Such Great Heights

Tufts seniors Ryan Stolp and Nick Levin are never more at home than on the side of a mountain.

For Nick Levin and Ryan Stolp, the Hill is not enough. They have to head to the mountains. 

The School of Arts and Sciences seniors have spent their time at Tufts scaling peaks as nearby as New Hampshire’s Mount Lafayette and as far away as Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of the Himalayas.

Fittingly, they are capping off their Tufts experience this semester by teaching an Experimental College class called Alpinismo: The Culture and Science of Mountain Climbing, fulfilling a goal they have had since sophomore year. 

“Everything comes together in mountaineering: risk management, decision making, leadership,” says Levin. “We wanted to give a strong basis in the culture of mountaineering. It is a sport that is changing fast.”

As they head off into life after Tufts, Stolp and Levin plan to never be far from the mountains. Levin, a pre-med biology major, wants to practice rural community-based medicine. Stolp aspires to design outdoor equipment—he got a head start by designing a backpack for his senior project.

For both of them, climbing is more than just a hobby or even a lifestyle—it’s a philosophy.

“Climbing puts life in perspective,” says Levin. “I come back after weekends in the mountains and don’t get worked up about small things as much.”

“Climbing reinforces the idea that you’re in control of your life to an extent,” adds Stolp. “You’re in control of your next decision. You’re the only person who can help yourself.”

Outdoor Classroom

Both Levin, raised in New Mexico, and Stolp, a North Carolina native, fell in love with mountains just before high school. Roommates since sophomore year and now living in a house with other climbing enthusiasts, they put in time with Tufts Mountain Club (and continue to be loyal users of the Loj, a university-owned retreat in New Hampshire run by the club). More recently, they’ve been climbing with another Tufts-based group, Vertical Ice Climbing Enthusiasts

These communities help them grow as climbers, says Stolp.

“Mountain climbing is really mentor-based, I think, as far as learning,” he explains. “There are a lot of decisions you have to make, and different techniques have different merits. Building that judgment is hard to learn from a book.”

The various kinds of rock climbing include bouldering (no rope, not too high off the ground); top roping (climbing up a rope on a pulley anchored at the top); and lead climbing (inserting bolts into the mountain wall and clipping onto them as you ascend). According to Stolp and Levin, one thing these three have in common is that they require planning—which is why the final for the course they are teaching is to plan a theoretical expedition, down to the details of where to sleep and what to carry. 

Stolp and Levin further emphasize that there’s always an element of risk, as captured in the Oscar-nominated film 127 Hours

“It’s tough to put yourself in the climber’s situation,” says Stolp. “Every situation is unique.”

“I really like the uncertainty and adventure of problem solving on the mountain,” he reflects. ”I think the decision-making process is really what draws me to climbing.”  

Still, both he and Levin contend that anyone can be a climber, even those not accustomed to thinking on their feet, so long as they commit to the necessary training and preparation. They just have to remember that, as Levin puts it, mountaineering means “planning, with a change of plans in the plans.” 

High Pressure

One of the most difficult changes of plan Stolp himself has had to make came last year, when he, Levin and classmate August Longino, A11, went to Argentina to climb 22,841-foot Mount Aconcagua, one of the “seven summits”—the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. It takes eight days to scale the peak and just four hours to go back down. On the day when the party was to reach the summit, Stolp, who had been suffering from dehydration and problems with the high altitude, concluded that it would be wise to return to camp. He was, however, able to summit the next day. 

Prior to that, while tackling Washington’s Mount Rainier with friends the summer after his sophomore year, Levin had been forced to make a hard call of his own. He had broken his hand in a non-climbing-related accident and had cut off his cast in order to fit into his gloves. Partway up the mountain, though, the snow made it unsafe to continue. He decided to turn back.

“Being from the Northeast, a lot of guys in the group can climb just about anything,” says Levin. “It was the first time a lot of us had to say ‘no’ as an answer.”

And it’s a good thing they were able to say it.  “When you start not having ‘no’ as an option,” says Stolp, “that’s when you start running into trouble and having accidents.”

View from the Top

While the mountains Levin and Stolp scale have been around for ages, the sport has changed rapidly in just the past half century.

Earlier, “the equipment was much more basic; the risk was a lot higher,” says Levin. “Nowadays, it is a more commercialized entity. It’s more accessible to people.”

It is this commercialism and the attendant environmental issues, ranging from litter to rock erosion, that concern the Tufts seniors. Stolp was dismayed by the scene he observed on Mount Aconcagua, which draws lots of climbers who pay top dollar for guides and the amenities of home, such as pizzas and showers.

“That was definitely kind of a wake-up call for me to assess what is mountaineering to me. Why am I here? Is it to say that I’ve been on a mountain this tall?” he recalls. “If I had to do it again I probably wouldn’t climb Aconcagua; I would climb the mountain next to it. I would be alone in a place that has less trash, fewer people and more mountain.”

“For us, being a mountaineer is about being self-sufficient,” says Levin. “When you break it down to the commercialized venue style, that beauty is kind of lost.”

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