The links between permaculture and Wildfitness may not seem immediately obvious.
At Wildfitness our clients are inspired and energised not only by our passionate and creative coaches but also by the beauty of the natural environments that they are immersed in. Whether it's looking out across the Indian Ocean in Zanzibar or across the wild herbs and olive groves of the White Mountains in Crete, our vision, creativity and sense of possibility for movement seem endless in such environments. If you team this up with super nutritious and delicious food and lots of time to relax and we have the ingredients needed to bring us back to a state of harmony. So what happens when we get back to the urban sprawls that we call home and the hectic, time-restricted days that are the norm? This is what a lot of our clients struggle with but if we look at our environment from a different perspective then moving more closely to what our bodies expect can be easy and enjoyable, even in the city.
Cities such as London are a paradise for the generalist movement approach that we preach at Wildfitness. There are endless options and plenty of amazingly talented teachers out there to help you. Climbing, bouldering, martial arts, parkour, dance of all types, gymnastics and even specialist movement coaches are just a few suggestions.
Then you have the cities’ green spaces that provide a huge range of highly nutritious, natural movement opportunities. You can do a lot with a simple open space but throw in trees, hills, walls, benches… now we are talking! To identify a good spot you need to look at your environment from a movement perspective. Children are generally pretty amazing at this as it's very innate to them so if you need inspiration borrow a kid for the day or hire a Wildfitness coach, same difference! Look for opportunities to tap into a variety of natural movement patterns such as tree branches for brachiating, balancing and climbing, rocks and logs for lifting, dragging and throwing, fallen trees or walls for vaulting, jumping and crawling and so on! You can practice skills independently, put them into a sequence or be an opportunist and go for an exploratory run and see what presents itself. Your options are limited only by your imagination and learning to create each session is part of the fun. Bring a few friends to make it even more enjoyable.
Find some green and relax!
Our cities’ green spaces allow us to connect with nature and, even if this connection is just on a small scale, research has shown this to be highly beneficial to our health. Creating time for a biophilic (biophilia meaning our innate love and connection with nature) moment is just as, if not more, important for some of us than the movement aspect of achieving balance. City life can be stressful and we are often over stimulated and aroused by artificial stressors and visual landscapes. Sometimes intense exercise is not the answer to combat this; more so a gentle, mindful walk in a natural setting, resting under or in a tree, observing the movement of plants or simply lying back and looking at the sky are just a few ways we can connect with nature and all can be highly medicinal. It's simply going back to where our whole expects us to be so it has a hugely positive effect on our biology and psyche. Find what works for you and do it as consistently as possible to find that balance between arousal/challenge with relaxation/recovery.
From Manhattan to Mohonk Preserve: re-wilding in Upstate New York
Darting between yellow cabs, pedestrians and pedigree dogs with coffee in hand demands dexterity and nimble footwork. It does not, however, qualify as ‘natural movement’ within the Wildfitness philosophy. As I leave Manhattan’s skyline behind me for the weekend, I realise how much I’m looking forward to de-caffeinating and re-wilding in the forests of Upstate New York.
Entering the Hudson Valley, my mind is already energised. Released from the urban jungle, my body will soon follow. Wildfitness coaches Nala, Hannah and Josh welcome our weekend tribe to Minnewaska Lodge and allow us to glimpse our luxuriously expansive accommodation before we gather outside and the barefoot games begin. Our heart rates are soon up as we 'rough-house' (a form of play-fighting designed to improve one’s balance while knocking others off theirs) and master the core elements of wild combat.
Then it’s time to unleash our inner animals. We limber up with some ‘structural hygiene’, before acquainting ourselves with the 'bear scramble', 'bunny hop', 'crab crawl', and 'duck walk'. A potential recipe for chaos - not to mention the odd confused, hopping bear - but we have the space to roam free and no animals are harmed in the making of this spectacle.
The next treat in store for us is Brooklyn-based chef Sarah Chianese. Passionate about sourcing local ingredients, as well as sky-diving and other thrill-seeking ventures, she immediately wins us over. As for her culinary creations, these are something to behold. Tender barbecued meat, succulent smoked fish and fresh grilled seafood are marinated to perfection. Colourful, flavoursome vegetable dishes pose as accompaniments yet compete as classy centrepieces. Even the food-photo-phobic amongst us can’t resist snapping the happy salads adorned with edible flowers. Sarah reveals to us her key ingredient: love. Whatever love is, it tastes divine and we devour it.
My weekend highlight is our expedition into the Lost City of the Mohonk Preserve, whose towering rock formations and sprawling forest become our playground. We swing, crawl and vault using movements based on Parkour (free-running). Soon enough we are testing some personal boundaries. Alas, my body continues to tell my brain that attempting the ‘kong’ jump to clear a log at waist height is destined to end in a face-plant and some quality time in the local trauma ward. We all have our nemesis and mine remains the kong (though having nailed the duck walk, I sleep easier in my luxury bed that night).
With a professional mountaineer as a coach, we are guaranteed a superior scrambling and climbing experience on the Mohonk rocks. The sense of achievement after scaling the trickier climbs - with Josh generously stepping up as a human rock in the absence of a foothold - spurs us on to the summit of the Reserve. From a sunny peak above the forest canopy, we overlook a stunning vista as we enjoy our picnic brunch. This is the first of two hearty meals that day and the switch from three daily feeds is surprisingly comfortable. As we take a moment to meditate, the tranquility is broken only by the dulcet snoring of those who take their relaxation particularly seriously. The day ends with a technical yet energetic session on lifting and carrying: boulders, logs and then each other. Whether our tribal ancestors would have attempted this with their eyes closed, just for a laugh (or was it to hone our sensory perception?), we shall never know.
On Saturday, the heavens open. They stay open all day, ensuring a magnificently wet and muddy experience. But our skin is waterproof and the prospect of hot showers and a Swedish massage awaits us. Throwing ourselves - quite literally - into our woodland obstacle course, we test our resilience, skill and ability not to tumble off slippery logs into the river below. When the coaches challenge us to design an obstacle course for them, combining the various movements and skills we’ve explored, we do so with relish. The professionals observe as we show them how it's done. We then observe as they show us how it's really done, but are delighted when even they cross the finish line caked in mud.
Later, clean and ready for my massage, I try to forewarn the lovely masseuse.
‘Oh my!’ she remarks on seeing my fine collection of scrapes and bruises. ‘Are you… enjoying your vacation?’
‘Absolutely!’ I enthuse. ‘Can you please make my legs work again?’
Fully relaxed and functioning again as regular bipeds, we settle in for Head Coach Nala’s presentation and a discussion of the Wildfitness philosophy, followed by a last delicious supper and a deep sleep in preparation for our ultimate movement session.
Sunday morning’s ‘lactic lift-off’ is true to its name. Suffice it to say that if muscle burn truly generates anti-ageing growth hormone, I estimate that I take off a good 10 years in as many minutes. Our closing relaxation exercise, designed to calm the adrenaline and dispel any remaining tension, turns out to be as entertaining as it is restorative. Any unsuspecting guests at the Lodge, taking the morning air on their balconies, may believe they are witness to something between a joyful hokey-cokey and an exorcism. But for the uninhibited participants on the grassy lawn below, it is marvellously therapeutic. It is also a fitting finale to a weekend of adventure, exhilaration, play, rest and reflection, infused with positive energy from our excellent coaches and the tribe.
Back in the city, I pass glass-fronted gyms full of whirring treadmills and head to Central Park where I survey my surroundings. I select a sturdy hand rail as a balancing beam, plot a stretch to showcase my duck walk, pick my climbing tree and plan a finishing flourish of wild combat punches and shoulder rolls. I confirm to myself that I am the ninja of natural movement. A pair of nearby ducks regard me with expressions that beg to differ, but I meet their gaze and stare them down. They are about to see who walks the walk around here.
