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The Key to Distress Tolerance: A simple tale about being lost in the mountains

Digging my dull spikes into thin ice, I break off a sizeable chunk and hear it roll down the snowy precipice. The fear that I’m to follow it fills my body and my right leg begins to shake uncontrollably. Losing one’s cool in this precarious position could end badly, so I try my best to calm down and take roll of the situation. It’s dark, and my headlamp is broken. My toes are presumably wet and freezing, but they lost any feeling hours ago. I am in snowshoes; my partner ski boots. And we are nowhere near the hut where we planned to spend the night- It is time to turn back.


Having unknowingly embarked on the wrong trail from the start led me and my partner up some dangerously steep ascents, covered in snow and ice, en route to Brew Hut. The scrambles we had completed during the day were no longer attemptable at night, nor would it be safe to track back down the steep sections from which we had come. Alone in the Canadian backcountry, we seemed to be completely out of options.


Lost in the mountains during winter
this photo taken the following day shows one of the steeper sections on our route

A situation like this one really put into perspective the stressors in my life. How could I, now trying my hardest to escape frostbite and hypothermia, have been so tied up about an exam just days ago? Or a girl? Or money? It all seemed so trivial now that survival was on the line. From what little I know about psychology, it really seems to me that humans have been evolutionarily screwed. Back before the modern age, when survival situations like this were more common, our brains had to stress constantly to survive. It’s how animals avoid predation, and it’s how we made it this far to begin with. But unfortunately for us, our world has changed while our brains have not. We are built to fear constantly, to worry as if our lives depend on it. But when it comes to things like money or exams, our lives far from depend on it. This seems to be a part of the growing mental health crisis we face these days, and I certainly can’t provide a solution, but I do want to share how my experience on Mt. Brew helped me rethink these things.


Distress tolerance is one’s ability to navigate emotional distress. The term has been gaining traction in the media recently, and can imply a whole host of different techniques. At one level, distress tolerance is a healthy practice whenever you feel overwhelmed, like deep breathing or just going for a jog. At another, the term has led to new explorations in fields like wilderness therapy, where participants are subject to increasingly harsh environments, such as rain, cold, or physical exhaustion. While I am not recommending anything extreme, I do feel as though our increasingly indoor and sedentary lifestyles are preventing us from contextualizing our everyday stressors from real life threats. In addition to a whole host of positive health benefits from spending time outdoors, perhaps my favorite is building up better distress tolerance. Go outside and have some solid type two fun: hike until you’re crying to return home, ski until your hands and feet feel like needles, or get caught out in the mud and rain sometimes- I promise that when you return to your normal, your worries will not feel quite the same anymore.


On Mt. Brew that night, me and my partner ended up building a snow shelter to sleep the night through subfreezing temperatures, and believe it or not, we actually had a pretty good time. We challenged ourselves to make a fire in the snow, and cooked some pine-needle snowmelt ramen for dinner. After some time laughing about the outrageousness of our situation, we cozied up into our sleeping bags for the night. The next morning, we were covered in fresh snowfall (our shelter may have been subpar), with rejuvenated feet and newfound energy. In the light of day, we were able to conquer the cliff face that had defeated us the evening prior, and eventually made it to Brew hut for the next night.


Sleep in the snow after being lost in the mountains during winter
the ‘shelter selfie’ is a good way to cope with the emotional distress of being stuck in a snow hole for the night

Returning home, I am grateful each day to walk around in warm clothes and dry feet. Not only can I attack my to-do list with a fresh mind, but it’s length doesn’t worry me as much as it used to. No matter how much work seems to be left unfinished, I know it will never threaten my survival. So therein lies my advice- get outside! Maybe don’t sleep overnight in a backcountry snow shelter, but adversity will surely find you in its own way, as it always does. And when it comes, you will take deep breaths, and welcome it.


This blog by guest writer and photographer Payton Pan. To see more of his work visit paytonpan.com


About the author:


Payton Pan is a Vancouver based environmental and travel photographer. He enjoys teaching the craft and experimenting with new ways to push its limits. Along with photography, Payton partakes in creative writing as well as the pursuit of most outdoor sports, namely climbing.


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