Piece by Piece

Words By: Lisa Richardson

Photos By: Robin O’Neill

Julia Niles has never been one to shirk from struggle – you don’t pursue a career in mountain guiding unless type 2 fun is your jam. The pursuit of a Masters degree in counselling, though, has given the 20-year veteran IFMGA guide new language and a broader toolset for navigating struggle, particularly during the gnarliness of pandemic and all its ripple effects.

“The mountains have always been a huge source of resilience,” says Niles. “There’s something distilling about exercising in nature. Part of it is the exercise, some of it is the hardship. People face a lot of fears in the mountains, have to be talked through steep sections. It can be very cathartic. And then, you’re trudging along, just walking next to a person, and a lot flushes out. Lightness and banter and deeper stuff too. To be honest, a lot of my guiding missions and expeditions throughout the years have felt like therapy.”

The outdoors has always been part of her prescription for growing wellness, mental clarity, and confidence. But, as we have learned through the pandemic as our patterns have been disrupted, we can’t always fall back on play, escape or big missions to keep us happy. We have to come home, too – to all the stuff of our lives – unpack, dry out the gear, do the laundry, sort through the mess.

Niles, as a counselling student, has been hosting online support circles for women in difficult relationships and for women parenting children with challenging behaviours – relationship stressors that have been amplified through the pandemic. She’s also been personally navigating the end of a 13-year marriage, and tending two children through months-at-a-time out of school. She’s learned the importance of layering on something just as important as fresh air and time outside to help build resilience: self-compassion.

“Mindful self-compassion is the most beautiful concept. It’s deeply inspiring and healing. Self-esteem is often what we think we’re going after, but self-esteem is conditional – it’s often about comparisons and being better than others and competition, which honestly, is pretty rife in the outdoor industry. But self-compassion is unconditional. Unconditional positive regard. It’s not about being perfect. Or better than. And it breeds adaptability. You see that the difficulties you’re going through are just a factor of being human, that we all struggle, and you can reflect more kindly towards yourself for where you’re at.”

In March 2020, just as the pandemic was coming to land in her home province of British Columbia, Christine Feleki had her eye on the prize. She’d set a goal for herself in 2010 – to become an ACMG-qualified mountain guide (the first woman to do that on a splitboard) – and after apprenticing and training and devoting years to that focus, she was set to take the final exams. The process is all-consuming – as is much about the guiding life – and she was psychologically primed to peak that spring.

Then, the exams were postponed indefinitely. And COVID-19 started shutting down everything else – the parks, her work plans, everything. “My industry, obviously, is not an essential industry.” She even wondered if she should seek out other work. But what Feleki has since observed, guiding hiking trips in the summer and backcountry and avalanche awareness courses this winter, is that the outdoor industry “is totally important for mental health. It’s been very apparent how grateful people are to be able to get outside. A lot of people have been diving into meditation and yoga, but some of us aren’t calm when we’re sitting still. Sitting still ramps some of us up. I know I’m calmer when I’m moving, going for a walk or a run, and can just focus on one thing that’s happening.”

The path to Outer Peace isn’t a 6 lane freeway, or a trail to the promised land. It’s a thousand different approaches – layering yourself in protective factors that might include lovingkindness meditation, a backcountry skills course, a news detox, a long run or an online support group. If we learn nothing else from our time out in the fresh air, or from skilful guides like Feleki and Niles, it’s that the world is a dynamic place, uncertainty is always going to be part of it and struggle is part of the package. Adaptability and resilience starts, not when you walk out your front door, but within – in self-compassion.