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Building and Maintaining Resilience Through Adventure Training

Overcoming Adversity

Adventure has been a huge part of my life. My grandfather owned an estate called Brook Manor in Devon, widely believed to the basis for Baskerville Hall in Conan Doyle’s, Hound of the Baskervilles. As a child I had free rain to explore 150 acres of forest, a lake, river and ancient copper mine workings, including spoil tips, shafts and tunnels. My parents gave me the freedom to explore and find my way in nature. I used to test my mettle in one tunnel that had a dog leg in the middle of it, pitch black up to that point then a small window of light would appear at the far end as it opened up into a mineshaft. If you were resilient enough to get to the bend in the darkness you’d make it to the end. I was also digging up unexploded ordnance from a WW2 munitions dump on Dartmoor but that’s another story.

I was incredibly lucky to be sent on several PGL adventure holidays, rock climbing, kayaking, canyoning, coasteering, horse riding and trekking in abundance. Military service then beckoned and I left school at 16 and joined the Army. It was the beginning of a 24 year adventure, one that would change my life forever.

In the military, Adventure Training (AT) is a peacetime vehicle that is used to develop the character and resilience required for high threat and high pressure deployments. Through controlled exposure to risk in an outdoor setting, leadership, physical and mental courage, comradeship, initiative, unselfishness, self-discipline, physical strength and endurance are all developed. In addition AT creates opportunities to learn, how to tackle adversity, the ability to deal with it and subsequently grow. In addition AT is often used as a decompression activity for those returning from a high threat deployment. Adventure Training builds and maintains resilience.

The official definition of AT is:

“Challenging outdoor training for Service personnel in specified adventurous activities, involving controlled exposure to risk, to develop leadership, teamwork, physical fitness, moral and physical courage, among other personal attributes and skills vital to operational capability”.

In the early years of my career a remarkable Sergeant Major who’d served with Airborne Forces encouraged me to take part in two major Adventure Training expeditions. I found myself living on a glacier on the inhospitable Antarctic island of South Georgia for four weeks. There were certainly times during that trip that I thought I might not get off the island alive. Fierce snow storms, white-out conditions and Katabatic winds that knocked you off your skis. At the final hour as Royal Marine Mountain Leaders tried to get us off the beach in a Rigid Raider a large wave caught the boat and dragged me underneath. I was trapped underwater for a few seconds that felt like a lifetime. During that same trip, the Royal Engineer accommodation on the island caught fire and was burnt to the ground. By some miracle nobody was killed but we all lost our possessions. I wasn’t aware at the time that my brother had also passed away back in the UK.

Later in my Army career I took part in an expedition to Alaska and we climbed on Mount Foraker in the Denali National Park. We were flown onto a frozen lake by a former Vietnam veteran and pilot working for K2 aviation. There we met up with our dog team, Miki and Julie Collins who would haul our heavy equipment into base camp. Two of our party got to the summit of Mt Foraker although they had to be evacuated by helicopter due to frostbite. It was at 15,000 feet on the mountain that I had my first real brush with death. My climbing partner Mike, slipped off one side of the aptly named Archangel Ridge and Angel’s Way, before my conscious thought process had time to kick in I found myself jumping off the other side to act as a counter-balance. I still call it my highest bungee jump.

As a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer in the Army I was tasked with planning and organising a two week arduous Adventure Training package in Scotland for the 50 members of my unit. The brief was to get people out of their comfort zone, develop resilience, leadership, physical and mental strength, team cohesion and other skills required for war. One of the highlights of the trip was canyoning, where you jump from some considerable height into the raging water below. A few people initially refused to jump but were eventually cajoled into action. I also recall taking part in a particularly memorable coasteering AT trip to the Welsh coast in winter. Our small band of volunteers had to jump off cliffs into the water below. For some it was a terrifying experience but resulted in immense reward upon completion, almost a feeling of being unstoppable.

In 2013, newly civilianised, I found myself working for two London marketing agencies as their health and wellbeing manager. Throughout my four year career with them I made sure to introduce AT into the wellbeing program in order to develop resilience, including many of the central elements, confidence, self-esteem and social support. It quickly became clear that the principles of military AT have ample utility in every corner of the civilian world too.

