Who Was the First Person to Free Solo?

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

Have you heard of Paul Preuss before? Or what about W.P. Haskett Smith? Hopefully you were not in the dark like I was. If you were, let’s catch up together…

I stumbled on Preuss first while I was reading Mark Synnott’s The Impossible Climb and later listening to the podcast The Runout by Chris Kalous and Andrew Bisharat, I came across Preuss within weeks of each other. Paul Preuss was the first person to devote himself and promote a special climbing ethic that is like modern day free soloing.

However, as Mark Bullock pointed out over Twitter to me recently, W.P. Haskett Smith (1859-1946) started modern rock climbing. In the Lake District, he was increasingly drawn not just to the hills but the cliffs. And he attempted them without ropes or aid or any kind.

Kalous and Bisharat were talking about Jim Reynolds’ feat on Mt. Fitz Roy in Patagonia (which if you don’t know about, please click this) and they talked about Paul Preuss. Synnott talked about Preuss in providing a history of free soloing. Smith is seems to be overlooked as a free soloist because he is generally accepted as an rock climber so early in the game. Preuss on the other hand, was intentional, and wrote several essays on the about climbing ethics and the purity of free soloing.

Taking a closer look, I realized Preuss has been coming up more often since Alex Honnold free soloed El Capitan. However, the association with Jim Reynolds’ free solo of Fitz Roy might be more appropriate, however. That’s because Reynolds, like Preuss, downclimbed whatever he free soloed. Repeating Kalous’ and Bisharat’s wonderment, could you imagine if Honnold, after reaching the top of Free Rider, then started down climbing and had to reverse the karate kick and go back down the Free Blast slabs?

Preuss was born on August 16, 1886 and lived in Austria, by his Hungarian father and Austrian mother. His father was Jewish, which caused history to forget about Preuss’ contributions for several years after his death in 1913. He practiced and evangelized a pure form a climbing that was free of bolts and aid: free soloing.

Preuss wrote several essays (with an English translation by Randolph Burks available here,) and has consolidated his beliefs into six principles. These principles were first written in 1911 in the essay Artificial Aid on Alpine Routes: A Reply by Paul Pruess in Vienna. The essay is available in the link I shared.

  1. You should not be equal to the mountain climbs you undertake, you should be superior.
  2. The degree of difficulty that a climber is able to overcome with security on the descent and also believes himself capable of with an easy conscience must represent the upper limit of what he climbs on the ascent.
  3. The justification for the use of artificial aids consequently exists only in the event of an immediately threatening danger.
  4. The piton is an emergency reserve and not the basis for a method of working.
  5. The rope is permitted as a relief-bringing means but never as the one true means for making the ascent of the mountain possible.
  6. The principle of security belongs to the highest principles. But not the frantic correction of one’s own insecurity attained by means of artificial aids, rather that primary security which with every climber should be based in the correct estimation of his ability in relation to his desire.

Please go read Preuss’ translated essays. They’re worth the effort. (By the way, I had some difficulty downloading the PDF, so just read them online.)

So the answer, of course is W.P. Haskett Smith, if you say who is the first to free solo. But who was the first intentional and devoted free soloist? I think that title belongs to Paul Preuss.

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Sources: 1) Mark Synnott, The Impossible Climb, Dutton, New York 2019. 2) The Runout Podcast on April 12, 2019. 3) Wikipedia, primarily for life dates. 4) Pruss’ essays translated by Randolph Burks available here.

How Free Soloists Die According to Alex Honnold

The Valley of Light. (All rights reserved)

I just finished my written review of The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life by Mark Synnott and published by Dutton in March 2019. The “big” review won’t be published until sometime after May 8th. That’s okay. There is plenty of stuff to share that didn’t fit into the 800-word limit.

One thing I had to share from Synnott’s book was how Honnold views the risk of death from free soloing. (Synnott calls this Honnold’s “homegrown statistic.”) According to Honnold, Synnot writes, “no free soloist has ever fallen while pushing his limits.”

Synnott quotes Honnold: “It doesn’t seem to be the way that people die.”

Synnott considered these free soloists from The Impossible Climb:

However, there are two that died free soloing

While this subject was morbid and covered only about a page, the book is still more about life and facing fear and the choices we make.

Go pick up a copy, I definitely recommend it.

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Why Kyle’s and Scott’s Stories Aren’t Over Yet

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Baintha Brakk II. (All rights reserved)

The obituaries are the underrated part of the American Alpine Journal. They cover lifetimes of climbs, and speak to the people that make each edition of the Journal what I have loved to pour over since I was a kid in high school.

But reading them requires different tolerances: The 71-year old and the 91-year old that passed away at home from old age or poor health covers climbs, careers, marriage, children, are about a degree of fulfillment and respect. Reading the ones of younger AAC members, like Dean Potter and Justin Griffin are more difficult to read through without getting choked up.

