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There's no substitute for the hills, by Alex Staniforth

There's no substitute for the hills, by Alex Staniforth

We’re proud to say Mind Over Mountains is back!

Of course, the last few months have been immensely challenging for our mental health - and with access to support services and our coping mechanisms restricted by lockdown - we were worried about a perfect storm for poor mental health across the UK. Our usual residential programmes were forced to cancel and everyone was left scratching their heads for ways to help.

We tried to keep in contact with our community by producing a series of interviews with top adventurers and athletes to share their tips on staying resilient through hard times, and offered free virtual mindfulness sessions. But there was no substitute for actually getting outside again.

In the spirit of resilience, we had to find a way through as soon as the restrictions allowed mixed households to meet. Booking overnight accommodation at short notice was unpractical so we offered one-day walks instead for small groups, whilst maintaining strict social distancing and hygiene measures. Professional coaching and guided mindfulness are a key component to our residential programmes, so delivering these virtually via Zoom before and afterwards meant nobody had to miss out.

Our first walk was in the Northern Fells of the Lake District on the 18th July. Typically it was chucking it down, but after the challenges of lockdown, a bit of rain wasn’t going to stop us. We convened at the Blencathra Field Studies Centre who kindly offered their facilities to avoid parking in the local area, and the perfect start location for some of the Lake District’s finest walks.. Waiting for the rain to abide offered a welcome chance to settle in. Having a coaching session with Chris on Zoom the previous week had already given everyone chance to meet the team, ease anxieties and start thinking about the walk ahead, when meeting strangers can understandably feel like quite a daunting prospect.

group of people on path in lake district practising mindfulness with mind over mountains mental fitness charity

Emma and Nicola led the (steady) charge up the Glenderaterra Valley with the sound of crashing waterfalls offering a perfect stop for mindfulness in the mist. At the crest of the valley, our usual residential venue YHA Skiddaw House emerged in the cluster of trees and the rolling heather hills opened up around us, and all of the group opted to continue onto Blencathra. As we ‘walked and talked’ in the shadow of the towering hills, we were engulfed by a rare and calming silence - almost creating a safe and confidential space where we could share our stories and experiences in the open with each other. The stillness was soon disrupted by a spontaneous rendition of 'The Sound of Music’ when a mutual passion for music was discovered amongst the group!

The summit of Blencathra greeted us with blue skies and sunshine, with far-reaching views across the Northern fells, the Helvellyn range and Derwentwater glistening across to Borrowdale. It was a great moment for celebration and posing for summit photos, with a special nod to Breca Swimrun who had funded the programmes. We continued along the ridge - laughing and chatting our way over Blease Fell and down to Blencathra Field Centre. Before heading off, Chris gathered us in a (spread out) circle for non-verbal affirmations. This was a chance to acknowledge and thank someone that we had been grateful for that day using eye contact alone. The bemused smiles showed we were out of practice, but it’s something we don’t do enough in our busy lives.

It was fantastic to see everyone leaving with smiles on their faces, refreshed and revived despite the several miles and mountains climbed. We re-grouped a few days later on our second virtual session and this time met as friends. It was even more inspiring to hear the group share what was becoming clearer and how the walk had given them a more positive perspective on their daily lives.

Our second walk in the Peak District was equally inspiring. Once again the morning drenching hadn’t deterred us at YHA Castleton who had kindly hosted the group. With spirits high, the sunshine coaxed us through the fascinating formations of Cave Dale. Emma and Richard shared their depth of knowledge on the local area, stopping to point out the wildlife and landmarks that we would normally charge straight past - just like we rush through our hectic modern lives and forget to make time for ourselves.

Peak District view of valley and green hillsides with trees and blue sky

This time we were joined by Clive, a trained counsellor, offering professional one-to-one support alongside Chris. The distinct mound of Mam Tor a.k.a. ‘Mother Hill’ appeared ahead as we strolled on at our own pace. We were soon rewarded by views over to Kinder and across the Dark Peak. Some timely flapjacks appeared from Clive who, with everyone now suitably distracted, seized another mindfulness exercise looking out across the valley. Before we could gaze ourselves into an afternoon nap, we continued along the airy Great Ridge to the next summits of Hollins Cross and Lose Hill, then dropped down the hillside back towards Castleton. Our next visualisation exercise involved us imagining ourselves as an animal, which came with some uncanny impressions.

mindful moments looking at Peak District view

We convened back in Castleton after nearly eight miles and smiles, and the hills had clearly worked their magic as ever. Some had joined for the opportunity to get some time for themselves after the stresses of lockdown; others to re-connect with like-minded people; or perhaps to get outdoors again but lacking the confidence or skills to go alone. The hills brought everyone together as one, and they left as friends.

Our Zoom sessions have been a necessary but inspiring addition to our programmes as we continue to adapt and innovate after lockdown. But there’s no substitute for getting people walking and talking in the hills. Miles, smiles, mud, hills, rain and shine - that’s where the real connection happens.

Want to join us? We’re excited to announce four new Reconnecting Rambles in the Lake District, Peak District, Berwyn Mountains and Yorkshire Dales in September and October.

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