Explorative runs can be fun. A venture into Qurum Wadi in Muscat puts this theory to the test.
In the heart of Muscat, surrounded by roads and office blocks, lies a wadi that is driven over but rarely glanced at. As dawn breaks, I now eye it carefully as I pick a route across its cracked earth terrain. I venture in and embark along my unfamiliar running track, passing under highways and by half-finished construction projects. Three wild dogs scare the life out of me but resist biting and keep me moving. A lady and her son are tending to their goats and sheep, who are foraging the last morsels of quickly drying acacia bush - a flash back to the real Oman before the Starbucks and McDonald’s invasion that is slowly concealing it. We wave at each other, both of us odd and out of place in our own ways.
The landscape is hardly one of unspoiled nature. Wadis are dried river beds. For 360 days a year, that is. For the other few days, heavy rains in the mountains produce flash floods that the wadi, and the surrounding area, cannot cope with. Rather than a gentle, meandering river that gradually erodes the banks, this form of river does nothing and then plays catch-up by moving vast amounts of earth, rocks and boulders the size of cars (as well as any cars, trucks and people in its way) down through Muscat and out to sea in a matter of hours. The persevering people at Muscat Municipality have made various attempts to control this, but the inevitable wave of destruction that follows each attempt is clearly visible: concrete barricades the size of mountain huts are upturned to reveal their foundations, while water pipes ripped from their casings protrude erratically from the ground.
Muscat currently hovers around 40 degrees centigrade in the shade. At 6am, it is a more like a refreshing 37. The sweat pours quickly and oxygen seems oddly hard to come by, as if I were training at altitude when in reality I am one, perhaps two metres above sea level.
But this is not an arduous run, by any means. It is perhaps better described as an explorative run, a term used frequently in Wildfitness. Not only am I running, but I am needing to think: about where to place my feet next on the uneven, rocky ground; about where I am actually going; perhaps most importantly, about how far I can go before I need to head back home to rehydrate.
At the opposite end of the running spectrum is the sterile treadmill in a gym. There is no thinking required; the terrain is consistently compliant; the destination is clear and you can just stop if you get a little tired.
There is, of course, challenge in any form of running. But, wherever you find yourself, you may discover that the challenge of an exploratory run - in a wadi, on a disused railway or off the beaten track in a local city park - can be infinitely more rewarding.
Food, glorious food
In the past, as a young tourist in Barcelona, I was taken in by overpriced restaurants and deals that catered to my naivety. Like the classic claim of ‘Best Paella in Spain’ which was, more accurately, best within a 10 minute walk. They used black food colouring rather than real squid ink.
As a result, I haven’t had the opportunity to ever try good paella. And I didn’t think I ever would. Thankfully, this time round, Paul, the Wildfitness head coach on the retreat, introduced me to some unique restaurants in Barcelona. Each of them had their own individual flare and concept, be it a tasting menu, a selection of vegan cheeses to try or a fresh fish counter and grill. At El Robador we tried a proper Catalunyan dish; the simple combination of Pa amb Tomàquet aka tomato on bread. Yes, on the Urban Retreats we indulge in grains, even fried white bait, croquettes and chocolate! Wildfitness believe that paying attention to what you eat over a longer period of time is beneficial but we realise that birthdays require cake and Barcelona requires culinary indulgence!
The Spanish have created many beautiful dishes but a favourite of mine has to be croquettes. The mushrooms croquettes just melt in the mouth and nothing tastes better than a lovely meal after a day of vigorous movement. To be honest, we laughed so much that my core muscles hurt anyway, so the feeling that indulging in a single croquette would be detrimental to my diet seemed absurd.
Not only do these Urban Retreats give you the opportunity to explore wonderful cities but they make you feel like you belong there. You know the streets and would feel confident revisiting the city with friends or family to show off some of best spots in town!
Llamber (Tasting menu)
El Robador (Diner)
Blue project (Vegan)
Beach Lunch provided by local chef Keiira Cabera
La Paradeta (Fish stall and grill)
I felt that my training had become boring and mundane. I was exercising a lot but not moving well and was not seeing it make any difference. This experience was enlightening; it showed that fun, nutritious movement was not at odds with living in a city - it was totally do-able!
As I woke on the Monday morning after the retreat, I didn’t feel the holiday blues. I wasn’t daunted by the idea of getting up. In fact, I was awake ahead of my alarm, full of endorphins and practically glowing from a well-needed supplement of vitamin D. I thought to myself, why don’t I find a place in London to move that doesn’t make me distressed by the idea of sweating or conscious of myself while lifting weights? While on the retreat I realised that this was exactly how the gym made me feel. The retreat had made me feel better about my body as a result of varied activities spanning the city. There wasn’t a chance of catching myself in a mirror looking disheveled and out of place amongst tight t-shirts and groans of fellow gymers on their 3rd set of 20 reps. Being in a group of fellow movers helped to dissipate any feeling of self-consciousness but it also made it that much more fun. Giggling is a great movement practice!
The weekend was intense but not purely physically. I had absorbed so much information from the people I was surrounded by, each of whom was able to share their experiences and suggest ideas for what could make novel movement fun in urban environments. The talent was humbling and the creativity inspiring.
I have always been limited by my own rigidity. As a child, I unsuccessfully pursued various forms of dance; tap, ballet, jazz. I enjoyed it but I never quite excelled. Finally, after a few of movement sessions in stunning locations in Barcelona, some handstand training with local coach Carl and an introduction to parkour with Farid, I was able to access the fluidity of movement that I so desperately lacked as a child.
The Urban Retreats let local coaches at the height of their ability share their favourite activities with us, from bouldering to handstands, parkour to paddle boarding. Whatever the discipline, Wildfitness brings passionate experts to teach you how they move and in turn give you a new skill or ignite inspiration to try something new.
Sitting bolt upright in the darkness, I worm my way quickly out of the breathing hole of my -30-degree sleeping bag, a trick that my jumpy, light sleeping tendencies have mastered over years of sleeping inside the synthetic cocoons. Andy is already awake next to me, fiddling with his climbing gear. “Is it 1:00am already?” I ask.
Oster, the head Sherpa, appears suddenly from the dark, lighting the ceremonial Nepalese fire of juniper and sage atop the altar built of rocks next to our tent. A grim fate awaits in the afterlife for any Nepalese who perish above the snow line, so the fire is meant to ensure a safe climb.
Not a superstitions man, I place my safety above the snow-line in my own head and hands. Yet as one with great reverence for the traditions of others, I appreciate the symbolism and ambience of the fire that casts an eerie orange across the milky, starlit night.
And then, without an ounce of ceremony at all, the climb begins. Behind us are a father and son from the UK, and with us are Oster, Pemba, and Lhakpa. However, given that the team has been reduced to simply Andy and I, it has become more of a pair of friends climbing with company than anything that feels like a team ascent.
The stiff, clunky mountaineering boots represent the starkest departure from the freedom of motion enjoyed by a barefoot trail runner, not to mention the balance and sensory reception. The thick, double layers of plastic and cushioning, designed to protect the feet from everything between frostbite to ankle twists also prevents all normal bending, pivoting, and all other circular motions.
As I mentioned before, boring though it may sound, moving with balance and efficiency in such boots is an art in itself, a dance between placement of foot, axe, hand, and the draw of breath. And while it may lack the flash and fun of my wild runs across the cliffs of High Rocks Vista, it is a no less practiced art.
The first half of the climb is across 45-degree to 60-degree rock slopes and scree, and include a few Class 4 scrambles, requiring extra precise balance on the thick rubber of the boots. Andy expresses his uncertainty with the climb as we work our way up the treacherous rock. I encourage him to push on to crampon point before he abandons the climb, hoping he will find the rhythm that I know he has.