Justin was originally from Kentucky but got into climbing and moved to Bozeman, Montana. He finished college and became an architect/builder. He was married to a woman he loved. He helped buy her a stable, where she could train horses for clients. Justin and his wife also had a young daughter and lots of plans for the future. He died in the fall of 2015 on descent after putting up a new route in the Himalaya. His climbing partner Skiy DeTray, was unable to revive him, and had to come home alone.

There seemed to be fewer early deaths of young climbers in the last couple of years (or so it seemed to me.) But then something unique, in my experience, happened; News of two climbers I admired were missing, and not only that, the news came with a plea for help. I gave a little money and urgently helped spread the word about the need for a search and rescue for Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson. What happened next was simultaneously wrenching and inspiring.

A Vigil

Once or twice a day I scan the climbing news headlines and feeds on Facebook or Twitter. It’s usually a pleasant distraction and helps me shift gears between big tasks at work of managing a team and a network of stakeholders fighting for affordable housing. I mainly look for inspiration for daydreams and an innocent attempt to live vicariously.

Yet, at a little before 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, August 31, 2016, I read an unusual headline on Adventure Journal: Alpinists Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson Missing in Pakistan.

Normally the headlines are about an accomplishment (like “team makes first alpine style link up”), or about controversy or conservation (“President names new national monuments”), or someone was heli-evaced or died. But this time, two well-known climbers were overdue and the AJ article included a link to the GoFundMe campaign page that their family and close-friends had set up. Thousands of us waited hoping for news that Kyle and Scott were coming down Baintha Brakk II. Perhaps they were coming down the wrong side of the mountain, and maybe a little hungry and scratched up but alive and well. The GoFundMe campaign page, as of yesterday, September 11, 2016, reported having over 15,000 shares.

For three days, we collectively held a quiet vigil. Not at temples, churches, bars, or living rooms, though some of us may have done so, but mostly through our phones, waiting for updates and good news on Facebook and Twitter. We all shared in hope and put our money down as an act of faith and friendship.

The actual giving was another story by itself.

Giving of Alms

In 16 hours, the friends and fans of Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson gave $100,000 (US) toward their search and rescue. The giving didn’t stop there. The money kept coming. The “positive thoughts” and prayers carried on too.

The search and rescue efforts blossomed from a sole helicopter reconnaissance and a neighboring expedition pausing its efforts to look for Kyle and Scott, into multiple flights and assistance from the Pakistani military. The bill expanded as well, and the goal increased from $100,000 to the current goal of $250,000.

Kyle and Scott had rescue insurance, however, it would only cover a small portion ($10,000) of the massive bill accumulating as more resources were enlisted. The helicopters and pilots were the greatest cost. And the final total, according to Black Diamond Equipment, 11 days after the public call for help was made, still hasn’t been realized with some costs and fees still coming in and payments being made. (Unspent money will be repaid to contributors, but how that process will work will not be decided until the debt is paid, which it might not fully be.)

The cost is hefty and heftier still because we couldn’t find Kyle and Scott. The hole in the pocket is deeper than financial, and sadly the momentum to keep the money flowing in may be dwindling. After eight days, over 4,900 people gave $198,000. After three more days, fifteen other contributors have given an additional $400, still hundreds away from the amount currently necessary to settle the debt.

But what has amazed me, and amazed so many others, how 4,980 people (as of yesterday, September 11, 2016) have opened their wallets; many of whom after the family and immediate friends of Kyle and Scott called off any further searches.

As much as we wanted Kyle and Adam to succeed on Baintha Brakk II, we also wanted them to come home safely. We wanted them to come home safely even more. Even in the era of social media in climbing, it’s still about the climbers not the climb.

Keep Giving

Had Justin Griffin still been with us, his wife and his daughter, he would have made the number of individual contributors as of yesterday 4,981. Justin climbed with Kyle in Alaska and the Canadian Rockies. Kyle was the more experienced alpinist, and Justin was catching up quickly.

And I think there are dozens more stories like this about Kyle and Scott. They probably are underlying the individuals of the final tally. I never met Kyle but I remember the first time I came across him. It was of a photo of him leaning on a table in the coffeehouse he co-owned in Utah advertising Outdoor Research, I think. While his Piolet d’Or and grants validated him, it was that photo that made him out to be a role model or hero to me. He ran his own business, an admirable accomplishment by itself, and he managed to climb at a high level.

On top of that, everyone who actually knew him liked him. One of his editors recently told him that he was extremely likeable and he really listened to people. For Kyle, life was not about him or an ego, but the people around him. He was the type of person that is given the grand, rare moniker of being “just a good guy.” That’s someone I can tell my kids about; they’ll know him as the guy that climbed mountains and owned a cafe, but I want them to remember that he was a good guy to everyone he met.

Climbers are not a wealthy bunch, generally speaking. And their family and friends shouldn’t get stuck with the bill for our mistakes, accidents, and risks that don’t play out as we want. If Scott or Kyle’s lives have touched you, or this story has affected you in some way, please help their families grieve and don’t leave them with a bill. I’m going to give a little more. Maybe you can too.

