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From "Münchner UniMagazin"

From Alps to algorithms – and back

München, 02/16/2015

Andreas Butz is Professor of Informatics and Media at LMU, Director of the Institute of Informatics, and a qualified climbing instructor for the German Alpine Club. For recreation, he scales Alpine peaks – and frozen waterfalls – and teaches mountain rescue techniques.

Professor Andreas Butz

While he was in training to become an accredited climbing instructor for the German Alpine Club (Deutscher Alpenverein, DAV), Andreas Butz found himself at the very edge of an icefall that plunged 60 meters deep. The leader and teacher of the group then calmly told his charges what to do: “The first in line jumps over the edge, and all the others anchor him.” First in line was Butz himself. “Choosing to step into empty space, trusting that others will protect one from harm, contravenes a basic instinct, and involves crossing a psychological as well as a physical threshold,” he says. But he stepped out into the void and dropped like a stone “for at least 5 meters”, before the stopper knot halted his descent. “There I was, hanging close to a wall of ice, and my adrenalin level was so high that it took me 20 seconds to calm down.“ He finally screwed an anchoring device into the ice, and signaled to the others: OK, everything’s fine. Now you can start hauling me back up!”

About 10 years ago, Andreas Butz moved to LMU to take up a professorship in the field of man-machine interactions – and was close to his beloved mountains once more. “I went on climbing trips with my parents when I was still a child,” he says. Now he sets his sights on more challenging pinnacles, such as the Grossvenediger, all of 3666 meters high. “At that altitude, one is surrounded by snow and ice. Standing on the summit, above the cloud-tops and the pollution in the lower atmosphere, with nothing but snow- and ice-capped peaks in sight, one realizes how small and insignificant one really is. It literally puts one in one’s place, in relation to the natural environment and the world as a whole.”

No discussion – for safety’s sake
However, it was not just the majesty and the fascination of Alpine heights or the physical challenge of mountaineering that persuaded him to sign up in 2010 for the DAV’s three-year training course as a climbing instructor. “One could say that I very deliberately chose this hobby, because it has to do with leadership and teaching useful skills to others, albeit in a very different context from the academic one.” Obviously, the demands on leader and learners in mountainous terrain are of an entirely different order from those one encounters in a university setting. On an expedition in Switzerland at the beginning of the course, trainee Butz is in the lead and is suddenly, and unexpectedly, confronted with a stretch of sheer, polished ice. “I automatically reacted as I would when faced with a problem in an academic seminar – I began to discuss with the rest of the group how we could best negotiate the obstacle. At this point, the leader of the expedition took me aside, and said to me: ‘This is no place for discussions. We are in the mountains! You decide how we should make this traverse – and then we’ll do it that way.’ I was quite taken aback, and for a while I busied myself with the task of securing a fixed line, before telling the others what to do.” After all, the responsibility that rests on the leader of a climbing party in an Alpine region is far greater than that of a university teacher or the supervisor of a seminar. “If I teach a trainee to use an inappropriate knot in a given situation, and someday that knot fails to hold and he falls, I am responsible for his fate.” The course that Butz completed qualified him as a climbing instructor for the mountainous areas around Munich. In addition to equipping participants to teach the basics of climbing, the course focused on two other vital mountaineering skills: acquiring the manual and technical capabilities – particularly those related to safety – that are required to cope with the challenges posed by the mountains, and learning how to deal effectively with groups.

Indeed, Butz now finds the social aspect of mountaineering particularly valuable – climbing as an experience that is shared with others. “Survival in mountainous terrain depends on teamwork. When one is climbing with a small group, one must have complete confidence that the other guy is always prepared to react at a moment’s notice, to sit in the snow, fix an anchor and pull one up again. All of us are roped together, we’re all lashed to the same line.” Although Butz has yet to experience a really alarming fall on his climbing trips, he takes it for granted that the leader of a roped party on a glacier will sometimes sink knee-deep, or even up to the hip, in the snow. “Nevertheless, climbing at high altitudes is not a sport for freaks seeking thrills,” he quickly adds. “On the contrary, it is a sport that places great value on minimizing risks, which is why it requires a high level of technical competence and dexterity. According to DAV statistics, far more people suffer injuries on the ski-slopes than on the ice-fields of the higher Alpine peaks.

A bivouac at the top
Butz has had many unforgettable experiences in the mountains. For instance, two years ago he spent the night on the summit of the Birkkarspitze, the highest peak in the Karwendel region. “It was a breathtakingly clear night and the Moon was full. The peak itself is bare rock, and from my bivouac I was able to observe the setting Sun, while sunrise on the following morning found me brewing up a pot of tea.” In the Tauern region, he recalls how much he enjoyed scaling the Wiesbachhorn, the Grossglockner and, of course, the Grossvenediger. Several tributaries of the Inn Valley, such as the valleys of the Ötz, the Pitz or the Kauner, are also attractive climbing destinations within easy reach of Munich. In the Valais region of Switzerland, Andreas Butz has climbed several peaks in the 4000-meter class. And although his photos almost always have a decidedly wintry cast, the best time of the year to tackle Alpine summits is in August and September, he says. “Earlier in the year there’s too much snow, and the weather is too bad later on.” Nevertheless, Professor Butz does venture into the high hills in the depths of winter – to climb frozen waterfalls, for instance. In this discipline, ice screws are used as anchoring points, rather than the bolts that are driven into rock. Butz’s boots are fitted with crampons with front-pointing spikes, and he carries an ice-pick in each hand. “Two hands and two feet – and to climb a vertical or overhanging icefall, three of the four must always be in the ice. The other cardinal rule when climbing a vertical iceface is – don’t lose your footing! First of all, the anchoring points are not always trustworthy, and secondly, in such an event, the equipment itself can cause serious injury.” Here again, it is a matter of knowing how far one can go, and never overestimating one’s own abilities. Together with a climbing partner, Butz plans to tackle the Dufourspitze, the highest peak in Switzerland, in the latter half of the coming winter season. “Four-six – that would be my best yet.”