The air is thin, but my breathing is well practiced at this point, from tramping up and down the stairs of my mother’s apartment building, to the odd looks received for hiking up and down the Water Gap in double boots holding an ice axe in the middle of July. Everything has built to this moment, and while I am expecting for the growing altitude to eventually have its effect, thus far all movement has been the epitome of flow.
Even when it forces extra work to draw breath, I am enjoying every second of the exertion, and welcome the scrambles as they bring many of the stemming and balancing moves from a season of rock climbing out to play, and with them the movement takes on much more of its wild identity.
More important is the fact that even though it is extra work to draw breath at points, my heart rate remains steadily below what I have established as the threshold for oxygen debt, and my energy levels feel as steady as they would during a casual stroll down the sidewalk. It is not that the climb is not challenging, but simply that the body feels naturally geared towards the challenge.
So far, the madness seems to be paying dividends by way of method. By the time we reach Crampon Point, the landmark beyond which we will be climbing on snow and ice, I am sweating and have my layers opened down to my base layer. Yet I am full of oxygen and energy.
Several gulps of water later, I finish strapping metal spikes onto my feet, and the climb continues. Though it is dark, the moon and stars light the night brightly, clearly displaying the various crevasses, lips, and drop offs that plummet hundreds or thousands of feet to various places in various directions around us. They share a single common trait: a closing chapter ending as a stain on the deck.
Above us, Orion’s Belt sits in perfect alignment with the west-to-east ridge of Lobuche Peak, as if signalling in the direction from which the sun will soon liberate our frozen world with light and warmth. It is here that the movement truly goes from the flash of the wildest to the subtlety of each step, yet with no less power, precision, or importance.
As we ascend, the air grows thinner, the temperature colder, and the incline steeper. Each step is a delicate placement of the foot to ensure optimal grip of all the spikes, followed by the placement of the axe, the inhale, the exhale, and the constant state of balance, when done right is as precise as a metronome.
The art of movement takes many forms.
To the east, the slightest slivers of light betray the steady rise of the coming sun. At last we reach the final section of pitches, the steepest inclines of the climb. Fixed rope anchors have been built, allowing climbers to clip in with an ascending device called a Jummar.
The climb has flowed as smoothly as one could hope thus far, and yet now, so close to the top I begin to wrestle with sudden reservations. I am accustomed to climbing tied to one or two other well-known and trusted climbers, on anchors that either they or I built ourselves. I realize it is my own mistrusting nature speaking from inside, yet all the same every ounce of me wishes to forsake the ropes and climb solely on the comfort of my own axe and feet.
I mute the inner discussion with the quiet vow to check each anchor as I pass it, and clip into the rope, not wishing to create discord. Even if I am fine without the rope, by not using it I would be setting an example for other climbers who might not be, and inadvertently risking a life. Besides, Jake, though not here, is a climber that I wholly trust, and he knows this operation.
The breathing and movement has now fallen into such a rhythm that it feels as steady as a drum beat. The route grows steadily more steep, as the sun ever so slowly climbs alongside us, seemingly at an identical pace. I continue to wait for the oxygen wall, the moment where my present acclimatization level is no longer a match for the height to which I have ascended. Yet though the air is thin, the moment never comes, and
instead I suddenly pull my body up and over the steep lip of the last ridge, and realize that I am standing on the summit.
Other than water, I have consumed nothing since my breakfast of a boiled egg. Not eating was by no means intentional, it simply happened. We made the summit in less than half the suggested time, and at no point did I find myself hungry or slightly lacking in energy. This bit did not surprise me, after three months of toying with this fat-for-fuel concept, I have grown quite adjusted to the results.
Yet I am pleasantly surprised by the fact that even at nearly 21,000ft, the training and acclimatization has sufficed to keep my breathing below oxygen debt levels for the entire climb. I am certainly no scientist, nor do I have any instruments to measure for sure, but from everything I can tell by what my body is telling me now, and what I have learned from it over the last three months, I have climbed a mountain completely without using sugar for fuel.
Well, not completely. . . any climber will tell you that the summit is only the halfway mark, and getting down is frequently where things go wrong. Yet I feel immensely strong, with far more in the tank than I had been counting on.
Before I address the descent, I pause to breathe in the fact that after a lifetime of dreaming about this moment, I am standing on top of a mountain in the middle of the Himalayas. Across from me are many of the famed 8,000 meter peaks, the 14 tallest in the world. Nuptse. Makalu. Pumori. Lhotse. And of course, Everest herself, the thick cloud clinging to her summit glowing such an intense orange from the sunrise that it appears as a literal ball of fire.
I pull a flag from my pack, commemorating my best friend and his team of special operatives that went down in a chopper crash nearly two years ago. Where the line between the emotions about him and the fact that I’m actually standing here lies I don’t know. Instead I keep it all to myself, and uncertain whether to choose between the shadowy orange fire on Everest or the bluish-purple line across the western horizon behind the row of nameless, jagged Himalayan peaks, I commission countless pictures from both.
We are back at high camp shortly after, settling into a meal around the time we were told we would just be rounding the summit. The mission is complete, and the experiment worked. Time now for the long trudge back to Lukla, and the tiny, cliff-diving flight back to Kathmandu.
Timing will find me back in the U.S. the day before Thanksgiving, the entire weekend of which I intend to eat and drink every single thing in sight. I have lost so much weight that I am not terribly far from my high school wrestling weight at this point. No amount of assuring my mother that I feel fine is going to assuage her assumptions that I am on the verge of expiration, so again, I won’t bother trying.
The plan is to just keep eating. Once I’ve sufficiently gorged myself, perhaps then I’ll actually talk to a professional nutritionist about this little experiment of mine, and see where things go from there.
By the time I find myself instructing again for Wildfitness this coming year, I’ll have plenty concrete to share. Hopefully I’ll be lucky enough to see some of you there, be it at our U.S. debut in the Hudson Valley of New York, Scotland, or perhaps another one of our overseas locations.
In the meantime, don’t go rushing out to try this just because I did, talk to someone who knows better first. Just because it worked for me doesn’t mean it will for you, and just because I did it CERTAINLY doesn’t make it a great idea!!!! Remember, it’s far from the worst idea I’ve ever gone along with.
Just ask my ankle.
“Jesus Josh, would you please eat a sandwich or something?” Helen remarks as we stand in the early morning dark outside Kathmandu airport. “You’re starting to look like a stick figure!” I grin in response, and explain to her that she shares my mother’s opinion. As I help her husband Jake unload our bags from the van we just arrived in, I begin to explain to her the basis of my little experiment, and how it will face its final test between now and nearly two weeks later, when we attempt the 20,075ft summit of Lobuche East.
As we wait in a crowded line of other non-Nepalese, all in the customary down, Gore-Tex, and fleece, looking like an advertisement in Outside Magazine and complete with stuffed North Face duffels just like ours, my story continues. Beside me Jake discusses details of our upcoming flights with Rabindra, who is our head Sherpa for the journey ahead. Jake is the team leader, and the owner of Juggernaut Adventures, the company that has brought me to Nepal. Along with the four of us are Andy, Ken, and Brian, the three enthusiastic clients that round out our team. And as soon as this massive line of other trekkers, climbers, and assorted thrill seekers are allowed to filter through the closed doors in front of us, we will board flights to Lukla airport, billed as the most dangerous in the world. As we land, it’s not terribly difficult to see where Lukla gets its notoriety. It’s not so much the altitude of the place, clocking in at 9,383ft above sea level, nor the fact that it feels as though were flying inside a maraca every time the wind broadsides us. It’s more the fact that the tiny plane dives without warning and lands suddenly on a small strip of asphalt about half the size of your average Starbucks drive through, carved right out of the jagged mountainside.
In fairness to the pilot, it was a textbook landing.
