The academic year has just started for the latest group of PGDE students at the University of Dundee and I imagine that as the year progresses there will be times when they will be apprehensive about placements, assignments, or the other day-to-day challenges whilst becoming a teacher. It is important that lecturers, and mentor teachers understand this. I teach primary science pedagogy and this is an area where some students have concerns, and can suffer anxiety. As a result I try hard to deliver this carefully and pitch the level so as not to disengage the students. However there have been times in the past where I have forgotten what it is like to be a beginning, or preservice, teacher.
Last weekend, although in a quite different situation, I was reminded what it is like to be apprehensive, and how that can quickly lead to panic and fear. Along with several friends I attempted a challenging hike, called the Ring of Steall, which turned out to be a valuable learning opportunity. Given the level of challenge of the walk we had been planning the trip for a long time. Last year we all headed to Fort William but due to late snow fall we had to cancel the attempt and climbed Ben Nevis instead. The pay off that time was that had a phenomenal view of the four snow-capped Munros that make up the Ring of Steall. This encouraged us and we rescheduled for the August bank holiday weekend this year, we planned ahead, did lots of research, and got in some physical training. In the week leading up to the walk two of us spent several days gradually increasing our walking distances and climbs.
My big concern was that I am not good with heights, in fact I wrote about this and stressful situations a while back. As a result, earlier this year I started indoor climbing and was making real progress and can now look back down from a 10 metre high wall with increased confidence. The day before our walk two of us climbed Ben Nevis, and physically I felt great, walking up and down in under 6 hours. At the summit where, due to a lack of snow, some walkers stood on the edge of the north face marvelling at the drop. I suddenly felt really uneasy. This was very different from the climbing wall, and the sheer drop of hundreds of metres made me question how I would manage on the Ring of Steall. And although this walk is completed by many people every year it has a certain Tolkeinesque quest quality about it, especially given the landscape.
Setting off, in high spirits, on a glorious summer day.
The day of the walk came and the stunning weather meant we had perfect conditions. The five of us had spent the night before going over the route, deciding where the challenges would be and what to do at certain points. The guidance notes included details of the sheer ridges, and which sections would be most challenging. And a boulder where you need to step out, and around a sheer drop, with no foothold. Great, I thought, that sounds lovely. We got an early night and woke ready to take on the walk in glorious sunshine. I had not slept well as thoughts of sheer drops and exposed ridges, and that boulder, ran through my mind. The video we had all watched in preparation made it all seem like it would be too much. But, I told myself, it would be ok, and my friend with the most experience of walking in such circumstances, like the Alps, reassured me that these videos often look worse than reality.
We began walking at 8am and reached the fantastic Steall Falls in good time, crossing the river on the wire bridge was straightforward, and I was feeling good. The foot of the falls also proved difficult, but we all got over, even though some were wetter than others. We traversed some really boggy ground, and I was enjoying the challenge, but it took a while before we reached the base of the first climb. I was thinking positively especially as I’d been encouraging some of my friends across the river (I’m far more comfortable when I can see the ground, even if it is underwater!). What I did think is that this first section has been harder than I had expected, and perhaps the ridges would too.
Chris conquering the rope bridge.
The first peak is An Gearanach and after an hour and a half walking and a bit of scrambling we approached the peak. My friends were doing great. But I was very quiet. Every time I glanced back I felt dizzy. I was holding the side of the hill as we traversed the steep path. It must have looked quite amusing to anyone else. My friends strolling along whilst I leaned into the solid ground for security. Now I knew this was not rationale. Lots of people climb this route and science tells me I would not fall off unless something very unusual, like an earthquake, happened. But that thought of ‘if’ was enough to maintain a high level of personal anxiety.
Eoin, showing more enthusiasm for the first peak than I did.
We reached the first peak and my friends stood on the edge and took in the magnificent views. I lay, face down, in the middle of the tiny plateau. To quote my friends later I was “hugging the mountain for security”. As we rested the anxiety mounted as I could see the route ahead along a terrifying exposed ridge. The glorious conditions made it so much worse, I think I’d have been happier with heavy cloud cover. My main worry was I might freeze on one of the ridges, and the Mountain Rescue would have to come and get me. I thought that if I turned back I might freeze on the descent, which was going to be worse as I would be looking down the hill. I made up my mind, and said I was going down. I said I would go on my own but my friends wouldn’t allow it. So after a short discussion Ian sacrificed the chance to accomplish something we’d been planning for years.
Ian, reaching out to touch Ben Nevis, just before he guided be back to safety.
So our intrepid group split, with Ian and I (Merry and Pippin in the Tolkien metaphor) going our own way, whilst the other three headed off to complete the journey – just without the end goal of throwing away a magic ring. Getting down wasn’t that easy, but we kept seeing people running, yes running, the route in preparation for the Ring of Steall Sky Race. This blew my mind, and gave me further thought for reflection, especially when applied to how experienced teachers must seem to beginning or preservice teachers. We finally reached the bottom and rested by the falls, watching families enjoy the crystal clear waters. The difference in how I felt, compared to a couple of hours earlier was marked, and made importance of ‘safe places’ in other walks of life too.
The walk back to our car was pleasant and we were pretty tired by the end, having still covered 7 miles including a considerable climb. We met up with the other three a few hours later and they were exhausted but really pleased to have finished the challenge. We headed back for a well earned pint and to reflect on the day. My friends shared their photos and agreed I’d made the right decision to turn back, especially as some of the ridges were really challenging. I think I would really like to try ridge walking again, to try and overcome this fear, but the real learning for me was how we deal with situations that cause high stress and anxiety. And in future if I think someone is in that position I can try to handle this with sensitivity that my friends did, and pitch how and when to encourage and push someone. I learnt a lot about myself that day, but a huge amount from my friends too.
If you want to see the highlights of the day, and track the route, Steve used a great app called Relive to put this video together. (And I think it would be a good teaching resource… so just a little more learning for me.)