McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Students find confidence and willpower on Canadian mountain

Published: July 24, 2017
CE&B now HEI

Herman Johal, Mark Phillips, Tina Kucava, Tahira Devji, Faiz Bhatia and Professor Mohit Bhandari on Mount Temple in Lake Louise, Alta.

There's a famous saying that life is a journey, not a destination.

Mohit Bhandari, professor and head of orthopaedic surgery at McMaster, aimed to take this mantra and put it into action during a one-day team-building excursion with three of his graduate students and two of their partners in the Canadian Rockies.

The group spent July 14 climbing Mount Temple, which is billed as the highest peak in the Lake Louise area in Alberta.

After seven gruelling hours and 11,200 feet, the group arrived at what they called their summit, 600 feet from the top.

"I've been teaching in the department for more than a decade now and the big challenge I've always found is how we get the next generation of these bright minds to take more risks than they do," said Bhandari, Canada Research Chair in Evidence-Based Orthopaedics and a rookie mountain climber.

"We need to put students in a situation where teamwork is necessary, where they are outside of their comfort zone and where failure is possible."

Bhandari has built on the concept of group retreats and team building exercises for his graduate students over the past six years. What started off as dinners slowly evolved into outdoor meetings he calls #virtualoffice, which incorporate physical activities like walking.

When he decided to plan a summer retreat that took things to the next level, he set a number of parameters. The first was that the students would have to pay their own way, the second was finding a location removed from their familiar setting and the third was choosing something that would be unattainable.

"Failure can be a tough thing, but I believe if you want to become a master at anything, you will have to fail more times than any beginner," he said. "You have to push yourself and move forward. I knew there were not any experienced mountain climbers in the group, so it seemed a natural choice."

Tahira Devji, a PhD candidate in the Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence, and Impact, and her partner Faiz Bhatia, were part of Bhandari's climbing team.

She said most of her first hour of the guided climb, which started at 7:30 a.m., was filled with doubt. 

 "They gave me hiking poles, a large backpack, harness, helmet and ice picks for this 12-hour climb and I worried what I had gotten myself into," she said.

"The first 45 minutes were incredibly challenging mentally and physically. I didn't think I could do it and thought about quitting. The fear of attempting something of that magnitude is quite daunting."  

Buoyed by positive encouragement from her team and her own willpower, Devji made it through the following 12 hours. She said it was irrelevant they did not get to the top of Mount Temple.

"It was not about reaching the summit, it was about having the goal of reaching the summit," she said. "It is often the journey where you learn the most about yourself and see the opportunity for self-growth. That's applicable to both my professional and personal life."

Mark Phillips, an MSc candidate, said the experience was life-altering.

"I far exceeded my personal perception of my abilities in succeeding on the climb, which made me look back and realize that I had no basis for wanting to back out other than the fear of trying something new and out of my comfort zone," said Phillips, who was joined by partner Tina Kucava.

"The day also taught me the power of personal motivation and determination. That feeling of striving towards accomplishment is a trait that I hope to utilize in my professional career."

Bhandari said his students are taking the lead for the next excursion.

"When we got down from our summit, we were sunburnt and tired and limping, but the next day I started getting emails from the students asking what was next," he said.

"I told them that they will have to plan their next big adventure. They are going to live a life that is full of challenges and now they know they can push further. That's what I wanted for them."

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