Q&A with Matt Moniz '20

by Sunny Drescher | 8/17/18 2:25am

moniz
Source: Courtesy of Matt Moniz

Matt Moniz ’20 took an unusual off-term last spring to fulfill a childhood goal: testing the boundaries of human capabilities and reaching the summit of Mount Everest. Moniz, a government major and global health minor, didn’t only make the ascent for the sake of personal achievement; he is a participant in an ongoing study at the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences that is analyzing how extreme conditions affect human gene expression. Moniz and his climbing partner, Willie Benegas, both have twin siblings, and the Cornell study is based on a NASA twin study with astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. After two prior attempts to summit the world’s highest peak, Moniz and Benegas finally reached the top of the world on May 20.

How did you get into climbing extraordinarily large mountains in the first place?

MM: I grew up in Boulder, Colorado with my twin sister and my parents. When my sister and I were growing up, we would always be hiking around outdoors, and we thought it was kind of normal. We grew up skiing and hiking a lot. I started big mountain climbing when I was nine. We went to Nepal because my dad was on a business trip, and I got to tag along. We were in the Himalayas. Just being there sparked my passion for climbing.

Could you talk about the twin altitude study and how you got involved in it?

MM: It’s run by the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, and it’s based off of a NASA twin study. Chris Mason is the principal researcher, and he was the principal researcher for the NASA twin study as well. They measured a couple of really abnormal genetic changes during the NASA twin study, but the problem was they had a really small sample size — only two people. They wanted to see if they could replicate some of the changes that they saw at high altitude. We have a mutual friend with Dr. Mason who reached out to us and came up with the idea to run this study. Both Willie Benegas and I are twins. Willie is an identical twin, so he shares up to 99 percent of his DNA with his brother. I’m a fraternal twin, so only share about 50 percent of my DNA with my twin sister.

What kind of training goes into preparing for these ascents?

MM: The best training for climbing is climbing, so I actually went to Mount Washington a lot over winter term, usually two or three times a week. I also spent time sleeping on Berthoud Pass near my house. Its elevation is about 11,000 feet, and I would just sleep in my car and then drive down to do whatever I was doing each day before going back up to sleep in my car again. I did that for two weeks. One of the other things I did was put on weight. That’s because one of the things that happens at high altitudes is that you lose a lot of weight; I lost about 30 pounds. When you’re above 8,000 meters, you’re burning almost 10,000 calories every day just staying alive. It’s a combination of trying to keep warm and the low oxygen environment. Gaining weight was one of the most unique aspects of training.

You were supposed to climb Mount Everest a few times before your recent summit but weren’t able to. Could you talk about some of the setbacks that preceded your summit?

MM: This was my fifth time in Nepal, but my third time trying to climb Everest. We’d been trying to climb Everest, Cho Oyu and Lhotse, which are three 8,000-meter peaks in one climbing season. The first time we were over there, we were climbing Cho Oyu, which is in Tibet, and there was a super tragic avalanche near there in 2014. We flew back to Kathmandu, and I remember sitting in a café in Kathmandu trying to figure out what to do. Someone mentioned a peak called Makalu, and we thought that’d be kind of fun to go climb. So, we flew into base camp and realized it was so much harder than we thought it was going to be. And actually, after climbing Everest, I realize Makalu was a harder and more technical peak to climb. In 2015, I went back again, and there was another tragic avalanche that hit base camp right as Willie and I got there. It killed about 21 people and injured a lot more. We were there for about six days helping with recovery efforts and at that point, we had no interest in climbing at all. Willie and I flew back to Kathmandu, and we wanted to do something. We could see that a lot of the rescue and relief efforts that were being done over there were super inefficient. We were working with the U.N. World Food Programme, and they were using helicopters and mules to deliver the food. But because a lot of these villages are at such high altitudes, that can be really inefficient, and they were saying that it would take about two months to deliver one month’s worth of food. Because Willie and I were already acclimated to high altitude and knew that area pretty well, we helped them distribute food and supplies for about a month and raised a bunch of money to help.

What are you doing next?

MM: What’s next? When I was young, my dad and I set this goal to climb the seven summits — the highest point on every continent — and my sister has been part of it, too. After I started climbing, I realized that there’s a lot more to climbing — there are a lot more mountains than just the seven summits. I think the coolest part about the seven summits is that you get to travel to unbelievable places that you would never travel to. We still have to do two more, one in Antarctica, in the middle of nowhere, and the other in Papua New Guinea, in the middle of the jungle. So those are my plans going forward, and it should be really exciting.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.