Frontlines

Breathing room at the top

Amanda Touche August 27 1979
Frontlines

Breathing room at the top

Amanda Touche August 27 1979

Breathing room at the top

Frontlines

Amanda Touche

The executive office, sought as the reward for long and able service in business and government, carries a well-publicized price tag—along with the success comes stress. When the cost becomes too onerous, certain questions begin to clamor for answers in the minds of the well-paid victims: am I losing touch with the simple pleasures of life and my family? Where do I go from here? The answers are found through the lowered alpha waves of transcendental meditation for some North American executives. Others smash out their anxieties on the squash courts. But for a group of 10 businessmen recently, respite was a unique, nine-day wilderness stress seminar for senior executives, sponsored by the Banff School of Environment.

They gathered at an isolated cabin in Banff National Park, 10 miles from the nearest road. They had paid $1,500 and had walked an 8,000-foot pass to get there. The agenda read like a convention of psychiatrists and gym teachers but, in the primitive surroundings of the 50-year-old, log-built Skoki Lodge, the men who gathered shared a common trait: they all had a problem with stress. So they had come to eat wheatgerm breakfasts, wash in icy mountain streams, get used to outhouses, climb rock faces and spend hours each day in lectures such as “geology and the human perspective” and “man the adventurer.” Course director Joe Nold and psychologist Layne Longfellow would take them on a mental journey while guides John Amatt and Bill March would challenge their bodies. Each man would keep ajournai.

Day 1: They shed their city suits in a Banff motel room and instructors took their watches, cigarettes, money and credit cards. Alan Gates, 43, president of Calgary’s Ateo Drilling Ltd., was shocked at the intensity of the situation. “I realize this isn’t just a hike in the woods. I am frightened knowing my physical condition,” he wrote. They began their first hike, stopping when the

light dimmed at the edge of a lake. Amatt talked about “zero impact camping” and showed them how to stay warm. Bud Milner, 52-year-old president of Prestige Builders of Calgary, did not think about the office the first night, which later surprised him. His body ached, and he reminisced about sitting in a soft chair. “Frankly, I was a basket case,” he said afterward.

Day 2: The men climbed to the 8,000foot-high Deception Pass. Nold talked to them about immortality. One hour later they rappelled down the face of a mountain. Fred Cadham found the rappel distressing. The 36-year-old president of Edmonton’s Highfield Development Ltd. found it hard to be dependent on the others. “All the accoutrements of power were gone. I was standing on the edge of a cliff. I didn’t know if it would hold,” he wrote.

Days 3 and 4: The group hiked, rockclimbed on short faces and talked about their lives and behavior over the past 15 years. The lectures were on the nature of mid-life transition and what the staff called Type-A behavior, expressed through materialism and overriding ambition.

Day 5: They climbed to a high camp at the base of Ptarmigan Mountain. The next day they would climb to the top. They made their beds in the snow and huddled together for warmth. Gates was having trouble with his knees. The instructors met to decide whether he

should climb. “When one is used to a position of power and authority in the business world, it is a very humbling experience to have the instructors go into a caucus to decide whether I should be allowed to attempt the summit or not,” wrote Gates. The verdict—he should climb.

Day 6: At 2:30 a.m. they started. For Gates, it was torture. He was chewing 292s, but halfway up had to stop. “I didn’t want to slow the others. I hurt so badly.” At the top, the others hugged and cheered, and Brian Sawyer, Calgary’s chief of police, later wrote in his journal: “I cannot recall having previously experienced such a sustained period of exhilaration.” Twelve hours later they dragged themselves into Skoki.

Longfellow played them a song about families, Cat's in the Cradle:

My son turned 10 just the other day,

He said thanks for the ball, Dad, c 'm on let 's play.

Can you teach me to throw? I said not today,

I got a lot to do. He said, that 's okay...

Some of the men cried. One hadn’t crossed town to see his 87-year-old father in more than a year.

Day 7: The men filled up on rib-sticking Kraft Dinner, their last meal for 24 hours. They were to “solo” in the wil-

derness as the climax of both their mental and physical journeys. Alan Davies was not lonely: “The solitude evoked calm,” wrote the 39-year-old Welshman who had just been promoted president of Connaught Labs Ltd. in Willowdale,Ontario. Milner wrote in his journal: “July 12 — anniversary.” Then he added the words “commitment day.” “It was truly my anniversary, my 27th in marriage and the first day of the rest of my life and a new direction,” he remarked later.

Day 8: They emerged from their isolation and went through “solo debriefing.” Milner felt he could have stayed longer. “I was free to do what I wanted, by myself, with no real time schedule to govern my thoughts or actions.” For Cadham, “It was the first time completely alone that I can remember.”

Day 9: The men packed their belongings and began the trek back to daily stress. The bus was waiting but no one wanted to get on it. Again they hugged and some cried. Back in the motel they resumed their identities, put on their watches, put back their wallets and credit cards. They left for the city and the airport. For Milner, with his crusty exterior, the retreat changed his way of thinking. “I cried, laughed, hurt and

talked my way to the surface again.” He is committed to stay there.

Cadham, the youngest of the group, had a chance “to see what it is like 15 years down the road. I don’t want to take that path.” He says he has vowed to retreat a few days each year for the rest of his life.

For Davies the course was rejuvenating. He feels confident and assured of his goals. He would like to do it again in another 10 years. Gates didn’t find anything new but he did make commit-

ments he will try to keep. Some vowed they would never repeat the experience, even though they found it useful. But the general opinion of the group is summed up in one journal entry which reads: “To my wife and children: your dad has been away from home for nine days. But he’s been gone for a long, long time. He’s home now. Your dad’s really come home.”