After a stop for tea in the winding, stone built town of Lukla, which is carved literally out of the mountainside as well, we meet the rest of Rabindra’s team, and then set off for the town of Phakding. For the next 16 days, we will trek slowly towards our eventual rendezvous with Everest Base Camp, stopping in the remote alpine villages each night to slowly acclimatize to the increasing altitude and decreasing oxygen. From EBC we will make our way to our climbing high camp, leaving around midnight that night to summit Lobuche Peak, before picking our way back to Lukla and eventually Kathmandu.
Each day is a slow and steady trod through the dusty landscape of a small country that contains every different type of climate zone on earth. It’s certainly not the most “wild” of movements. When compared with all the running, jumping, and swinging that has become such a large part of my recent training, trudging slowly and steadily uphill day after day seems rather dull. Yet the towering, snow capped peaks of the world’s greatest mountain range make for an environment that is the epitome of wild, and this is the movement they require.
I am here to gauge how my body acts and feels in this massive world of rock and snow as a result of all this varied training, and as each day passes, I am consistently happier with the results. My legs and lungs have responded exactly as I had hoped. It feels easy to pull ahead, and tempting though it is, I do my best to remain with the group.
With each day, we wind our way up steep, rocky mountain trails, past porters, trekkers, and yak herds clanging with neck bells. Around every bend is a view more mind blowing than the last. The Himalayas are truly a sight the likes of which I have never seen, every bit as vast and rugged as one would expect from a wilderness that was created as a result of the Indian subcontinent smashing into the rest of Asia.
By day two we have gotten our first glimpse of Everest herself. With each passing day, I find myself staring at the jagged, snow covered mountains I know so well from years of reading, Googling, and dreaming about them. Lhotse. Ama Dablam. Makalu. The list goes on. They are more than any photo has ever done justice, yet somehow every bit as legendary as all the famous stories about them imply. Each one keeps me at a loss for words. Instead I simply stare, as though my grasp of the English language never existed to begin with.
Alongside my awe, I am happy to find that as we grow progressively higher in altitude, and as my body acclimatizes to the thinning air, so does my experiment seem to be working. My energy levels remain stable, devoid of spikes and crashes. The hills and heights become more intense, and while there is certainly tiredness experienced, everything seems to remain stable. It is an experiment, however, that is not above the need for some adjustments on the fly.
Maintaining my fat based, non-sugar diet is difficult in a place where every menu is dominated by boiled potatoes, noodles, and rice, and every store filled with soda, chocolates, and candies as we make our way steadily higher towards the roof of the world. Bringing in nutrients seems quickly dismissed as misplaced optimism.
I found it unavoidable to ask myself why I managed to ensure a full supply of vitamins and other nutrients for the two months I spent gallivanting across Southeast Asia a year ago. Certainly we experienced our fair share of culture and adventure, between climbing, hiking, and taking in the sights. Yet admittedly the trip was a vacation, not a mission, and thus included its fair share of drinking tequila shots, getting wild with other travellers, and riding motorbikes as fast as possible through the madness of traffic in Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia.
Yet here, a place I had spent a lifetime dreaming of visiting to pursue some actual physical objectives, I had somehow managed to leave supplemental nutrients behind. Well, I tell myself, if this was meant to be a bare bones experiment, it will certainly be authentic.
I am consequently forced quickly to make a few adaptations as all good adventures require. How my decided adaptations will live up to the hard science behind the Maffetone Method, I’m not certain. But seeing as I have been my own guinea pig for this long, it seems only fitting. Morning meals will consist of as much fat and protein as I can ingest: boiled eggs, the occasional wedge of yak cheese, and my ever-steady diet of peanuts. As the trek progresses, I refuel only with fat for energy. The slower going makes it easy to stay well within the threshold for oxygen debt, despite the steadily decreasing presence of oxygen in the air. I am counting on the two months of training my body to become a fat engine to carry through now.
Each night, we sit in alpine lodge rooms built around a small, circular furnace, heating our bodies by burning patties of dried yak dung. I consume my reasonable share of the rice, fried noodles, or boiled potatoes. The need to refuel the body is not a question but a fact, and while it may shake some of the purity that this little experiment had in its initial stage, my theory seems to be working. The hope is that everything consumed at the end of the day that will be inadvertently converted to fat can still be tapped as fuel in its fat form the following morning.
With each day, we gain altitude, and as my body acclimatizes to the thinning air, so does my experiment seem to be working. The influx of simple carbs is welcomed nightly by my battered body, seemingly on board with my last-minute adjustment, and eager to convert the evening meal into tomorrow’s fuel.
Now before I go any further, and some nutritionist, or trainer, or other mountaineer has my head for writing this blog, I feel the need to clarify something with utmost specificity: I am not suggesting that I have discovered the revolutionary climbing diet, nor do I claim to be evidence of some newly discovered form of athleticism. I am just some guy that lives in a van who likes climbing things, did some reading, and was stubborn (or stupid) enough to test these concepts out on himself. I’m certainly not suggesting you fast track your climbing career based off this page. I can’t tell you how your body will react to this, or how many things will be different once I get around to working with an actual nutritionist on whatever the next stage of training this all evolves into. What I can tell you, however is this:
All the way to Everest Base Camp, my experiment proves a success. My energy is stable and consistent, despite that I continue to grow thinner, as evidenced by Helen’s occasional reminder that I look like a stick figure.
Yet now the biggest test looms: the 20,075ft summit of Lobuche Peak. Here begins the mountaineering, and the stretch of the feat that above all else I have come here for. As we part with the members of our team who are not climbing, I ask myself why I would choose my first shot at a Himalayan Summit, something I have spent my whole existence dreaming of, to attempt some zany and otherwise inadvisable dietary experiment upon myself. Saying it aloud makes it seem all the more unreasonable: keep the body functioning below the oxygen debt threshold in a sport whose central pillar is performing under heavy oxygen debt. For all I know, it is an impossibility, and for this reason I have packed a couple of Twix Bars purchased at twice their cost in the US, and a bag of date and nut rolls kindly given to me by a friend’s parent before I set off.
Looking down at my ankle, I am reminded of my unavoidable inclination to take things too far.
Well, I tell myself. I guess we’re about to find out.
It doesn’t matter how many different books, papers, blogs, or testimonials out there touting the benefits of this high fat, low carb science called ketogenic that my Natural Born Heroes journey has started me down the path of exploring. No matter how much I read about it, there is still nothing that will ever make eating bacon feel like a healthy, athletic dietary choice to me.
Yet one of the startling, seemingly paradoxical aspects of my foray into the Maffetone Method is precisely that: high fat, high cholesterol things like bacon, long thought to be the bane of arteries and aortas worldwide, is suddenly back on the menu. There is of course a whole new set of precautions that comes with it, such as finding bacon without nitrates, or cured in sugar, which apparently, EVERYTHING is.
Still, every time I prepare it, I find myself doing so in disbelief that I’m actually eating this salty, fatty piece of pork as part of an athletic training diet.
One would think the sudden inclusion of bacon almost limitlessly into what is being billed as the ideal diet for an all-around adventure athlete would be a gift grand enough to outshine any other food consequently taken away. The truth is, I would trade all the cured pork on earth for a dish of rice and beans.
Yet if I am to truly test the results of the Maffetone Method, my beloved rice and beans are off the menu, at least for now. You see, to complete this experiment in its most extreme form, I have not only gotten rid of processed sugar, but also of any substance that BECOMES sugar once the body consumes it, such as bread, grains, and so on. And in trying to fill the caloric space left behind by our tragic divorce, bacon is one of the resources I have been forced to turn to. In fact, I have eaten more of it in the last two months than I have in the last five years.
