One day last September, Ann Halloran made her way to her nearest bus stop in Hove, East Sussex, with a 15kg rucksack. She had done plenty of travelling but, at 65, was setting off alone on her first backpacking adventure. Somewhere between her first stop in Turkey and her final destination – a yoga retreat in Mazunte, Mexico – she found a new perspective.
In Nepal, climbing the 5,400m (17,575ft) Gokyo Ri in the Himalayas, Halloran broke her walking stick. She has osteoporosis, which makes bones more likely to break, so the stick was an essential piece of trekking kit in the mountains. Losing it was a blow, but she found reserves of inner strength: “I challenged myself,” she says. The setback was surmountable, a new stick was found. “It gave me confidence that at my age I could go up to that height.” Now, she says: “Whenever I get scared, I think of myself on top of that mountain, looking out over Lake Gokyo – and beyond that, Everest. I say, if you can do that, you can do anything.”
Halloran’s career in HR has enabled her to pick up tools for personal growth. “I always told my kids about the comfort zone,” she says. “You’ve got to keep stretching it all the time. As you get older, that’s even more important because you get more fearful, and I want to fight against that.”
Now 66, Halloran has loved mountains since she was five or six, when her mother took her to Ireland, to visit family in County Kerry during the summer holidays. They lived overlooking Annascaul lake on the Dingle peninsula. “It’s a lovely viewpoint. I used to sit there as a child. I loved the freedom of going up the mountain alone, when I was nine or 10. I cried for days going back to London because I felt I was in a rabbit hutch.”
At 23, she moved to Bellharbour, County Clare, where her uncle had a farm “on the side of the mountain”. She worked in Galway, “where the multinationals were just setting up”, and began to specialise in talent management and leadership programmes. In the evenings after work she would climb up the mountain.
It was around this time that Halloran met her husband, a farmer, and they married a few years later before starting a family. Life settled into a comfortable rhythm. But then their four-year-old son died in a car accident; six years later, her husband died.
Halloran was 42, and her children three, five and seven. Looking back, she can see that she took refuge in work. After the loss of her son, she “became a workaholic. The week he died, I went back to work. I started at 5am, and worked until eight in the evening. I’d put the kids to bed, then go into the office at 10pm and work till 2am. It was my stability.”
She worked as a self-employed HR consultant so that she could take two months off every summer to travel with the children. She took them to France, Spain, Seattle, New York and Vancouver.
Since the backpacking adventure, she understands more fully the role that work played in her life for so long. “Work was reliable. I knew what I was doing. I’m a workaholic to this day,” she says. “I’ve just realised on this yoga retreat that I have to let go of all that. The penny is dropping for me now.”
It was in Mazunte, where Halloran was one of 35 people on the yoga retreat, that one of her fellow participants suddenly became ill with a rare and potentially life-threatening condition. Halloran busied herself during meditation sessions by evaluating the centre’s systems. “I wanted to sort it all out,” she says. Then she realised that no one else was thinking about the practicalities – and it was a revelation. “All these people around me were so in touch with their emotions – and I was thinking about policies and procedures. They were feeling the emotions of this person. I knew I had [the capacity], but it was buried. It was interesting to watch myself,” she says.
Along with the sudden insight, she felt a growing self-awareness “which I’ve never had before”. It was always: “Make enough. Bring up the children. Get enough in the pension.”
Meditation presented a different sort of challenge: she has had to slow herself down.
“I don’t regret it,” Halloran says of the work ethic that carried her through life for so long. But, as she has travelled and met new people, most of them under 40, and made plans to reconnect on subsequent trips, something has changed. “From now on, in the few years I’ve got left, I want to shift. Shift a bit,” she says. “I feel as if I’ve washed up on the shore and it’s a new venture.”