Train for Mental Toughness |

Train for Mental Toughness

“There is a common adage in high-altitude climbing: ‘The strength is in your heart, not in your legs,’” says extreme mountaineer Don Bowie. “And I have found this to be very true.

“Therefore, I train for suffering.”

Bowie, more than most other athletes, understands suffering. The 42-year-old Canadian Californian has summited some of the most dangerous mountains in the world, including K2. He’s spent 75 days stuck in a tent enduring -30 to -40 degree temps, trekked through snow sporting triple loads, and, on Annapurna in 2008, watched his partner die.

“You’re constantly threatened with losing your life,” Bowie says. “There are avalanches, staggering winds, and even searing heat. It feels like you’re out of breath, your muscles are burning, your lungs are burning, and you’re completely dehydrated. But you keep climbing up.”

How to Push through Your Limits

We’re guessing you probably don’t have a trip to climb K2 booked any time soon. (For better adventurous ideas, visit the Men’s Health Travel Center.) But to truly grow—whether in the gym, on the trail, or in your career—you have to push past your comfort zone. And Bowie has left that zone far, far behind.

He’s quick to note this isn’t a blind task, though. “It’s about realizing there are alternatives,” he says. “You have the opportunity to press on or give up, and you’re faced with the constant evaluation of whether it’s worth the risk.”

What’s his secret? Don’t fight discomfort. “If I’m training and feel the huge lactic acid buildup, like my lungs are coming out my mouth—I allow myself to feel it. I stand and embrace it,” he says. “Sighing, falling exhausted, bending over—it’s all fighting it, which ends up wasting energy. When you’re on the mountain, you don’t have energy to burn, and the same applies to a workout.”

“It’s about making decisions in the face of discomfort as opposed to letting those feelings become defining moments,” Bowie explains. “When I embrace the discomfort, it’s surprising how much farther I can go.”

When Everest Isn’t Enough

In January, Bowie leaves to tackle the Seven Second Summits—meaning, the seven second-highest mountains on the seven continents—without supplemental oxygen. That means all 28,251 feet of the infamous K2 (Asia), along with Mount Kenya (Africa), Mount Logan (North America), Mount Tyree (Antarctica), Puncak Mandala (Australasia), Dyck-Tau (Europe), and Ojos Del Salado (South America). Should he succeed, he’ll be the first person to complete this expedition.

Bowie also plans to take on Everest again with his Swiss climbing partner, Ueli Steck, but this time, he’s going for a speed record or a new route. (Without oxygen, of course.)

Adventurous Beginnings

Bowie’s kind of a freak of nature. He’s 6-2, ripped, and gifted athletically. He played football through college, cowboyed on a Colorado ranch, ski raced, and even wrestled mountain lions and bighorn sheep to help members of the California Department of Fish and Game tag them for research. He’s also a member of the Inyo County Search and Rescue Team. “My real heart is in doing those things that haven’t been done before,” Bowie says.

That desire was born with him in Alberta, Canada, sparked on a gondola ride when he was 6 years old. “I remember gazing down thinking I could hike up there faster than the gondola,” he muses. “It was the first realization of my grandiose dreams—to look at something big and dangerous, and still think, ‘I can do that.’ ”

Now he’s one of the top high-altitude climbers in the world—an elite group of athletes known for their feats like first ascents and summits of the 8,000ers, the planet’s highest peaks. In fact, Bowie is one of only two living Canadians to have summited K2, and one of five North Americans to have summited Gasherbrum I, another notoriously dangerous climb.

But Bowie himself would never boast about it. “No one will ever know what I accomplish,” he says. “There’s an unspoken tradition among climbers; you don’t brag about what you do.”

The one thing he will cop to? His heart. He counts his rescues in the Sierras as some of his proudest moments, and sends Nepalese children he meets through families in Chomrong to a better school in nearby Pokhara out of his pocket.

And like any good climber with heart, he continues to dream . . . big: “There’s always a mountain somewhere in the world, and a new way to explore it.”

You can follow Don Bowie during his expeditions at, where he regularly writes detailed dispatches.

More at

Posted on: December 22, 2011