Aside from losing the rice and beans, and the trouble not questioning the inclusion of fattier meats like bacon and sausage, my diet has largely remained the same. Vast quantities of greens, lean meat, avocado, and oils represent much less of a departure from what I have always eaten, albeit now in even larger quantities. Peanuts have become a daily staple, specifically the Hampton Farms brand, as I was to learn that even the vast majority of packaged nuts are coated with sugared gelatin.
I have refined things to the point of even making my own salad dressing, because, much like everything else I have looked at, it is not easy to find a dressing not loaded with the same sneaky additive as everything else. The sugar industry, just as the book has claimed, quite literally has its hand in everything. That vanilla powder in your caffeinated beverage? Full of sugar. Pickles? Sugar. Ground Turkey? Injected with sugar. Go have a look if you don’t believe me. It’s infuriating once you’re actually aware of it. Yet I finally seem to have it dialed.
The last item to go has been alcohol. While there is no denying my soft spot for IPA and good tequila, this was not a massive change either. I had put drinking aside well before this experiment, while simply preparing to return to Rainier.
I have lost a noticeable amount of weight, an unintended side effect of the experiment. Already naturally wiry, I have become thinner than I have been in many years. My mother, an alarmist by nature, is convinced I am dying, and clamoring to hospitalize me each time we cross paths. No amount of research or explanation is capable of assuaging her, so before long I give up and resort instead to claiming that I have intentionally ingested an entire jar of living tapeworms as part of a low paying college science experiment. She does not seem to see the same humor in it that I do.
My affinity for sarcasm and dwindling waistline aside, there is no denying the effect the experiment has had upon both my athleticism and energy levels. Just as the book claimed, they have become stable and seemingly endless, allowing me to function at a high capacity for an entire day off a single big meal if need be. As a survivalist, I have long taught clients that food is at the bottom of the list of priorities when stuck in a life or death situation, as the body can go three weeks or more without it. It is something that takes on a whole fresh realm of understanding now that I have trained my body to go straight for its own fat reserves. It sounds extreme, and there are points where it feels that way too. Yet if ever there was a better sign, a report surfaces admitting that major sugar companies paid off researchers to blame heart disease on fat, when in reality sugar was an equal, if not far more major contributor.
One of the side effects of the Maffetone Method is supposed to be that as your body adapts to burning primarily off of fat, your hunger levels should stabilize and lessen. I suppose they have, yet I still find myself almost constantly hungry. Admittedly not as often as I was when rice and beans where the driving foundation of what I ate. But still hungry.
Dammit do I miss rice and beans.
More challenging than their dismissal, however, is by far the heart rate training, or at least it was at first. The basic science is as simple as understanding that the body is content to burn fat as a fuel source so long as the body remains below the oxygen debt threshold, a fancy way of saying getting enough oxygen into your blood stream with each breath.
The other step, aside from removing the sugar is going back to training slow, keeping your body below a certain heart rate. While my (over) confidence suggests that my oxygen debt threshold should be higher than the number Maffetone’s formula grants me, I have committed to testing the project from scratch. The goal is to steadily increase that number over time, which if done correctly, will allow greater levels of intense movement for longer periods of time on less breath, creating the sought-after effect of a high efficiency, fat burning mountain machine.
So I adhere strictly to the number, stopping and letting my heart rate recover each time I perceive it being too high. It is at times stymying, as my natural inclination to take everything too far leaves every ounce of me wanting to hammer at full speed.
I do so without a heart rate monitor, stopping and checking my pulse at my carotid while counting a minute on my watch. I have committed to this method in hopes of developing a natural, subconscious awareness as to when my body is approaching oxygen debt, programming a silent, internal alarm in place of the shrill beep of a heart rate monitor.
At times, particularly in the beginning, it feels like going back to a crawl after a lifetime of running. But the crawl becomes a walk, the walk a jog, the jog a sprint, and before I know it, I am back to hammering.
At one point, I find myself getting back to New Jersey around midnight, after a late flight home from teaching a survival course in the Colorado Back Range. Instead of sleep, I throw on my Vibrams and run ten miles. I haven’t eaten in over six hours, and have been up since 6am, yet I scarcely notice the exertion. Instead of the suffer-fest sections of a long run, the motion seems fluid and endless, and feels as though stopping at ten miles is by no means mandatory. Often I wake in the morning with the sun, my van backed into the same shady corner of the Delaware Water Gap trailhead that I always park in. Within minutes of shaking the sleep from my eyes, I feel energized and ready to move.
Depending on the morning, I am either in just my Vibram Barefoots, jetting up my training mountain along a trail run that finds me approximating the “Cretan Skitter” described in the book, leaping and bouncing from rock to rock and drawing everything from odd looks to pleas for caution from the other early morning hikers. Other days the movement work is focused upon the more finite series of foot placements that comprise the art of mountaineering. This draws equal looks, as I am wearing full climbing boots and basketball shorts, carrying my ice axe and a full-size pack loaded with a hundred pounds worth of weighted vest and Poland Spring water bottles.
On days that I can’t make the Water Gap, I show up at my mother’s apartment building shortly after sun up, clomping up and down the multiple flights of stairs in the same half winter/half summer getup. Before long, the neighbors don’t even bat an eye.
Yet just as it was back in Alladale, my favorite bit of training has been turning what was once trail running through the woods into one fast moving, haywire, adult jungle gym. High Rocks Vista, long my local climbing crag, has taken on a whole new identity, and when I’m not climbing the faces, I’m hurtling through the place leaping, ducking, or swinging from everything I can get my hands on.
There is a special meditation to the madness, particularly as I get better at the moves, or bolder with leaping the gaps between the cliffs, at times seventy feet or higher off the deck. The intense demand for complete concentration blocks out every distraction, as any hesitation that leads to a stumble could find me winding up a stain on the deck below.
If there is such a thing as a wild athlete, I can’t help but feel that I’m well along my way to becoming one. As November approaches, and my looming date with the final stage of this test in the Nepalese Himalaya grows steadily closer, I wonder again how all of this is going to apply once high altitude is thrown into the mix.
This is the third in Josh's series of blog posts. Josh is our man across the Atlantic. Explorer, expedition leader, teacher, Bear Grylls survival expert and Wildfitness Coach, he explores the journey he has taken from outdoor passion to Wildfitness philosophy. He is also part of the team that will be delivering our first American retreats in the Hudson Valley, NY, in May.
“Dammit,” I cursed, glaring up into the swirling gray clouds hovering above the Emmons Glacier and completely concealing the upper flanks of Mt. Rainier from sight.
The light flurry of snow seems determined to increase as we pick our way up the steep slope below and towards Steamboat Prow. We are marching into the tail end of a freak summer storm that has battered Rainier with everything from snowfall, to gale force winds, to lightning. The fact that this storm fell on the exact dates that our team is in Washington to tackle the peak is of no surprise to anyone. My ability to bring foul weather with me has long been a running joke amidst my fellow adventurers.
Yet I am not cursing at this fact. I’m not cursing at the costs we’ll incur to fly back a month from now to climb her again. I’m not even cursing at the fact that United Airlines lost my luggage containing all my precious climbing gear. (A feat that unbeknownst to me, they will repeat AGAIN a month from now when we return to complete the climb, leaving me to climb the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 using mostly women’s equipment, belonging to my friend and fellow climber Mat’s fiancée.)
I’m doing my best to remain grateful, considering I’m climbing at all. Back at Raigmore this past May, I was overjoyed to learn that my ankle was not broken, merely mashed, jammed, and sprained in the way one might expect from my Achmelvich antics.
A few days after, I found myself arguing briefly with Nala over how I was fine to join everyone on the day’s hike. She (rightly) had relegated me to driving duty so as to extend my healing time as much as possible. I quickly conceded despite my stubbornness, appreciating that perhaps my affinity for pushing too far had caused enough already. My climbing season, after all, had been saved.
