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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts


How to Get Rid of Vertigo

February 2022

In 1965 I moved from Edinburgh, Scotland to Oregon, sight unseen. Still footloose and free, I decided that the best way to get rid of vertigo was to climb mountains. Surely climbing with a small group of people would give me the exposure to heights, angles, and slopes. I wanted people around me since I was a climbing novice and might need reassurance or even assistance when vertigo struck. I needed to free myself of the silly dizziness and wobbling visions that sometimes existed in my head. It didn’t work, but I still climbed a few mountains.

Living in Eugene and knowing no one, I joined a climbing group, the Obsidian Club. While a goal for many of the members, I had no plan to summit Oregon’s ten peaks. I just wanted the exercise, vistas, and to get rid vertigo. Mountain climbs start in the dark of morning in order to be off the mountain when the day warms.

The first mountain I climbed, or attempted to, was Mt. Hood, its summit 11,249. We started at the lodge, which is at 6,000 feet. The climb would be 5,249, or a vertical mile, to the summit. We left at 2:00 a.m. to be back down twelve hours later. We were, but I came back a little earlier. I wore blue jeans, a bad choice for the climb as they get stiff when cold, thus making me cold. Never wear blue jeans to climb. The sweater, gloves, hat, and jacket worked well though. I turned back shortly before the large crevasse just below the summit. If I’d known how close we were to the top, I’d have continued. Next time. I remember walking down by myself in clear daylight hours.

I waited in the Lodge for the others to return about an hour later. I was 24, naďve and ignorant. I loved the experience of being outdoors, moving in the dark, watching the dim sky turn to day. Beautiful, I’ve always liked the change at dawn or dusk. Climbing was easy. Why not do this? Why didn’t I climb any of the mountains in Scotland? Did I consider them mere hills at slightly over 4,000 feet, therefore, unworthy? After all, I’d moved to Scotland from Colorado. I did a lot of solo hiking in Scotland, once walking from Edinburgh to the west coast, then heading to the north, about two weeks worth. I relished the silence and solitude.

I had good leather boots my brother had given me for a present. He had told me to soak them in water overnight, then hike in them the next morning. This way, they’d take to the shape of my foot. Someone else told me to walk the first time in wet grass, that that would soften my new boots to the shape of my foot. I did both. One evening I filled the boots with water and put them in a pan. The next morning I donned my soaked boots and walked up Edinburgh Arthur’s Seat in dewy grass. What a view—the new and old cities of Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth, the bridge across it, the countryside out of town. Once the mist lifted, it was a clear day of blue sky. I was alone and felt it. I knew no one other than a few fellow students.

I was alone but not lonely, just relishing being alone. I had my boots from my brother and was at university in a beautiful country. It would be ten months later I’d decide to take a train up north to hike the Highlands for two weeks in these wonderful blue suede boots. Each day of hiking I took an apple, perhaps a piece of cheese, and a quart of tea. I had arrived in heaven. My feet were wet at the end of each day. I hiked cross-country, off the road and across the bogs as I headed west to the other coast. I tried to step on grassy or heather hummocks, but occasionally landed in the water of the peat bogs. Teatime was tea, and the meal I remember best was fried eggs, fried tomatoes, fried bananas, sausage, and toast. Perhaps a McVitie’s digestive biscuit ended the meal as I headed off to bed. Or was the fried eggs, tomatoes, sausage, fried bananas, and toast the next morning’s breakfast? It doesn’t matter. It was my signature meal. When I have it today, minus the bananas, I prefer green tomatoes not red ones.

Walking the west coast, often along the sea, I came to the village of Achiltibuie. I fell in love, with the town and its environs. A university friend suggested I visit his relatives while there. His aunt, or was it a cousin of his parents, taught in the small school and lived with her mother on the rise just north of town, Polbain. I fell in love again. If a man had walked up to me and said, “Will you marry me and live here for the rest of your life?” I’d have said, “Yes. What’s your name?”

A year later, on a whim, I moved 7,000 miles away. I’d moved to Scotland on a whim. Why not Oregon? There the mountains were just that—mountains worthy of climbing. I thought it would be an excellent way to get rid of vertigo. Face it straight on. The second time I climbed Mt. Hood, I reached the summit. The vertigo problem occurred as I crossed the ice bridge over the crevasse. I don’t remember anyone coaxing me across, but I do remember pausing in its middle to look. I needed to put the mountain surface, terrain, and the varying crevasse depths that I could see in perspective. I needed to make sure I saw the mountain scape as it was. I didn’t want a hundred feet to suddenly become ten feet and flip back and forth. Everything had to stay in its proper place and hundreds of feet down wasn’t one foot down. I needed to be sure the mountain was still and not about to move side to side or change its verticality. What I learned was that when I stopped long enough to put the immediate geography in its proper place, then it stayed motionless. This is why I wanted to climb mountains, to learn to adjust the plane to its flatness or slope, to learn to judge the slope’s depth or steepness. I learned to do that and I learned that I had to do that on each climb or steep trek. That was how my learning generalized. Each slope or crevasse was different and I had to treat it as such.

Sometime that summer the Obsidian Club did some practice rock climbing. That did not go as well. At one point, I, like everyone else had done, needed to straddle a boulder and edge around it. Standing on the narrow ledge, arms hugging the portion of the boulder I could reach, fingertips in the small crevices of rock, I froze. Back the way I had come or forward should have been options, but neither was. I couldn’t move. The boulder didn’t move, but everything around it did. I couldn’t look down to gain perspective or I might have fallen tens of feet. I couldn’t look left or right or the rock began to move. I stayed where I was. I’d climbed many a tree, but a rock on the side of a hill is not a tree. Perhaps it was the comfort of being surrounded by the branches. When climbing a particular tree the first time, I investigated where the next branch was for a foot or hand. Could I reach that far? Could I hoist myself up or down? If I couldn’t reach the branch, would my arms support me as I swung in the air to reach it?

No, distance wasn’t the only factor. I tried, and did, climb a steep hill of Alaska’s Goatherd Mountain above Lowell Lake, but I had to pause to see if a little valley was twenty feet or a hundred feet down. All the way up, I paused to look, paused to get the land in perspective making sure rocks, possible trails, shallow or deep ravines stayed where they were. On the way down, I scrambled because I had seen the different levels of terrain and my body now knew the route. Once again, forty years later, that was the problem—getting differences in terrain to stay where they belonged. Climbing a rock face, though, there is nothing to locate my perspective. Small handholds continued to perform figure-ground flips too rapidly to stop them. I’ve not had snow or ice do that.

(To be continued 1 March 2022)

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