Paul Monigatti

Paul is an amateur explorer from New Zealand, with a background in computer science and electronic engineering, and is currently working towards a PhD in the area of renewable energy. He enjoys the outdoors in all its forms, including rock climbing, mountaineering, hiking, and snowboarding.

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Fifteen Lessons from Rock Climbing and Research

Ah, rock climbing – where you start at the bottom and work your way up. Just like doing a  research project, actually.

There is a lot in common between the two – more than first meets the eye. They both test how you act under pressure, require a bit of creativity, and let’s face it, are typically only done by people who are a bit weird.

Before diving into a list of why these two seemingly unrelated things are similar, let me explain how I first got started with each.

I’ve always been interested in electricity, computers, and the environment, so it just made sense to take these interests to a new level and study something like that at the PhD level – to make a real difference in the world, or so the theory goes. On the other hand, I figured out early on that climbing could get me out of a lot of bad situations. For example, during tidy up time at kindergarten it was easier to climb to the top of the tallest tree and hide, watching all the non-climbers tidy up the mess that I had so enthusiastically helped create.

But, the real story went more like this: “Hey Paul, want to take part in a project to enter in an international technology competition?” to which I replied “Sure, why not?”

I didn’t realise it at the time, but my path for at least the next six years had just changed forever.

Rock climbing was a similar story. A friend suggested that we go rock climbing. I said “Nah, sounds boring”. When I was finally convinced to give it a go, I loved it. Needless to say, I’ve never looked back.
Alright then, on to that list!

1. You will fail
Not a nice one to begin with, but it’s true. You will fall. You will experience setbacks in your research. The important thing is not to try and avoid these failures, but to have a system in place for dealing with it when it happens. Climbers build up a system of protection as they climb by placing gear into the wall to catch a fall, so that the failure of one or two parts of that system will not lead to an unwelcome encounter with the ground. During a PhD, you must also build up a system of protection as you go, usually in the form of publications. A rejection or two shouldn’t derail the whole process. Of course, building up too much protection will simply slow down your forward progress – it’s a delicate balance.

2. Do your research
On a recent climbing trip, we jumped on a climb that was supposed to be highly rated. It started off OK, but things got worse from there. Climbing was difficult; bashing through shrubs, avoiding loose rock, and struggling to find places to put gear. Eventually it turned into a nasty off-width crack about 50 metres off the ground – a style of climbing that most sane climbers avoid at all costs, and certainly something that we didn’t have suitable gear for. We had to get out, and fast.

Later on, we looked in the guidebook. It said “Overgrown and nasty. Don’t bother”. Useful information to have beforehand, wouldn’t you say? During a PhD, it is even more important not to waste time researching what others already know. Always check the literature beforehand!


3. Always look for options
On that same climb, we got into the situation where continuing up wasn’t an option, nor was going down without leaving behind expensive gear. One response would be to ask some questions. Why are we doing this? Why couldn’t we just stay on the ground? Why did we ever think this would be a good idea? I understand that most PhD students ask similar questions at some point, but I’m not so sure about the climbers.

A better approach would be to look sideways. Opportunities are everywhere, if you know where to look. Luckily for us, there was a nice tree about 10 metres away, which allowed us to abseil off the cliff. Usually, once you’re out of situations like this it’s natural to think “wow, that was fun”. Or maybe that’s just me.

4. Don’t hesitate
Whenever climbing, it’s natural to hesitate when you’re coming up to a difficult section.

Unfortunately, when you hang around too long, putting off the difficult bit, you fall. It’s usually best to just go for it. With a PhD, the hard question is not usually “how do we do this”, but “what should we be doing?” There is the fear that we’ll put in all this effort researching something, only to find out that it was the wrong thing. Hanging around doing nothing is not a good solution. Just do it.

5. Make the most of easy ground
There’s a good chance that you’ll cover easy ground during a climb, or research project. Make the most of it – you’ll appreciate the rest once things get tough again. And trust me, they will. On the other hand…

6. Don’t stop for too long
While climbing, especially long multi-pitch routes, it’s all too easy to get comfortable on a nice ledge. Ledgeitis, they call it. The longer you rest, the less motivated you become to move on.

Unsurprisingly, the same is true for research. The longer you stop on a particular project, the harder it is to get back into it and move it forwards. It’s another delicate balance of resting, but not too much.

7. It’s easy to give advice from the ground
Rock climbers are notorious for this. Why don’t you just grab that hold? Use your feet! Go up! We all hate it, yet most of us will do it anyway. Unless you’ve been there before, and know the unique strengths and weaknesses of the climber really well, it’s best to keep quiet. Your way (if you even have one) is not the only way, and sometimes half the fun is figuring it out!

In research, people like to do the same thing. It’s easy to suggest maybe doing something differently when in fact you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. Please don’t.

