A higher calling

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Manfred Hunziker: electrical engineer, lawyer and passionate mountaineer. (Photo
Manfred Hunziker: electrical engineer, lawyer and passionate mountaineer. (Photo: Daniel Winkler / ETH Zurich)

A keen mountaineer, Manfred Hunziker has conquered well over 6,500 peaks. As an ETH graduate in electrical engineering, he followed a career shaped by the dizzying rise of computer technology.

The moment that changed his life, says Manfred Hunziker, came 58 years ago in the winter of 1963 - shortly before 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon. The 23-year-old had signed up for a trip to IBM’s European research centre in Rüschlikon, an excursion organised by the ETH student association AMIV. The tour of the recently opened centre was impressive - particularly the computer in the basement. But the most memorable moment came over coffee, when an IBM team leader mentioned that the company was looking to fill a programming internship. Hunziker applied and got the job. In the months that followed, he not only gained valuable insights into the world of computers; he also acquired hands-on experience of the employer to whom he would remain loyal until his retirement in 2000 - though he would never have guessed that at the time.

Dipping into the unknown

After graduating from ETH as an electrical engineer, Hunziker left Zurich and headed across the Atlantic. "Engineers always like to have a goal to focus on," he says. In his case, it was a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering at Georgia Tech, for which he was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship. Hunziker had worked hard at ETH, and he showed the same dedication in Atlanta. This was reflected in his grades, which made a positive impression on industry recruiters who visited Georgia Tech towards the end of the academic year. But what made his CV really stand out was his experience with computers, which was then uncommon and highly sought after. Hunziker was soon invited to interviews at various companies in the US. These included IBM, where the recruiter decided to forward Hunziker’s application to their Swiss subsidiary. "They ended up sending me an interesting offer for a job in customer service - right around the time I was starting to feel homesick," says Hunziker. Everything fell into place.

When asked what he learned from his time at university, Hunziker emphasizes the personal aspects: he recalls being something of a country bumpkin, and it was only when he arrived at ETH that he started mixing with more people and finding his feet in different circles. That meant not only Friday-night beers on Bahnhofstrasse, but also working as publishing director in the student association - and even taking the occasional plunge into student activism. When the umbrella organisation of the ETH students’ association tried to impose a levy of 6 Swiss francs to fund a mountain lodge in Klosters, Hunziker and his association opposed it. Hunziker produced a leaflet entitled "Where’s your money going?", and that, together with a petition, was enough to stop the compulsory levy in its tracks. Today, at 81, he still sees fellow students who were involved in that particular protest; many of them would egg him on to fight for some cause or other, he recalls with a smile. They still meet twice a year for a leisurely meal in a cosy restaurant. The group has gradually shrunk as its members have got older, says Hunziker, but a good dozen of them get together on a fairly regular basis - "to reminisce about the old days". Nowadays, Hunziker provides financial support via ETH Foundation for Excellence Scholarships at ETH, no doubt recalling the time when ETH helped him with a scholarship for his own Master’s degree in the US.

Summits on the side

Although Hunziker enjoyed working at IBM right up until he retired, it was never enough to keep him fully occupied. His zest for life constantly led him to try new things. Inspired by a work-placement student on his team, he decided in his early 30s to reduce his workload by half and take another university degree, this time in law. "Lawyers and judges follow a similar approach to engineers. They have a case put in front of them and then have to follow clear rules to resolve it," says Hunziker. His previous studies and experience gave him a clear edge, and he delighted in the intricacies of the law - so much so that he decided to crown his degree with a dissertation on the subject of copyright. His newly acquired knowledge proved to be a great asset, particularly in his work for the journal UFITA, for which he reviewed around a hundred academic works on copyright law.

When he wasn’t working or studying, he chose to spend his leisure time not by relaxing, but by pushing himself to new heights. His passion for mountaineering seemed like the perfect challenge - but he was determined to set himself a clear goal. True to form, Hunziker decided he would attempt to reach a set list of summits. Inspired by Herbert Maeder’s book The Mountains of Switzerland, Hunziker, then aged 28, set his sights on climbing all of the 2,400 or so peaks listed in the book. "I put on my engineer’s hat and did the maths," he says. "I reckoned I could do it if I climbed 60 mountains a year for 40 years." In the end, it took less time than he had thought. At the age of 65, he only had 97 peaks left, most of which were minor ones that no longer appealed to him. He realised then that the time had come for a new goal. Switzerland had become too small for Hunziker’s peak-conquering aspirations, so he widened his focus to cover the entire Alpine range, tackling the highest peak in every mountain region from Nice to Trieste. This project, too, was soon more or less completed - with the exception of a few peaks that were of little interest or, in some cases, simply too challenging. Hunziker is ambitious, but also pragmatic. He recalls being just 50 metres away from a summit in the Dolomites when he turned back. Alone and unsecured, the final stretch looked too dangerous: "One slip and I would have fallen 1,000 metres." Technically challenging climbs had never been his strong suit anyway, he admits. He generally chose the easiest routes and usually enlisted the services of a guide for trickier ascents. To date, he has reached an impressive total of 6,500 summits.

Ascents big and small

Hunziker’s wealth of experience in the mountains served him well for his subsequent involvement with the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC). All in all, he led over 250 mountaineering expeditions in Switzerland and beyond, sharing his enthusiasm with less experienced mountain-goers. But he also cast a critical eye on the association’s other activities, echoing the non-conformist spirit he had shown at university. "People didn’t always take kindly to my dissenting voice, but they respected me for it," he says. Soon, he was elected to the board of the Swiss Alpine Club’s Uto section in Zurich, and he made sure to channel his feedback into real improvements - by, for example, collaborating on seven SAC guide books. His bucket list of summits is pretty much complete, he says, though he still enjoys going on expeditions as much as ever. Fortunately, mountaineering is a sport people can enjoy well into older age. "Even today, I still leave some people behind on the way up," he says. His passion for mountain peaks has even influenced his choice of home: he now lives on the 22nd floor of a high-rise building in Altstetten, which is Zurich’s equivalent of Alpine-style heights. From his window, he has a panoramic view of the whole city and the Uetliberg mountain. On a clear day, he can even see the Alps. The building has a lift, which he agreed to use on this occasion for the author’s sake, but he often takes the stairs: for someone like him, a 60-metre climb is nothing more than a chance to stretch his legs!

Manfred Hunziker

A lawyer and ETH graduate in electrical engineering, Hunziker spent his whole career working in customer service at IBM Switzerland. His passion for mountain climbing saw him conquer over 6,500 peaks and lead some 250 mountaineering expeditions. Originally from Märwil in the Swiss canton of Thurgau, he now lives in Zurich.

Leo Herrmann