Mental Health, Pushing Limits, and Scaling the top of the World: An interview with Jamie Ironmonger on his upcoming Everest expedition
There is always a moment on any adventure with a team where the course leader gives you a talk about keeping in mind those big treks and mountains you want to climb when times get tough for you. For Jamie Ironmonger, who we met on our recent expedition to the Pyrenees and was one of Rolfe Oostra’s team, that mountain was Everest. For many people, the idea of climbing Mt. Everest is a pipe dream. For Jamie, it is very much his reality. Jamie, who is currently preparing to climb Mt. Everest heads off in less than 6 weeks for the biggest adventure of his life to date. The thing we loved about Jamie’s attitude was not just his approach to why he is undertaking this incredible adventure, but also the further reasons for him doing this and how adventure has changed his life.
Jamie has been a Police Officer for 16 years and a frontline response officer for 8 years in the City of Portsmouth Police before being trained as a Firearms Officer working on the Armed Response Vehicles (ARV’s). He then left to join the Ministry of Defence Police on the Marine Unit. Due to the demanding nature of the work and his dedication to it, it left very little time or energy for much else. Having suffered depression and PTSD alongside the suicide of a friend and colleague of his, Jamie is passionately dedicating his Everest expedition to mental health awareness and supporting Mind, the mental health charity and their Blue Light Program for Emergency Services having seen just how big an issue mental health problems are within the emergency services. He hopes to show people that it’s possible to overcome issues with your mental health and that adventure is a positive step forward and feels a huge sense of responsibility to do the very best he can to help others who are struggling.
On the build-up to his Everest expedition, we sat down with Jamie to talk about all things adventure, mindset, mental health, finding your happy and his attitude to getting outdoors.
TEA: What got you into adventure?
JI: Having been on the sharp end of Policing for many years and the additional responsibilities and training demands of being an armed officer, I had been exposed to numerous high stress situations and attended many traumatic incidents. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the slow build-up of stress over the years had begun to push me towards ‘burnout’.
At this time a close friend and colleague suggested I joined him on a charity climb of Mount Kilimanjaro.
TEA: How did that first experience change you?
JI: I’ve always been active, and I try to keep myself busy. In the lead up to Kilimanjaro, I would meet up with the other people in my team. It was a large group and we were all from totally different backgrounds. We would go on training walks together locally and even a few trips to Snowdonia to train. It was great to talk to people outside of my usual environment. When the day arrived, and I was sat at the Weru Weru River Lodge in Tanzania with everyone looking up at this giant volcano rising from the plains, I think we all took a gulp. It was huge!
The experience was profound. I hadn’t been prepared for the positive effect that this whole experience would have on me. It was hard work. It was emotional. It was beautiful. The sense of achievement to reach the roof of Africa will stay with me.
TEA: After this, did finding further adventures become a kind of obsession?
JI: It has definitely become an obsession, I can’t explain it. It’s like I’ve found something that has been missing in my life for a long time and now I’m trying to make up for it. When I go on expedition anywhere in the world, it’s like hitting Ctrl Alt Del. on a computer. I totally reset. I’m away in a strange country, facing a new challenge, experiencing new cultures, making new friends, I have no phone signal and no Wi-Fi, It’s heaven!
I always have to make sure I plan the next adventure, and this is usually during the expedition I’m already on. It’s essential to me that I have something to look forward to and to work towards. As far as obsessions go, this is a good one and very healthy! Luckily my wife is also an adventure nut and that really helps.
TEA: How important has finding adventure been to your mental health?
JI: I make no secret of the fact that I was suffering from stress and depression and had experienced PTSD as a result of some incidents. I had a traumatic accident on my way to work one morning and sustained a very nasty injury. I was inches away to losing my life and my eyesight. By this time, a friend and colleague of mine had committed suicide and another had disclosed that they had contemplated taking their own life. I realised then, how big of an issue mental health problems were within the emergency services. It’s important that we speak out about our mental health and empower others to do the same.
TEA: What do you think it is about adventure that has had such a positive impact on your mental health?
JI: By its very definition, an adventure is an unusual, exciting or daring experience. Normal day to day life can be very stressful. We live in a society of rushing around, busy commutes, working full-time jobs, paying the bills and competing with the demands that social media places on us. If you don’t stop and take a breath, you will quite simply burn out! By turning to adventure, I have been able to catch my breath. To immerse myself in the unusual and to do something perhaps a little bit daring has really had a huge positive impact on my mental well-being.
TEA: Do you think you could live without adventure now? Has it become an irreplaceable part of your life?
JI: Without sounding too cliché, adventure is like a drug or shall we call it a ‘legal high’!? If something makes you feel good and you enjoy it, you’re going to want to keep doing it and seeking out new destinations for adventure. I couldn’t ever imagine turning my back on it now. For some people they will go and climb a mountain and for them, that’s the box ticked. But for me, I want to keep seeking out the next thing. Every time I go away, I’m learning new skills and learning how to be more efficient. I want to see how far I can go. What am I capable of achieving? Have I got what it takes to achieve the next challenge I set myself...?
TEA: What has kept you going on all of your adventures?
JI: Anyone reading this right now, is capable of going on an adventure. You don’t have to go to the other side of the planet and scale up a huge avalanche prone mountain. Just pack a bag with your lunch in it, a flask of tea and head to the woods and get lost for a few hours. What keeps me going is to use this motivation to be able to put down my phone and say “Right, let’s go. Let’s do this and see what happens”. It’s making that conscious decision that you’re going to get up, set yourself a challenge and go do it. No matter how big or small the challenge is, when you accomplish it, you will feel great!!!
TEA: How do you keep going when you feel like you have hit your limit?
