'˜I found there is no such thing as a finish line'
From exploring the Pacific Northwest to crossing the Pyrenees and spending time in the Amazon rainforest, Mags’ life has been quite a journey.
But what makes a career woman quit her job Born and brought up in Titchfield, Mags had what seemed like an enviable career.
She was goal-driven and her work for the BBC as both a producer and reporter gave her enough fulfilment to help her cope with the demands of the job.
But after 10 years, she felt exhausted and sure that there had to be something more to life than long hours in the office.
More importantly, she craved adventure and days that would never look the same.
She says: ‘As a journalist, it was almost like looking out of a goldfish bowl at the world outside.
‘There was always some story I was chasing about someone else and I started to ask ‘‘what about my story?’’
‘So, feeling burned-out turned into a sense of restlessness, of never being able to relax.
‘No sooner had something been done, I always had to ask myself ‘‘now what?’’’
For Mags, there were several moments that sparked different parts of her journey.
She remembers the time she was working in Glasgow for the BBC.
‘I was an editor of a flagship programme and it all sounded very impressive, but the reality was my rota pattern was demanding.
‘It meant being up all night, working from 10 in the evening through to 10 in the morning.
‘I faced long nights on my own and I was either doing these solitary, so-called graveyard shifts or putting all my energy into being very sociable in my free time.
‘It was a very intense way to live, but it was unsustainable.’
Sitting in the office, the outdoor world of climbing was always an attractive thought for her.
Yet it took Mags three career breaks until she actually devoted her life to it.
First, she learned the techniques of climbing and allowed herself to feel like she could really stand on her own two feet out in the open.
Then she looked at the weather conditions, found maps and bought special equipment.
Finally, when all her research was done, she said goodbye to her job and ventured into the unknown.
Armed with knowledge, a sleeping bag, a water bottle and 15 maps, Mags chased the seasons from one hemisphere to the other and scaled some of the world’s most beautiful and challenging peaks.
For a while, everything seemed to work. Mags was on a quest for self-improvement and she was experiencing different cultures and their views on the world.
She went to Nepal, worked with Tibetan refugees in northern India and attended the prestigious Banff Mountain Writing Programme.
Yet something was still missing.
Helicoptered into one of the most remote parts of the Southern Alps in New Zealand with a friend, she was entirely exposed and out of her comfort zone.
Little did she know back then that this would be the pivotal turning point in her life.
She recalls: ‘So I got about six feet down when suddenly this thought came through: ‘‘this is disastrous and I don’t think I can do it any more’’.
‘It was this awful paralysis, vertigo like I’ve never had before and it was in that moment that I promised myself that, if I got down safely, I would never put my life in danger again.
‘Being outside your comfort zone is what growth is all about, but for me back then there was something that had gone beyond the point of if it felt good or right.’
She started to feel the same burned-out sensation that happened when she was working in the media.
Amid grand and inspiring new landscapes, she had the freedom to move. But what was she moving towards?
She explains: ‘This was the ‘‘upside down mountain’’. We all have an idea of a quest, a sense of promotion or an idea of the future rolling out.
‘What I discovered is there’s no such moment. I realised, if it’s such a joyless route to get to something, I’d have to question why I was putting myself in these really extreme situations.
‘I realised that I had to live each day as it is and that descent is all about the journey back home.’
After the New Zealand setback, she spent well over a year exploring the Amazon and learning about the plants and trees, as well as training with shamans in the art of finding new healing methods.
She says: ‘‘In the Amazon, I woke up again.
‘It was while I was training there that I realised I was ready to get back. Back to my family, where I’ve grown up and the land of my ancestors.
‘It’s all very well having these dramatic and extraordinary experiences, but if I can’t bridge my daily life and the work I love, which is storytelling, then there’s no point.’
Going back to England, Mags felt inspired to write about her journey. In one of her latest books on self-discovery, called The Upside Down Mountain, Mags recalls her mountaineering days, the time she spent with shamans in the Amazon and what she learned from different cultures.
She says: ‘‘This is a book that explores a new direction: the way up is down.
‘I left the city thinking I’d find Nirvana, that to devote my life to climbing was the way to have a really meaningful and fulfilling life.
‘But there’s no such thing as a finishing line and my book explores this idea. You don’t need a one-way ticket to the Amazon. You don’t need to climb mountains around the world to wake up to ordinary life as adventure. It’s a shifting attitude and each one of us can be a storyteller.’
The Upside Down Mountain (John Hunt Publishing) is available through bookshops, online and as an ebook. Signed copies and more author/book information: magsmackean.com Audio book, narrated by Mags: Audible.com, iTunes and Amazon.