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One Mountain at a Time, by Alex Staniforth

One Mountain at a Time, by Alex Staniforth


There seems to be so much suffering in society. Perhaps it’s timely with the end of the summer holidays that people start to become overwhelmed and unsure of the future. I’ve heard of several suicides, missing people, and others struggling to cope in the last few weeks alone - and wondered, “what can we do to help?”.

Tuesday 10th September was World Suicide Prevention Day and my social media feeds were filled with stories of tragedy and pain, but also people sharing gratitude for holding on when they nearly lost hope. It wasn’t hard to believe the statistic that suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 49 in the UK. But hearing so many people speaking openly gave me hope that things are slowly changing.

I took similar inspiration recently from our first Mind Over Mountains weekend in the Lake District, and how powerful it can be to share our stories with like-minded people.

At the start of the Bank Holiday weekend, walkers from across the UK; from Sussex to South Wales and Devon; headed to the Blencathra Field Studies Centre in Threlkeld, near Keswick. Myself and Chris were inevitably anxious that things would run smoothly. Things were running late thanks to a missing order of bread rolls and other delays, but being able to adapt and overcome is a key strand of resilience (big thanks to RAW Adventures who kindly dropped off the radios). If nothing else we’d broken the August Bank Holiday weekend curse, with stellar blue skies and sunshine to explore the Northern Lakes in their full glory.

skiddaw house lake district location for Mind Over Mountains mental health retreat

Naturally, Chris took any opportunity to get on his bike and made a head start up to YHA Skiddaw House with with panniers full of gear. At 450m, Skiddaw House is the highest hostel in Britain, only accessible by foot or bicycle, and offering a unique opportunity to reconnect with nature and find respite. It also means we have to carry nearly everything with us (and back out again - hearty portions of dinner were encouraged).

With Chris busy setting up base camp, myself and the Mountain Leaders, Emma, Mark and Linda, and counsellor, Clive, met the group as they began to arrive at Blencathra Field Studies Centre. Tea and coffee was well received after what turned out like ‘Mind Over Motorways’ with the Bank Holiday traffic. The group were split in two and began the gradual walk through the valley, guided by a field centre tutor, Emma, talking about the local environment.

I waited for Kim, who was raring to go despite the delayed journey, and under head-torch beams we followed suit. Just before 10pm we were greeted with a cheer into the cosy dining room at Skiddaw House like rabbits in headlights, and a big plate of homemade chilli. With the team complete it was time to settle in. To avoid any pre-conceptions or judgement, nobody had been introduced before the weekend so had come entirely as strangers, which allowed the team to build naturally - it already seemed to be working.

sunset in the lake district during Mind Over Mountains charity mental wellbeing retreat

The serenity of Skiddaw House offered the perfect opportunity to teach mindfulness - an awareness of ourselves and the world around us - a skill which isn’t used nearly enough. Regular short sessions gave good practice so we can use it as a tool for reducing stress and coping with unhelpful thoughts back home. Clive’s ‘morning mindfulness’ was popular whilst Karen, our volunteer cook, put on a hearty breakfast spread.

After briefings and sandwich-making, the group had assembled ready for the day ahead. Any apprehensions were eased as we set off for the distinct saddle of Blencathra and patchwork quilt of pink heather, chatting and openly sharing stories along the way. It’s these initial steep sections when people start to doubt themselves and their ability, and also when reassurance and support from the team keep everyone going. It’s about stretching ourselves long enough to feel a sense of progress and achievement, thus creating a mind shift and positive reference points.

lake district hills

Chris and Clive were chatting one-to-one with the team and exploring new ways of thinking. There’s something about walking that makes it easier to talk. Perhaps because we’re not making eye contact and it’s easier to hide our emotions than face-to-face interaction. Being in the hills puts everyone in a level playing field, rather than a sweaty gym.

