Friday, December 31, 2021

The Matterhorn sways

Why John Ruskin might have welcomed the latest research

For those who see mountains as dynamic creations rather than dead matter, confirmation has just come in from the savants. A team of German, Swiss and American researchers has discovered that the Matterhorn sways – or resonates – about once every two seconds.

The Matterhorn from the moat of the Riffelhorn, by John Ruskin
Image courtesy of the Ruskin Collection, Museum of Sheffield

Seismometers hooked up near its summit, flank and foot showed that the Matterhorn oscillates in both a north-south and in an east-west direction, each at a frequency of 0.42 Hertz. The energy for these vibrations comes from earthquakes and tidal movements. They move the Matterhorn’s summit – albeit by microscopic amounts – more than they do its base.

For a more detailed account of the research, see the excellent write-up in the Daily Mail – always quick to spot a good celeb story – or, if you prefer a more scholarly rendition, the one published by Switzerland’s Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research. Don’t forget to listen to the sound recordings, amped up for human hearing.

Ruskin by Millais
News that the Matterhorn sings in its sleep probably wouldn’t have fazed John Ruskin (1819-1900). Although best known as an art critic and promoter of mountain scenery, he once said that if his parents had allowed him more freedom he would have become “probably the first geologist of my time in Europe”.

Be that as it may, the great critic had an intuitive sense of stone. Take his extraordinary riff on “slaty crystallines”, the gneiss-type rocks that for the most part make up the Matterhorn. In tracing their wavy structure to some "strange quivering of their substance", he seems almost to have anticipated the latest research:

We yield ourselves to the impression of their eternal, unconquerable stubbornness of strength; their mass seems the least yielding, least to be softened, or in anywise dealt with by external force, of all earthly substance.

And, behold, as we look farther into it, it is all touched and troubled, like waves by a summer breeze; rippled, far more delicately than seas or lakes are rippled: they only undulate along their surfaces—this rock trembles through its every fibre, like the chords of an Eolian harp—like the stillest air of spring with the echoes of a child’s voice. Into the heart of all those great mountains, through every tossing of their boundless crests, and deep beneath all their unfathomable defiles, flows that strange quivering of their substance.

They .[the mountains] … are yet, also ordained to bear upon them the symbol of a perpetual Fear: the tremor which fades from the soft lake and gliding river is sealed, to all eternity, upon the rock; and while things that pass visibly from birth to death may sometimes forget their feebleness, the mountains are made to possess a perpetual memorial of their infancy,—that infancy which the prophet saw in his vision: “… I beheld the mountains, and lo, they trembled; and all the hills moved lightly.”

Fragment of the Alps, by John Ruskin
Courtesy of the Havart Art Museum, Cambridge MA


Samuel Weber, Jan Beutel, Mauro Häusler, Paul Geimer, Donat Fäh, Jeff Moore, “Spectral amplification of ground motion linked to resonance of large-scale mountain landforms”, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 2021, doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2021.117295

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol IV, Chapter IX, “Of the materials of mountains: secondly, slaty crystallines"

Friday, December 24, 2021

Motivations of the Maoist mountaineers

On May 27, 1975, nine Chinese mountaineers successfully ascended the world's highest peak, Qomolangma Feng (Mount Jolmo Lungma), from its north slope, thanks to the loving care and attention of Chairman Mao and the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and to the wholehearted support of the people throughout the country....

 … Their remarkable feat in the conquest of nature, the second of its kind accomplished by Chinese mountaineers, was a triumph of Chairman Mao's proletarian revolutionary line, another creditable achievement of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the movement to criticize Lin Piao and Confucius.

Thus begins Another Ascent of the World’s Highest Peak: Qomolangma, published by Peking’s Foreign Languages Press soon after the event. This was the second Chinese expedition to the mountain that some recidivist elements still call Everest. The first one in 1960 had completed the north ridge route to the summit, as originally prospected by the British expeditions of the 1920s.

The 1975 expedition was notable for the participation of 36 women climbers and support members, of whom one reached the top. This triumph is set out in a carefully worded paragraph:

The fact that during the Chinese expedition, a woman climber reached the summit of Qomolangma from the north side for the first time in world history, serves as a convincing proof of the great truth pointed out by Chairman Mao: "Times have changed, and today men and women are equal. Whatever men comrades can accomplish, women comrades can too."

