Off The Beaten Path

To honour World Mental Health Day on October 10, 2022, we had Arc’teryx athlete Pauli Trenkwalder, a Mountain Guide & Psychologist based out of Sterzing, Italy muse on what it means to go into the mountains. 

At the beginning of any trip into the mountains, the familiarity that “entering” nature always reveals itself. I become attentive to the surroundings, and as a mountain guide & psychologist, I am acutely aware of and focused on processing how the people accompanying me are doing.

I don’t just step into the mountains, I step into a complex inner state.

This complex inner state results from walking. To me, walking is rhythm, and rhythm is security. Rhythm indicates strength and gives strength. Rhythm brings forward and promotes the sensation of being present here and now. When we ski downhill, this is heightened even more: our organ of equilibrium rejoices at the turns we make. Nothing is more beautiful than losing and regaining balance, which occurs with every turn – and if you’re precise, with every step. Security craves insecurity, and insecurity seeks security, so it goes back and forth.

Mountaineering satisfies our curiosity and it satisfies our longing for stability. We move between security and exposure, and ultimately the mountains give us measure and reveal finitude.

What is remembered from a day in the mountains years later is often different from what one originally set out for or what the immediate impression was at the time. Many people will certainly be able to confirm this experience.

This is quite obvious on the “dark side” of the mountains. The sudden change in the weather, the fall of fog, the whomping sound underfoot – you won’t have looked for all that. But it happens. In the mountains, danger is often only a blink of an eye away and fear is the background feeling that can become the foreground at any time. The poet Rilke summed up this connection: “The beautiful is nothing but the beginning of the terrible, and we admire it so because it calmly disdains to destroy us”.

Quality of life in the mountains is thus not limited to the satisfactory statement that the desired commodity (the summit) has the desired quality (is actually as high as the map says) – or similar actual-target approximations: One may have sought and found the flow, overcome the challenge (difficulty, time, altitude), enjoyed the silence and solitude, empathized with the plant communities holding their own in the scree – whatever may have been important to us. That is already the “quality of life” that the mountains give us. But not only do we go into the mountains, the mountains also go into us: the qualities that are “out there” not only surround us but also penetrate us, whether we wish it, notice it or not: we get more than we get.

But for that, we have to go out.

Mental Health Awareness with Paul Trenkwalder, IFMgA Mountain Guide and Psychologist

“Mental health is a state of well-being in which a person can realize his or her potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and contribute to his or her community.” (WHO)

Stress-related illnesses are steadily increasing. At the same time, personal skills and competencies to deal with stress are decreasing. It is right that we should take care of ourselves, our health, and our mental health. It doesn’t hurt to ask what I can do for myself so that I don’t slide into a life crisis. At the same time, I am afraid that all this “taking care of ourselves” will turn us into little egoists.

I think we need to look out for each other more, like in a rope team. Offer support, listen, and be compassionate and understanding. We don’t have to have an answer for everything. But we can take the mental stress of our friends, our rope partners, and our community members seriously and help to find and offer professional help. Psychologists, psychotherapists, and psychiatrists in various structures and organizations are the contact points we have and need.

Our focus should not only be on our own mental health but should lower the inhibition threshold to be therewith compassion for people suffering from mental illness and going through a bad time. In the course of our lives, sooner or later, we all encounter a critical life event. Even if we seek and find recreation, development, and beautiful experiences in the mountains, an accident, a serious injury of our own, or witnessing the death of a friend or partner will trigger a psychological stress reaction in us.

In such moments we are grateful for help, support, offers, and understanding.