‘It’s the Mountains You Climb in Your Head’: Jebel Toubkal to Todra Gorge

A wise woman once said to me, ‘It’s the mountains you climb in your head that are the hardest.’ I was sitting on the edge of a bed, hyperventilating into a paper bag. It sounds like a scene from a film: bare, apricot-coloured room, Tinerhir, Morocco, 2010, 17-year-old girl has first panic attack. But it was a reality.

The wise woman was our group counsellor, Liz. I was on my first real adventure away from my family. I’d been on girls’ holidays before, but this was different. We had already spent a week in the high Atlas Mountains south of Marrakesh, acclimatising ourselves with hikes to waterfalls followed by nights sleeping under the stars and being woken by the 4am call to prayer from the village across the valley. The following night we didn’t sleep at all but lay on the roof of the hotel listening to the sounds of a wedding floating across the valley until 4am. After that, we had spent a day hiking to the base camp at the foot of Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa at 4,167 meters. We began our ascent before dawn the following day, and we reached the metal pyramid at the mountain’s summit just in time to be attacked by an onslaught of hailstones. This was followed by a dramatic descent, our guide having left us. It rained the entire way, and our group leader did his best to keep up the dampened spirits of the twenty teenage girls he had to lead down the mountain. Needless to say we all made it in the end, albeit tired, soggy and with little sense of humour remaining as we crossed over the little stream at the foot of the mountain and were welcomed back to base camp with hot chocolate and warm food.

You might be wondering how I had survived all of this before the panic attack arrived. Truth be told, there had already been a few hairy moments but nothing like the paper bag incident. We arrived in Tinerhir in the middle of our trip and crossed paths with the other group, who had already done the Todra Gorge and Berber village trek we were about to embark on. They spent the entire previous evening complaining about the trek and telling us how awful it was — digging your own trench toilet every day, eating and sleeping amidst the flies, the bugs, the heat, the spiders…let your imagination run away with you. After all, what don’t 17-year-old girls hate about trekking through the desert for a week? Especially when it’s their first time away from home with no phone calls to mum and dad, no make-up, no Facebook, a very limited variety of food (the lack of pizza in particular was an issue), and only one shower a week.

Being thrown into this from our comfortable realities was the culture shock us teenage girls needed to teach us a thing or two about life, or at least to set in motion ideas that might take years to mature, such as the one that’s on my mind right now. Just today, a whole six years on from the paper bag incident (we won’t mention subsequent such moments), I was chatting to a friend about her recent trip to Nepal. While she was there she trekked for seven days in the Himalayas. Hard-core, carrying pots and pans and tents on your back, trekking. Out there in nature’s beauty and wildness, feeling the weight of that pack and the endless miles before her, she experienced her first panic attack.

As she was telling me this story I remembered several experiences of facing myself whilst I was confronting nature, moments in which the great empty spaces of the world forced me to face my deepest thoughts and fears. Out there, we weren’t just climbing the mountains under our feet but, just as Liz had said, we were also climbing those mountains in our heads. The mountains that loomed in our nightmares telling us we weren’t brave enough to scale the edge, or fit enough for the steep incline, the mountains that seemed to be an ever-growing indication of our weaknesses, always towering above us. The silence of the mountain forced us to consider everything that hadn’t gone our way — why did bad things happen to us, when would our luck change, when would life leave us alone and stop throwing problems at us?

I started to wonder why it is that walking in the wild does this to us. Perhaps it is because the mountain always has a summit, and if we chose to push past our fears and self-doubt, if we chose courage and determination, we will make it to the top. Once my panic attack was over, we set off on our next trek, clambering over ever-growing sand dunes, and kicking desert plants that sounded like rattlesnakes. The long hours of walking were interrupted by eating under the shade of the trees or sleeping in the shelter of a cave during the heat of the day. By the end of it all, half of us were so sick we could barely walk, but we carried each other to the airport and back home to our waiting parents.

Getting to the mountaintop makes us realise that we have the strength within us to reach the summits of those mountains in our heads too — to choose to see life as providing us with opportunities and lessons, rather than hopeless rainstorms. So we keep climbing those mountains, and crushing fear and doubt with every step.

Originally published at www.exploration-online.com on October 12, 2016.