At the start of the summer I purchased the book Seven Brief Lessons in Physics by Carlo Rovelli, as per recommendation by a friend. It came with such a glowing review that I declined to do any research on its actual subject. In all honesty, I assumed that the name was a witty jab at some cute fiction story or what not- ridiculous, I know. You can imagine my surprise when I opened the package from Amazon and found the book to be exactly what the title indicated- seven brief lessons in physics. I cocked my head a little and shrugged. Alright, I’m a moderately educated person, I can do this. Little did I know that a small black book could be the source of so much anguish.
I dabbled in its pages during the initial months of the summer, but it was a devilish thing. To understand even the slightest bits of information it required all of my attention and then some. All too often my thoughts wandered from its content before I even started reading. However, I felt determined to not let this prestigious little piece of crap prove me an idiot. And thus, I carried it with me deep into the middle of rural China on my most recent expedition. It was there, amidst days of snowstorms and extreme boredom, that I was finally able to finish its final pages with some dignity.
Now, this is not to say that I actually understand anything about physics. In fact, my perception of our world is more tangled than ever. Theoretically, physics feels like a bunch of bologna to me. But as with most things, comprehension takes practical application. As my frame of reference while reading was mostly confined to my climbing expedition, Rovelli’s chapters flipped by in accordance with my month in China.
Thus, here I am going to relay to you something far from proper physics. I will give you physics as told by me, and how I came to terms with a silly little black book while adventuring deep within the Tibetan Plateau.
“These lessons were written for those who know little or nothing about modern science.”
FIRST LESSON: The Most Beautiful of Theories.
Regardless of the fact that it took me reading the first chapter four times through to understand it, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity is remarkably simple- space curves where there is matter. Yet even more remarkable though, is the countless truths this simple idea brings to light. In the physics world the most bizarre things are explained by one simple formula- universes exploding, space collapsing into bottomless holes, and time sagging…whatever that means.
In my world, I had a simple idea as well. It originated a little over a year ago while sitting around my kitchen table in West Virginia, and it too brought about a surprising number of bizarre truths. It was this:
“What do you think about China?”
Jess’s eyes emerged from behind her pages, looking at me to be sure that those words had actually come out of my mouth. It was October, the most beautiful time of the year in Appalachia, and we were pouring over editions of the American Alpine Journal in search of stupid ideas.
My eyes had become fixated on a single photograph. It boasted white granite peaks jutting out of the vast Tibetan Plateau. The range was called the Nyainbo Yuze, a massif in the Qinghai Province. It encompassed an endless array of unclimbed 4000 and 5000 meter peaks. What’s more, it seemed to hold characteristics that could lie within our skill set. High in elevation yes, but predominantly alpine rock climbing with what appeared to be ample opportunity for moderate lines. We were hooked.
Our original intent was to find something far from this pipe dream. We were looking for cheap, close to home. Maybe somewhere in the lesser-traveled areas of Canada, the Sierra, Wyoming. My hands kept flipping past the domestic section of the journals though, and that singular image had placed my ambitions right in the middle of China- a country I had never been to, with a language I didn’t speak and a culture I knew nothing about. Honestly, a place that I found rather intimidating.
Rovelli tells me ‘Ever since we discovered that the Earth is round and turns like a mad spinning top, we have understood that reality is not as it appears to us’. On the surface I find this notion poetic, romantic even, but at its core I am frustrated. How can reality be mistruth? Ah, but of course, perception. As I sat comfortably in my West Virginia home, I knew that my desire to go to China was deeper than the quest for adventure and first ascents. I longed to be detached from the world that I knew so well, to leave behind my reality in an attempt to understand a more truthful concept of the word.
SECOND LESSON: Quanta.
I’m white knuckling a crude Google Earth screenshot of the Nyainbo Yuze. I’m around fifty percent sure that we’re on the correct road, but our driver is much less certain. He’s stopping the car ever five minutes to frantically point on my map and ask me questions in Chinese, of which I understand nothing. I am surprised every time he restarts the car and continues onwards. I keep expecting him to kick us out.
It’s September 29th and Jessica and I had managed to get ourselves to the fringe of nowhere land. We had arrived in the large city of Chengdu three days ago, and with the invaluable help of a few patched-together contacts we were able to pull off the logistics to start making our way to the mountains.