A more productive way:

8. Watch how others do it
You’ll learn something. Rock climbing is as much a creative pursuit as it is a physical one. See what others do – whether they see the climb differently, or know about some secret hold that you missed completely, it’s better to watch than be told. In research, especially as a lowly student, see what the professors do. See how they deal with the problems that come up. But, stay out of academic politics as long as possible.

9. The public is usually curious
The general public know that us researchers exist, and will sometimes be interested if we have something flashy to show, but in general don’t really know what we are doing or why. That’s ok; I just disappear into my lab for hours at a time and occasionally come out with a paper.

The number of times a climber has to explain to a curious tour group about how their “hooks” work, or more annoyingly, what we are doing (um, climbing?), makes us seek out more remote locations. Probably the most annoying of all is a well-meaning person saying “you know there’s a walking path to the top, right?” I thought it was pretty obvious that…

10. The easy way up is boring
Yeah, that’s right. It’s just mundane labour – one step after the other and you are guaranteed to walk a path that thousands have walked before, not requiring much thought, not controlling that “healthy respect” for heights. Sure, we end up in the same place, but who had the most fun?
Researching the hard problems is a challenge. We don’t know the answers, whether we’ll be successful or not – that’s why it’s called research. Repetitive tasks that lead to a well-known conclusion are not that interesting.

11. Too much planning is bad
Typically, us climbers will stand at the bottom of a cliff and make sure we understand what the climb will involve before starting. That’s generally a pretty good idea. But I find that the longer I look at a climb and try to figure out what the potential pitfalls are, and where the best gear placements are, the more nervous I become, sometimes to the point of backing off before even making a start.

Usually, that fear all goes away once the climbing begins. It’s just you and the wall, and you have the opportunity to succeed or fail on your own accord. If you don’t start, you have already failed.

I have also suffered this in research – planning the ultimate solution to a relatively simple problem. I had anticipated all the features that we might need, tried to eliminate what could possibly go wrong, and eventually spent way too much time focussing on the “what-ifs” that the project eventually got shelved. Lesson learnt.

12. Expect the unexpected
There has been a few occasions where I have submitted academic papers that I was not very happy with, and assumed they would be rejected. When they don’t, that’s a mixed blessing. On the upside, it was accepted! On the downside, it’s a lot more work to fix up all the stuff I didn’t like.

On the climbing front: Snow. In Australia. In March. Enough said.

13. Expect the expected
The sun goes down every day. Take a head torch if there’s a chance that you’ll be climbing after dark. If you’re also teaching while doing your PhD, you’ll know (or quickly learn) three things: semesters do end, students do most of their work right before a big deadline, and they’ll want your help – all at the same time. You know it’s coming, so plan around it.

14. Look down
It’s easy to think that you’re not making progress – sometimes looking down is just what you need. It is quite a nice surprise to realise that you’re much further up than you thought. Of course, if you don’t like heights, you should have a long hard think about what you are doing.

15. It takes longer than you think
Sometimes while climbing it takes over an hour to go up 50 metres. In research, it’s easy to think “I’ll just write that paper on Friday”. Not going to happen.

Hofstadter’s Law states that “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

This is true for climbing, research, business projects, everything. So make sure you allow plenty of time, relax, and most importantly have fun.

Finally, just remember that whatever you’re doing, you are choosing to do it. So enjoy it!

Climbing Adventures in Tasmania

What’s it feel like to clamber on some of the finest cliffs in Australia? Watch along with a GoPro and get a sense of the vertigo, patience, and challenge in rock climbing…

Our party of six had arrived in Hobart just after lunchtime in early March. The trip was off to a great start. We collected the rental cars from the airport; a late model XR6 and X-Trail, affectionately known by the call signs “Silver Fox” and “Chunder Bus”. Then, we headed into the city to collect supplies and a parking fine, ready to get straight into some climbing the next day.

The main mission was to be Frenchmans Cap, a remote quartzite cliff in the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, with some routes approaching 400 metres in length. The weather forecast wasn’t looking great at that point, so instead, climbing the sea cliffs on the Freycinet Peninsula was next on the schedule.

We arrived in Coles Bay by evening, only to find that the camp ground was closed and full. In search of a suitable site, we quickly discovered that the Silver Fox did not perform well on rough gravel roads. Fortunately, some locals let us know where to find a place to camp, and shortly afterwards we settled in for the night.

On day two, the six of us squeezed into the Chunder Bus for the bumpy drive out to the Freycinet crags; the person buried in the boot under all our climbing gear attracting strange looks from unsuspecting members of public. After unpacking and racking up, we explained to a tour group how our “hooks” worked, asserting that they are perfectly safe, and had our photos taken.

