Mountaineering and Blockchain – An Unlikely Duo

Region: Europe
Jun 18, 2021, 8:30:00 AM Published By Georgy Sokolov

Georgy Sokolov, Co-Founder and VP of Partnerships at Wirex, is an avid explorer, and recently undertook a climbing trip to the Caucasus mountains. Whilst there, he came across a peculiar similarity between the process in which climbers recognise who had reached the summit, and the way that Bitcoin transactions are processed on the blockchain – a novel way of explaining an often complex process in the crypto world!

It’s been an interesting few months for the crypto markets. When there’s a rally all over the place, it’s often easy to focus purely on the prices and the $ you could be making. As we’re seeing the correction unwrapping, it's a good time to go back to the basics and talk about the underlying technology and its features.

Just a week before the charts turned red, I got back from another climbing trip in the Caucasus. This time, apart from using the ropes, ice axes, jumars, and a whole bunch of other unpronounceable alpine terms, I unexpectedly learnt about a rather peculiar use case of blockchain technology. And it happens to have been used long before the term ‘blockchain’ even came into existence.

Confirmation of Transactions on the Blockchain

Firstly, let’s explain the way that transactions take place on the blockchain. This involves miners (or stakers/validators – depending on the consensus mechanism used) checking every new incoming transaction, then confirming its validity before adding it to the block. That way, every new transaction or block confirms the validity of the previous one, making it ever more difficult to tamper with the system as more blocks are added to the chain.

Mountaineering and Blockchain

It turns out that this same logic had been used for decades in mountaineering or alpinism (as it’s often referred to in Europe and Russia). When a climbers reach the peak or passage they are aiming for, they leave a so-called ‘control note’ on the summit. This is left under a cairn (a man-made pile of stones) to make it easy for the next group up to find it.

These notes typically contain the details of the ascent: date, time, weather and route conditions, as well as the names of the alpinists and where they come from. It also often has a less formal message – a brief story, a poem or even just a hand-written high-five to greet the next bunch of crazy like-minded folks who decide to overcome the glaciers, crevasses, vertical walls, and altitude sickness to make it up there, instead of spending a week on the beach or watching TV!

At the same time, they collect the note left by the previous group, which they take back down and submit to the local mountaineering registry as proof that they themselves have actually reached the summit to find it, and the ultimate confirmation that the group before them had been up there too and left the control note. This ensures that no one can claim to have successfully summited the mountain without actually putting in the work to get there.

Bitcoin Network Mechanism

The Bitcoin network uses this same proof-of-work mechanism for miners to confirm transactions, albeit without the sweat.

However, one of the main differences is the time taken to do so. Unlike Bitcoin where new blocks are mined at pre-defined intervals every 10 minutes, or Stellar where transactions are almost instant, the time between ‘blocks’ can be quite random between mountaineers reaching the summit. Depending on the complexity and popularity of a particular peak, it could be minutes, where climbers arrive at the top almost at the same time and literally hand their control notes to each other with no time or need to bury them, to several years apart, where, by the time the next one reaches the summit, the note from the previous group has turned almost illegible or rotten altogether.

51% Attacks on the Mountain

Now let’s assume that, similar to the 51% attack on a blockchain, someone tried to tamper with the system and ‘start their own chain’. They might do this by hiding their note halfway up in an easily accessible place and never actually make it to the top. They’d hope that the next group would go the easy way too, and also claim that they had actually collected it at the top as well. They would immediately be caught out, as they would not be able to present their own ‘proof of work’ - the control note they should have brought from the summit.

The next ‘honest’ climber would not find the culprit’s note at the top either, thus the whole faulty chain would break – unless, of course, every single climber decided to brag about summitting that mountain and demand a trophy without actually making it to the top. But that would be highly unlikely, simply because there would be no point in maintaining such registry, and it would quickly discredit the sport overall.

A Tradition, Rather Than Necessity

Of course, there are many other more advanced ways that climbers can prove their successful ascent these days – photos at particular landmarks, videos of climbing the difficult sections, GPS trackers etc. Also, most people don’t see mountaineering as a professional sport and don’t need all those formalities and controls.

Unlike the need for these systems on the blockchain, ‘control notes’ nevertheless remain a nice tradition for climbers, rather than a compulsory tool to ensure the accuracy of the registry.

Yet, when you finally make it all the way to the top and pause to take a breath and look at the magnificent beauty around, it definitely feels warm to find a small message from the past, proving that the transaction is valid you are not alone. Even if you did climb solo this time.