Our base camp became a tiny speck in the wilderness behind us as we crossed Mungrisdale Common before a short pull onto the summit of Blencathra at 868 metres, with wide-reaching views across the Helvellyn range and the Northern Fells, with the rare privilege of cloudless skies. After a celebratory photo we descended to Scales Tarn for lunch and an optional dip for the hardy souls - a sight where David Attenborough commentary wouldn’t go amiss.

wild swimming photo Scales Tarn Lake District during Mind Over Mountains walking for wellness retreat

The waft of Karen’s homemade pear and ginger cake welcomed us back to Skiddaw House. A special shoutout to Sue - our very own Duracell bunny - who had gone well above and beyond her comfort zone. Many of us can relate to the post-walk elation of putting our feet up, but we want to offer much more than just a hill-walking weekend. This down time is the ideal window to reflect on the lessons from the experience. Chris led a coaching session to get everyone thinking about their life journeys so far, which was a positively emotional process for some.

group of hikers eating at table at hostel after mental wellbeing walk lake district

Another key piece in the puzzle is being inspired by people who’ve come through the tough times to achieve extraordinary things. We were lucky to be joined by Harrison Ward (a.k.a. The Fell Foodie) who shared his story of overcoming mental ill health and alcoholism through hill-walking and passion for cooking, which certainly built appetites for our dinner of local Plumgarths Cumberland sausage.

A few opted for mindfulness to wind down before bed, others found their own space to chat, whilst some scraped a tune from the old guitar in the lounge. There was already a sense of camaraderie and mutual understanding after a day in the hills together. No phone signal or Wi-Fi didn’t give much chance to be distracted by much else.

Sunday was another stellar morning to be in the hills, ascending the flanks of Skiddaw via Blake Hill, notwithstanding the morning anxieties and concerns where some of the team nearly opted to stay behind. Emma, Mark and Linda’s guidance kept the group together whilst free to maintain our own paces, removing the pressure and expectations. The steeper slopes stretched us further than the day before, especially in 28 degree heat, with a chance to put the new strategies in practice. One of the team commented that walking was usually an insular experience, but he had learnt a lot about himself by supporting others who were struggling with the climb. I asked another what he’d taken from the weekend so far, who replied: “realising I need to get in the hills more often”.

group of hikers practising mindfulness on hillside in lake district during wellness hike

The rocky summit plateau of Skiddaw seemed the perfect opportunity to reveal Harrison’s parting gift - a pack of the famous Grasmere Gingerbread for everyone to enjoy with the summit views, as if they weren’t already good enough. We dropped down Sale How with an impromptu mindfulness session, finding stillness even besides the trail of walkers, runners and mountain bikers (whilst admiring Nikki’s backward roll skills). We grabbed our bags and set off back down the valley, leaving nothing behind but negative feelings and beliefs that were no longer serving us.

hikers on track in Lake District hills during mental health walk

We said our farewells at the Blencathra Field Centre where I struggled to sum up the experience, but it was clear to see the difference just two days in the mountains had made: refreshed, recharged, and inspired. All of which are hard to measure, but easy to feel. It was inspiring to see a group of strangers coming together and sharing personal challenges to find common ground, support each other, and for many, stretching their comfort zones too. This balance is often hard to find in our modern lives, and without topping up our natural resources, they can wear thin - at the cost of ill mental health, that can affect each and everyone of us. By getting into the mountains, I believe we can put our minds over those mountains, and find new ways to reach the next peak.

We’d love to welcome you onto a future event, our events are available to all with bursaries available to those experiencing financial hardship, long-term illness, abusive circumstances, have suffered loss or are in a role of long-term care for another we’re here for you.

A special thanks to our event sponsors Nicholas Associates Group, a leading group of recruitment companies based in South Yorkshire, and NAble, their non-profit organisation, who provided bursary funding to enable participants who would otherwise be unable to take part due to personal circumstances.

Group Communications Director Joanne Wilson commented: “Our commitment to being best in class by operating ethically and with a culture of giving back to society means we maintain our strong family values and sense of making a difference.

Our Mission is 'to enable people to be their best' and so supporting Mind Over Mountains aligns perfectly with our CSR ethos of 'Empowering People'.

Thanks also to our kit sponsors Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports who ensured our team had access to the best outdoor brands and gear available.

If you are interested in sponsoring our work, you can find out more here

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