5 Lessons for Enduring COVID-19 from Mount Everest Climbers
Critical lessons learned from scaling the world’s tallest peak
Posted May 13, 2020
At an elevation of 8,848 meters above sea level, reaching the summit of Mt. Everest is an extraordinary test of human endurance. Climbers perform in an environment where oxygen is sparse and survival is tenuous.
Consequently, the demands on the human body and mind are great. Studies have shown that high-altitude climbers employ a mindset that enables them to manage risk and endure heightened and sustained stress over a prolonged period of time.
In 2005, years of training culminated in my own journey to the summit of Mt. Everest. Five critical psychological lessons learned from my successful bid to the top of the mountain may open a window on how we can psychologically navigate the coronavirus crisis as we reach the peak.
1. Managing existential fear. As the number of COVID-19 deaths continues to escalate, we are having to confront our own mortality and that of our loved ones. Conscious awareness of our demise and personal vulnerability in the face of death – also known as mortality salience – can lead to heightened anxiety that has been found to exact a heavy toll on our energy and mental resources.
Fear of death is a natural human response, given our innate drive to preserve life. The problem arises when fear gets out of control and hijacks our thinking so our minds become locked into a cycle of worry and anticipation. The key therefore is how we manage our fear so it doesn’t paralyze us from moving forward.
One way climbers deal with fear is to actively confront it instead of pushing it away or resisting it. Climbers perform in an environment that is rife with dangers posing a threat to human survival. At any point on the mountain they are aware that they can succumb to a range of life-threatening hazards such as avalanches, falls into crevasses, extreme cold, and oxygen deprivation.
Although climbers consciously choose to place themselves in this high-risk environment and spend considerable time preparing for the challenge, they must still learn how to manage their fear whilst on the mountain in order to prevent fear from standing in the way of their goals. So whether we are in the midst of a global health crisis or on a treacherous mountain, acknowledging fear by either writing it down or talking about it with someone we trust can help loosen its grip.
2. Embracing uncertainty. As plans to lift the lockdown slowly begin to materialize, the consequences of the prolonged social and economic disruption continue to increase uncertainty worldwide. There are many questions for which the government, medical experts, and scientific leaders don’t have answers and can’t make accurate predictions — such as when the economy will recover or when a vaccine will be developed — which is fueling feelings of uncertainty among the public. Tolerance to uncertainty varies considerably from person to person. But we all have a limit. Studies show that a higher level of intolerance of uncertainty can result in cognitive vulnerability and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
Fortunately, there are steps we can take to better manage the uncertainty we face. On Mt. Everest, climbers accept that uncertainty is inevitable. No matter how meticulously climbers have prepared both physically and mentally, there are always objective dangers on the mountain that are unpredictable (e.g., avalanches, falling rock or ice, shifting icefalls). Trying to control the uncontrollable is exhausting and mentally draining. Instead, climbers embrace uncertainty by focusing on what they can control (e.g., hydration, pacing, thought processes) and using the unknown as a source of motivation.
As we continue to fight the pandemic, focusing on what is in our control – such as where and how often we get coronavirus information and exercising daily to look after our physical and mental health – can help us live our lives with more conviction in an uncertain world.
3. Adapting to change and disruption. Change is inevitable on Mt. Everest. For example, bad weather might strike unexpectedly, turning a relatively safe and straightforward climb into a treacherous and potentially fatal disaster. Analogously, the new coronavirus pandemic has abruptly and unexpectedly upended life as we know it. With millions under lockdown, business and schools closed, international travel put on hold, and economies halted, we have been suddenly forced to try to adjust to the widespread disruption of normal routines and services.
Experiences with the outbreak vary considerably from person to person (e.g., for some, quarantine is profoundly lonely; for others it is an opportunity to reconnect with family) and so too do our emotional responses to the crisis (e.g., some people will experience post-traumatic stress disorder while for others the crisis will facilitate growth). Ultimately, however, the pandemic is an anxious time. Risk of poor mental health increases during times of stress and, if not managed effectively, can lead to cognitive and emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, irritability, and loss of intellectual capacity, as well as unhealthy behaviours such as substance abuse and sleeplessness.
Developing psychological resilience is key to protecting our psychological health in the face of a highly challenging life crisis. We can develop our psychological resilience by adopting a growth instead of a fixed mindset, in which change is perceived as an opportunity for self-learning and discovery. We can also strive to live in the present moment, remain optimistic, elicit social support, and immerse ourselves in activities that both give our lives purpose and meaning and provide respite from the crisis. Remember that we are more resilient than we think.
4. Perseverance and patience. It takes about two months to climb Mt. Everest, including periods for rest and acclimatization. To reach the summit, climbers must persevere in the face of grueling conditions, continuous distress, repetitive acclimatization climbs, and oxygen deprivation (e.g., headaches, shortness of breath, extreme fatigue). Continuing to put one foot in front of the other is crucial for reaching the summit. At the same time, there are moments during the expedition when patience is required (e.g., when bad weather forces climbers to sit and wait).
Similarly with the COVID-19 outbreak and the prolonged uncertainty we face, it is imperative that we remain committed to doing whatever it takes to beat the virus no matter how difficult it gets (especially when prolonged social distancing becomes a grind and spirits reach low points). At the same time, patience is needed to help us maintain a stable mental well-being when faced with long-term upheaval and possible setbacks (e.g., a second wave) and delays (e.g., discovering a vaccine). Patience is about calmly enduring something without negativity.
The coronavirus will be part of our lives, possibly for years, until a vaccine is developed. Like standing on the summit of Mt. Everest (which is only halfway to the ultimate goal of returning to basecamp alive), when the lockdown is lifted, we need to continue to remain focused on keeping sickness and death rates as low as possible until a vaccine can keep the virus at a manageable level. Setting short-term goals (e.g., persisting with the lockdown one day or one week at a time) can help us get through this period.
5. Collective goal striving. Studies have shown that most Mt. Everest climbers use the strategy of collective goal striving, especially when faced with environmental disasters (e.g., earthquakes, avalanches). For example, the push to the summit requires a select group of experienced climbers preparing the route from Camp 4 to the summit with fixed ropes to ensure that masses of climbers can safely get to the top. With no governing body at basecamp, collaboration among expedition teams from around the world is required to organize supplies and allocate human resources.
This example of collective goal striving involves the coordinated effort of a group of people working toward a shared goal or objective. Likewise, defeating COVID-19 requires a coordinated global strategy to prevent a second wave and create a vaccine that can end the pandemic and ideally eradicate the threat completely. Countries need to work together to develop a unified strategy for beating the virus. On a community and individual level, we can collectively protect our mental health by working together to care for the vulnerable, look after our neighbors, and give and receive support to friends and family.
Together we will reach the end of the pandemic even though the road ahead will continue to involve loss of life, uncertainty, and change. Employing the psychological strategies used by Mt. Everest climbers may help attenuate the bumps on the road so the journey ahead is smoother.
Burke, S.., Durand-Bush, N., & Doell, K. (2010). An Ethnographic Study of Motivation and Feel with Novice and Elite Mount Everest Climbers. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 8(4), 373-393.
Burke, S., Sparkes, A. C., & Allen-Collinson, J. (2008). High altitude climbers as ethnomethodologists making sense of cognitive dissonance: Ethnographic insights from an attempt to scale Mt. Everest. The Sport Psychologist, 22(3), 336-355.
Burke, S., & Orlick, T. (2003). Mental strategies of elite high altitude climbers: Overcoming adversity on Mount Everest. Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments, 7(2), 15-22.