Yet fast forwarding to July, I find now, that despite that I’ve managed to make it here with four functioning appendages, I’m cursing at myself, or more specifically, my climbing. My energy levels continue to spike and then crash, and my fuel of what I call glacier candy is not facilitating the levels of performance I am seeking, let alone accustomed to. Much of the team is ahead of me, and even though our climb is soon to be turned around, (we sought high camp in hopes of capturing some scenery, but the weather will not have it) it makes me no less frustrated.
I have always hiked and climbed relying on a mix of sugar based energy foods, and though I would certainly experience variances in my energy levels, I had always performed well. Today I’d made the mistake of leaving without breakfast, and wound up stuck with some sugary pastry in place of what would normally be a well-balanced meal. Now, I find myself peaking and crashing on a whole other level, while watching the rest of the team pull easily ahead on the windswept glacier.
Vic, our head camera man, who is normally a strong athlete as well, made the same mistake I did, and is lagging behind alongside me, sharing my frustrations.
Ego aside, this is not the type of climber I’m accustomed to being. There has to be a better way.
At about 9,000 feet the team regroups, sinking our ice axes in the snow around us for a quick discussion, before agreeing to turn around. One by one we sit in the snow to remove our crampons, in preparation to glissade down.
For those of you that have never tried it, glissading can be a thoroughly exhilarating experience, so long as you have taken the time to be certain that you won’t deposit yourself at the bottom of a crevasse, or smash into a rock field at high speeds. It is essentially the process of sledding down a slope or mountainside on your rear end, using the bottom spike of your ice axe to control or brake. One will be quickly impressed, if not a bit unnerved by the high speeds this can achieve, not to mention the laughter at the sight of a team mate being launched into the air over a bump and landing in a heap at the bottom of the glacier.
The snow filled pants are well worth the fact that what may have taken hours to ascend is descended in a few high-adrenaline moments.
Back in Seattle, I complain to my team mates about what I perceive as my poor, sugar driven performance.
Mat, who is the central character of our film shoot, recommends the book Natural Born Heroes, the latest by Christopher MacDougall of Born to Run fame. I have been a barefoot runner for six years now, and won’t deny that the book was a large piece of the research I put into making the switch. So I’m more than open to whatever glass of Kool-Aid the author’s latest work has to offer.
Still, I didn’t read it right away. In fact, it wasn’t until after my team had returned to Rainier in August, summited successfully during the Perseid Meteor Shower, and flown back to New Jersey. This had all taken place over a single weekend, the climb itself being a 33-hour epic slog from car door to car door with virtually no sleep, and as previously mentioned (thanks to United), primarily in women’s climbing gear aside from my own boots and ice axe.
Yet, when I finally did open the book, in no way did I expect the story to be such a linchpin between the worlds of Wildfitness, climbing, training, and general nutrition.
I certainly didn’t expect it meant I’d be giving up brown rice and black beans for three months, a move akin to losing a relative for me.
What followed was an incredible and noble story of how the hearty people of the island of Crete, in cahoots with a few misfit Brits, formed the cast of one of the least known underdog stories of WWII. Together, they kidnapped a Nazi General from right under the nose of the German forces, an act of resistance amongst countless others resulting in so much trouble for Hitler that it was instrumental in delaying the flow of troops and supplies to the Russian Front. Eventually, this allowed the Russians the time to mobilize enough to start pushing the Nazis back west, and the rest is history.
Within this amazing tale was woven a narrative of fitness, wild movement, and dietary efficiency, specifically how the Cretan diet and way of life allowed them and their British cohorts to become hyper-effective mountain machines, allowing them to run, climb, and melt into and out of the mountains with ease.
Now we were speaking my language.
The story of the mountain fighters, and the description as to why and how they were able to move the way they did, proved to be the first time everything I had experienced back at Alladale took a contextual form in real life. Suddenly, a bridge had been built between the wild combos, the running, and the parkour that linked them directly to my number one playground, the mountains.
More so, the focus on a specific manner of eating had painted the locally sourced menu from the Alladale retreat into a whole new light, particularly with regards to the realm of athletic performance. Eating was the central pillar of Natural Born Heroes. More specifically, doing so in a manner that turned the body into a fat burning engine, using a system of diet and heart rate training called the Maffetone Method. I was to learn that while the average human body has roughly 5,000 to 8,000 sugar calories on hand to burn, it has roughly 140,000 fat calories at a given time, an endless source of fuel, should we only be able to tap into it.
It was admittedly all new to me, and I wasn’t sure just how well it would work once you threw in the wild card of steadily higher altitudes. But it was as though what I had been looking for had been dropped in my lap, so I decided then and there that I would serve as my own guinea pig to see whether or not all this would actually work.
To get started, all I had to do was take sugar out of my diet. Easy, I figured, considering I didn’t have a sweet tooth, and ate a generally low sugar diet already.
Or so, at least, I thought.
This is the second in a blog series by Josh Valentine, our man across the Atlantic. Explorer, expedition leader, teacher, Bear Grylls survival expert and Wildfitness Coach, he explores the journey he has taken from outdoor passion to Wildfitness philosophy. He is also part of the team that will be delivering our first American retreats in the Hudson Valley in May.
"I hate to see a broken man,"
Nala winces, her voice laden with sympathy as she tries to rub some of the swelling out of my clearly damaged ankle.
"Oh, I'm not broken," I insist.
Stupid, yes, and clearly injured, to that I could concede. But it took a lot more than this to break me, I assure aloud, as much to myself as to her.
Despite my attempt to keep positive, there is no stopping the wave of fear that I have just destroyed my climbing season on multiple levels. The countless small trips and plans that had been laid out for rock climbing season aside, there is the looming reality of my personal company's first big shoot on Mt. Rainier this coming July. On top of that, there is my first opportunity to climb in the Himalayas coming up in November. And let's not forget that as we speak, I am being paid as an instructor for Wildfitness Scotland. All things that require an individual to be able to move effectively on both feet.
You want to know what happened, well here it is:
It had been an incredible week leading up to that moment.
Wildfitness, I was to find, was a company full of interesting ideas presented by even more interesting people. I am beyond impressed with their knowledge and varied personalities, and have been soaking up the immense amounts of new information that comes out of them from all sides.
Nala, our leader, is a warm, endearing, and athletic woman to whom the clients are instantly drawn. Hannah, one of two assistants, is every bit as warm, and super high-energy, a constant source of enthusiasm for the team. Grant, the other assistant, is a veritable encyclopaedia of movement knowledge, matched only by his razor wit. Having myself come from a part of the U.S. where sarcasm is the local dialect, our sense of humour meshes immediately.
As all four of them are Brits, there is no shortage of good natured harassment over being the lone American. Yet we all mesh quickly as friends and teammates, and the laughter has been non-stop since.
As we work through the various areas of each day's activities with our clients, I am never bored. Some of the concepts are things I have seen and done before, such as varied martial arts basics, stretches, rolls, and games, while others are brand new to me. Regardless of which, I learn new aspects and techniques on how the human body was designed to live, eat, and move, whether I had seen them before or not.
Other times, we are square in my element, leading the clients on long scrambling hikes through the highlands, crossing rivers, or up to high lochs to roast fresh caught salmon over a fire. Between the physical action, the evening conceptual presentations, and the amazing, locally sourced wild menu, prepared by our local chef Lesley, alarms are going off in my head left and right. I have long maintained deep personal philosophies about mankind's dire need to reconnect with the natural world. The parallels between the Wildfitness ethos, my personal philosophies, and the ins and outs of the survivalist mindset leave me feeling as though I have just tapped into a lost source of ancient knowledge.
