Summiting Monte Rosa - Cults, Thoughts, and Chocolate at 4500m

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What went through my mind climbing my first glacier in the Italian Alps.

Day 0: Do I Need to Wear Pants?
When a group of researchers at ISI invited me to come climb a glacier with them, I had very little preconception of what that actually meant. I tend to be naive about challenges, thinking, “oh boy, that sounds like fun!” long before “wait, how am I actually going to do that?” Though I knew before leaving the States that I’d likely be “climbing a glacier” when I reached Torino, I still packed exactly zero pairs of long pants, long socks, or any other remotely appropriate pieces of clothing or equipment. Like a six-year old boy heading to Disney World, I spent my time in gleeful anticipation and left the prep work to “the adults.” Fortunately, they responsibly prevented me from hacking up the mountain with gym shorts and a butter knife and outfitted me into the proper, burly-looking, mountain man you see here.

That proper, burly-looking, mountain man’s target? Monte Rosa - at 4634m above sea level, the 2nd highest mountains in the Alps.

Day 1: Which Way Do I Hold the Ice Pick?
To climb a mountain, one must start from the bottom… but walking all the way there would take a really, really long time. Instead, we drove through the beautiful Aosta valley and took a cable car well above the tree line to about 3000m. From there, we trekked about two and a half hours over rocks, along cliffs, and across fields of snow. I was told ahead of time this would be “a nice, easy hike” and wasn’t expecting any excitement. To my surprise and delight, there were several sections that required hanging out to ropes and teetering over several hundred meter drops onto jagged rocks. I also got the chance to practice jamming my ice pick into the slippery, snow-covered slopes to gain traction and balance, a trick that would be needed the following day.

Our destination for the first day was the Rifugio Citta di Mantova. My expectations of a tiny hut with a few cots and an old hermit selling boiled mountain goat were (fortunately) quickly dispelled. The refuge offered incredible panoramic views of the Alps, a hearty vegetable & bean stew for dinner, and Tempur-Pedic beds with huge, fluffy down comforters. Even at 3500m in altitude and forced to shuttle in supplies by helicopter, the refuge whipped up a meal that trounced the glorified microwave dinners back at my hotel in Torino. I was stunned by this at first but realized that great food must be in especially high demand for climbers who will need all the strength and morale boosts they can get. More often than bad food, its lack of sleep that kills the morale of a would-be mountaineer. At high altitudes, the lower levels of oxygen in the air can make it difficult to breathe and its not uncommon to wake up exhausted and puking. The effects vary highly from person to person and since I had never been above 1500m in memory, I again didn’t know what to expect. The wake-up call was set for 4am and departure for 5am. As I snuggled into bed, you might expect I would have been fantasizing about epic ascents up sheer ice walls or worrying over tumbling into a deep abyss where I’d be forced to draw straws and eat a climbing mate. Nope. In a confusing act of recursion, all I could think as I fell asleep was “I wonder what I’ll think about when I climb a mountain…”

Day 2: Will the Mountain Have a Bathroom?
At 4am, I found out that I am not particularly sensitive to altitude sickness. In fact, it was the best night of sleep I had had since arriving in Italy and I asked if we could climb up to the refuge every night (the answer was no). I was not sure how my body would react to the day’s physical challenge and subzero temperatures so I stuffed myself with enough crackers, nutella, and jam to put a 6-year old into a diabetic coma. Combined with the effects of two envirogirating bowls of tea, I was wired. At that point, I barely knew a crampon (spikes you fasten to your boots) from a harness (used to connect climbing partners via thick ropes), so I had to be dressed like a baby by our infinitely patient guide, Muyo. By 5:30am, we were ready to start our ascent.

As we steadily marched up the first rolling field of ice and snow, my mind raced with excitement and clarity. I think I was more curious about the mental effects of climbing a mountain more than anything so I paid close attention to my thought pattern throughout the day. At first, I contemplated the history of collective knowledge. I thought about all the years that humans and pre-human species spent living, learning, and dying without passing on any learned lessons. I thought about the great revolution that language enabled - the passing of lessons onto the next generation. I thought about how these lessons were, at first, drawn from philosophical musings, religious faith, and idle speculation and that an even greater revolution occurred when humans begin to compare their ideas very carefully with Nature (roughly in the 16th century but on and off in various cultures before then). I tried to characterize this gathering of knowledge and the best I could come up with was that humans are highly evolved to recognize, appreciate, and cultivate the impossible. Now, what do I mean by that? By “the impossible”, I mean the “thermodynamically unlikely” - that is, states of unusually high order and low entropy. In fact, you could replace “the impossible” with “order” in the above quote if you like (“order” is more clear but lacks the epic flair of “the impossible”). I could apply this statement to appreciating the order in a scene of natural beauty, but what I was moreso trying to characterize was the gathering of scientific knowledge. This activity basically amounts to watching the world around us, noticing patterns in its behavior (“recognizing order”), getting those oh-so-sweet dopamine hits we long for (“appreciating order”), and using the knowledge we gain from extrapolating the patterns to create and engineer more and new patterns (“cultivating order”).

