The trees rose from a cushion of pine needles to great heights with silence, except for a gentle rustling of branches through refracted rays of sunlight. Mount Mansfield and Spruce Peak, with their ski trails — with once the highest aerial tram in the world — rose from this valley, but none of this could be seen or sensed through the woods. When we left our Subaru in the trailhead parking lot, we were in his territory.
I walked with one trekking pole while little Wunderkind walked with the other. Schnickelfritz was riding in the kid carrier on my back. Their mother and grandparents understood the significance of these woods here in Stowe, Vermont — the reason we came — but I had to tell the story of its namesake with a little more color for Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz. The Stowe Land Trust owns the 79 acres that makes up Wiessner Woods, which is the only permanent memorial to Fritz Wiessner.
While there were many stories to share, the one Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz had to know was from K2 on July 19, 1939. It was late in the day. Wiessner had climbed up above 26,000 feet (roughly 8,000 meters) on second-highest mountain in the world, which was 28,251 feet (8,611 meters) tall, with Pasang Lama without supplemental oxygen. They were alone; they had no radio or way of communicating down the peak to their teammates. They climbed up steep, black rock and were nearly to a point where the rock stopped and it was merely snow all the way to the top, at about 27,500 (8,382 meters). Wiessner was on the cusp to be the first person to climb K2. Except it was getting dark and Pasang was scared; he believed evils spirits dwelt on the summit at night. “No, Sahib,” Pasang said to Wiessner. With his partner unwilling or unable to go, Wiessner turned around with Pasang.
Sadly, while Wiessner intended to return, he never would. His high point would stand for 15 years, until Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli became the first people to stand atop K2 in 1954. But Wiessner’s and Pasang’s record for reaching so high on K2 without supplemental oxygen would stand for nearly 40 years, when Louis Reichardt and John Roskelley climbed the mountain without supplemental oxygen in 1978 in only the mountains third ascent to date.
Since then, my kids set up the tent and grabbed their toy hammers as pseudo ice axes to pretend they are climbing K2. Wouldn’t you?
WORTH DRINKING OVER
The forested cushion of pine needles that make the floor of the Wiessner Woods doesn’t actually stop at its edges. The same woods rolls onto an adjacent 26-acre hillside where a rustic post-modern ski lodge called the Stowehof commands views of Mount Mansfield. It has a German-Austrian alpine flair at its core, that is best celebrated with it’s recently renamed bar.
Fritz Bar is cozy and has private corners and tables to make an evening intimate. It is also decorated with photos of Fritz Wiessner, with his hairless head and broad smile, surrounded by mountains and adorned with thick hemp ropes. I dropped in after our visit to the Wiessner Woods to buy Natalie, her parents, and I a round, get the kids a salted pretzel to share, and toast Fritz.
Not everyone was always willing to toast Fritz Wiessner, however. Shortly after moving to the United States from Germany in 1929, Wiessner had raised the standard of American climbing at several remarkable North American destinations. In 1938, the American Alpine Club had secured permission to send an expedition to attempt K2 and they’re first choice to lead the team was Wiessner. However, his ski-wax business in Vermont had too many orders to fulfill so he graciously turned them down, and the AAC turned to Charles Houston instead.
Houston thought Wiessner’s decline had dubious intent almost immediately; why would he turn down K2? Both Houston and Wiessner knew that the AAC had a permits to attempt K2 for two years, so if Houston’s team failed to make the top, Wiessner could learn from Houston’s mistakes and get the glory. Although The New York Times celebrated the team’s high mark of 26,000 feet (roughly 8,000 meters), Houston was bitter. Not to get too far along into Houston’s life story, this illustrates how much ownership he claimed to K2’s first ascent: The year after his second attempt, and the year before he was to use his permit for an attempt in 1955, Houston briefly went missing and suffered from global amnesia after hearing the news that the Italians finally climbed K2.
The sad story that came out of Wiessner’s 1939 expedition was bad news for Wiessner and overshadowed all of Wiessner’s other accomplishments. While Wiessner and Pasang made it to 27,500 feet, Dudley Wolfe, the expedition’s primary financier was languishing and dying at Camp VII. With the exception of Wiessner, the 1939 team was by far a weakest group that climbed high on any Himalayan peak prior to the HImalaya’s Golden Age in the 1950s and 1960s. Wolfe was an enthusiastic, though inexperienced, adventurer. Wiessner knew this, and despite this, he sincerely wanted to help Wolfe to the top. Except, Wolfe’s inexperience, lack of fitness, and the overriding effects of altitude took it’s toll. Critics blamed Wiessner both generally as leader and specifically for allowing Wolfe to climb and stay so high for so long, and finally not for returning for him (though the risks were significant, and his condition was too far gone.) Combine anti-German sentiment that festered during the years during and after World War II, Wiessner’s reputation was tarnished, and in some circles, his wrongdoings were exaggerated into shameless smears.
