Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I didn’t climb Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador, where I was traveling recently.
At 6,263 meters (20,548 ft), Chimborazo is proudly featured on Ecuador’s coat of arms. Besides being the highest mountain in the country, it is also the farthest point on the surface of the earth from its center. Yes, Everest is taller when measured from sea level. But Chimborazo is located on the equatorial bulge (where the centripetal force of the earth’s spinning distorts the planet into an oblate spheroid instead of a sphere), so that its summit is 2.1 kilometers farther from the center of the earth than the summit of Everest.
I didn't climb Chimborazo because I’m no serious mountaineer, not even close, and you have to be one to attempt it.
But Alexander von Humboldt tried climbing it in June 1802.
And perhaps he shouldn’t have tried either. Humboldt might have been a man of remarkable energy and resolve, but he was no Sir Edmund Hillary. And he was attempting the mountain with early 19th century technology and techniques. Indeed, the porters whom Humboldt and his three companions had hired to help them reach the summit had deserted them at the snow line, terrified as they were. After all, at the time, Chimborazo was believed to be the highest mountain in the world.
Humboldt had traveled to the Spanish colony that is now Ecuador from his native Prussia in no small part to study volcanoes like Chimborazo. In their studies of geology, European scientists had developed competing theories regarding volcanoes and the role they might have played in the formation of the earth and all the life forms that came after. But there were only two active volcanoes in Europe — Etna and Vesuvius, both in Italy. Today’s Ecuador alone, however, contains dozens of volcanoes. Humboldt’s travel to South America would provide him with a chance to study more volcanoes than any European scientist had done hitherto. He set out to climb every volcano in Ecuador that he could reach, including the great Chimborazo.
He would not reach the top. At an altitude of 5,875 meters, Humboldt and his companions came upon a massive crevasse that proved impassable. But they had climbed higher than anyone was known to have done.
And it was on this spot on Chimborazo that Humboldt had his epiphany. Here’s his biographer, Andrea Wulf:
Looking down Chimborazo’s slopes and the mountain ranges in the distance, everything that Humboldt had seen in the previous years came together. His brother Wilhelm had long believed that Alexander’s mind was made ‘to connect ideas, to detect chains of things’. As he stood that day on Chimborazo, Humboldt absorbed what lay in front of him while his mind reached back to all the plants, rock formations and measurements that he had seen and taken on the slopes of the Alps, the Pyrenees and in Tenerife. Everything that he had ever observed fell into place. Nature, Humboldt realized, was a web of life and a global force. He was, a colleague later said, the first to understand that everything was interwoven as with ‘a thousand threads’. This new idea of nature was to change the way people understood the world.
Just as many of Shakespeare’s best lines now sound to us like cliches, so it is that Humboldt’s ideas, at the time revolutionary, now seem to us utterly obvious. Indeed, the “everything is connected” notion now sounds new-agey enough as to invite mockery from the more rigorous-minded among us. For the same reason, relatively few remember Humboldt’s name and achievements. In Ecuador, however, tour guides still speak of his climb up Chimborazo, even if they refer to him only as “a German scientist.” Over in the Galapagos Islands, the current responsible in large part for the incredible wildlife there is still called “the Humboldt Current.”
But Humboldt, precisely because of his view of an integral nature, was the father of environmentalism. Indeed, he had originated the concept of anthropogenic climate change, which even two hundred years later far too many refuse to accept. And to see that factory emissions in Michigan affects the melting of Antarctic ice shelves is to see that nature is an interconnected whole. We owe our baseline understanding of nature, at least among those of us who believe in science, to Humboldt.
And he owed his insights in no small part to a long trip to Ecuador and other parts of Spanish South America.
Travel — it just might change the world.
For more on Humboldt, read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."