Mountain Air


Mountain Air is a podcast about outdoor people. In this series, produced especially for UKHillwalking, Dan Aspel talks with a range of fascinating interviewees, from unlikely adventurers and high achieving enthusiasts, to dedicated professionals in the outdoor industry. Each episode focuses on a different individual with a unique tale to tell. They all have one thing in common: a love of places high, wild, and free.

17. Maria Granberg on Pain Caves and Sufferfests

In the latest episode of Mountain Air we meet mountaineer, behavioural scientist, therapist and motivational speaker Maria Granberg whose achievements so far include climbing Manaslu (8,163m), and becoming only the second Swedish woman to summit Everest (8,848m) via its North Face.

My strength is my curiosity, and being pretty good at suffering

However, it's the work that Maria undertakes off the mountain that truly defines her character on it. As a behavioural scientist, she has an abiding interest in how each of us faces suffering, learns to confront our fears, and masters that ever-elusive goal of being "present" in any given moment. These are themes that Maria routinely encounters on her expeditions, which include such challenges as: severe and consistent sleep deprivation, migraines, cramping muscles and a failing digestive system, as well as cognitive impairment from oxygen deprivation - a list of disturbing hardships which she handily condenses into the phrase: "the pain cave".

Yet, to hear Maria speak about her experiences above 7,000m altitude (much of which is spent deep inside "the cave") is to encounter a charming dissonance: she often smiles as she describes them. In this interview, she shares her journey to become the expedition climber that she is today, which includes enduring the stress and competition of teenage athletics, living amongst alcohol abuse, overcoming deep depression, and being rescued from it all by the discovery of thin air and high altitude on Tanzania's Kilimanjaro (5,892m).

at high altitude you have to shed all ego and enter a space in yourself which is more about surrendering

Since that point her love of high and remote places has taken her back to Africa to lead climbs, on a "month-long sufferfest in Kyrgyzstan" (in which she lost 15kg but gained some of the most enduring memories of her life), to pursue qualification and to help heal others as a professional psychotherapist, and to discovery humility, "sheer presence" and the art of "blissful dissatisfaction" in all the places she's discovered along the way. 

Hear about all of this and more in Mountain Air Series 3, Episode 7:

00:00 - Introduction

Welcome, moving to the mountains, outdoor life in the town of Åre ("the Swedish Tahoe")

06:53 - Growing up a swimmer an outdoor kid in a 250-person mining village ("I didn't know a single person who did mountaineering, or had even climbed a mountain"), using athletics to "grow and learn" as a teenager and young person. Getting derailed by severe depression. Moving to Tanzania and discovering climbing on Kilimanjaro

10:13 - "Something clicked, and when I came back home I got obsessed with high altitude"

11:06 - Being a sensitive child: "I have a very close relationship with my fears. I get adrenaline very, very easily". Tackling fears through repetitive exposure: "I couldn't accept the fact of a feeling holding me back from something that I wanted to do"

14:38 - The pressure of "striving to become the next version of yourself", to prove yourself all the time. Growing up amongst alcohol abuse, and developing eating issues. Using sports and performance to "compensate for not having a deeper sense of self, and value of self"

19:53 - "I knew what pushing myself really hard felt like, because I had done that most of my life. But entering high altitude… reluctantly you have to shed all ego and enter a space in yourself which is more about surrendering. It was really new to me, and I liked not having the control. Having to let go of the control I was used to having in athletic.

22:08 - "It was one of the most humbling experiences I've ever had, and a coming home to sheer presence"

23:03 - "It was excruciating" (with a smile)

23:55 - "My strength is my curiosity, and being pretty good at suffering. I like the suffering. I like when I get to that point because I know the gifts of suffering. So I discovered in high altitude that 'this is my jam'"

26:33 - "A reckoning with the ambivalence of life"

28:28 - Studying to become a behavioural scientist, gaining climbing experience, pursuing expeditions, guiding on Kilimanjaro, 6,000m+ climbing in Kyrgyzstan, learning from the most experienced people, a "six year plan"

32:28 - "I didn't just gain a life partner, I gained a climbing partner as well… if you see a guy with a big red beard and a loud laugh that is a good cue that it's him"

34:58 - Pursuing psychotherapy qualifications alongside mountain ambitions

37:13 - "Having a spotlight on me is something that I've never truly been comfortable with", contrasted with sitting in a therapy room and it being entirely about the other person

42:18 - The anxiety of building a career and then stepping away from it in case it all vanishes

44:03 - The best part of a day as a therapist, and the best part of a day filming in the high mountains: living in the moment and feeling sincere connections with others

49:18 - "Chasing another moment" and learning to seek "blissful dissatisfaction", getting into meditation and yoga when I was about 19, 20… and it was the worst experience of my life", taking 10 years to learn to come to an activity without any specific goals 

56:48 - Explaining the "pain cave" of acclimatising to high altitude mountaineering: "in the beginning it feels like a fight, and now it feels like a painful dance". Migraines, sleepless days and nights, which begin again above 7,000m 

59:38 - "I'd eaten an apple and half a power bar in 72hrs. I went up in the middle of the night heading towards the summit and every step I took felt like a max deadlift. I felt like I weighed two tonnes, and my stomach was in cramps. I knew it was not dangerous. It was hard, but not dangerous. I stayed in it for around 5hrs", watching out for times when you might be cognitively impaired

62:38 - "There are different sufferfests depending on where you are in the expedition"

65:00 - Greatest mountain memory: avalanches, glacier cracks and losing 15kgs on a month-long sufferfest in Kyrgyzstan… but also digging "snow sofas" in total isolation in pristine mountain landscapes

67:38 - All the time, money, freedom… where would you go and what would you do? "I would pack my paraglider, go into the mountains and just learn everything I can from everyone, everywhere"

In the beginning it felt like a fight, and now it feels like a painful dance

Interview recorded 29/04/24

Mountain Air

Mountain Air podcast is made, recorded, hosted, edited, released and occasionally sworn at by Dan Aspel (he didn't, however, do the theme tune). This is the third series Dan has produced, and the second to be made in partnership with UKHillwalking. We'll be publishing regular episodes over the next few months.


Instagram: @mountainairpodcast

Twitter: @MtnAirPod

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