My Panic Attack on the Mountain
Updated: Aug 18, 2022
The thunder snapped, like a giant popping his knuckles. I jumped, my heart racing.
Turning around, I saw a sight that made my heart drop to my REI-purchased hiking boots. A giant black storm cloud was rapidly overtaking the next peak, headed our way.
“One, two, three, four, five, six…okay, six miles away. That’s not close. That’s not close.”
I instantly reverted to my fourth-grade self, using the very scientific method of counting seconds between thunder and lightning to gauge how far away the storm was. I wondered if maybe in Italy, I should be measuring in kilometers, something I could never convert effectively.
Debbie and I stopped to cover our backpacks with our rain covers, and donned our rain coats. So far we’d been lucky: besides a light shower we quickly got out of, the weather had been fantastic on our week in the Dolomites.
I felt our luck had run out.
The fact that we had already had a long day trekking from Prolongia to just below Lagazuoi, where we’d hoped to get accommodations for the night, added to my stress. No such luck. I cursed my effort to be easy, breezy when I agreed with Debbie that we’d wing it instead of making reservations.
Back at the base of Lagazuoi, we’d plopped down outside of the gift shop/café and called Rifugio Nuvolau to see if there were beds available. There were, but the owner, a Canadian, our Dolomite tour book told us, urged us to be there by 5 pm. It was 3 pm, and we’d just sat down with food and beer. It would only take an hour and a half, she said.
Days before we’d learned not to take anyone’s estimate for hiking time into consideration. Every time we saw a sign that told us it would take just an hour and a half to a spot, it took us three hours. (We decided they timed professional hikers for those signs, not Americans carrying 20-pound backpacks who were unaccustomed to altitude).
So I wasn’t comfortable with our odds of arriving on time. And I hate being late.
As we walked as fast as we could away from civilization and into the mountains, I fantasized that the stern Canadian would lock the doors and forbid us from entering. We’d have to sleep shivering outside. I sped up.
By the time the storm bubbled over the mountain, I was tired and stressed, with probably another 2 hours of hiking – completely uphill, by the looks of it – ahead of us. The storm wasn’t easing my anxiety.
Carrying hiking poles, I realized, was like carrying lightning rods. Rain I could handle, but damn if I was going to be struck by lightning and die on a mountain in Italy. I had a nonrefundable yoga retreat I’d paid for!
As I walked like a turtle on caffeine behind Debbie, I began panting. After a few minutes, I realized my breathing was overkill for the incline. That’s when it occurred to me that I was hyperventilating. When I saw what looked like a rock slide in our path and spied the trail marker along the way, I lost it.
Full-on panic attack.
Debbie, realizing that I was not okay, sat me on a rock. I couldn’t even talk to explain that while I knew in my mind that being in a storm was not the end of the world, my body couldn’t jibe with that thought. My body was shutting down. No more. I’m done. Just bury me under that rock right there and save yourself.
I’d never had a panic attack before, I thought, but then I dislodged the memory, seven months ago, of my actual first panic attack. The end of my marriage. A day I’d rather not relive, but there I was, sitting on a rock in the middle of Italy, a storm speeding my way, and I was back there, curled in a ball, unable to get ahold of myself as my life shattered into a million pieces.
That wasn’t going to happen again, I willed. I’d survived the impossible since that moment when everything in my life pivoted, and I would survive this.
Debbie gave me electrolyte water and nuts, and my body regulated itself. Not wanting to let the storm get any closer, I waved her on, took a deep breath, and marched on.
I took one step. Then another. And another. I focused just on the rock in front of me. I didn’t look up to see how much further we had to go to reach the crest. I worried if I saw, I’d break down again. I began chanting in my head “I am here. I am here.”
Storm or not, I was exactly where I wanted to be. In the Dolomites, hiking with a friend. Moving forward with my life, though the formula had changed. Finding peace within myself.
I am here.
When we walked on a narrow trail just inches from the edge of a cliff, I regained my focus. I shut out thoughts of what would happen if I slid down, out of reach. The pressing storm nudged me on.
When we spied the rifugio, it was so high up another mountain, my inner tantrum toddler wanted to give up, but I used the sight of it as motivation to keep going. Up, up, up we climbed, and when we finally reached the top, I understood why people kiss solid ground when they arrive somewhere by boat. I’d been in tumultuous seas, battling with the choppy waves of my mind, and I’d finally gotten to shore.
I didn’t even mind that there was an outdoor squat toilet and no shower.
You know what the funniest part is? It never rained on us. But elsewhere, our fellow hikers were pelted by golfball-sized hail. Maybe we were lucky after all.