David Smart Shares the Pure Fire of Paul Preuss

Knowing that loved ones’ worries about his climbing impeded his attempts to free solo, Paul Preuss allowed his friends to move on to another route without him. If his friends had known that they would watch what would be the most difficult climb in the world, they might have stayed be witnesses. It was July 24, 1911 at the base of the the West Face of the Totenkirchl. Preuss carried a rope, but it remained in his pack only for rappels, and his only technical gear he would employ were his Kletterschuhe or rock climbing shoe with rope soles.

He climbed hundreds of meters, unroped, and without placed protection. He followed a route established by a party lead by Tita Piaz in 1908 until, near the top of the wall, he continued the line along an unclimbed fissure extending the route higher. At a hut, he logged in his climb publicly and added, unnecessarily but intentionally, “allein” or alone, and thus started a stir of wonder and controversy that set climbing on a new path.

This was just the beginning of the bold disruptions to climbing made by Paul Preuss as told in David Smart’s latest book Paul Preuss: Lord of the Abyss: Life and Death at the Birth of Free-Climbing. Until this book, the most I could find — in English — about the great climber and free soloist were in entries in 1913 and 1914 editions of the Alpine Journal and some translations of his essays. No stories. No context. No explanation.

David Smart, the author of A Life Wasted Climbing (2015), among other titles, and the editorial director of Gripped Magazine, has intricately woven stories of Preuss’ life and accomplishments with vivid illustrations of the times and the rising middle class in the outdoors into a magnificent biography. The result has been a short-listed nominee for the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature and Banff Mountain Book Competition.

(And by the way, Smart is also being honored this year at the Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival with the Summit of Excellence Award. The annual award has recognized individuals — which reads like a “who’s who” list — that made significant contributions to mountain life in the Canadian Rockies and across Canada. Smart pioneered routes on the Niagara escarpment in Ontario and wrote its first guidebook in 1984. If you’re a regular reader on this blog, you won’t be surprised that Smart fell in love with publishing through climbing literature.)

I love reading climbing books. It’s my favorite genre. I read books about politics, nature, religion, baseball, and novels, but I always come back and never bore of the nonfiction found at 796.522 in my library. But this book sparked the same sense of discovering some lost and mesmerizing treasure when I started reading climbing literature in college. Not only did it make me want to climb, but also roll out maps of the Alps and Dolomites and find more information about the other characters in the story.

The influence of German and Austrian climbers in Canada was felt by Smart, and thereby the legacy of Preuss (pronounced “Proyce”) was known, though the German stories were usually shared orally. Writing a book about Preuss had been on Smart’s mind for about a decade, even before the public’s rise in interest in free soloing from Alex Honnold’s first free solo of El Capitan in 2017. Smart committed himself to the project, by starting the research phase, around 2014. If you page through the Acknowledgements and the Selected Bibliography, you’ll see that Paul Preuss was a monumental undertaking involving a great deal of translating from the original German and Italian and conversations and manuscript reviews by a who’s who list of climbing history and literature, including Reinhold Messner, Katie Ives, and several others.

Totenkirchl and the first solo ascent. (All rights reserved)

One the treasures in Lord of the Abyss, was how Smart seems to keep track, subtly, about how many occasions and various ways Preuss may have died. (There is no real scorecard in the book, for the record, but perhaps someone could make one.) Of course Preuss tallied the ascent on the Totenkirchl, and even more so on the smooth face of Campanile in the Dolomites or downclimbing the Ferhmann Dihedral, and the hundreds of solo ascents he did in secret while growing up. And counts the initial meeting with Tita Piaz, the Devil of the Dolomites, Preuss’ rival. The day they met, during a wine-filled evening, arguing that the other was the greater climber, Piaz disappears and soon returns with pistols and hands one to Preuss. Dueling was not completely uncommon, and Smart says Preuss had managed to steer clear of it during college in Vienna. Piaz and Preuss took their paces and assumed their positions. The nearly jolting sound of another popping cork shifted the mood and the argument was brushed aside. Preuss 300, Death 0.

In reading other books from the period, even earlier stories, like Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper, I never got the sense of the climbing community at home. Granted those stories were tales of the attempts and climbs, primarily. Smart however, in explaining how Preuss’ uncompromising and principled style of climbing came to be, illustrates what it was to be in the rising middle class in Austria and Germany in the late 1890s and early 1900s. At least from the descriptions of life around Vienna and Munich, I got the sense of life being very similar to how it was for Natalie and I living in Washington, DC for 15 years. We all made our living using our minds and writing, being culturally stimulated, pay a great deal for small apartments, and escaping to the countryside and the mountains frequently for everything from hunting, skiing, walking, and climbing.

The urban centers also housed alpine clubs, which varied in activity from simple presentations, to planning outings, providing trainings, and sometimes expedition funding. Smart shares a translation from the Bergland Alpine Club meeting minutes: After dinner and some members were blowing the cream filling out of the cream rolls, the club marched to an a neoclassical monument in town. Preuss climbed the monument’s walls when a Bavarian policeman was alarmed and wanted to catch the builderer. Preuss climbed to the other side, mixed with the passersby and then helped the policeman search for the culprit.

But the core of the story is Preuss’ life and the disruptions his beliefs brought to climbing. Smart provides we English readers a solid understanding of how Preuss came to climb so hard, why he became stalwart against artificial aides and principled in the purest form of climbing. And they’re still enchanting, especially when you consider Alex Honnold’s ascent of Free Rider, or Jim Reynolds ascent (and downclimb) of Fitz Roy. Read Preuss’ principles again and see how it made us consider what we do, even today.

When Preuss converted from Judaism to Christianity (a story unto itself), he read a commentary on the Ten Commandments and after each it added fürchten und lieben, which means fear and love, and continued to say trust in God above all things. The the exhortation fürchten und lieben stuck with him. It’s often that sublime quality that keeps drawing me back to the mountains. As for Preuss, as Smart wrote, “Paul’s passion for the mountains was fueled by fear — or falling short of his ideals and the judgments of others — and by love for the mountains.”


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