Collaboration gets chemists to the top

01 October 2007

Take three chemists - one of them a 2005 Nobel Laureate - add one vertiginous peak in the Sierra Nevada of California and you get an unrivalled formula for adventure.

UCT inorganic chemist Professor John Moss, Nobel Laureate Professor Bob Grubbs (California Institute of Technology), and Professor Bob Waymouth (Stanford University), have collaborated on various projects for over 20 years.

In August the project was the spectacular Eichorn's Pinnacle at the summit of Cathedral Peak (10 911ft), with the last 250 feet of arduous climbing on an edifice resembling a Cadbury Flake.

Just as well it's granite.

The pinnacle has been serrated by the wind and cold for eons, a finger of rock pointing dramatically to the sky. Jules Eichorn and Glen Dawson made the first ascent in 1931, climbing the north face and finishing at the top of the impossibly narrow west pillar.

Since then it's drawn the climbing fraternity, including Moss and his fellow chemists, all ardent climbers.

A former president of the Mountain & Ski Club, Moss happened to be visiting Grubbs at Caltech in August. (Last year Grubbs delivered the Vice-Chancellor's Open Lecture at UCT.)

"He'd always wanted to do the pinnacle," Moss says. Back in harness in the chemistry department, he's wearing a golf shirt with the logo Inorganic bonds are not forever, 007.

His desk is strewn with books about mountains. To one side is a signed copy of UCT alumnus Andy de Klerk's new anthology, Sharper Edges.

"Do you know he gave up a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford to go climbing?" Moss asks.

Man and mountain. A powerful alchemy.

To prepare themselves for Eichorn's Pinnacle Moss, Grubbs and Waymouth did some technical training with ace climber Cali Nguyen at the Joshua Tree National Park.

For altitude training Moss and Nguyen scaled the 1 000-ft vertical East Buttress of Mount Whitney (14 497ft), also in the High Sierras and the highest peak in the contiguous US.

Moss doesn't look like he needs any of it. He's climbed mountains in wild places for over 40 years. He started at school in the UK and has been up and down peaks on every continent. Many have been first ascents.

The pinnacle itself is not more than a day's climb - with a stash of energy bars and plenty of water in the summer.

But it's a highly technical route requiring some robust hardware and sound belay techniques. And a dark, pre-dawn start from their camp to avoid prevalent afternoon summer storms.

Moss climbed first, roped to Grubbs and Waymouth, to make the ascent by the end of the afternoon on 11 August.

No bigger than a small table top, the summit perch allows only one climber up at a time. No collegial group hug at the top, Moss jokes.

"You don't hang around. Summer thunderstorms can come up quickly. Also, it's exposed to the wind and the precipitous drop of thousands of feet is quite scary!"

Descent is by a series of three breathtaking abseils.

"It's steep. It's hard," Moss acknowledges. "But I have climbed much more difficult ones. All have their own fascination."

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