We all feel the mountains can heal us to some degree. But few of us have ever really had to test that theory. To coincide with National Mental Health Awareness Week, Joe Winch offers us a moving personal account of living with PTSD, and describes the astonishing transformation he experiences in the mountains. Joe has recently joined a team from charity 65 Degrees North, with the aim of climbing Denali later this year. Ahead of this challenge, Joe gives us his thoughts from a training camp in Chamonix.
Up here, among the giants, it’s a peaceful simple place,
Up here, at last, I can see, breathe, and think,
Down below, is a chaotic and terrifying place,
Down below, it tortures and suffocates my soul,
Up here I can stand tall and take my place,
Confident, strong, and alive,
Down below there is no place for me,
I stand alone, scared, and as good as dead,
Up here is to choose life and struggle and to never ever give in,
Down below is a battle I can’t win and a nightmare that never ends,
Up here, I can conquer my mind.
The mountains have always provided me with sanctuary; a place of great solitude, of incredible beauty, and of peace. Even at their most fierce, when the exposure has been greatest and the risks most profound, I have still found the mountains yield the most extraordinary opportunities for adventure and personal discovery. That’s why for me, the mountains are simultaneously an exhilarating place, and a place of insight, wisdom, and creativity. The mountains are an arena where physical strength and endurance, mental resolve and tenacity, and one's instincts, inclinations, and imagination, are continually judged and either rewarded or punished. For me, to be in the mountains is to be alive.
Since I was diagnosed with acute Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 12 months ago – a consequence of many traumas endured during my service in the Royal Marines – my world has become a dark, terrifying, and chaotic place. In a few months the PTSD totally destroyed everything I thought was true and real about me and my existence. I didn’t know who, what, or where I was anymore, and life itself became a deranged and disturbing ordeal. In effect, the PTSD had condemned my mind, body and soul to relentlessly relive the very worst moments of my trauma. It's horrific, and everyday is a new battle with an infinite number of unseen enemies hidden everywhere.
This is a normal, if somewhat extreme, consequence of chronic trauma. It causes complex and far reaching catastrophic changes, transforming the brain, mind, and emotions, as well as the body’s biology and immune systems. Such transformations have caused serious dysfunction in my normal life. For whether I like it or not, I exist in a state of near-permanent hyper-vigilance. My eyes, ears, and senses are always on high alert, constantly searching for danger. When any potential danger is sensed, which happens far quicker than conscious thought, I startle aggressively. Flashbacks, anger and rage are triggered by the most innocuous of events. I have hyper-aggressive intrusive thoughts that occur spontaneously and arrive complete with their own twisted logic, leaving me struggling to trust my own instincts. Even when I sleep I have nightmares about my own death and mutilation.
After many months of intense therapy, I finally began learning how to delicately orchestrate my life in a way that allows me to live with my symptoms. Like any orchestration though, living with my symptoms is contingent on the precise synchronisation of many independent variables, and if anything goes wrong, as it invariably does, the result is disaster. But each time this happens I have learnt a little more about my condition, which allows me to do a little better the next time, and so slowly - very slowly - I have been learning to live again. It was as part of this learning that I felt able, at last, to return to the mountains.
In 2018 I was introduced to 65 Degrees North - a remarkable charity specialising in rehabilitating wounded and injured service people through adventures. They invited me on a mountaineering course in Chamonix.
Despite how chaotic and dysfunctional normal life has become for me, it was different, so very different, when I returned to the mountains – to their sanctuary, solitude, and peace. Indeed, the difference was so stark I felt like another person – one that is actually and fully alive, and able to see, breathe, and think. For in the Alps I was not scared, there was no danger, no hidden threat. It was just me and the mountains. My thoughts weren’t being poisoned, but were instead focussed intently on the terrain, the weather, the snow, ice, and rock. Here, I could trust my instincts and judgement, I could rely on my skills and knowledge, and I could thrive. I could see clearly and brightly, and I could see it was beautiful, peaceful, and safe. And even though my lungs burned and my legs shook with exertion, they felt alive - I felt alive - and that was the best feeling in the world.
In the mountains I am happy. I am the master of my own destiny, and this gives me hope and tremendous faith that I can and will prevail over my diagnosis. Returning to the Alps was an important waypoint in my battle with PTSD, and rediscovering who I am, what I am, and where I am going. Next, I journey with a small team from 65 Degrees North for an attempt to climb Denali in Alaska, the highest mountain in North America. For me, this journey - being in the mountains - is to choose life, and struggle, and to never ever give in. This is why the mountains are so important to me, and this is why I must climb mountains.
Joe travels to Alaska to attempt climbing Denali in June. For more information on the incredible work done by 65 Degrees North, see their website; www.65degreesnorth.co.uk.