“[There are] thing[s] that initially seem overwhelming, seem impossible, [but] if you break down the problem into smaller, more manageable digestible portions, you can actually overcome these big challenges,” Professor and Department Chair of Chemistry Stefan Lutz said.
Lutz employs this sentiment of dedication to his work both at Emory and at heights tens of thousands of feet above the ground.
The biological chemistry researcher and faculty member of Emory’s Chemistry Department for 15 years has spent chunks of his out of class time far from Atlanta over the past six years, climbing some of the world’s best known mountains.
“The first day you fly into Denali National Park and you actually see the summit, you’re just asking yourself, ‘How in the world am I ever going to go up there?’ But then you take it one day at a time and suddenly you manage,” Lutz said. “In higher education, you experience unexpected obstacles … How do you tackle those kinds of challenges? There’s experience that mountaineering provides that comes in handy in an education environment as well.”
Lutz has been tackling obstacles of all sizes since his childhood in Switzerland, where he would spend his weekends hiking and exploring. However, he did not begin bigger climbs until moving to the United States to pursue graduate studies at the University of Florida.
Lutz’s first major climb was in January 2012 at Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America. From there, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Denali in Alaska and Mount Vinson in Antarctica. At the end of his trip to Antarctica in late 2014, Lutz received an invitation to join a climbing team that planned to tackle Mount Everest. The team was set to leave March 2016.
After a preparation period that stretched for over a year, with the later months requiring five to six days of training per week, Lutz was on a plane headed to Nepal. He planned to be there for two months, the typical length of time for a climb up Mount Everest.
“[The two-month time frame] is not so much because of distance or anything; it’s mostly to give your body time to acclimatize to the altitude,” Lutz said. “To live up there over an extended period of time, you need to give your body time to deal with the lower oxygen and the temperatures.”
Lutz and his team spent the first two weeks of April climbing to the mountain’s base camp, placed at 17,000 feet.
Once there, the team spent about five weeks in rotations, moving between base camp and the other four camps leading up to summit. They would spend a few nights at a camp, return to base, and repeat the method with each advancing camp. Although helpful for acclimation, the process was draining.
“At those altitudes, your body basically cannot fully recover,” Lutz said. “Your body starts to deteriorate in a sense that it consumes more calories than what you can eat. You eat all day, and you eat nothing but sugar.”
Lutz climbed for five weeks before he started to feel sick. He lost 10 percent of his body weight and was fighting an intestinal parasite. After reaching approximately 23,000 feet, he decided to turn back.
“At that point, I basically realized that [my plan to reach the top] would not happen,” he said.
Lutz could have pushed himself further, but he knew the climb was dangerous.
“The goal is not to reach the summit but to come back alive and be able to tell the story, and I had reached a point where I wasn’t sure that would be possible if I continued.”
As Lutz came home and reacclimated to classroom life, the skills he perfected for the Mount Everest climb, and all the other climbs, remained valuable.
“Mountain climbing requires a certain stubbornness in pursuit of your goals. It requires a commitment, a dedication, time wise, effort wise, and I think that is a quality that comes through in when you do research,” Lutz said. “Research involves a lot of failure. [But] to be able to go back and pick yourself up after a setback, those are qualities that I think mountaineering and research can share.”
It’s this can-do attitude that will most likely send Lutz back out to Everest, maybe even sometime soon.
“I’d lie if I didn’t acknowledge that the idea [of going back] is tossing around up there,” Lutz said, smiling. “At the same time, I need to balance this with my professional responsibilities, towards the department, the college [and] my students. So with all of that in mind, am I thinking about going back? When I’m going back? We will see.”