JI: I come from a mountain biking background and I attribute my base level fitness and mindset to this pursuit. I’ve learnt that the human body is capable of much more than we think. The mind sets us mental parameters to protect us when we are tired, or when we are in danger. The mind therefore can restrict our true abilities. When you feel exhausted, the body still has 20% more to give. A professional cyclist by the name of Jens Voigt, is famously quoted as saying, “When my legs get tired, I shout, shut up legs. Do what I tell you”. This phrase always come to mind when I’m feeling tired or uncomfortable. With the right mindset you can push through this and overcome more than you know.
TEA: What kind of adventures interest you? Is it particularly trekking for example?
JI: I’m interested in all kinds of adventure. I enjoy trekking just as much as I enjoy the feeling of achievement in reaching the summit of a mountain. As long as I have a destination to reach, I’m happy. There is just so much to do out in the world. Just going back to mountain biking for an example; along with some friends, we decided to pack our bikes up with various bags and we cycled 100 miles across the South Downs Way from Winchester. We slept in bivvie bags in fields, cooked up noodles and three days later we had made it to Eastbourne. It was a sweltering hot August day when we made it there, so we jumped straight in the sea before getting on the train to head home. It was fantastic and cost the price of a train ticket.
TEA: Has Everest always been in the back of your mind?
JI: Everest has never been on my radar as something to do. Of course, I’m aware of Mount Everest, but it’s something that other people do. I never considered myself capable or even technically experienced enough to even think about doing it, so the idea of taking on this challenge has never really crossed my mind. I’ve always wondered what it must be like to go on an expedition to Everest and to stand on the highest point on earth. It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.
TEA: What made you decide to do Everest?
JI: Believe it or not, the decision was none of my doing. After my accident and having just returned from a big mountain in the Indian Himalayas, I spoke to my guide and friend Rolfe Oostra who is a professional mountaineer for 360 Expeditions. I asked him for some advice on my next mountain challenge. He said “Why not try an 8000m peak?”. “Wow!!” I thought, “That’s really stepping things up!” The advice from Rolfe was “Let’s look at Cho Oyu at 8,188m. It’s not hugely expensive and it’s the most easily accessible 8000’er as it’s not too technical”. This sounded perfect! I was sold. This would be my next challenge.
A few months later, I opened an email from Rolfe. It was long! Very long! His opening words were, “I’m just going throw the cat amongst the pigeons here”. Long story short, he had invited me to climb Mount Everest with him on his next expedition and it was something that I just could not say no to.
TEA: What kind of mental preparation have you done and contended with whilst preparing for this adventure?
JI: I’ve not even arrived anywhere near Everest yet and it’s been a constant mental game. First of all, the feeling of perhaps being inadequate or undeserving of such an opportunity. I wandered around in a daze for about a week whilst it all sank in and to try and work out if I could possibly do this. Could I do it and with only seven months’ notice? I had to train for it and finance it all somehow.
I go to bed every night thinking of Everest. I dream about Everest. Some good dreams, some very bad dreams. I wake up thinking about Everest and then for the rest of the day I’m working hard to make sure I get my little ducks in a row.
They say you have to achieve an Everest before you even get there. Believe me, this is 100% true!!!
It’s no secret that Everest is dangerous, and that people die up there. I’m aware of the risks, but it’s hard for my wife and family who will of course be worried about me.
TEA: How have you trained physically?
JI: Friends keep asking me “How’s the training going?” My reply is usually, “Yeah, I’m doing ok”, but how do you train for Everest? It’s such a mammoth undertaking where do you even start? I’ve been told the only way to train for a mountain is to climb a mountain, but there’s no mountains on the south coast of England. When I think about it, I’ve probably been training for Everest for several years now with all the other mountains and expeditions I’ve been on. So at least I have some idea of what to expect; long days of climbing with a heavy pack on your back. The thin air making every step a considerable effort as you constantly try to catch your breath. Sleeping in a tent with ice on the inside. A hole in the ground for a toilet. And the thing I miss the most when I’m away on any expedition is a hot shower!!! Climbing mountains is not only about how fit you are, it’s about your mental strength and your ability to endure. Have I got what it takes to climb Everest and cope with these harsh conditions for so long!? I will soon find out. I’ve had to be realistic with my training. To try and fit it in around my 12-hour shift pattern of earlies and nights has been difficult. I’ve made the most of an expedition trekking in Nepal through the mountain ranges and also assisting Rolfe on one of his Expedition Skills Courses where our group experienced 100mph winds and -42c high up in the Pyrenees. On top of that, I’ve been cycling my road bike to work over the big hill nearly every day, mountain biking as much as I can through the woods and doing my usual 7 mile run every other few days. I’m not a fan of gyms, but I’ve even dragged myself into a nearby weights room on occasion to do a circuit.
TEA: How are you feeling right now about heading off so soon?
JI: My overriding feeling is, “Have I done enough, am I ready for this?”. This feeling I’ve used to keep pushing myself to train. It’s the reason I get on my bike in the pouring rain or go for a run late at night with my head torch on as the cars are icing over. Soon, I will have to accept that time has run out. That I can do no more. It’s just down to me to put one foot in front of the other and take on Everest to the best of my ability.
I’m sure nervous excitement will take over as the next feelings I experience as the days count down.
TEA: Do you think about how you might be after Everest; how do you imagine your adventures going?
JI: I’ve found it very difficult to think beyond Everest. It constantly dominates my conscious and subconscious alike. I will of course want to keep doing what I’m doing, but at the moment I have no idea how a successful or unsuccessful summit will affect me. After giving it your all, I know what it’s like to reach a summit and I know what it’s like not to. I have already given a lot to Everest, but I will cross ‘the what’s next’ bridge when I come to it, and I’ll be sure to share it with you!
THIS EXPANSIVE ADVENTURE
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