It's never happened before, but it was bound to...
As a human being who suffers from anxiety, the constant worry of doom shows up rather frequently in my life along with the implementation of tools and strategies to manage those red flag feelings. Because we all experience anxiety differently, it helps to know that mine goes hand in hand with a strong desire to pre-plan, the asking rhetorical and sincere "what if" questions to my hubs, double and triple checks "just to make sure," and of course, the occasional anxiety attack.
When that moment occurs, nothing feels as if it is in your control, and for us anxious ones, that's a big problem that only amplifies the experience. Fortunately, many of us are in safe spaces and can come off the edge of fear in the comfort of our homes, cars, or loved ones. When it happens in the mountains, that's an entirely different game to play. For me, my anxiety attack hit at the summit of the world's most dangerous "small" mountain this past July while my hubs and I were completing the Presidential Traverse for our 2 year anniversary, and this is what I learned.
Mount Washington, NH
A little background on this state highpoint. Mount Washington is located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and stands at 6,288 ft. It is right in the middle of the Presidential Traverse. which consists of 9-10 peaks, depending on your ambition. It's dubbed the most dangerous "small" mountain due to the unpredictable weather patterns that can turn a perfect summer day into hurricane-like conditions in a matter of minutes. It's claimed some pretty scary stats over the years that hikers aren't too keen to find out about, such as:
What Can You Do?
When I think back on all the of attacks I can recall vividly, one thing was constant in each: I was not at risk of dying. When this summit attack hit, everything was at risk not only for myself, but my husband as well.
The day was perfect up till our last summit for day 1, Mount Washington. We had successfully completed the Northern Presi Traverse, knocking out Mount Madison, Adams, Jefferson, and were making our way up Washington when I told Brian that we had to bail due to losing the sun. Even though the weather was perfect, we had no chance of making it off the mountain safely in daylight due to the amount of time it took us to get where we were. We had the exit plan in place and both agreed cutting the trip at the halfway point was the best call. At the summit of Mount Washington, there is the observatory and a restaurant. Visitors can drive to the summit and park or take the Cog Railway up to the top for a little view of the northern and southern peaks as they slowly pass hikers and thru-hikers on the AT making their way to the top. We agreed to call our emergency shuttle plan at the summit, but when we got there we had no cell service, there were no cars left in the lot, and the observatory and restaurant had closed. At that moment, I realized the severity of our situation as my husband calmly walked around checking doors to visitor booths and main entrances.
At 7:00 pm we reached the summit of Mount Washington and I found the trailhead signs giving milage to the backcountry campsite we originally planned to end day 1 at. We had no choice but to finish our hike this way, so we started making our way to Hermit Lake Shelter which was still about 2 hours away. The sun was starting to set and dark clouds rolled in as we were heading down Tuckerman's Ravine trail, an extremely dangerous and exposed section of hiking with countless stories of fatal falls. My adrenaline kicked in and I told Brian everything I feared would happen to us if we stayed put or continued on. I felt stuck between 2 situations that could result lack of shelter, safety, and possibly death. At that moment he took the lead and kept me talking as I looked for any sign of another hiker or campsite. Each vertical foot lost had me scanning the talas for another trail sign. When the setting sun made visibility worse, we took our headlamps out and continued on. Right away, my anxiety fell off as I realized just how much light my headlamp gave off and it completely subsided as we made our way below the tree line. At that moment, I started to finally feel the exhaustion my body took on after nearly 16 miles in 15 hours. After a final hour of hiking, we made it into camp, exhausted, hungry, and dehydrated but without injury.
There's Usually a Lesson
Even though this was my first anxiety attack on a summit, I know it won't be my last. For me, life can't stop for this part of who I am. Instead, you adapt and you learn so the amazing memories can continue to slip into your life. What I learned on this trip were 3 things I've since practiced both on and off trails:
1. Trust your gear
2. Rely on your adrenaline when you have it
3. Know when it's time to let go of being in charge