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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

How to Get Rid of Vertigo, Part 2

April 2022

I intended this post for March 1, but Russia’s attack on Ukraine changed that. On two trips I spent a month in Ukraine, and I like the country and its people. I plan to return when it’s quieter.  I also spent two months in Russia on three different trips. I like Russia and its people also. What began this interest was an English translation of the poetry of Anna Akhmatova. Wanting to read the original, I learned Russian. All this is the reason my March blog was about Ukraine and my trips there. Now I want to learn Ukrainian also.

Here I finish the blog of February 1, How to Get Rid of Vertigo, beginning with the last paragraph of the February blog.

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.

These days I occasionally run into this vertigo problem in the High Mountain Desert of Eastern Oregon’s Outback. When the trail is along the side of the hill, I’m fine as long as the mountain goes up on one side and trees are on the other side between the foot drop to the valley floor and me. If there are no trees, I slow down and lean into the rise of the hill. Looking down to get perspective does not help for as soon as I look back at the trail, the valley floor starts to move up and down or across the valley repeatedly. “Oh stay put” doesn’t help. The Mill Creek Trail was a good hike, but not one I’ll do again. It had too many places of no trees as the hillside sloped to the floor 600 feet below.  

The Crane Mountain hike from the south approach to the summit had one short stretch about seventy-five feet wide. I stopped to assess and stabilize the drop-off on each side before walking across. At the end of the day’s hike, I set up the tent, fixed supper, then headed to the site of the former lookout building, feet from the edge of the 4,500-foot drop to the valley floor.

I stood in the view of Goose Lake Valley that stretched forty miles to the south into California’s mountains. Fifty miles to the north lay Abert Rim, the longest exposed geologic fault in North America, 2,500 feet above its valley floor. This is an overlook where about 50 feet from the rim, I still drop to my knees and crawl to the rim’s edge. I love the view, but don’t want to stand too close or I get dizzy and feel I could topple over. I don’t know what made me feel secure on the rim of Crane Mountain’s lookout, perhaps just weariness of the day’s hike and looking forward to a good sleep.

The greatest probability for vertigo occurred on one of the mountains I climbed when I was 24. Mount St. Helens. It was 1965 and the whole mountain was glaciated. Its volcanic eruption that would instantly melt the glacier lay fifteen years in the future. That was my favorite climb. With the ice and snow of its glacier, we ascended across a crevasse field. I loved it! Better even than South Sister which is a scree field of two steps forward and one slide back. No vertigo, just a long uphill climb, almost boring. But on Mt. St. Helens, I felt in my element and had no fear or vertigo as we climbed. I even like the word crevasse!

Roped between Brian, my age and our lead, and Clarence, a man about 65, we ascended through the crevasse field. The small ones we stepped across, something I now realize was probably not wise. Those too big to cross, we walked around. Brian stepped across one. He told me not to, that he barely made it, but stubborn me, I placed my right foot uphill. I did the split. One foot reached the uphill side while the other stayed on the downhill side. I had no leverage to push off with my downhill foot. I had one option. Jump into the crevasse. Brian and Clarence self-arrested and with their firm grips, Brian told me to jump into the opening. I did. I’d forgotten that nylon rope has give and they both laughed at my wide-eyed surprise as I bounced above the rim and down into the opening several times. Once motionless and no longer wide-eyed, I paused. The view was most spectacular. Maybe the northern lights exceed it, but I’m still not sure. This crevasse, straight down to its bottom that I could not see enchanted not only my body but also my breath, sight, and thoughts. Its white surface changed to light blue of glacial ice. This blue gradually turned pure, then darkened ever so gradually to the color of a midnight, moonless night before growing into black. I hung there, filled with awe at the beauty I beheld. I’d never seen such splendor. Nor have I since. There was no ledge to catch me if I fell. I didn’t care. If I’d fallen, I’d have died deep in the depths of the crevasse only to be a frozen or mummified skeleton when the volcano came and reduced me to ash. I didn’t care, for the the awe of beauty held me. There was no vertigo, only ecstasy.

Perhaps it was the narrowing of the crevasse that made me feel so secure.

Meanwhile, Brian yelled, “Climb out!”

“It’s so beautiful, Brian. The colors. The depth. It’s so beautiful.”

“Just get out of the crevasse!” he yelled again. Gradually I left the physical beauty of my location, but I doubt either man would have understood if I’d tried to explain what I felt. As we continued to climb, Brian grew exhausted and said he’d stay there till we returned. He had had open-heart surgery and had taken up climbing on his long path to recovery. He bivouacked himself in some gear. Before Clarence and I proceeded, I asked Brian if he wanted a book to read.

“Oh yes,” he brightened. I pulled out Machiavelli’s The Prince. He declined with a look of disgust. Clarence and I proceeded to the top to meet up with the others. As usual, at the summit, I pulled out my lunch of a once hot, now warm roasted chicken and a thermos of hot tea. It was my lunch only because I never liked sandwiches. Beyond my simple preference, it made me very popular as I passed around warm chicken and warmer tea to cold mountain climbers who were eating their cold sandwiches. What silly fool climbs with a warm roast chicken, a thermos of hot tea, and a book, the latter in case of my own bivouac?

My climbing ended later that summer when I meet a man who was a painter, an intellect and not much of an outdoorsman beyond long walks on the beach or in the back country of the Cascade Mountains.

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