The summiteer mentioned above was Phantog (right), who was born as “daughter of a serf” in Tibet. When selected for training as a mountaineer – this was in 1959 – she was working for the “July First” State Farm in Lhasa.

Phantog very nearly became the first woman to summit Everest from any side – except that Japan’s Tabei Junko had pipped her to the post just 11 days earlier, reaching the summit via the southern route. But this was a disappointment that the anonymous authors of the Foreign Language Press book could not bring themselves to mention explicitly.

The book’s illustrations reveal much of the motivations that China’s mountaineers were obliged to profess during the last years of Chairman Mao’s tenure. The words in italics are the original English-language photo captions: 

Source of strength, guarantee for victory. Earnestly studying Chairman Mao's works they enhance their consciousness of the necessity of continuing the revolution and strengthen their determination to conquer the world's highest peak.

"Never forget bitter class oppression, firmly remember the blood and tears of the down-trodden!" A visit to an exhibition on class education in Lhasa, exposing the brutal oppression of the Tibetan people by the serf-owners, arouses burning hatred for the old society and strong love of the new in the minds of the mountaineers.

Study hard to combat and prevent revisionism and consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat. Secretary of the Party Committee of the Expedition Wang Fu-chou (second right), one of the three that reached the summit of Qomolangma for the first time ever from the north slope in 1960, and mountaineers at the 6,000-m. camp, study the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat to fortify their revolutionary will in scaling the world's highest peak.

Nothing can stop the advance of the mountaineering heroes armed with Mao Tsetung Thought. Here, they are seen struggling up a snowy slope at 7,400 m. in the teeth of ferocious altitude winds.

Women alpinists write big-character posters to criticize the reactionary fallacy preached by Lin Piao and Confucius, that "man is superior to woman," and to pledge their determination to win honour for socialist China by a successful climb of Qomolangma.

A new member is admitted into the Communist Party at the 8,200-m. camp.

Instantly Base Camp becomes alive with joy and excitement, shouts of "Long live Chairman Mao!" and "Long live the Chinese Communist Party!" echo through the valleys.

There is a coda to this expedition. Four years after their respective Everest ascents, Phantog met Tabei Junko at a climbers’ meet in Chamonix, where they were photographed together with Poland’s Wanda Rutkiewicz, the third woman to summit Qomolangma. The full story is told by Alison Osius, herself a climber of renown.

Photo by courtesy of Isabelle Agresti/Climbing

Phantog and Tabei were coevals, both born in 1939. Both combined full-time jobs with climbing, marriage and motherhood – Phantog had three children, and Tabei two. Each was a member of her country’s mountaineering elite. One wonders if they had a language in common and, if so, what they talked about at that long-ago encounter in Chamonix …


Another Ascent of the World's Highest Peak: Qomolangma
, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1975.

Alison Osius, The First Three Women to Climb Everest, Climbing online, March 2021.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Motivations of the scientist-mountaineer

The name of Fritz Zwicky (1898–1974) will live for ever in the annals of cosmology. In 1933, the Swiss astronomer was the first to postulate the existence of dark matter. And, to follow up, he predicted the existence of neutron stars, only two years after James Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron itself. 

Fritz Zwicky demonstrates his crampon technique

Zwicky applied his talents widely. During the war years, he served, quite literally, as a rocket scientist, on the board of a company that pioneered JATO “bottles” for overloaded aircraft. Before he moved to the United States, he was also a hard-driving scientist-mountaineer, making several bold first ascents in the Alps of Glarus, his home canton. What follows is his take on what motivates a mountaineer:

As for the value of expanding our comfort zone, we should certainly not omit to mention the kind of risky adventure that we occasionally and deliberately undertake in the prime of our lives. If we achieve such an adventure, it not only lives in our memory as a striking episode, but it also strengthens our confidence that we will be able to unerringly trace the one path through life that suits our genius and which nobody else could follow. 

There are many such follies to choose from. I mention here only one example, which represented the summit of summits for ourselves as alpinists in my time. Non-alpinists ask again and again why we rush like madmen into the mountains. All kinds of answers have been given, the magnificence of nature, blowing off physical steam, the escape from everyday life, the joy of adventure (according to Schiller "And if you do not put your life at stake/Never will you gain your life"), and so on.