In particular, the concepts of wild combos and parkour grabs me with a refusal to let go. While setting up for some basic jumping and vaulting work with the clients, Grant shows me how to do a jump called a Kong. A Kong is a fairly standard tactic in parkour, involving leaping with your hands extended out front and your feet high above and behind you over a log or rock, allowing enough clearance that your legs pass in between your arms and over the obstacle. It is an awkward feeling move at first, but it comes relatively quickly, to no shortage of enthusiasm. Soon after Grant is pointing to different logs and fallen trees, and calling out a move, which I in turn execute. Some come on the first shot, others take a few tries, yet with each one I grow increasingly more addicted to this new game.
"This is great," Grant cracks. "It's like I'm the brain and he's the body.
It's a partnership that I could spend the rest of the month exploring, save for the fact that we are meeting clients in a few minutes, which Nala reminds us.
"Good thing," I remark. "Because if you let me, I'd keep doing this until I managed to hurt myself."
If only I could so clearly see the future with regards to the stock market or something. I'd be a rich man.
By the end of the week, we are piled into Land Rovers and on our way to Achmelvich Beach, a stunning, white sand beach complete with shimmering aqua waters that look as though they have no earthly business on the north-west coast of Scotland. Indeed, if I didn't know better, I'd be certain we were somewhere on the Mediterranean.
The day is packed with a flurry of wild activity, including cold water swimming, wild running, combat games, and most notably to someone like myself, rock climbing. The beach is surrounded on all sides by jagged, clay colored cliffs that offer endless different bouldering and free solo routes. One of my jobs today is to introduce our clients to the basics of my personal obsession. In between our varied bouts of activity, we sit on the beach in the gorgeous sunshine, and take in the view while eating the deliciously prepared natural picnic menu that I can't seem to get enough of.
Another impromptu job becomes introducing my new British mates to the basics of American Football, which quickly becomes an entertaining competition in the white sand.
The day is an immense success, and as it winds down, the time comes for Nala to lead an exploratory run across the hills behind the shore. Dotted with sheep, rocks, paths, slopes, and all other manners of natural obstacle, they create the perfect playground for vaulting, jumping, rolling, and the countless other movements we have spent the last week honing.
It is an activity I become so quickly lost in that I hardly notice I am taking bigger jumps and risks with every step. The run ends successfully, but not before I attempt to cross a gap roughly twelve feet wide. It is only about four feet deep, and filled with sand, so a safe landing is seemingly guaranteed if I miss. I do, just barely, my feet grazing the far lip before I plunge into the sand. I can make this, I insist, despite being cautioned (rightly) to the contrary by Nala and everyone else in the group. My second attempt sees my feet slam directly into the far lip as I extend them in my attempt to land. An odd crunch reports from my left ankle, but no pain.
I try twice more, then decide I need to work at my long jump once back in the States. We jog back to the beach, and proceed to climb for another twenty minutes or so, before the group showers and piles into the Land Rovers. I climb behind the wheel and we head to Kylesku for our delicious seafood experience.
One of the many aspects of the Wildfitness retreat is exposing clients to naturally, locally sourced foods and eating, which in this case has taken on the form of an incredible, fresh caught banquet of Scottish seafood. We're sitting outside in what is a steadily ascending drizzle, across from a restaurant in the small port town of Kylesku, Scotland. Around us on all sides are the jagged, beautiful profiles of the Highlands, jutting out from the lapping, salt water lochs and inlets of the Atlantic Ocean. About halfway through the clients and instructors gorging ourselves on everything from prawns, to scallops, to oysters, and beyond, I noticed an odd stiffness in my left ankle. In standing, I discover a pain so sharp that it is difficult to walk without limping. Difficult soon becomes impossible.
It's gonna be a nightmare to sort this out.
It would have been less of an issue, I suppose, had I not been the driver of one of two vehicles responsible for transporting everyone back to the Alladale reserve via our manual transmission Land Rovers, a task that would see my left foot depressing the clutch easily 200 times over the course of the hour-plus drive. While my stubborn side suggested that I suck it up, the part of me that realizes I am responsible for the safety of several people forces me to confess the situation.
Before long, I am speeding towards Raigmore Hospital with Val, the upbeat and high energy manager of Alladale, while the rest of the crew is heading back to the reserve. As my ankle throbs sharply with each winding turn along the narrow road, I stubbornly commit to saving my climbing season by any drastic means necessary, even if that means splinting my leg, jamming it into an oversized mountaineering boot, and dealing with the consequences somewhere later in life. It is a silly thought, but it keeps me positive.The next thing I know, I'm sitting next to Val in the waiting room of Raigmore Hospital, not far from Inverness, Scotland. I have abandoned my initial stubborn campaign to refuse the wheelchair, given in to the nurse's insistence. We have long taken to joking about my condition to pass the time, since there is little else we can do, and it helps maintain the positive outlook that assures me that I will be back to a functioning Wildfitness coach ASAP, not to mention a member of my mountaineering teams throughout the remaining year.
"Valentine," the nurse calls out suddenly. With I sigh, I am wheeled through the double doors.
You came for an adventure, I mutter to myself. Don't be mad because you found one. You'll be climbing again in no time.
Let's hope my ankle is as thick as my head.
My life is the wild. Quite literally in fact, which I feel privileged to be able to say with such sincerity. I make my living teaching and guiding a variety of outdoor programs and adventure sports, from mountaineering and climbing, to wilderness survival, to adventure film and writing, and so on. It is an ever-changing and an often unpredictable existence, to the point that I have forsaken a physical address and residence in favor of an old, gutted out minivan that has been converted into a gear closet on wheels. Weighed down to the wells with whitewater and climbing gear, it is a cozy little home, despite being one that often smells quite vividly of running shoe and wet dog. Sadly, there is no dog I can blame this upon. I achieve it regularly all on my own. If anyone out there has tricks for keeping the smell out of regularly used neoprene and climbing shoes, I'm all ears.
All that aside, I am comfortable saying that I have spent a good deal of my life training and thinking within a mindset that could be fairly described as “wild fitness”, long before I’d ever realised that there was actually a company out there by that very name.
It's fair to say that no small amount of fireworks went off in my head once I’d been exposed to Wildfitness. Being exposed to what they do, I came to realise that there was a whole body of theory, knowledge, and practice to several concepts that had always been inherent, albeit undeveloped aspects of things I already thought and did. This world of wild movement even had its own subculture, one that connected so much from so many different fields, with more interwoven thought than I could have ever imagined.
Coming down from climbing a glacier on the largest mountain in the Pacific Northwestern US, I was unhappy with my performance and convinced that there is a better nutritional approach to mountaineering. This led my good friend and climbing partner to share a book with me on movement. The contents unexpectedly become the conceptual linchpin to a series of ideas that I’d first been exposed to while drinking a beer with a group of complete strangers, at a pub along the River Thames in London.
I had only met these strangers because of a chance encounter with one of them in the middle of nowhere, while teaching an extreme survival course in the Scottish Highlands and enduring the onslaught of their local insect swarms, warmly referred to as midges. And now, as I write these words, I am on a Chinese Airline to Nepal to test all of these concepts out atop one of the world's grander stages: the Himalayan Mountains.
My Himalayan story will come later on in my series of blogs, so for now, let's jump back in time about a year.
Sitting in the middle of a cloudy glen on a massive wildlife reserve known as Alladale, I am doing my best to give my clients on the Bear Grylls Survival Academy 5 Day Extreme Survival Course my full attention. I am teaching them to build fire, and they are struggling. Not so much because of the damp and oft-unforgiving wilderness of north Scotland, but more specifically because they are being swarmed by countless thousands of tiny, biting, gnat like creatures that literally cover their bodies and heads in patches large enough to obscure the colour of their outer garments.
