Trekking With a Panic Attack: My Triund Trek Experience
To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour…
Lines from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence run in circles in my head as I stand on the edge of the Triund summit. I’m gasping for air; stars of exhaustion dancing before my eyes. The 6km trek, which everybody said would be the easiest of ‘em all, has left my lungs on fire and my limbs in agony. My body tells me to fall flat on the grass and wheeze for my goddamn life. But, at the same time, I don’t quite want to move from where I’m standing right now.
Stretched out in front of me, in complete recluse, is the snow-patched Dhauladhar mountain range. Lying underneath a blanket of haze and pale blue skies. Between us, the earth dips into a killer ravine; fall from here, and my bones will crack like a china cup. Almost all of it filled with lush green canopies swaying in the late afternoon breeze.
Stretched out in front of me is a live painting, drawn by the hands of a god I’ve never met. And looking at it, I ask myself, was this experience worth the climb up a mountain through a hailstorm...and a teetering anxiety attack?
Let’s rewind and find out.
High Hopes And Bad Memories
So, the day before my friend Vivek and I set out for our Triund trek, we hiked to the Waterfall Cafe — the lesser-known cousin in the family of treks at Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. While excited trekkers pooled around the checking point for Triund near the Gallu temple, Vivek and I headed left, over this twig of a gate, to our journey across three mountains to get to this ‘waterfall cafe’.
This was technically my first trek ever. And if you ask Vivek today, he’ll most likely be kind enough to deny all the trouble I caused him. Probably even the time when I threw my hands up and refused to walk across a steep bed of rocks which had formed as a result of a landslide. Honest to god, I wouldn’t have held it against Vivek had he chosen to drop me and walk. We were on a 3-hour trek, in the middle of nowhere, and what I was doing could’ve easily been taken as a tantrum.
Because, at this point, Vivek didn’t know that steep slopes trigger in me an irrational fear planted by my childhood experience of being thrown down a flight of stairs.
The good friend that he is, Vivek walked back across this bed of rocks and started giving me one of his never-ending pep talks until I gave in and agreed to walk the plank — I mean, across the rocks. I pretty much recreated the iconic scene of Aamir Khan walking a tightrope in Ishq while doing so.
But this was only the beginning.
All Was Well — And Then, It Wasn’t
The next day, I woke up with sore muscles and a realisation — anxiety was getting the best of me.
After a sumptuous breakfast of Nutella pancakes, cheese paratha and masala chai at the incredible Himalayan Cafe, we headed for the Triund base camp, tailed by few other campers and some much-learned dogs as navigators. Finally, around 10 in the morning, our trek up the Triund trail began. Twenty minutes in, I was regretting every life choice I’d ever made as a couch potato.
Exhaustion and cramping leg muscles weren’t the worst of my enemies at this point. The higher we climbed, the tighter the invisible belt around my chest grew. I knew this feeling — it was something that I got in small, enclosed places, or when natural disasters hit, or when my dad raised his voice. But I was on a mountain road — it does not get more open and airy than that. The earth under my feet wasn’t shaking and I was a thousand miles away from my dad’s temper.
So, why was this sense of panic starting to snarl its way up my throat? It didn't make any sense. Was it the height? The fear of falling? Worry that I was far away from the safety of my home? I stayed away from the edge of the mountain road to humour myself. But that helped little.
All I knew was that my racing heartbeat had less to do with the physical exertion and more with the unjustifiable sense of fear that I was in danger.
Honestly, at this point, I was more pissed and ashamed of myself than sorry. Kids ten years younger than me, women in high heels, were running past me up the mountain in a merry mood. And I was shaking in my sensible shoes! When did I, who used to jump aboard running trains and travel on the steps of Kolkata’s dilapidated public buses, become so scared in life?
I paused every 10 minutes to catch my breath, blaming it on exhaustion. Secretly, I was planning my flight.
A Slippery Slope, Thanks to the Hailstorm
Whether it was my stubbornness, refusal to give up or simply the embarrassment of admitting that I was teetering on a full-blown anxiety attack, I don’t know, but I kept going. And just as I started to feel a little better when three-fourths of the trek was over, dark grey clouds clustered over our heads. Within seconds, rain came pouring down on us with a vengeance. And along came a shower of icy little rocks that made the rain feel like stone-pelting.
But why, the tiny suckers were hails! And as we ran to a thatched-roof Maggi stall for shelter, the rain turned into a full-blown hailstorm.
It wasn’t anything life-threatening, even I knew that. Every other trekker huddled in the tea stall was chilling, enjoying the exceptional scene of rain and storm washing down the side of a mountain. I, meanwhile, struggled to keep my face expressionless. You see, my pride, in times of an anxiety or panic attack, doubles. The second priority on my list in such crisis is my rendition of Dory’s mantra — just keep breathing, just keep breathing!
While the storm eventually died down, the hail had made the mountain road even more treacherous. The trek that was now just beginning to get difficult for others turned into a nightmare for me. My legs shaking like jelly in a bowl, ears ringing like there was a banshee shacking up in my head. Every sinew in my body was protesting with a danger warning.
But here’s the thing. Panic/anxiety disorder, more often than not, cries wolf. And I knew that better than anyone.
So, grinding my teeth and chanting the Hail Mary, I kept climbing the mountain for another hour. And just as the panic began to push me towards a black out, we reached the Triund summit.
To this day, I never told anyone that I had trekked Triund through an anxiety attack. Why should I? That’s not strongest memory I came home with from the trek.
So to answer the question we began with, was it worth it?
Standing on the edge of the Triund summit, I say, “Hell, yeah!”