True Summit, continued...
the Weisshorn, 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
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 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
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.
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