Armed with 130 pounds of gear and 55 pounds of food to outfit us for the month, we loaded our bags into an SUV. Acquiring a rental car or taking the bus systems proved unfit for us, thus hiring a private car and driver was the most feasible option. Our driver spoke no English and us no Chinese, but the first leg of our fourteen-hour drive went smoothly enough. Ten hours after leaving Chengdu we arrived in Jiuzhi, the last outpost before the Nyainbo Yuze. The skies were dark and dreary, but I could make out some peaks to the west, what I suspected were our mountains.
The driver turned towards me asking where to go. Uhhh. Out of the myriad of streets I pointed to the one that lined up the most with the mountains in the distance, hoping it would yield good things.
As we drove further away from Jiuzhi, the gravity of this expedition finally hit me. What in the heck were we doing? We were about to get dropped off in the middle of China, and the last place that I had felt remotely comfortable was a 14-hour drive in the opposite direction. And on top of that, we had convinced ourselves that instead of spending another $600 to hire a car back, it would be easy enough to hitch hike back to Jiuzhi and take a bus back to Chengdu. Despite a few people telling us this plan should work out fine, I now seriously, seriously doubted that. The state of Jiuzhi made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, as did the condition of the road we were driving on.
Quantum theory describes a strange realm, something much more incomprehensible I think than that of the theory of relativity. Instead of a continuous curved space that Einstein describes, it is flat, and little pockets of energy leap to and fro. Supposedly nothing exists unless it is interacting with something else, and the way an object moves about happens largely at random. Odd as it may be though, it works, and has lead to many a groundbreaking discovery about our world.
In that moment, driving further and further away from security, certainty, civilization, I despised quantum theory. Why do ideas have to seem so practical, enjoyable even, on the surface? This- this stupid China idea- was at its core the most nonsensical and confusing thing I had done in my life. Here we were, driving deeper into discomfort with the intent of doing something as senseless as climbing mountains, with no surefire way of getting back home.
After an agonizing couple of hours we turned down a dirt road that is used by the local yak herders. Another bumpy hour and the path became too muddy for the car to continue. We unloaded our bags, helped to push the car out of the mud and waved goodbye. We found ourselves right in the middle of a herding settlement. With no other humans in sight and unsure of how to handle the situation we quickly shuttled our gear uphill a few hundred meters and set up a temporary camp behind a boulder.
LESSON 3: The Architecture of the Cosmos
Chapter three of Rovelli’s book begins marvelously- a drawing of a stick figure standing on a flat plane, with Earth beneath him and sky above. Thank God I thought, I actually understand this. Then I read the subtext- “The first great scientific revolution, accomplished by Anazimander twenty-six centuries ago.” Damnit. I thought I had this one.
The image of a stick figure standing on a flat plane quickly progresses into solar systems and exploding cosmos until at the end of the chapter I am to understand that we live within a swelling bouncy ball containing speckles and streaks. Why is it that when things become more understood, they must also become more complicated?
As we sat in our little tent we were becoming acutely aware of the complexities of this expedition. What we had once thought would be an adventurous exit strategy now seemed near impossible and incredibly stressful. We also had assumed that the interactions with the herders would be limited to driving through their property on the way in. Little did we know that the extent of their working land was nearly up to the bases of many of the rock faces that we wished to climb. My mind was racing, anxieties piling up in my brain like a massive car wreck. I am such an idiot.
LESSON 4: Particles
Apparently everything on this planet is made out of four basic units: electrons, quarks, photons, and gluons. I didn’t care much what they were, because a bunch of it was being regurgitated out of Jessica’s mouth, and it was freaking me out. We had gone from near sea level to 4400 meters quite rapidly, but it was a risk we were willing to take in order to get here with the least amount of fuss. Splitting altitude headaches had kept me from any real sleep, but the fairly unique sound of vomiting pulled me through the fog enough to look over at Jessica. She was half in the tent, half in the mud and yak shit. I managed to wake myself enough to check in with her. Satisfied she was going to make it, I lay back down and shut my eyes tight.
