We were taking a break on a rocky outcropping at 13,400 ft when I was hit by a terrible headache. My temples throbbed as my heart pounded in my head. The pressure was sudden and acute. I felt as if my blood vessels might burst.
“Vamos,” our guide said. “Time to go.”
We were on day two of a three-day trek across the Andes that would take us across twenty miles and up to 15,600 ft. We had already ascended about 1000 ft that morning, but had twice as far to go until we hit the summit of Sicllaccasa Mountain, before we could begin the sharp descent to our camp for the night.
I’d spent months preparing for this trek, hiking seven or eight hilly miles every weekend day. But I soon realized that no amount of exercise at sea level was going to help me breathe freely at that altitude, and all of my “training” seemed naïve, absurd. I got winded after walking only short distances, my heart hammering in my chest. I just couldn’t catch my breath.
All around me, other members of my group were taking swigs from their water bottles and zipping up their backpacks, ready to get back on the trail. I remained where I was with my head in my hands, trying not to panic. I couldn’t stand up, let alone resume our breathless hike up the mountain. My fingers and toes prickled with sharp pins and needles as anxiety washed over me. What if I physically couldn’t go on? What would happen to me? Certainly they couldn’t leave me behind. But was it too late to turn back? Could I even make the trek back down the mountain? And how mortified would I be to give up? To FAIL? What would everyone think of me?
As my panic increased, so did my heart rate and the pain in my head. I had to do something.
I fished through my backpack for some ibuprofen, and then managed to get to my feet and seek out our guide, Gerson.
“Do you have anymore magic potion?” I asked, referring to the golden liquid that acted essentially as herbal smelling salts, calming both the mind and the belly. He had passed it around on the bumpy ride to the trailhead.
Gerson eyed me carefully. “How are you feeling?”
“My head hurts,” I whispered, grateful that my sunglasses disguised the tears welling up in my eyes.
He nodded. “Ah, okay. You’ll be okay. Just take your time and keep breathing.”
I would have laughed if I wasn’t on the verge of tears. Keep breathing? I could barely think of anything else.
But I closed my eyes and tried to marshal all of my yoga Zen to calm my breathing, to slow down my heart. To stop the pounding in my head. And after a moment, it started to work.
“Ready to go?” Gerson asked a couple minutes later. And to my surprise, I was.
In less than five minutes, I had gone from a state of total panic to an unexpected but welcome sense of peace.
You got this, I told myself.
I continued my yoga breathing, repeating “slow and steady” over and over again in my head, until I found my rhythm. Until I found my breath.
We made it to the summit about three hours later, exhausted but exhilarated and a little delirious from the lack of oxygen. The wind whipped through my hair and clothes, and my eyes filled with tears due to the cold, a powerful sense of triumph, and the beauty of the snow-capped peaks and the valley far below. I was so damn happy to be there.
(Note to self: Whatever happens, DON’T PANIC. Just take your time and keep breathing.)