ head, it keeps past trauma persistent in the present, and places its many dysfunctional and debilitating symptoms well beyond the control of the sufferer.
Of course, this reality didn’t just spontaneously arrive, it had been developing for well over a decade. Gradually colonising my mind and body, and then systematically attacked every aspect of my life. It did this very subtly, such that any indication of a problem was explained away by other factors. As a consequence, as my PTSD became ever more aggressive I normalised and dismissed my symptoms in a manner that rendered them all but invisible. So even as life descended into complete chaos I couldn’t see the problem until it became agonisingly obvious.
This is how my battle with PTSD began, and since then I have struggled with my symptoms – longing for the day I might feel a little better and dreaming of the moment I might get some respite from all the noise. But that day remained elusive. For months I was unable to be in the same room as my family, often I couldn’t be in the same building as anyone. I couldn’t play with my children or walk them to school, I couldn’t support my wife, or even take care of myself. The indignity and humiliation tore my soul, my confidence, self-esteem and pride to shreds.
“Denali – the highest, coldest, and most remote mountain in North America, and the most challenging of the revered Seven Summits”
Yet I struggled on, fighting to find the courage to face a world that had been viciously transformed into a dark succession of frightening ordeals. I gradually assembled a fantastic team of specialists, who patiently helped me to understand what had happened to me, and together we began processing many of the more traumatic of my memories. As well, I recognised that PTSD is a serious life changing injury, and that persisting with life as if nothing had happened was to guarantee further misery – so I changed my life. I began listening very carefully to my PTSD to learn what made my symptoms worse, what made them easier, and so, subsequently, I was able to gently adjust, adapt, and – ultimately – change my life. In combination, these endeavours laid an essential foundation and framework for my recovery; but broader progress to tackle my symptoms remained unspectacular. Until, that is, I went to Denali.
The positive effects of outdoor sports on mental health, including PTSD, have been well documented. The opportunity to connect with the great outdoors, to participate in an activity and achieve a goal can have a significant effect on those battling with their minds. For my part, I have always loved the outdoors, and since my diagnosis I have been desperate to escape to the mountains. Yet I have had neither the confidence nor the opportunity to do this safely and constructively – the risk being, quite simply, that I might never return. So it was, in every respect, a dream come true when I was introduced to the charity 65 Degrees North, who invited me to climb Denali – the highest, coldest, and most remote mountain in North America, and the most challenging of the revered Seven Summits.
The timing of this introduction was impeccable, and before I knew it I was boarding a ski-plane in the Alaskan frontier town of Talkeetna with over 80 kilograms of high altitude mountaineering equipment and food for a month. From here we flew north over the stunning Denali National Park, watching the foothills and rivers grow into the most spectacular mountains and glaciers. Landing at Base Camp we were catapulted from the relatively benign and temperate climate in Talkeetna, to a volatile glacier over 7000 feet high and where the temperature was racing towards -10 degrees Celsius. And as we left the relative comfort of the aircraft and entered Denali’s giant frozen kingdom – like the rush of a nearby avalanche – everything began to change for me.
Although I had hoped my journey to Denali might have a moderately positive effect on my PTSD, I hadn’t for a moment anticipated just how immediate and profound the impact of the climb would actually be. For the first time in well over a year my body started to relax. I started to relax. I felt at ease, comfortable in my surroundings, and safe – which was, at first, such an unfamiliar experience it was disconcerting. Simultaneously, it was as if previously dark areas of my brain were suddenly illuminated, my mind was able to start thinking again, imagining and dreaming, and I was able to begin making sense of where I was, where I had come from, and where I was going. Although these changes felt almost impossible, there are a number of explanations that – I think – have helped allow me to make sense of my experience on Denali.
Firstly, since my diagnosis I have been so consumed by my symptoms that I haven’t had the capacity to take a step back and pull myself and my thoughts together – to start making sense of my diagnosis, my recovery, and my new reality. Yet, uniquely, this is exactly what I was able to do on Denali – in an environment that I loved, surrounded by people I trusted, and temporarily freed from the clutter of normal life. It was precisely here that the almost incomparable contrast with normal life struck me – for in the mountains I felt metaphorically liberated, and able to connect with my imagination in a way that is largely still denied to me in normal life. Thus, with this new found freedom I enthusiastically deliberated my predicament. This was an unanticipated and intense experience that allowed me to establish, for the first time, a broad and thorough perspective on my life, my recovery, and my future. All of a sudden, as if waking for the first time, I realised how tremendously lucky I have been, and how much I have to be grateful for. This has helped to change my outlook on life for the better, and has particularly improved my attitude towards my PTSD and my recovery.