The sun finally broke and we were both feeling like total crap. Over the next two days we slowly moved and established our camp in a valley that, to our knowledge, had yet to be explored by climbers. It showed several promising option and as day four dawned we felt well enough to attempt a peak we had dubbed Le Petit Geant after the prominent feature of Chamonix’s Valle Blanche. The approach left us both light headed and ready to vomit, but we made it to the base of the peak in around an hour.
I began up an icy corner system on the peak’s north face but was turned back at around fifty feet by slick and unprotected moves that I wasn’t comfortable making. We decided to circumnavigate the mountain clockwise until we arrived at the sunny southeast aspect. There we found a less aesthetic line, but one free of ice and with more promising rock quality. After a pitch of sketchy knob-lassoing aid climbing I passed the rack over to Jessica. Some moderate fifth class pitches easily gave way to the summit. We decided to clock the route in somewhere around 5.7 C2, with the peak’s summit being at 4744 meters. Not a magnificent line, but we were happy to have climbed to a virgin summit.
The following day we headed off to a feature the locals call Jaouma. Although mellow in nature, the approach ravaged our sick bodies; in fact I can only think of one other time in my life that I have felt that bad and continued walking. Taking yesterday’s experience into account we walked around the mountain to its southeast aspect. Jessica lead up two pleasant pitches of moderate fifth class terrain, and I a third before it terminated at an imposing and crumbly six-inch wide crack. Not feeling up to the task, we opted to rappel onto the opposing face in search of other passages to the top. A brittle 5.8 pitch gave way to a stellar corner system and eventually the summit, somewhere around 4730 meters. Feeling more than satisfied we rappelled down.
As we sat back in our tent I smiled. I was happy about what we had done, but I am always impressed by the anticlimactic nature of summits. I thought about quantum theory. What happened up there was nothing more than the interaction between the mountain’s particles and mine. And on top of that, there is an objective reality independent of whoever interacts with whatever. No matter what those ascents mean to me, they mean nothing to the mountain.
Part of making quantum mechanics work involves a process called renormalization. Under direct application, the equations used in this theory produce numbers so large that they are completely incomprehensible. Thus, the parameters are changed in order to make the numerical outcomes functional. Convoluted, yes, but it is what has made quantum mechanics a working and useful tool to understand our universe.
How often do I use renormalization in my climbing? How many times have I built up a climb in my head in order to make the efforts seem worth it? versus how many times I have simply taken a climb for what it is and moved on. Internal versus external motivations for climbing a peak are always a constant point of interest to me. How do you decipher what the right and wrong reasons are for going up or down?
LESSON 5: Grains of Space
The next morning we received a weather report that showed precipitation for the foreseeable future- ten days at minimum. In the moment I was relieved at the necessary rest day, and honestly I was skeptical that it could be that awful.
In the early 1990s an effort began to try and combine the theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics. The result is something called loop quantum gravity, which states that space is made up of super tiny atoms that are linked together like chain mail. This, like all of the other ridiculous theories in this book, brings to light many truths about our world. One of these is the process of black holes, which I found fairly interesting. The energy source of a star runs dry, causing it to collapse under its own weight. As it collapses it becomes increasingly dense. Because the incredibly dense matter of the compressed black hole curves space, time therefore passes faster for those inside the black hole than outside of it. Ridiculous, I know.
The black hole of expedition climbing is another matter entirely. Here is how it works. The sun disappears for days, 12 days in our case. With no influx of energy, no outside source of cheerfulness, our dispositions slowly collapse. We are compressed into the space of our little green tent, emotions condensed into fits of extreme insanity, boredom, ecstasy, rage. I can assure you that time did not pass faster within our black hole. Time crawled at a pace that I’m not sure physicists have formulas to describe.
“When heat exchange does not occur, the future behaves exactly as the past.”
We waited and waited and waited. There was no reprieve from our dreary tent days. Although the forecast showed some potential for squeezing in a day of climbing, we awoke nearly every morning to a new deluge of snow. Apparently the future comes only with the flow of heat. Heat happens as a matter of probability, and probability is linked to the fact that our interactions with things don’t take into account the finer details of reality. What does that mean? I have no idea, but the probability of us ever climbing again seemed to be getting lower and lower. The fine details of our reality became contritely studying the inside of our tent.
One afternoon we were startled by a series of grunts outside. Oh no. It was finally happening, the yaks were coming. Feeling awkward was an understatement. We hid in the tent, hoping maybe the herders wouldn’t come this far over the hill. We were wrong, and after too many tips and howls to ignore we poked our heads outside.