Next, I thought upon expertise. As I stumbled my way up the icy mountain, I realized that our guide seemed to be moving much faster with far less effort. I noticed that he didn’t slip nearly as often as I did and maintained a stable, steady pace, in contrast to my fits and starts as I would gain and lose traction. I recalled a word that physicist Lee Smolin had once used to describe a great scientist who notices a regularity in the world that no one else does - a seer. I generalized the term to one who sees order where others do not and determined that it could be applied outside science just as easily. To me, the icy slope was a uniform plane to be trudged up with stubborn persistence. But as I carefully watched and followed our guide, I noticed that his steps seemed far more discerning. He would aim for little nooks of flat or stable ground that I at first had not even noticed. He periodically altered his course up the mountain, walking slightly left, then slightly right, a pattern that greatly reduced the effort required and likelihood of slipping. I learned as much as I could from him without asking him how he did it. One, I wasn’t sure if he was even conscious of how he did it. Two, and more importantly, we had enough trouble communicating in broken English, let alone broken English masked by howling winds and exhausted gasps for air. Even so, I felt I learned a lot from him and decided that seers could exist in all lines of work, not just science, and that following them and learning their ways was a good way to capitalize on humanity’s gradual, perpetual accrual of knowledge that I had been thinking about earlier.

As we continued and I started to become a bit tired, I started wondering why humans would do something so seemingly silly as to climb a mountain if they’re not trying to get over it or find something on top of it. What kind of evolutionary pressure would ever drive us to do something so dangerous and inefficient? That’s a very complicated question and I don’t have an answer, but I suspect that there are two general categories of motivations for such “adventure sports.” The first group, which I will call “conquerors”, seeks the challenge, strives to overcome and endure, and is driven by pride and competition. The second group, which I will call “explorers”, seeks to enjoy nature, participate in good conversation and thought, and clear their minds. The two groups might share a lot of interests, but the distinction in motivations is important. I first noticed this split when I went running with a friend in Torino. I fall almost entirely into the “explorer” category above and run to clear my mind, explore new areas, and stay healthy. I don’t often run for more than an hour because I can achieve my above aims in around 30-45 minutes. An hour and a quarter into the run with my friend, I was getting bored and a bit too tired to do much thinking. To me, further running seemed pointless, but my friend seemed quite intent on continuing. The difference was in our motivations for running. He is a distinct “conqueror” and, to him, the importance of the run was reaching the peak of a large hill within a specific amount of time. Conquerors and explorers will often share interests and seek to do similar activities like climb mountains, dive shipwrecks, and hike through rain forests, but the way they go about it might be very different and understanding this difference in motivation can be key to avoiding misunderstandings later. That said, the two groups are not mutually exclusive. No one falls entirely into one group and there are certainly people who are equally both conquerors and explorers. I think often about motivations people have for doing things (especially my own!), so even though its not absolute, I still found this distinction important and interesting.

As I thought more about my “explorer” motivations for climbing mountains, runnings hills, and hiking trails, I started thinking about why these activities seem to promote creative thinking and good conversation. I suspect it might work something like this. Engaging the body or senses while thinking triggers activity in different areas of the brain than are normally activated by just thinking while sitting. Despite the illusion that we have full conscious control of our brains, there are many studies that highlight the significant effects of our environment on our decisions and behavior. I suspect that our environment can play just as significant a role in the creative process. Just as different musical instruments enable different symphonies, reading or thinking on a hike, by a fire, in a park, in a cafe, on the move, or in an airplane are different neurological experiences. This is why I find roaming parks, haunting cafes, and exploring cities while reading, studying, and thinking to be such a rich experience.

I also thought about neuroscience and evolution’s effect on the direction of science (something that I will write more about in a future post) and whether information could escape from black holes via entanglement. I had heard of a problem in cosmology called the information paradox in which a black hole collapses and “eats” all the information that was trapped inside it. I don’t know about you but I was pretty angry at black holes for destroying information, which seemed a direct assault on the basic idea that physics conserves information. I had been thinking about the problem for a few days and was pretty excited when part way up the mountain I realized that entangled particles (one inside the black hole and one outside) might be able to “save” the information from destruction, since entanglement doesn’t seem to rely on light or matter to transmit information and shouldn’t be stopped by a black hole horizon. Anyways, once I returned to Torino and looked around at a series of recent papers, I found out that this is indeed roughly how some physicists have resolved the paradox. So even though it wasn’t a rigorous result, I was pretty proud that I was able to come up with the right idea on my own.

You’re probably wondering when I’m going to talk about the mountain again. The truth is, during the ascent, we were so focused on a steady pace of continual climbing that I didn’t get much of a chance to appreciate the mountain. I was mostly buried in my own thoughts and speculation because it was the only solace I had from the bitter winds, subzero temperatures, and gradual exhaustion creeping up my legs. There are two moments, however, that I will never forget.