“It was as if previously dark areas of my brain were suddenly illuminated, my mind was able to start thinking again”
Secondly, the PTSD shattered everything about who and what I thought I was. I might have travelled the world, had a successful career, and earned Masters degrees – but the PTSD stole all of it. In a moment, I couldn’t even take care of myself; the world became so difficult and overwhelming that I struggled to get out of bed and could rarely leave the house. This destroyed my sense of identity and left me a shadow of my former self, and very nearly killed me. This was a truly awful place to be. Yet Denali gave me an opportunity to do something remarkable, to achieve something amazing, and, in the process, to rediscover who I am. For in stark contrast to normal life, in the mountains I am still very comfortable, I can thrive, I can trust my instincts, and I can perform. Prevailing over temperatures as low as -35 degrees Celsius, vicious storms that prevented any movement for over a week, crevasses a hundred feet deep, avalanches that engulfed the slopes around me, loads well in excess of my own body weight, and the effects of extreme altitude, to get to the summit of Denali gave me something extraordinary to be proud of, reawakening my sense of self-confidence and self-worth. On Denali I began to feel alive again.
Thirdly, this journey didn’t just occur in my head – I was in fact part of a very special team of five Royal Marines, all of whom had been variously impacted by the recent wars. Yet, curiously, it was not our injuries that distinguished us from the other teams on the mountain. Instead, what made us different was that we kept going up against all the odds even as team after team – often with far more experience than us – simply gave up and turned around. Of course, our Royal Marines training helped, instilling in us an attention to detail, a sense of urgency, and a self-discipline that undoubtedly made us individually more effective on Denali. But more important than any individual training was our identity as Royal Marines, and the accompanying certainty that we would go to the ends of the world for each other if required. To find such an absolute confidence in the person next to you is really exceptional, but this is also precisely what it means to me to be a Royal Marines Commando. To undertake an endeavour as dangerous as climbing Denali, in the company of such people, with such confidence in ones’ own team, is amongst the greatest privileges of my life. As team mates we inspired and encouraged each other, we helped each other laugh when there was nothing to laugh about, we lifted each other up whenever we were down, and together we got to the top of the tallest mountain in North America. There was no-one else I would rather have been with on the mountain.
Fourthly, despite all our heroics high on the mountain – for me, the real heroes of this story were many miles away back in the UK. All the hardship and challenges we faced on the mountain pale into insignificance when compared to the ferocity of the challenges I faced, and continue to face, every day at home. And although this has been horrific for me, it’s been awful in the extreme for my wife Amy and our three beautiful children. Yet despite this, and all the horror my diagnosis has unleashed on their innocent lives, their love and affection towards me has been relentless. From the moment I was diagnosed with PTSD Amy and the children have been so incredibly patient and supportive, comforting and encouraging to me even when I have been at my most dysfunctional. Amy in particular has been unbelievably courageous, identifying the problem not as me per se but as the PTSD’s total and deeply malign influence. In doing so, Amy has refused to let PTSD devastate our family in the way it has for so many others. In turn she has given me the best reason in the world to keep going, to keep battling this hideous disorder and to never give in. That I am here at all is as amazing as it is entirely attributable to Amy and our children, and all their persistence with me – they have been absolutely amazing. Together my family give me so much hope and faith, in myself and in the future, and if it wasn’t for them I simply wouldn’t have got through the last year let alone anywhere near Denali.
To finish, climbing Denali has not cured my PTSD; I continue to struggle with my symptoms. But in many ways the journey has done something even better. It’s given me a glimpse of a much happier, brighter, and less chaotic future, a future in which I am a better husband, father, and friend, and a future where I am, at last, at peace with myself and the world around me. So my journey to Denali has been about far more than just getting to the top of the highest mountain in North America. It has helped bring about a profound re-awakening of my soul, afforded me a whole new perspective on life and my recovery, and re-energised me for the many significant challenges that I know still lie ahead.
Joe Winch successfully summited Denali earlier in 2018 and we wish him continued success in his recovery. To find out more about the charity which enabled this climb, visit www.65degreesnorth.co.uk