You reach the summit you’ve been suffering all day for and the view is breathtaking. The perilous cliff edge is close, daunting and dangerous. You carefully cast your eyes down, proud of the magnitude of your climb. You fight it, but have an overwhelming need to get a selfie, one that shows the world just how #adventurous you are! Possessed, you edge closer, trying to angle the screen to capture the scale of your achievement. You take risks you normally wouldn’t just to get the perfect shot. A rock slips out from under your foot, careening over the side, smashing into the cliff face below, the violence of the sound alerting you to your own stupidity and you urgently pull back. In the time it takes for the rock to crash onto the valley floor below, you wonder when getting a shot of yourself at the summit became more important that the summit itself?
Did you know more people die from taking selfies than from shark attacks? In fact there is a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to reporting ‘selfie’ accidents. Apparently it’s a new threat posed from living in a hyper-connected world. Even lawmakers are considering passing laws to ban texting and walking because we are having so many distracted accidents! Our addiction to our devices, to social media, to the every shudder, vibration and ping of our phones is real and it’s an epidemic. You don’t have to look far to see it. Watch the people on the bus, in a queue, at restaurants, in airports, anywhere! Everybody is on their smartphone. Even you! In fact 12% of us are using our phones in the shower and apparently up to 1 in 5 of us check them during sex!
We happily trade the mundane details of our lives on an economy of likes and followers that boost our self worth. Like zombies we endlessly consume newsfeeds on the comings and goings of hundreds of people we don’t even care about! Our brains have literally rewired to reward us with a dopamine hit at every notification. Condensing our lives into 140 characters, we freeze our greatest moments into filtered ‘instas’. Our smartphones are the first thing we touch in the morning and the last thing we look at, at night.
How did this happen? Many of us would like to lay the blame at technology’s feet, its accessibility and our requirement to be technologically literate, but sorry folks, tech is not the problem- it’s how we use it. Like most things in life, there’s a point where too much of a good thing leads to unhealthy outcomes like our relationships failing because we are spending more time touching a screen than our loved ones. Did you know a quarter of divorce cases in the US & UK now cite Facebook! Scary isn’t it.
So what do we do about it? How do we regain balance?
To me it’s very simple. You don’t need to throw your phone in the sea and vow to never tap on a keyboard again, rather just take a little time each day to digitally detox and unplug. What if there were no phones at the dinner table? What if you left your mobile in your rucksack for emergencies and assessed the risk before you took that selfie shot? What if you shut down your inbox at the end of your day only to reopen it at your desk the next morning? Too often we hide behind the justification of our work to keep our ally by our sides. “I have this important email coming in, so I must be on my phone over your birthday lunch, sorry.” How busy we are has become a status symbol ‘ How are you?’ “I’m good, I’m just sooo busy” we unconsciously say, as if somehow our over-flowing calendars and our inability to keep up with our own commitments is a badge of our importance in the world, but ask yourself, what is most important to you? Is it your facebook feed or the friends sitting beside you? Is it that email or the world waiting outside? Is it your life or that selfie?
Recently I met a young New Yorker called Gary. He’s twenty eight, unemployed and with no financial independence, he relies entirely on the support of his parents. He spends eighteen hours a day on social media, surfing the web and playing video games. Even when he tries to sleep, he periodically checks his phone and sends texts at all hours just to solicit them back. He suffers insomnia and ADHD. He can’t bear to be parted with his devices and always has the neon light of a screen illuminating his face.
The thing about Gary is that he is a walking paradox. He has grand career ambitions and a college education, the support of a loving family and the intelligence to get wherever he wants to go. He has a naturally athletic build, yet he sits, all day, every day, staring at a multitude of screens. His mum brings him food and does his laundry. He’s anxious and desperately unhappy. He wants change but doesn’t know where to start. What began as harmless distraction and a bit of procrastination is now ruling and ruining his life.
It doesn’t take long to identify people like Gary, perhaps we can even relate to aspects of him. We can hardly hold a conversation without the disruption of some sort of technology. Second screening or ‘phubbing’ (an actual word in the Macquarie dictionary which means to snub someone in favour of your phone!), is just part of everyday life.