In the 1930s we were just beginning to understand the devastating effects of prolonged exposure to high altitude on the human body. No one had ever stayed in a high camp so long as Dudley Wolfe had before. Wolfe could climb up well enough with help, but descending the steep grade was a bit more technical. Wiessner, by contrast, raced up and down the mountain and in between camps, in a valiant effort to position his team to reach the top. Both men wanted to reach the summit, and Fritz probably, foolishly yet earnestly, promised it to him.
Despite the tragedy of the 1939 expedition, I sat down to toast Fritz. And I remembered Dudley Wolfe too.
Wiessner was born in Dresden, Germany in 1901. After an impressive climbing career in Europe, Wiessner left Germany for the United States in 1929 for the chance to improve his beyond what Dresden and Germany offered. He quickly demonstrated that his climbing skills were beyond what had ever been attempted by Americans, making a similar impact to what Austrian-immigrant Conrad Kain had in Canada.
Between 1931 and 1937, he worked up quite the resume. Here are the most historically significant:
- Cannon Cliff, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains;
- Wallface Mountain, in New York’s Adirondacks;
- Making the first-free ascent of the iconic Devils Tower rising up from Wyoming (predecessor’s used excessive aid); and
- Climbing the mysterious Mount Waddington, in the Coast Range of British Columbia, Canada.
On K2, what also makes his high point so remarkable was his sharp analysis of the risks on the route past the bottleneck, where an oversized serac haunts the path to the top. Although it has been generally stable (and when it hasn’t been the consequences have been tragic,) Wiessner didn’t know that. Wiessner avoided the bottleneck and the hanging glacier by climbing the steep rock band to the left, which no one had climbed since. Ed Viesturs wrote, in his book on K2 he wrote with David Roberts:
It’s not easy to judge other people’s climbs, but I’d venture to say that nothing of comparable difficulty at such an altitude would be performed by anybody during the next nineteen years, until Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri’s brilliant first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in 1958.
After the 1939 expedition, Wiessner was the subject of an unprecedented investigation and accusations of being a Nazi spy. The AAC investigated the failure and criticisms of the climb, including what lead up to Wolfe’s demise. Though it was not a court of law, the conclusions loaded all judgment on Wiessner. As Ed Viesturs and David Roberts put it: “And Frtiz Wiessner was a German-American, at perhaps the worst time in the twentieth century to be one.” Two members of the investigating committee, Al Lindley and Robert Underhill, stood by Wiessner and disagreed with reports. Underhill wrote, that despite many poor circumstances:
Wiessner, and Wolfe behind him, was the only one who still wanted to climb the mountain… [T]his leads me to appreciate Wiessner the more. He had the guts — and there is no single thing finer in a climber, or in a man.
Wiessner passed away at his home in Stowe, Vermont in July 1988. While his moments on K2 were what everyone reads about, he lead a life where he shared climbing with others, particularly younger climbers, and had the enduring respect of his community. The blemishes from the turmoil of aftermath of the 1939 expedition are hard to forget, but Wiessner remains a constant light and joyful in what the mountains and climbing could bring. Perhaps Wiessner deserves more than a woods and a bar.
VERMONT AND THE ADIRONDACKS
When I stand in the Wiessner Woods, with the scent of pine always in the air, I feel much farther from the bustling ski resort at Mount Mansfield or event the sheik Stowehof. Maybe that’s why he liked it there.
While Wiessner had climbed major alpine peaks, and discovered landmark crags, like the Shawangunks outside New Paltz, New York, his favorite places were in Stowe and in a tiny corner of the Adirondacks that I touch on in this blog periodically: Wallface. Wiessner preferred going to and climbing at Wallface not because it was big, though it’s respectable in scale, not because it is firm because it’s a little chossy, but because it’s a long way from the road. It’s quiet. It’s rarely visited.
Wiessner never let the 1939 K2 expedition detract from his life, or hold him back from what he sought to do next. He lived his life. He had his children and grand children. He ran his business. He shared climbing with others. And he retreated for a respite, now and then, to the woods of Vermont, and sometimes making the long trek to Wallface.
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References: 1) Jennifer Jordan, The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of An American Adventurer on K2 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010), 188-191. 2) Ed Viesturs with David Roberts, K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain (New York: Broadway Books, 2009), 151-153, 174-177. 3) Don Mellor, American Rock: Region, Rock, and Culture in American Climbing (Woodstock, Vermont: Countryman Press, 2001), 68-69.