In many areas of the States, and especially on rural land, finding strangers camped out on your property is grounds for telling them to scram and calling the police, if not doing so at gun point. Our experience with the yak herders was leaps and bounds away from that, and in fact they ended up being the best thing that happened to us over the course of the expedition.
They were a young man and woman named Matsu and Yaoushu. That first day they poked their heads inside of our vestibule and we exchanged a few words. They spoke only Tibetan, and we were armed only with a Mandarin-English dictionary which was of no help. Thus, charades it was.
The following morning they insisted that we come over to their tent that they had set up a hundred meters or so away from ours. They let us warm by their stove, fueled by yak dung and brush. Soon we were getting fed all sorts of mysterious food. Not wanting to be disrespectful we downed many a questionable meal- yak milk, yak butter, sweet oats, pig fat, yak meat, fried breads. Over the course of the next three days we had the pleasure of getting to know a little of them and their culture. While interactions were incredibly limited due to the language barrier, we still had plenty of laughs. They made fun of our arm hair, showed us videos on their phone of yak rodeos, and introduced us to new hairstyles, among other things. We tried to repay them by patching their puffy jackets and offering tuna packets, old pairs of gloves, and ensolite pads. However nothing can truly match the kindness that they showed us during our time back there.
One day of sun was forecasted towards the end of our stay. We woke early and hiked towards a feature we had deemed The Muffin, however even after waiting until mid day the rock was unclimbable for us. Below-freezing temperatures and high winds kept any snow or rime from melting off of the faces. Feeling dejected we returned to camp, hoping that tomorrow would yield better conditions.
Unfortunately the next morning we awoke to more fresh snow and tumultuous skies. With our time running out and no good weather in the forecast we decided to begin our exit from the range. Our plan was to spend a day or two hiking back down the dirt roads, then finding a way to hitch a ride back to Jiuzhi. From there we could hire a bus or car back to Chengdu.
We had one last meal with our herding friends and then began walking. On the way we stopped at a boulder under which we had cached some of our food and gear. While we were repacking Yaoushu and Matsu arrived on horses. We eventually understood that they wanted us to ride the horses, and they would walk alongside us. Trying to refuse became useless, and soon both Jessica and I were nervously plodding along on horseback with 70+ pound packs wobbling on our backs.
After around half an hour Matsu had me to get off. “Jiuzhi?” he said. I nodded. With that he took the horse up to the nearest high point. Yaoushu motioned that he was going to use his phone to make a call. He came cantering back down within thirty minutes and told us to get back on the horses. Another hour later his father appeared in a tiny old car. Matsu had arranged a ride back to Jiuzhi for us. We were completely blown away; I had never received such an insane show of kindness in my life. With big hugs we said goodbye to Yaoushu and Matsu and piled into the tiny vehicle with their father as well as their two small kids.
We were driven the long four-hour drive to Jiuzhi that evening. We paid their father for his kindness, but no amount can truly encompass all that those yak herders did for us. An exit that we were stressing about, uncertain if it would even work, became a fairly comfortable half-day affair.
LESSON SEVEN. Ourselves.
Upon arriving in Jiuzhi we were quite the spectacle- two young white girls shouldering mud-covered backpacks nearly the size of themselves. Warranting stares from nearly everyone on the streets, we quickly made our way to the nearest hotel we could find.
The next morning we attempted to find the bus station and through a ridiculous series of events ended up piling into a small minivan with six Tibetans bound for Chengdu. An unnecessarily long, though somewhat comical fourteen-hour drive returned us to the city.
So where does this put us? Wiser? Dumber? More educated? More nonsensical? It is impossible to say. For me it takes some time for the dust to settle, and to understand what value a trip had for me. I can say with certainty though that culturally this was the most remarkable experiences I have had to date. The climbing was simply the cherry on top.
Rovelli describes that physicists are “scrutinizing and deducing from the details of reality in order to pursue something that we can’t see directly, but can follow traces of.” What are we pursuing? A greater knowledge of ourselves and the world, or a distraction from it? A quest for discomfort and challenge, or an evasion of those challenges presented to us back home? Perhaps we will never know…but at least we can learn.