31 degree heat, and suncream and sweat sting your eye blind. A fairly inopportune moment to become more disorientated.
I’m, say, 7500ft up in the Tyrolean Alps, my heel is at 90 degrees to a 300ft drop. I’m squatted, moving backwards, hand over hand, foot by foot; my neck twists back to check that the corner I’m edging towards is closer.
My palms, sweat-greased and copper-stained, grip a horizontal 50metre long cable hammered into the wall of Ellmauer Halt, the highest peak in the Wilder Kaisser range.
I’ve no karabiner or other equipment, I’m nauseous, and giving myself a profanity-loaded pep talk constantly and I’m heading down, alone, because I already lost my head to vertigo 300ft from the summit. My brother and nephew are up near the top, some place where you scale huge slabs of limestone rock to ascend to 2344m, which we’d decided, impulsively, to climb when at the col below.
To compound the drastic situation I’m in, as I wriggle backwards across a cliff face along this dangerously narrow fissure, others – coming up – wait at the far side for me. They’re a patient, calm Austrian team, bedecked in the full catalogue and – when I reach the relative safety of their slightly wider ledge – they chide my lack of a helmet.
“You may be hit by a rolling stone.”
I’m too breathless to laugh at the idea of getting jumped by Charlie Watts. I move on down, exhausted and shaking.
Besides Alpine anxiety at dizzying heights, in this last week my mind has mainly been trained on two things:
1. Notions of thresholds, momentum and purposeful motivation
2. Intrinsic pleasures.
I draw on these in this post about my experiences on this trip.
You’re training, physically, for Kilimanjaro in December. It’s alarming, then, to discover that your mental capacity needs more training. I grew up climbing mountains and have been up them all over the world. Whence this new vertigo, then? Suddenly spontaneous, unexpected and shatteringly terrifying.
It happened three times inside a four-day hike. The first you overcame with calm deep breaths and approaching the 90 degree ladder disappearing into the clouds with some kind of steeled determination before the panic could really stick. The second was just sheer panic for about thirty minutes, up and down Ellmauer.
You endured it. The hyperventilating. The choked sobs. Your brain floating and careering in a dizzying spin, vision unable to fix on detail, thumping headaches, nerves crumbling. A perpetually nauseating compulsion to look down. Horrific.
Amidst this turmoil, like a nut, your mind flips to educational theory, to research, to students’ experiences. Some reflexive engineering.
Meyer and Land’s proposal is of problematic knowledge and overcoming liminal thresholds to emerge anew. There’s little grounding of this empirically; it appears phenomenological, but it resonates.
At the bottom of Ellmauer Halt was a plateau of boulders, basic obstacles to get to the ascent. The plateau is used as a metaphor for progress flatlining.
You see symbols in everything. Navigation, contours, landscape. Inner psychology mirrored to the map, or the lack of one.
Since attitude is socially effected by the affective, how can you manipulate student mindset to encourage determination? I’m not sure you can. In your third bout of vertigo you uncovered a new low: a horrible rage at other people, a blame game, that others had misled you about the height, the danger, the landscape. You projected your lack of confidence onto others. If there had been a team, some support, some encouragement, this may not have happened.
You must learn to scan the horizon, to anticipate challenges, to draw strategies from what you already know. But vertigo is irrational, so logic like this goes absent.
You thought about how you may need to get some counselling to handle if this happens in Tanzania, but you don’t want to ‘learn to cope’ with vertigo. You don’t want it at all. The worry is that you have created new physiological memories from failing to achieve the summit, and of the anxious experience of vertigo. Will you look for the symptoms next time you climb? Will you imagine them, confuse adrenaline with panic? How do you approach a problem with different methods? It requires much confidence. How do I convince next years resit students to try a new approach, to keep an open mind, to avoid repeating mistakes?
Meyer and Land was like alchemy when I first read it. They describe overcoming thresholds as epistemologically transformative, as ontological integration, that it is irreversible. Learning theory framed like music.
My notion is that momentum (purposeful actions) occurs when motivation is intrinsically situated through visible objectives. The culture is vital to this: an accessible community, a range of means to communicate, a continual network in which to distribute these expressions, perpetual challenges and opportunities to create momentum. Without these elements, fatigue sets in. Fatigue is engagement atrophied.
While in Austria, you overcame thresholds. So why the repetitive vertigo? Because you had no choice but to carry on? The third vertigo was sustained, going unexpectedly higher and higher when you expected to descend. The way took in a prolonged ridge, dramatic drops, sudden ledges. No goals or end in sight. Without targets, progress can’t be tracked. You’d reached the saturation point of panic.
The abyss stared back at you.
And then I suddenly became weary of vertigo. I’d simply had enough of feeling anxious. It was as if I’d made a choice. I sat down among some trees and reflected. I listened to the perfect stillness you receive at altitude. A silence in which my fears had screamed. The silence is a void. There’s nothing there. We feel compelled to fill it with noise, because the emptiness is profound and terrifying. I started noticing details again: a leaf quivering of its own accord studied closer revealed an ant, struggling to cope with the load, but persisting, getting it to the nest, past a train of marching brothers all moving intently. I noticed my breathing had regulated, my heart had slowed. The sun’s warmth poured into me.
Ascension used to be a high. Now it’s a bind. What’s the pleasure in this? Gruelling heat, lightning and downpours, heart smashing at my rib cage.
What is it for?
What is the intrinsic value of enduring this?
People talk about overcoming fears, but I feel I’ve embodied them, and ultimately accepted them, because when there’s only one direction to go – onward, upward – you just have to keep going.