It's no hidden secret that outdoor activity works wonders for team building. In my role at Mount Cook I am lucky enough to see the impact that away days and outdoor development programmes have on a group of colleagues, so for some I am sure what I am about to describe will be familiar.
Where the benefits of outdoor team building are at their most obvious to me is when these types of activities can create a high performing team from a group of people who don't usually work together. How quickly being in a high pressured, tiring and sometimes unnerving situation can bond a group of people, is quite incredible, especially when you aren't aware of the strengths and weaknesses of those around you.
What's even better, is that the bonds that are quickly created don't tend to fade. Once you have shared that experience, the related emotions are embedded. I still consider a team member that I spent 3 days with on a physical challenge last year a very good friend, and those 3 days are still the only time we have ever spent together.
This weekend I embarked the Welsh 3000's Challenge, with a group of 5 other individuals, in order to raise funds for the Teenage Cancer Trust. For those who haven't yet heard of it, the Welsh 3000's has been dubbed as one of the toughest UK hiking challenges available. The goal is to summit all 15 of Wales' highest peaks, each of them standing at above 3000 ft, in under 24 hours. Each individual section is often a long walking day in itself, typically containing between 3 - 6 peaks joined together with plenty of scrambling and scree.
It wasn't until a friend did it a year ago, to raise funds for Macmillan not long after losing her mum, that the challenge really struck a cord. What my friend put herself through was monstrous; I was beyond impressed at her grit, leaving me completely and utterly inspired.
I put the feelers out and bounded together a group of enthusiastic chaps who were equally as excited by the prospect. There was Phil, one of Mount Cook's most experienced instructors, Robin, Director of Mount Cook, Andy and Bromley, who we work with at Rayburn Tours and Mitre group and Toby, a local expert Landscaper. The team had a broad spectrum of strengths and each played a vital part in our lengthy day- adventure.
Completing this with a team of people, who I don't have the privilege of working with on a daily basis, has given me a few observations on key behaviours which particularly helped us to succeed.
The walk itself was tough to say the least, especially with the weather conditions that we faced for the first half of the day. The infamous knife-edge ridge that is Crib Goch was foggy, rainy, windy and slippy which was nearly everything that we did not want it to be. Almost immediately, one team member read the groups emotions well and took the lead to navigate us safely along the knee trembling top of a 3000 ft drop on either side.
The further 20 hours that followed this first section were filled with plenty of highs and lows. Due to allowing more time for caution and navigation in the bad weather, we slowed considerably on the second section, meaning that our slot for lunch came over 3 hours later than planned. Although our amazing support crew had met us with hot porridge and tea after the first 3 peaks and sent us off with flapjack and bananas, we hadn't stocked up with enough food for lunch. This meant that on the section that required the greatest output of energy, we were quickly getting too hungry. Another member of the team was fantastic at getting out what snacks they had, to share with the group in 10 minute intervals. At a time where the temptation was just to plough on for another few hours to get to the lunch spot, they insisted that the group frequently stop for water and food. This at the time felt like a small thing, but looking back now I can see that if we missed even a few of those breaks, the challenge could have been over.
Arriving for lunch at 5.30 pm, having been on the mountains for 12 hours and hitting 9 of the total peaks, the realisation of how much toll the challenge would take was beginning to set in. Our support crew had been waiting for us at the checkpoint since 1 pm and were so quick in dishing out food and lashings of positivity. Another team member had brought a huge box of ointments and pain relief gels, something I have never carried on the mountain but was of great help to us all after battering our limbs around the rocks for hours on end.
After more words of encouragement, at 6pm we set off for the final section of the challenge - the Carneddau. After following a direct scramble straight up the side of the ridge to 3209 ft (the same height as England's Scafell pike), the mountains were our own for the sunset. The terrain was much more forgiving for tired legs, but we still had over 15 miles and 6 peaks left to go as the light was fading. What we thought could potentially take us another 5 hours, ended up taking us 8.
Although storming over the next 3 peaks whilst admiring the ocean views, we got to peak number 13 just in time for sundown. Head torch on and compass out. At this late stage in the day, the team bounded together to assess the lay of the land, use local knowledge and map reading skills to ensure that our next 4 hours of effort in the dark were not going to be in vain. Battered by high winds and scaring sheep after sheep, we ended the challenge at the top of Foel Fras at around 12.45 am. Cruelly, there is then a 5 mile descent along a rocky path back to the nearest road, where our support crew had been waiting for the last 5 hours.
Because physical exertion like this does leave you wanting to sit down for long periods, I have had a bit of time to reflect on our challenge and think about some of essential moments that meant we could carry on. There are some key lessons about team dynamics that this challenge has taught me:
Preparation: The key point of adequate preparation for the challenge meant that what ever obstacles we faced, someone had the ability to provide a solution. This was never a role for a singular member of the team, but something that we each contributed to in a variety of ways.
Positivity: We were lucky in that our group had an abundance of positivity. Although obviously physically exhausting, no one moaned. In fact the opposite was true where we would regularly comment on how lucky we were to be doing this. Several team members sang 90% of the time too. A positive attitude made a huge difference.
Leadership: Only in times where it was necessary. The team collaborated well, however there were moments where leadership was key. One team member was so intuitive in picking these moments, which enabled us all to keep going when our brains were turning to mush.
Emotional Intelligence: Making a considered effort to be conscious of how your team mates are feeling allowed the team to spot any issues before they had arisen. If someone was feeling dizzy, sugar it was. If someone had painful knees, grab them a couple of poles a the checkpoint. It's easy to miss signals when tired, but keeping emotional communication open meant that we succeeded as a team and not as individuals.
Resilience: It gets to a point where everyone is equally tired and hurt, and all that gets you through is resilience. Through personal experience, there is no. better. setting than the outdoors in developing resilience.
Confirmation: A key lesson I have learned, both in the outdoor environments and also in the workplace is, once you have a plan in place, continually check back on it and confirm that it is correct. In our case, getting the map out every 500 metres to navigate in the pitch black after 20 hours of mountain walking possibly saved us arriving back in daylight after following the wrong track. Checking back with your team and not being afraid to change a plan if it isn't working, means that you can achieve your goal as quickly as possible (and potentially save a load of pain).
Enthusiasm: Finally, if your team has equal amounts of enthusiasm for your project as you do, you can achieve really quite big things.
If you are looking to bond your current team, or start bring together a group of people to work together who don't already know each other that well, I really could not recommend a better way of doing so than through a shared outdoor experience. Having completed a few challenges with colleagues and acquaintances alike, I now feel lucky enough to call them friends. I also know that if I am looking to achieve something big, both in and out of work, it's not just individual qualities that lead to success, but that of a much wider and wonderful team.
If you feel able to donate to Teenage Cancer Trust, you can do so by following this link. Many thanks to those who have already donated and supported!