Paradoxically we’re living in an increasingly sanitised world where safety is drilled into us everywhere we look. While it is necessary in some quarters we’re also becoming increasingly controlled, mollycoddled, to coin an old fashioned phrase. The human body and mind isn’t designed to be restricted in this manner and more and more of us are now looking to move out of the comfort zone. We’re also looking for more meaning and purpose in life.

The growth of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) is testament to this. Will Dean, founder of Tough Mudder, the most successful OCR in the world, was initially said to be crazy for charging people money to run through mud. Pioneered by former soldier Billy Wilson back in the 1980’s with his Tough Guy event, OCR has now exploded across the world with increasingly wild and whacky obstacles to keep participants coming back. It’s also about belonging and wanting to find a tribe. Ironically you can live in London, be surrounded by millions of people yet feel like the loneliest person in the world.

Working with the London agencies I continuously refined the wellbeing program. The activities I organised ranged from a sponsored sleep out for the homeless in winter, abseiling off a fire tower with an amazing view across the city, a natural obstacle course for senior board members, water sports days in Brighton, cold water immersion morning dips in a lake, log runs on an island in Essex, training and participating with a company team in the much feared winter Tough Guy obstacle course race, the Spartan Beast and running my own StreetGym urban adventure sessions in the city.

While my military experience of AT was perhaps a little extreme for some, I believe that we can create an adventure experience anywhere and any time, even in our lunch break and that’s what I do with clients now. For me, a one hour StreetGym micro-adventure around the city can lead to growth, a mini weekend adventure and then perhaps on to something major. It builds confidence and leaves you wanting more.

It’s important to understand the process here. In the city, our resilience is continually being eroded by the always on culture, a sedentary lifestyle, controlled and sanitised working environments. Moreover social pressures and having to be on trend can undermine confidence and self-esteem along with poor diet and sleeping patterns. The level of control in our urban working lives leads to an element of predictability, fuelling boredom, anxiety in some cases and burnout. Interestingly anxiety, a condition characterised by feelings of overwhelm and lack of control is often initiated by adversity in our private lives that is subsequently aggravated by the pressures of work. When our resilience is low and we’re hit from multiple angles, the plates start to spin out of control.

Dealing with adversity and growing from the experience or experiences is about resilience. Resilience is often described as the ability to bounce back from adversity and grow stronger as a result. In order to do so one needs to keep one’s resilience tank continuously topped up ready for any eventuality. Burnout usually occurs when one has quite literally run out of fuel. We’re suddenly hit with a challenge or challenges in life or adversity and we don’t have the mental and physical strength to deal with it.

Adventure Training is conducted outdoors and usually in natural surroundings. Furthermore it involves movement, being exposed to controlled risk and the forces of nature. It is in this environment that we learn how to deal with unpredictability, fear, mental and physical pressure. Trust, camaraderie and team cohesion are also forged through this shared adversity. Being outdoors and moving in nature also deliver the obvious wellbeing benefits for general health.

Activities like coasteering, rock climbing or simply the early morning pond jump take people into the unknown out of their comfort zone. When the participant overcomes that fear he or she will develop new skills, belief in themselves, new found confidence and self-esteem, leading to more adventure and growth. Controlled exposure to risk and successfully completing a challenge in an AT context leads to personal development, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual strength.

When I jumped off the ridge at 15,000 feet in Alaska once the adrenalin had subsided a feeling of euphoria flooded in and at the end of the expedition I felt I could tackle anything. I’d been taken into a dark place and came out the other side. It made me stronger and more resilient, I felt alive. In that moment on the mountain, my physiology went into overdrive, adrenalin, cortisol, the fight or flight response, but I’d experienced it, felt it, acknowledged and dealt with it. People talk about flow states, intense focus….I’d felt that on the mountain and I’ll never forget it.

My transition into civilian life following on from a 24 year military career has been a challenge. I lost a mother and brother, struggled with self-employment and battled with anxiety for a mercifully short period. It was outdoor adventure and AT that pulled me out. Nature has always been my friend, mentor and my medication. Today I work with others, lunchtime urban adventure and building confidence through StreetGym, building shelters with clients in the woods, organising mini and major adventures too, taking people away from their comfort zone through Motion to Mind. I’m more mindful then ever of the need to engage in personal AT to keep my resilience tank topped up. I’m sat on a beach penning these lines and as the tide comes in will launch the kayak, at one with the elements and the mercy of nature and the sea.

We can all build and maintain resilience through outdoor adventure.

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