Fritz Zwicky in Zermatt, 1932

But I have never read the kind of reply that would apply to people like myself and my faithful mountain companions such as Professor Thadeus Reichstein of Basel University, namely this. In daily life, as well as in science, one rarely encounters problems that one can solve by oneself, quickly and completely. Even if one tackles some real-life problem with success, new issues always seem to emerge, and these we have to grapple with over time, perhaps over our entire lifespan. We therefore have a hankering for achievements that can be completed like a work of art, by ourselves and alone, and which nobody can deny us. The first ascent of a mountain, or of a difficult new route (such as one of those prized direttissimas), represents exactly such an achievement.

But even here, people are never completely satisfied and they’ll think up something that is artistically more compelling, harder still than the riskiest first ascent, even a solo one. I myself had two things in mind. The mountain I wanted to climb had to be a long ice face, at least sixty degrees steep, of hard blue ice into which you’d have to cut steps, tough work, a real man’s job. 

Zwicky's first ascent route on the Glärnisch north face

You can’t deal with rocks in this way; you have to cling to them, and there’s something effete about that – though the world’s great rock climbers will want to strangle me for this remark. And, to push things even further, I wouldn’t solo the ice face but I’d take with me a lady companion who wouldn’t be a top alpinist and so couldn’t help me with the step-cutting, but who’d nevertheless blindly trust me to bring her safely to the summit.

To this day, almost fifty years later, I’m amazed when I think back to that sunny day in August 1923, when I set off the Grünhornhütte on the Tödi at two o'clock in the morning with Leni Ott, a pianist from Glarus, and crossed the Biferten glacier heading towards the rarely climbed blue ice walls of Piz Urlaun.

More than fifty mountaineers were setting out at the same time to climb the Tödi (the highest mountain in the canton of Glarus), and some shouted to us that we must be on the wrong route. When we pointed to Piz Urlaun, half of them seem to have the breath taken from them. They forgot about the Tödi and sat down on the edge of the glacier, where they stayed all day following us with their binoculars, watching us as we worked our way up the hard blue ice for twelve hours, with me driving in ice-pitons to secure my companion. By four o'clock in the afternoon we were on the summit.

From one of my friends, an excellent alpinist, I later learned that one of her colleagues from the Swiss Ladies Alpine Club, who was observing our ascent, had told her that a total lunatic had dragged a young lady over the bergschrund, ice slopes and up the treacherous overhanging ice cliffs of Piz Urlaun. She said the man should be sent to a lunatic asylum.

Of course, the shackles of tradition don’t necessarily need to be shaken loose on the ice slopes of Piz Urlaun, the Marinelli Couloir of Monte Rosa, or on the north face of Mount Robson in the Canadian Rockies. For the excellent advice to "do things differently" can be put into practice in many ways, and it doesn’t have to be a reckless one.


Fritz Zwicky, Jeder ein Genie: Der berühmte Astrophysiker revolutioniert unsere Denkmethode, Glarus Fritz-Zwicky-Stiftung, 1992 (translated text is from this book). 

Roland Müller, Alfred Stöckli, Fritz Zwicky: An Extraordinary Astrophysicist, Cambridge Scientific Publishers, 2011 (illustrations are from this book).

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Motivations: Because it has a high utility function

When a behavioural economist asks what motivates a mountaineer

“Because it’s there.” Ask mountaineers why they climb, and this is the kind of brush-off you’ll get, mumbled often as not through a tangled growth of expeditionary beard. Much better, perhaps, to put this question to, say, an expert in analysing and even quantifying the motives that drive people’s actions.

"Unrelenting misery from beginning to end ..."
An illustration from the Badminton Library: Mountaineering 

Such a specialist is George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon University. Not only is he a behavioural economist, one who seeks to give the dismal science a decent grounding in human psychology, but he admits to a mountain epic or two in his younger days.

In his essay "Because it is there: the challenge of mountaineering … for utility theory", Loewenstein's starting point is the concept first explored by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), the English philosopher and jurist who now sleeps out his eternal bivouac at University College, London.

Scholars have already hypothesised that “utility” can arise from intangibles such as memorable experiences and social kudos. Even so, it’s hard to attach any utility to mountaineering or polar exploration, which – in Professor Loewenstein’s own words – so often “tends to be one unrelenting misery from beginning to end”.