For this reason, I too am struggling. The onslaught of the midge has gone on in varying intensity the last several days, and when they weren’t out, some form of disagreeable weather generally was. Yet this was a 5-Day Extreme Survival Course in the Scottish Highlands, offered by the Bear Grylls Survival Academy. So they as clients, and myself as one of three instructors (the other two currently taking refuge in a small stone shack called the Badger Hide, dreading their turn to teach their own lesson) knew what we were getting into when we signed on the line.
In fairness, I have dealt with plenty voracious insect swarms in my life, yet I couldn't deny that few, if any had rivalled the sheer capacity of the Scottish midge. Even our black flies back home in the Northeastern US were certainly capable of this, but only a few times had I experienced them to this level.
Needless to say, the last thing I expected to come across out in this barren setting was a well-dressed lady from London named Sara, scouting the preserve for some sort of fitness retreat.
It made a fair bit more sense once I thought about it. The Alladale Lodge was massive and beautiful, just as the reserve was. Visit at the right time of year, and you’ll see a pristine image of a gorgeous landscape almost otherworldly, and free of the swarms of microscopic hellhounds currently feasting on my person. It seemed the perfect balance for what she was describing, and, (mostly because it had wild in the title), I presented myself as a viable candidate for the job.
About six months later, I was sitting around that pub table on the Thames with a group of enthusiastic strangers, drinking in beer and as much as I could about this company and what it delivered before I was shipped back to Alladale a month or so later (albeit under vastly more luxurious and midge-free conditions) to assist in delivering it.
In some ways, it was a bit of a jump. The Bear Grylls Academy slogan is “It may hurt a little,” whereas by contrast, the ethos of Wildfitness, from what I could gather, seemed to be teaching you wild ways to move and live designed to reduce pain. Since the vast majority of what I do for a living focused on enduring some sort of suffering or discomfort, a part of me was admittedly excited to see what came along with this new transition.
Since the company was new to me, I was brought on board for my wilderness background and specific knowledge of the reserve. The other instructors, led by a lively coach Nala (to this day I still think of the Lion King), would handle the bulk of the brand delivery, while I would deliver the wilderness aspects and assist and learn with everything else.
There was even discussion that if things progressed, and progressed well, then perhaps I would be able to act as a key piece of bringing Wildfitness over to the United States, a goal the company had held for some time. My mind flashed immediately to my home turf of the Northeast.
You can trust me when I say I've gone along with far worse ideas.
If nothing else, it was a new adventure with new people that promised plenty new to learn and experience. Before I knew it, I was on a plane bound for the U.K.
Standing in front of the Alladale Lodge, I watched the red stags graze across the lawn, and greedily drew in breath after breath of pleasant, midge-free highland air. And then, in need of a haircut, but otherwise fresh and ready in my new Wildfitness uniform, I set off from Alladale in one of two Land Rovers, bound for Inverness Airport to pick up our first batch of clients and see what this whole thing was all about.
“and bounce”. “and change legs”. “and bounce”.
Those were the words going through my head as I was supposed to be concentrating in a meeting yesterday. They were Joash’s words from the wellbeing retreat I attended last week in Zanzibar. I am not sure why these words stuck so steadfast compared to all the other instructions and shouts of encouragement. Perhaps because they were so simple and made so much sense. Whatever the reason, it brought a smile to my face amongst dull PowerPoint.
The wellbeing retreat was my first and so I was apprehensive for a variety of reasons: I have been involved with the company for more than 6 months and so this was the real acid test (which I should have, arguably, committed myself to before getting involved). I was also worried about how I would perform as I assumed the coaches were keen to ‘test’ me and make sure I had what it took, whatever that might be. I also attended the retreat with a good friend of mine, Geraldine, with whom I had climbed Kilimanjaro and last year trekked to Everest Base Camp. She is fit but was worried prior to leaving about whether she would be ‘up to it’. I am sure she will not mind me saying that she is 55 and she was concerned as to whether she would be able to keep up with the rest of the group which, it turned out, were all around 40. White Sand Villas was also a new venue for us which added to my nervousness.
I had read countless testimonials about it being life changing, and spoken to countless past clients who had quit jobs and come on a retreat or come on a retreat and then quit their jobs but it was always at a junction in people’s lives and the wellbeing retreat either pulled them through or pushed them to a better place. But I quite liked the place I was in. I was eating reasonably well and doing one form of exercise or another on a regular basis.
I don’t want to go into the detail of what the retreat involved (and part of the fun is the anticipation of not quite knowing what the next session might hold) but it suffices to say that there was plenty of exercise or, more accurately, movement, in a way that kids would feel totally at home. We played games, we ran, we climbed, crawled, jumped, punched, kicked, lifted, carried and threw (logs, rocks and other people). We also managed to get in two games of water polo, two of volleyball, a cycle ride and a game of frisbee on the beach. We worked hard: most days were a good 6 hours of being active. But we also rested well: we had plenty of time for naps (often two a day) as well as discussions around the philosophy and very early bedtimes.
My nervousness quickly dissipated. The venue is stunning and the Wildfitness team, lead by Anne Laure and supported by Joash and Ivan, were exceptional. They were not soft: complaining of a painful back, neck, arm or leg was met with suggestions of self-massage and working through it.
And they were right. The first lesson for me was that the human body is far more resilient than we suppose. Stiff legs after a ‘lactic lift-off’ session would become less stiff with a good bout of kickboxing. I had been taught that you need rest days and one session a day of exercise. We were doing three sessions a day and had one morning off in the whole week. And yet our bodies dealt with it. Yes, there were some aches and pains for the first few days as my body had simply not crawled like a dragon or hopped like a frog recently but my body bounced back quickly and with (reasonable) agility.
The second lesson was that Wildfitness really is appropriate for a wide range of people with a wide range of backgrounds. There is no competition between the groups (aside from some very dubious tactics during our water polo matches) as it is all about you and how hard you want to push yourself. The games and sessions are brilliantly designed such that this quickly becomes apparent and sets the tone of the retreat. Some in the group were so exhausted from their normal lives that they skipped a few sessions to sleep. They then came back full of energy and ready to move. And that was fine: there was no pressure to attend and Anne Laure spoke of a previous client who slept for the first 4 days of a retreat (which was fortunately 2 weeks long).
The Wildfitness approach is simply that varied movement, healthy eating and plenty of relaxation should be the three pillars of any daily routine. They are not supplements that are added to an otherwise contrary life. They are not an hour in the gym to take away the stress of work and the guilt of chocolate. They are not a slow-pressed juice to make up for the bottle of wine. We ate healthily because it felt right and because the food was fresh and tasty. We moved because it was fun and felt natural, not because we had a stiff neck from sitting in one position for too long. And we rested soundly and without distraction.
I have now been back at work for a week and the usual no time / too much to do paradigm has settled in well. However, I feel more aware of my body and my mind. I have started to notice that I like moving whether from sitting behind my laptop to getting a box to raise it up so I can stand behind it or from sitting on my sofa to lying on the floor. I have had one coffee since I have been back but not because I am on some weird diet or actively avoiding it, but because I don’t really feel I need or want it. I took an old tent pole and cut it to size to use for my ‘structural hygiene’ sessions that are like a daily limbering up; my home workout incorporates some animal crawls and log lifting and carrying. I haven’t yet found the right trees (palm trees don’t hold too many opportunities) but if I do, I will be up them. I spend more time barefoot. I am googling interesting, healthy recipes and thinking a little more about what I eat.
Geraldine also has half a tent pole. She works out barefoot and is surveying her usual walking route to see how little she can stay on the path. And she is glowing. I feel like I have gained some ‘flow’ that a kid would have navigating uneven terrain. There is the combination of improved agility, strength, flexibility and experience to place the feet and hands in the right place as well as the knowledge of my body’s resilience to keep bouncing. And we are back to Joash’s bouncing. My body got pushed, it got stressed and it at times felt tired beyond belief but it bounced back. It just bounced.