Swiss expat Dr. Dani Bach, a native of Catalonia, Spain leads an interesting double life. During the week, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) trained molecular biologist works in Zurich helping entrepreneurs build biotech businesses. At the weekends he scales the highest peaks in the Alps and has conquered everything above 4,000 metres. Evangeline de Macedo managed to pin down this bundle of energy for an interview.
Dani Bach (DB) : I believe it is a bit of both. To become an alpinist requires a lot of training and experience. You have to learn how to use all the equipment correctly, read the weather, topography, avalanche conditions and how to acclimatize yourself to high altitudes. It also requires certain character traits like determination, an appetite for pain, and the discipline to forgo immediate gratification for future rewards.
EdM : Which was the first mountain you climbed and what was it like?
DB (smiling) : My first mountain experience was a total lucky strike. Two friends and I decided to climb the highest mountain in Catalonia, the Pica d’Estats (3,143m). I was 20 then and ready for any adventure. With guitars on our backs, we chose a difficult climb along the ridge and arrived at the fog-covered summit. This did not dampen our spirits as we felt exhilarated by the climb and sat in the mist, playing guitar and singing. Meanwhile a wind had blown away the cloud cover revealing a wonderland view below us. Bare peaks rose proudly above the sea of clouds, the brilliant sunshine and blue skies completely blew me away and I was hooked. At this moment I knew that I had to experience this sensation again and again.
EdM : There seems to be no general consensus as to how many 4,000ers (peaks over 4,000 metres) there are in the Alps. How would you classify a 4,000er and by this classification, how many would you say there are in the Alps?
DB : This debate dates back to 1923 when Karl Blodig, an Austrian mountaineer, wrote a book about all the peaks over 4,000m in the Alps. The UIAA (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation) founded in 1932, increased the number to 82. The Americans also came into the game reclassifying Alpine 4,000ers as those with a collar between them of at least 100m, thereby reducing the list to 50. The American list of these peaks can be found on the peaklist website.
EdM : What made you decide to set yourself the goal of climbing all the 4,000ers in the Alps? What did you hope to accomplish?
DB : After the revelation at the Pica d’Estats, I joined an Alpine Club and began to learn the ropes of high mountaineering in winter. I had to learn all the basics as I was a novice in this area and did not even know how to ski. To do this required practice, which meant climbing in the Alps. Soon without any deliberate decision on my part, I found that I had climbed many of the fifty peaks listed in the official list, even more as I must have climbed about eighty Alpine peaks in total.
EdM : Which was the first 4,000er that you climbed and when did you climb it?
DB : In 1996, I went to Zermatt and saw the Matterhorn for the first time. It was an awe-inspiring moment and I felt that I would never be able to climb it without really training hard. So my climbing partners and I decided that we would practice by climbing the Castor (4,228m).
EdM : Which was the last? How long did it take you to climb all of them?
DB : The last climbed was the Aiguille Blanche in 2010 and it took me about 15 years to climb them all, including many other peaks not on the official list.
EdM : How do you prepare yourself for these climbs?
DB : I prepare myself physically for these climbs by doing lots of sports such as running, cycling and ice climbing. Much of the training has to be done in the mountains as that is where you get acclimatized . I evaluate my mental state before I decide on any climb. I need a certain mindset and then the climb flows naturally.
EdM : Have you ever been surprised by bad weather?
DB : Early in my alpinist career, my two counterparts and I set out in nice weather to climb the Mont Blanc by the Aiguilles Grises Route, an extremely long route to the summit.
As we climbed higher there was a strong wind blowing. Soon the track became very foggy and subsequently a snow storm developed. We were not the only ones to have been totally surprised by this weather development because when we tried to seek refuge at the Bivouac Vallot hut, we found that there were already many people there. This emergency hut, which normally accommodates 12 people, was filled to bursting. As such, it was a very uncomfortable night in an overcrowded hut.
Very early next morning, we received news from Chamonix that there would be a small window of stable weather. Upon hearing this news, the mountain guides immediately led their charges out of the hut and disappeared into the vast white wilderness outside. The rest of us were left to our own devices. We only had a map at that time, being relatively new to high mountaineering so we decided to follow three Germans who at least had a compass. However, it proved that they were no better at navigating than we were and soon they too were completely lost. We then came across some eastern Europeans and followed them instead. However it became apparent that they were heading towards the dangerous Glacier du Dome with its deadly crevasses, invisible in such bad weather.
Just when we were losing hope because snow and wind had wiped away all traces back to the Vallot hut, we encountered a rescue guide escorting a very shell-shocked mountaineer who had almost fallen to his death and witnessed his fellow alpinist die. The rescue guide led us back to the Vallot hut from wherehe called for a helicopter that brought all of us down to safety in Chamonix. We had been awake for more than 26 hours and were totally exhausted after this ordeal.
DB : After reaching the summit of our first 4,000er, Castor, my two climbing partners and I vowed that we would never employ a guide or porters to assist us nor climb any mountain with the aid of oxygen. Instead we would strive to increase our endurance and prowess by training and experience, until we felt confident enough to surmount all difficulties required to reach the summit.
EdM: Which of these were easy?
DB : The easy ones were the Breithorn, Allalinhorn, Alphubel, Bishorn, Lagginhorn and Weissmies.
EdM : Which of these were the most difficult for you? Why?
DB : The Aiguille Blanche, which is why I left it to the last; the Matterhorn, as it was my first challenge when I started mountaineering; the Taschhorn and Dom as we did not descend from the Taschhorn but traversed the ridge between them before descending from the Dom.
EdM : Which experiences were the most memorable?
DB : All experiences were memorable but there are four that I especially treasure. Two of them were achieving climbs I had always felt were impossible: to finally climb the Matterhorn, my first challenge and to conquer the Mont Blanc Brenva route. The other two were to help my wife achieve her dream of climbing the Mont Blanc via the normal route and the Aguille Vert. It was extremely special for me to be able to assist her and share her achievements.
DB (pensively): Yes, but not seriously. I was even caught in an avalanche once but was not injured. I managed to get out by myself and helped my climbing partner out. He too was not injured. I have witnessed four deaths in the mountains.
EdM : Did this have an impact on you? Were you ever so scared that you felt like giving up?
DB : No. Even the Mont Blanc experience, where we knew that if by night fall and we still hadn’t located any huts death was possible either by falling or freezing to death, I was not frightened. I did feel great sadness that I might never again experience the many joys of life, which were playing around in my head. To encounter death so closely makes you think a lot about the value of life.
EdM : What advice would you give to anyone wishing to embark on a similar challenge?
DB : Take enough time and not put yourself in situations where you will get scared. Do it for the enjoyment and not only for the trophy. Alpinists can be classified into two categories: the athletes and the monks. The athletes need to go faster, higher and harder, while the monks try to find self-actualization in the climb. I am somewhere in between.
EdM: What is your next mountaineering aim?
DB : After climbing Pik Lenin, which is 7100m in Kyrgyzstan, I feel that I would like now to tackle a 8,000er.
By Evangeline de Macedo
Evangeline is a member of the Writers’ Bureau and has a blog called Another Saturday in Switzerland.