So why do people do it? One answer, the professor posits, is “self-signalling”. That is, mountaineers may be seeking esteem, at least within their own circles. At this point, the professor cites Joe Simpson, who is certainly no stranger to unrelenting misery:

The truth seemed uncomfortably egotistical. I wanted to do only hard climbs, great north faces, impressive and daunting rock routes. I wanted a ‘tick list’ of hard routes under my belt.

If there is any utility here, Loewenstein suggests, it may lie as much in convincing oneself as in dazzling others.

If self-signalling brings climbers to the mountains, the dynamic of “goal completion” may be what keeps them there. Here Loewenstein summons to the witness stand Beck Weathers, who narrowly survived a high-altitude bivouac on Everest in 1996: his earlier failure to summit the mountain

had come to possess him, take hold of his life, and control his every waking moment. And he came back this year vowing that under no circumstance was he going to allow himself to be turned around again.

Summit fever is so well documented that it should need no further explanation, at least to readers of this blog. But, as a psychological phenomenon, it does raise an interesting question. If people like to set goals for themselves, why do they stick to them when the goals no longer make sense – as, for example, when an over-large party is strung out along a summit ridge late in the day with a storm threatening.

Instead of an answer to this question, Loewenstein has a hunch:

My own suspicion is that the drive toward goal establishment and goal completion is 'hard-wired'. Humans, like most animals and even plants, arc maintained by complex arrays of homeostatic mechanisms that keep the body's systems in equilibrium. Many of the miseries of mountaineering, such as hunger, thirst, and pain, are manifestations of homeostatic mechanisms that motivate people to do what they need to do to survive, such as taking in calories (hunger) and liquids (thirst) and avoiding tissue damage (pain) … The visceral need for goal completion, then, may be simply another manifestation of the organism's tendency to deal with problems … The only difference between the visceral need for goal completion and visceral feeling of hunger is that the former goal state is, in some sense, self-chosen.

This may also explain why mountaineers often feel a sense of disappointment when they reach the long-sought summit. Quite simply, the motivation for reaching the goal is much stronger than the pleasure any summit can afford. “The discrepancy between desire and satisfaction is also characteristic of other motives such as curiosity, envy and some forms of drug addiction,” the professor adds.

Yet a third motive for mountaineering may be a sense of mastery. Again, Joe Simpson is tapped for a quotation:

there is a perverse delight in putting oneself in a potentially dangerous situation, knowing that your experience and skill make you quite safe.

Curiously, an animal experiment seems to confirm the benefit conferred by a sense of control over one’s environment. Rats who were allowed to administer alcohol to themselves had lower thresholds for brain stimulation – ie enjoyed it more – than rats who had no control over their intake. So it may be that Mo Anthoine’s account of “feeding the rat” is more than just an apposite metaphor for the climbing experience.

As a final source of utility, Loewenstein considers a paradoxical possibility – that the very misery of high-altitude mountaineering confers meaning. Maurice Herzog, the first man to climb an 8,000-metre peak lost several fingers and parts of his feet to suppurating frostbite. But this ordeal, he reported:

has given me the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself. It has given me the rare joy of loving that which I used to despise. A new and splendid life has opened out before me.

Self-signalling, goal completion, mastery, meaning – none of these drivers are easy to define, let alone quantify. Yet they motivate at least some mountaineers far more strongly than classical economic stimuli such as the profit motive or increased consumption. Is that significant? Professor Loewenstein thinks it is:

The question, then, is whether mountaineers and mountaineering are unusual in the degree to which they are motivated by non-consumption-related motives. The answer, I believe, is that they are not. Although these non-consumption motives may be more important in mountaineering than in other activities, and better developed in mountaineers than in other people, the same motives can also be seen in most people's daily behavior.

Now that’s an interesting thought. If you could understand what drives mountaineers – if, mind – you’d be well on the way to understanding what motivates most everyone.


George Loewenstein, Because It Is There: The Challenge of Mountaineering ... for Utility Theory, Kyklos, vol 52, 1999.

Illustration from C T Dent, The Badminton Library: Mountaineering, third edition, 1901, ex libris Nancy Sandars.