Cathy O’Dowd: I ditched cyberspace to rediscover Real Life

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In the middle of last year I ghosted cyberspace. I walked out on this blog. On The Business of Adventure newsletter and website. On all my audience-building social media properties. I turned off my laptop, other than for dealing with emails and admin for my motivational speaking work. I abandoned Twitter without a second thought, stopped reading Facebook and turned Instagram into a one-way photo feed.

I didn’t explain or apologise or even really think through why I was doing it. I just felt overwhelmed. I had too much to do, much of it made up of things that mattered too little. A lot of the ‘too much’ was self-created work that brought in the kind of intangible benefits that are so seductive in cyberspace. It brought me connections with interesting people, information about inspiring adventures, lots of value-exchange type deals. What it didn’t do was get me outside, or bring in money. It was my motivational speaking work, conducted In Real Life, that paid my bills and funded my adventures.

What it did do was suck up hours and days and weeks of my time. Weeks spent with my butt wedged in a chair, eyes focused on the laptop screen. Followed by my tired but still sedentary butt sprawled on a sofa, thumbs tapping away on my phone, building, maintaining and responding on social media.

I ghosted cyberspace when plans I’d made for the summer suddenly flashed up on the calendar as Happening Now. I’d just finished an intense 10-day Independent Canyoneer course and had then been timed out in the Comapedrosa Skyrace, because I’d not done enough race training. Immediately after I had a week-long sea kayak trip in the Finnish archipelago, followed by a multi-week climbing and canyoning trip in the central Pyrenees.

I’d put all these plans in place earlier in the year to get the butt of my future self out of that chair and out into the world of adventure. But when it all suddenly came due, I was overcommitted and undertrained and something had to give.

So I chose Real Life. I abandoned the blogs and the newsletters and the social media feeds, the typing and tapping and scrolling. Instead I went kayaking and canyoning and climbing.

The way I want to do these adventures demands a price. I’m not interested in the sort of trip that hits maximum #hashtag exciting imagery for minimum work. The kind where you buy an adventure from a commercial operator, who has done all the planning and the risk management. Where you just turn up and snap selfies in exciting locations while the guide finesses a host of challenges in the background, maximising the appearance of adventure while minimising the actual risk. I want to do it myself. But to build and maintain the mental and physical skill that lets me do these things, demands engagement with Real Life.

I had a goal at the start of 2018. To redpoint 7a, a mediocre but for me mythic number that I’d never achieved in 32 years of rock climbing. I did it in June. And then came nowhere close again for the rest of the year. My one 7a still sits in sad isolation on top of my grade pyramid. I did three climbing trips in 2018 and climbed badly on all of them. Genuinely improving as a climber takes many hours of real effort in rock gyms and on rock faces. Cyberspace can provide information about training and inspiration for effort, but neither is a substitute for training and effort IRL.

The great gift of managing to be self-employed in the adventure space, as a guide or a sponsored athlete or a speaker or however you’ve made it work, is that you can – in theory – live anywhere, travel anywhere. The understanding that expeditions can be funded by grants and sponsorship, if you have the time, the talent and the tenacity to find those opportunities, means that – in theory – you can go anywhere.

That wealth of possibility can be overwhelming. It becomes easy to sit wherever you are in the world and second-guess yourself, wondering if you wouldn’t be better off somewhere else. Scrolling through endless social media ‘inspiration’ only makes it worse. You may be living vicariously through the adventures of others, or feeling defeated that everyone else is doing bigger, better, brasher adventures than you are. Either way, you are neither engaging in the outdoor space around you nor actively working towards a specific future destination.

Last year I decided to be content with where I have chosen to live, in Andorra, in the Pyrenees. The weather is great, there is skiing and climbing and canyoning and mountain running. Along with decent coffee shops and high-speed internet. In 2019 I want to live this choice, not wonder about alternatives.

Much as I’ve enjoyed widening my circle of acquaintances in the cyber adventure community, those people don’t help when I want a partner to go climbing or skiing. For that I need to engage with the people and the opportunities that lie outside my front door. I need to get to know the outdoor enthusiasts who live in my neighbourhood. I need to be stronger and fitter and more skilful for the adventures that abound in my backyard.

None of it will make for media headlines or interest sponsors or impress social media followers. But it is real – real in risk and challenge and joy. Real in accessibility. Real Life. It’s time to shut down the laptop and head out of the door.

I’m typing this sitting on a plane winging its way to Canada. There I join friends to attempt the SE ridge of Mount Steele, a 5073m peak in the Yukon. Once the small plane flies us in to the icecap there will be no email or mobile coverage. Just our team, our skis, and the mountains around us.

This blog series will continue. My Instagram account will still be updated and my phone will still be with me. But the phone will be tucked in the pocket of my ski pants or my climbing chalkbag or my rucksack. I’ll be out there In Real Life doing real things with real people. 


Cathy O’Dowd is a South African climber living in Andorra. She makes a living as a motivational speaker, a career she launched thanks to her Everest ascents. She recently created a website The Business of Adventure http://thebusinessofadventure.com, designed to help adventurers from all outdoor activities find funding for their projects. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram at @CathyODowd.

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