The first was when I saw the Matterhorn. Never before had I seen a piece of land so menacing and dark. The other glaciers we saw were awe-inspiring and beautiful slopes of gleaming ice and snow; the Matterhorn resembles an obsidian tooth jutting from the bowels of Hell. She is, to say the least, intimidating.

The second moment was when I first reached our destination - Capanna Margherita, the highest mountain refuge on Earth.

The final hour had been a brutal series of switchbacks across a steep, icy face that left us exposed to winds howling so loudly that we could no longer communicate. My fatigue had reached the point that I began to no longer feel safely in control of my body and brain. I would teeter dangerously back and forth on the steep slope and, worse, although my brain would rationally recognize that this was not safe, it was still extremely difficult to focus, act on this recognition, and regain my balance. As we reached the crest of our steep climb though and I got the first glance of the view, I was immediately re-energized and my thoughts came into sharp focus. At 4559m, we were higher than any point in the continental United States and it felt like the top of the world. Even this incredible view from the deck couldn’t keep us from the nice, warm refuge and a chance to sit down and rest. We raced inside, ordered a round of hot teas, and broke out a supply of chocolate bars rivaling that of a fat kid on Halloween (Ritter Sport Dark Chocolate, you never looked so good…). Our guide informed us that although the ascent usually took 4-6 hours when he led groups from Italy, Japan, or elsewhere, we had made it to Capanna Margherita in under 3.5 hours. We had flown up the mountain and, in hindsight, we had good reason to be exhausted. Nevertheless, our journey was not even halfway done. We still had to return to the lower refuge that we had slept at, then back down to the cable car, and finally drive all the way home to Torino by that evening.

The ascent had been a test of willpower and endurance. The descent, however, was a test of control and focus. After waking up at 4am, climbing 1000m in elevation in under 4 hours, and spending the last 24 hours breathing the thinnest air ever to pass through your lungs, you start to get a bit tired. And when you’re tired and the only thing standing between you and rest is a wide open downhill slope, running, sliding, and rolling down it at full speed all seem like wonderful ideas. They are not. They are instead very good strategies for quickly discovering crevices and cliffs. My feeble, exhausted mind had trouble grasping this and it took much effort by our guide to keep me stable and on my feet. Even without giving into the sweet siren call of the human sled, we did manage to descend to the lower refuge in about an hour and a half, stopping just long enough to strike manly poses in celebration of our successful climb. The rest of the descent back to the cable car was far more difficult than expected, requiring every ounce of effort not to give in and just roll the rest of the way down the mountain. I was actually somewhat disappointed that the journey ended up being so mentally taxing on me. Perhaps it was the altitude, perhaps it was dehydration, perhaps it was a day’s diet of crackers, nutella, and chocolate, but by this time, I was on auto-pilot. Needless to say, I never appreciated the overwhelming comfort of a cable car as I did that day.

Day 3+: The Aftermath
One week later, I visited Torino’s Museo Nazionale della Montagna, a museum on this history of the Alps and the sport of mountaineering. It is appropriately located high above the city, next to the church and monastery Monte dei Cappuccini. I say appropriately because (a) this location offers panoramic views of the city and (b) after climbing a glacier, the distant outlines of mountains that used to be merely “cool” become objects of religious awe. Once you’ve been exposed to the world that exists atop those mountains, they take on a new meaning to you. It is difficult to describe but directly analogous to the new importance and significance that the ocean takes on once you’ve begun scuba diving.

The museum itself is, in my opinion, the most underrated attraction in Torino; it doesn’t even appear in most guidebooks. It outlines the history of mountaineering, from the pioneering adventurers who first explored the Alps in little more than fleece pajamas to the mass influx of “mountain tourism” enabled by the automobile to today’s extreme athletes who travel the world seeking to conquer the infamous fourteen “eight-thousanders”. The museum’s rich collection of old equipment including picks (read: walking sticks), jackets (read: wool blazers), and tents (read: burlap bags) made me feel like a princess in my Goretex parka, Tempur-Pedic bed, and heated hotel with running water and full-service restaurant. The stunning photography of Vittorio Sella, the scale model of the original Capanna Margherita, and all the rest of the mountaineering porn in the museum rekindled my excitement and I soon raced back to my hotel room to watch the 2003 documentary Touching the Void, the true story of one of the most incredible mental and physical battles a human being has ever fought and won. I refuse to offer any details because the movie is much more effective when every turn for the worse is a surprise. All I offer is the description from the friend who recommended the film to me; in his words, Touching the Void is one of those few stories that “grapples with what it is to be human.” I’m sure it is even more meaningful if you’ve done some climbing, but I recommend it to all.

Besides the many ideas and thoughts I rambled on about above, the end result of this climb is that I seem to have fallen in with the cult of mountain fanboys who worship glaciers almost religiously. And like every good cult member, I’ve already scheduled another pilgrimage. This Friday, I return to the Alps to spend 4 days on the Tour du Mont Blanc, 170km of raw mountain goodness skirting the borders of Italy, France, and Switzerland.