The answer to the epidemic is right out our front doors. Literally! Put down your phone, go outside and seek an adventure, experience some adrenaline, log off and live a little bit! In my own life, it is the outdoors that has kept me healthy, happy, challenged and purposeful. I wanted to share that gift with Gary to see if it would help lift him out of his rut. At first he was reluctant saying “It’s easier for me to stay at home than have an adventure” but his desperation for a shift was louder and when hope arrived in the form of a duffel bag full of outdoor gear and the offer to take him to a place he’d only ever seen on YouTube and Instagram on the condition that he leave his technology behind, he took a courageous step and said “Yes.”
Powering off, he handed me his laptop, iPad and phone and bid a teary farewell to his parents at JFK airport. It was the first time in more than a decade that he didn’t have a device on his person. Boarding the plane, Gary admitted he was terrified. He felt naked without his phone and he was destined for a place he had never dreamt he would go …Nepal.
Nepal is without doubt one of the best adventure playgrounds in the world, a tiny landlocked country, its geography is incredible with soaring summits, raging rivers and a fascinating culture. It was the perfect place to unplug Gary. I was sure wild, new experiences would help build a healthier perspective. I knew he would return home motivated and ready to grasp life by the horns. He had never known the joy of sleeping under the stars or the experience of standing and watching the sunrise above the mountains. He had never felt awestruck by nature. While I wanted Gary to find gratitude in the preciousness of his life, I also needed him to feel challenged to draw upon his own resources, to know himself and through adversity become self reliant. To do that, we needed an ambitious itinerary.
We would complete an 8 day trek in just 4 days, covering an average of 20-25km a day, with a pack weight of 15kg through the spectacular Langtang Ranges in the Himalayas. We would peak out at 3,800m before funnelling down the rapids of a previously un-descended river in expeditionary pack rafts achieving a world first. From there, we’d rendezvous with a couple of mountain bikes and pedal our way back to Kathmandu. All up, it would take a week-a week of sweat, tears and hopefully, change.
In order to pull together such a unique expedition, I called upon my friends at Secret Compass, an adventure company specialising in bespoke expeditions and pioneering projects in the world’s wildest places. If you want an adventure you can’t read about in a brochure, these are the guys to go to. Together with our expedition leader, Tom, a capable ex-military Brit, we plotted a route, shouldered our packs and marched Gary off into the wilderness.
Hiking hard for multiple days is always a shock to the body and one of the most common errors is to race out of the gate and blow yourself out in the first few hours. It didn’t take Gary that long. Eager to prove himself, he was moving far too quickly and within an hour was panting at the top of the first ascent, dripping in sweat and looking fairly unimpressed. His pack was heavy, he was tired, hungry and starting to get cold. We had a further 6 hours of steep climbing ahead of us before we would reach our designated camp and it became painfully apparent we wouldn’t beat the sun. Setting up camp in the pitch black, freezing Nepali night proved too much for Gary and he had his first tantrum. Frustrated with not knowing how to put up his tent, he threw the poles down and marched off. I found him sulking in the dark. “Why did you give up?” I asked. “Because there was nothing left to do but quit,” he snarled. “You’re a smart guy, you can figure this out” Furious, Gary looked at me and said “You don’t ask someone to perform surgery without showing them how”. While yes, I had left Gary to his own initiative, it was hardly surgery and entirely intentional. I was quietly watching to see how he went about problem solving. Would he logic through it? What would he do without a YouTube tutorial? Was he too accustomed to having all the answers at his fingertips on his shiny new iPhone? The answer was yes.
8 days later, the Gary we knew that night, the one who wanted to be spoon fed and would have a temper tantrum if he didn’t get what he wanted instantly with a swipe of a screen was nowhere to be seen. Sure, it was an uncomfortable learning curve but by the end of our trip, he would come to rely on himself, use his initiative and was fiercely and rightfully proud of his newly discovered independence.
