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The True Summit, continued...

Descending the Weisshorn, 1998.

 

1998: Becoming a Team
   Shortly after climbing the Matterhorn with me, Andre became a Hutenwirt (hut manager) and must now spend most of his time overseeing a 70-bed hut that is the starting point for numerous climbs. He turned me over to his older brother, Urs, who became my regular guide, companion, and friend. Over the next five years, we became a climbing team.
   The special relationship between guide and climber is an old-fashioned concept, lost in today's faddish rush to climb the highest or most famous summit on a continent and then quickly move on to yet another summit. Before climbing became the sport du jour, a climber would spend summers in a mountain area like Zermatt, establishing a relationship with a local guide, and climbing many mountains with him. As the mountains become more and more difficult, teamwork is essential.
   My relationship with Urs harkens back to that older time. In 1994, while on an exhausting 12-hour traverse of several 4,000-meter peaks leading to the Monte Rosa, which at 4,634 meters is the highest mountain in Switzerland, I desperately wanted to quit. Urs rightly gauged that I was capable of more, fueled me with Isostar (the Swiss version of Gatorade), and I finished the climb. At other times, especially on rock faces, I think I will be paralyzed with fear, but Urs's competence and belief in me ease my anxiety.
   My "coming of age" as a climber occurs in 1998, when Urs's 13-year-old son Michi joins us on the Breithorn traverse, a seven-hour climb -- almost all at above 4,000 meters. It is Urs's signal to me that after five years of climbing together, he trusts me with a member of his family. Michi has already summited the Matterhorn with his father and is highly skilled, but he is still young, and occasionally I step in to smooth the relationship between him and his father, as, for example, when I offer him my cap upon learning that he's forgotten or lost his sunglasses -- a not insignificant mistake at this altitude and brilliant sunshine, as Urs makes clear. My role is not dissimilar to one I play in the classroom, reinterpreting or refocusing a student's comments or providing help to students in difficulty.
   Ten days later, Urs and I undertake a two-day climb of the Dent Blanche (4,356 meters), a free-standing, slightly tilted gneiss pyramid to the right of the Matterhorn. In our classrooms, we often have to establish safe environments that allow our students to talk freely without fear of judgment or recrimination, classrooms where they are willing to take intellectual risks. Here on the mountain, I am inching my way down a 200-meter slope of 45 degrees, a snow, ice, and rock ridge that drops steeply to the Dent Blanche hut. If I were faced with this dangerous descent on my own, I would turn back. The fact that Urs is behind, holding me on a short rope, allows me to focus on the terrain, take a well-executed step, and continue on. The next day a climber without a guide slipped on this very ridge and fell to his death. I offer a silent prayer of thanks to Urs for safely guiding me over the terrain and helping me learn from the mountain.
   The next day's climb is endless: one gendarme (rock tower) after another, not technically difficult but strenuous. Finally, we reach the summit, a small rocky space. I sit with the hood of my wind jacket up, too tired to care about more than the obligatory summit photo before we descend. Almost 12 hours from our 4:30 a.m. start, we finish the climb. I try to keep my legs from visibly shaking. Exhaustion, numbness, dehydration, mental lassitude, painfully swollen knees -- "This is my last climb," I tell my good friend Alfred Paci, the Hotel Bijou's owner. "I'm too old for this. I should quit while I'm ahead." Alfred laughs and pours me another glass of champagne. A week later Urs tells me that the next client he took up the Dent Blanche only made it to the first gendarme, and my own ascent is transformed into a brilliant success. I tell my students success is rarely immediate. On the mountain, I learn the hard way.
   My final climb, the Weisshorn (4,505 meters), was one I had long wanted to undertake. Urs had resisted my entreaties for years. The Zermatt guides hate the three-to-four-hour, 1,500-meter climb to the hut the evening before. With a reputation for being one of the most demanding 4,000-meter peaks, the Weisshorn stands as a magnificent pyramid that dominates the sky with three knife-edged ridges finely sculpting the horizon. After new snow falls, the entire mountain looks icy white, giving it its name.
   At the Weisshorn hut (2,932 meters), the mountain looms before me. I am stunned. The Weisshorn looks very different than it does from below. I see the detail of the rock ridge, the towers and gendarmes, and suddenly the mountain seems more accessible. Tears come to my eyes as some inner, gut feeling tells me I will successfully climb this mountain.
   Urs arrives at the hut later. Without him, the journey would be just a climb, a summit accomplished. I have come to trust him totally, respect his mountaineering skills, his strength, and his intuitive sense of danger and safety. The next morning we start out at 2:30 a.m. The first three hours are a tedium of drudgery and darkness. I feel nauseated. I tell Urs, but he laughs and says, "Es ist nur Faulheit" (You're only being lazy). I sigh and keep moving. One of the trademarks of a good coach is the ability to diagnose whether a player is just suffering from a temporary loss of energy rather than more general exhaustion. Urs persists in believing that I can make all summits. As a result of his coaching, I have climbed all but one of the peaks I intended.
   Except for the feeling of "Thank God I've made it," the summit is a non-event. It is too small and cold to stay for long. Usually on the way down from a difficult climb, I focus on all the dangers and how far I have left to go. This time, I tell myself, "Focus on each step, and how each safe step will bring you closer to home." I am in superb mental and physical shape, and I do some of my best climbing. I read Urs's commands before he makes them. We move together rhythmically as a team, with me moving ahead, and Urs constantly coaching, "left," "right," "straight over the ridge." The rock ridge slopes down gently. Our rhythm and the gentle slope allow my body to work smoothly and efficiently, establishing confidence and a feeling of airiness. It's one of those magnificent and rare moments when everything comes together to create perfection -- the cold, crisp air, the stunning views, the effortlessness of the climb. I'm climbing in the sky. My blood is pulsing strongly, adding to my feelings of aliveness. Tears come to my eyes at the sheer awesomeness of the moment. It's wondrously joyful. For me this is the true summit, not the top, a product of many years of training, teamwork, and the trust Urs and I have developed.
   My Penn colleague, Bob Zemsky, professor of education and director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education, likes to tell the story of a doctoral student who he realized was a mountain climber by the way she described her plans for a dissertation. She laid everything out carefully before she began the journey, prepared for each step, knew she had to take everything she needed, was determined to succeed, and was willing to change course should conditions warrant.
   I teach my students that when they conduct their research, they need to know what they are doing and how they intend to get there. On the mountain, each step is critical in itself, the difference between continuing to climb and injury. But each step has to make it easier to accomplish the next three or four steps. Just getting to a difficult ledge is not enough if you have no place to go from there. I tell my students that, if they can find companions they trust and who will help them, the journey will be safer and more fulfilling. Above all, I hope they learn to engage the journey with passion and to appreciate the beauty of its uncertainty.

 

 Ursula Wagener is an adjunct associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and a consultant on higher education.


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