Then it was down to business – we abseiled down to the base of the spectacular granite cliffs. The climbing was great, including a bit of gardening to set up anchors, and using some holds that looked remarkably like cams and quickdraws on some of the harder sections. When the guidebook says “a sparsely-protected pitch”, you’d better believe it. Even belaying was scary.

The following day included a trip up to Longford, a bit of evening climbing in Cataract Gorge, and a brief detour through Launceston courtesy of Google Maps.

Ben Lomond National Park was the next attraction. 100 metre sheer cliffs of pure crack climbing – something I quickly discovered that I wasn’t very good at. Both myself and my climbing partner climbed a single pitch that day, bailed off, and managed to get two ropes stuck. Meanwhile, the rest of our group were eagerly climbing pitch after pitch.

After an epic mission to rescue our gear, the rescuers themselves got their two ropes stuck too. Not for long, though, as we had more rescuers already at the top of the cliffs. Once we were all finally back at the base of the cliff, we observed a brilliant sunset. Unfortunately, we still had an hour of boulder-hopping between us and the car park.

Finally, the weather forecast for Frenchmans Cap was showing what we wanted to see – good weather moving in over the next few days. We collected more supplies, and then headed over to Lake St Clair for the next few nights. To prove that rock climbers can appreciate art, we headed to “The Wall”, a spectacular wood carving that is still a work in progress. It describes the history of the Derwent Bridge area in the form of intricately-carved wood panels; the wall is to be 100 metres long when complete. Definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area.

The walking started the following day. It started off OK, but shortly afterwards I was destroyed. “Endless torture is one way to describe the 25 km walk to the Tahune Hut at the base of Frenchmans”, says the guidebook. I disagree; with my level of fitness and pack weight, that is the only way to describe the walk. Every step was a torture. After stopping overnight at Lake Vera, we arrived at Lake Tahune the following afternoon, tired, wet, cold, and rather amused to see another hiker frantically trying to dry his jeans by the fire.

The brilliant weather didn’t arrive on cue, so a hike to the top of Frenchmans Cap was in order. We scrambled through rain, snow and fog to the summit so that we could update Facebook. Er, get the latest weather forecast. The news was not good – the high pressure weather system had skirted around Tasmania and was on its way to New Zealand!

On the descent back to the hut, we checked out the climbs that we wouldn’t be doing. A few sketchy traverses later put us at the base of the huge cliffs, disappearing into the clouds above. I’ll have to head back some time to climb there – and hope for better luck with the weather. The rock was amazing.

The next day was the ultimatum – climb, or get out. The first of our party was up early – bumping around, excited about the starry sky above. “Ah good, you’re all awake” were the words that woke the rest of us. Outside were low clouds and no stars in sight – only ten minutes after seeing the opposite. A hasty retreat was in order. That evening, we enjoyed delicious meals at the Derwent Bridge Hotel, by a roaring fireplace – a stark contrast to freeze-dried meals by a tiny coal stove. All was good.

The time to leave Tasmania was fast approaching. The next stop would be Hobart, to get in a bit of climbing at Mt Wellington and the Tasman Peninsula.

Mt Wellington is an amazing place. Great climbing, great views, and not far from the city. Spending a week there would be worthwhile, although make sure you’re reading the guidebook properly. You know a climb means trouble when your normally talkative climbing partner goes silent.

Ten minutes later, he yelled “there is no way this is a three-star grade 15 climb!” Not quite in those words, mind you. The curses echoed off the cliffs, down the valleys, and across the greater Hobart area, assaulting the ears of anyone who would listen. The silence returned, followed shortly afterwards by the end of the first pitch.

When following up the route, I quickly realised what all the silence and shouting was about. Loose rock, slings stashed into tiny shrubs, and the type of climbing that strangely resembled bush-bashing. I then led the second pitch. The first few metres of it, at least. It quickly turned into a nasty off-width crack, and we didn’t have any gear that would do the job. Luckily for us, there was a nice big tree nearby. Needless to say, we took the opportunity and bailed. A day later, we again looked at the guidebook. We started on the wrong route, and got further off course. The guidebook said something along the lines of “overgrown and nasty – don’t bother”. Grade 13, no stars.

After a day exploring Hobart, including a visit to another art gallery, it was off to the Tasman Peninsula despite a poor weather forecast. It was a sunny walk in to the Mt Brown crags, but half-way up the first route the rain rolled in. Another hasty retreat – and the sun returned shortly afterwards. That was the last climb of the trip. The next few hours involved more typical tourist activities – standing behind safety barriers (or jumping over safety barriers for some of us), and taking photos of the coastline, blowholes, sea caves and fossils.

The time had come to leave Tasmania behind. It was definitely a great place to be climbing and hiking, and definitely one that I’ll return to. Although the main mission of the trip was never attempted, a great time was had by all. Frenchmans Cap is now firmly on my list….