Our trek not only helped Gary mature, it also gave him a deep appreciation for the opportunities he had at home. Hiking in the foothills of the Himalayas, we passed through tiny villages, nearly all of them in the arduous process of rebuilding post the 2015 earthquake. These were people whose lives had come crashing down and were left to EEK out an existence amongst the rubble. They were desperately poor but also joyously happy. While they had no material wealth and had lost everything, they were peaceful, kind and generous. They valued one another and shared a richness of community that we often lack in the West. Over big plates of dahl baat (rice and vegetables served with a lentil soup), we heard their stories. Gary was left reeling. All of a sudden his expensive BMW no longer held the same emotional value. We handed out small donations to families to help rebuild their homes. The amount Gary normally spent on a pair of jeans was enough to place a roof on someone’s house. It was a perspective he would never find on facebook.
Looping across the mountains, the physicality of his days and the simplicity of the adventurous life became apparent to Gary. The constant ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ comparison that was bred by the barrage of social media, dropped away and he was happy and complete in himself. His confusion cleared just as the morning fogs in the valleys lifted and he became certain about what he wanted to do with his life. As each challenge presented itself, whether it was crossing a flimsy suspension bridge over a raging river or topping out on an altitude effected climb he saw his own potential and started to believe in himself in a way he never had before. With each passing kilometre in the mountains, his insecurities dropped away.
To show Gary just how far he’d come, we decided to end our expedition in a truly wild way. Instead of hiking out of the mountains, we opted to paddle a previously undescended river and enjoyed the rare glory of completing a world first. Armed with pack rafts (inflatable kayaks that fold down into an incredible 2kgs!), we drew upon all our resources to pull it off and ensure Gary, who had the least experience among us, was confident and safe. Thankfully, Secret Compass had somehow managed to track down a local Nepalese kayaker who agreed to recce the river from the shore, meet us at the entry point and act as our guide. We poured over our safety procedures, our river signals, donned our helmets and pushed in as a group. With plenty of glacial water ripping beneath us, we covered days of hiking in mere hours. While we all capsized more times than expected in the exhilarating rapids we always managed to help each other recover and stick together by regularly taking respite in the calm eddies by the shoreline. Everyone worked flawlessly as a team. Apart from the frigid waters and the occasional bump and bruise we all emerged victorious. The cold beer awaiting us in the village below was the sweetest one we’d ever had.
From there, we grabbed our previously organised mountain bikes and cruised our way through the rice paddies and terraces of the last rugged mountains framing Kathmandu. Over the course of a day, the single track merged into a dirt road and eventually we came out onto the tarmac. Our adventure was coming to a close but the tangible evidence that logging off from our technology and seeking refuge and personal growth through adventure would remain with us all for life.
In fact when I researched some of the science behind our experience, I wasn’t surprised to find extensive evidence of our hypothesis. There are an abundance of studies that show that spending time in nature decreases negative thoughts and depression by a significant margin, studies which prove that creative thinking and complex problem solving performance can be increased by a whopping 50% through disconnecting from technology and reconnecting to nature. (The researchers of this study noted that technology is disruptive preventing our focus and that a long hike, sans tech can actually make people think better!) Further I found researchers had been able to reduce ADHD symptoms by exposing sufferers to ‘green outdoor activities’ and a friend pointed out that neuropsychologists are now using surfing and ocean therapy as a breakthrough for people with PTSD so there’s no argument that unplugged adventures are good for us all and Gary was a walking testament.
Safely back in Kathmandu, reflecting on the trip he said “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.’ He knew his parents would be proud and that things had changed forever. “I feel that this trip was designed for me, designed to cure all my anxieties. I’ve just become the person that I wanted to be and I didn’t even miss my phone!” and with that I silently handed it back to him complete with the wifi code but he just smiled, pocketed it and we kept chatting about the adventure we’d all shared. For the world, as challenging as it is beautiful, has more colour than pixels could ever show, more connection than any social media, more adrenaline than any video game and Gary could see that.
So what happened to him after returning home? Well, about 6 weeks after our adventure, I received an email from Gary, it simply said;
“I’m in bed by 8pm and I’m up by 5am to go to class and study. And I’m working with my Dad and working out everyday! Feeling great! Finally have the energy and drive to do the things I’ve always wanted to do. Makes me feel like I have a purpose. My parents definitely see a greater drive in me and somewhat of a sense of urgency. I feel so much more confident and I’m not shying away from challenges in my life, which is huge. It’s changed my life”
It was the best email I’ve ever received.
Image Credits: Tom McShane