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Bold Alaska: Colin Haley’s Infinite Spur Solo

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Infinite Spur Solo. (All rights reserved)

Go ahead and grumble, if you want to, that mountaineering and climbing isn’t what it was in the 1960s in Yosemite or the Himalayas of the 1950s, or even that exploration is actually dead. Go ahead. But you might be missing some of the more amazing things happening in climbing.

For instance: fast-and-light ascents are being claimed with greater frequency (that’s not necessarily taking the fun out of sufferfests, for those of you fans of alpine suffering), routes like the Compressor on Cerro Torre have gone free, long traverses are being claimed from the Mooses Tooth to the Mazeno Ridge, lengthy linkups are dispatched in hours rather than days, and women are demonstrating an unquestionable prowess in alpinism.

Still, for the last couple of years, nothing has wowed me more than the solo ascent by Ueli Steck of Annapurna’s South Face in October 2013. I actually found it chilling. I think I lived on a happy high over it for some time. So it’s been relatively dull, by comparison… until yesterday.

By now you should have heard about Colin Haley’s solo ascent of Mount Foraker’s — er, well, since McKinley is going rightly by Denali now we ought to call Mount Foraker more formally Sultana — Sultana’s Infinite Spur. If you haven’t heard click here for the recap and here for Colin’s personal take.

Flash

Just over a year ago, I named the first ascent of the Infinite Spur by Michael Kennedy and George Lowe in 1977 as an Honorable Mention among the top five Boldest Climbs in a Alaska. That climb took Kennedy and Lowe 14 days to navigate and deal with the conditions before topping out on Sultana’s north (and higher) peak.

But as Colin points out, no one had yet soloed the Infinite Spur. Other significant lines on Denali had, of course, been done alone. But Sultana has often been overlooked.

Colin’s experience here was also a powerful footnote to say that the climb is only half done upon reaching the summit. He got to the top in under 13 hours, but it took days in low-visibility to descend to safety.

Bold Solo Ascents

I have always been attracted to great solo feats and performances. I like goalies in hockey and pitchers in baseball. They’re unique and critical role to their team can’t be overplayed. A shutout and a perfect game are the pinnacle for those athletes.

In climbing, partnerships are highly valued. Teams are celebrated. And most of all, they are best experienced with teammates; because there is always more to climbing than climbing, just as there is more to fishing than fishing. And in regards to the Infinite Spur, even Steve House and Rolando Garibotti pulled off a lightning ascent in 2001.

But once in a while, someone like Reinhold Messner, Johnny Waterman, Ueli Steck, and, heck, even Alex Honnold, need to try something different.

Climbing is a game and the scenarios and the rules change (perhaps terms is a better word than rules), and the challenge is different. The failure and the accomplishment is weighed differently. Decisions are praised and criticized in that context.

It’s a matter about style, ultimately. Colin demonstrated boldness and style. I don’t recommend anyone follow his footsteps and approach, but when the next climber is ready, hopefully their judgment is sure and fortune will be with them.

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How Alex Lowe Shines for Us Even Now (Despite Some Dark Days)

Shishapangma’s star. (All rights reserved)

Early on the morning of May 1, 2016, I was catching up on the news I missed during a mad-dash trip to New York City with Natalie and the kids. After I got through my political and baseball news apps’ feeds, the reports of Ueli Steck’s and David Goettler’s discovery on the south face of Shishapangma was all that mattered: Alex Lowe’s and David Bridges’ remains were found after 16 years.

We knew it would happen, but I resented that Fox News, NPR and so many other mainstream sources were covering it. I prefer to keep access to climbing news through climbing sources and climbers’ personal posts. This was out there for everyone to grab. Really out there. (Except, it was already mainstream; their deaths were reported in the New York Times, but I only just learned that.)

I get anxious about this stuff. After all, Alex has a widow. She wrote a beautiful memoir. What would it mean to his best friend and now her husband? The press never cares about stuff like that.

But as a few days passed, I realized the family’s personal reaction wasn’t as interesting as the one from everyone else that had some deep rooted knowledge, and often, affection, for Alex.

The Portal

On October 5, 1999, Conrad Anker, David Bridges, and Alex Lowe were climbing Shishapangma. They were around 19,000 feet and intending to make the first American ski descent of the 8,000-meter peak. A large serac calved and started a massive avalanche down the south face. Anker was blown up into the air. Bridges and Lowe disappeared into the debris of loosened snow and enormous blocks of ice.

Conrad Anker is one of America’s best recognized mountaineers today, particularly since he discovered the body of George Mallory on Everest and even more so now that he appeared in Jimmy Chin’s award winning 2015 film Meru.

David Bridges was a climber and photographer on the rise, known for his strength and endurance. He was 29.

Alex Lowe, 40 at the time, was a living legend. He performed insane rescues on Denali, earning him he affectionate nickname “The Lung”. He rode a Goddamn giant broken icicle to the ground and lived to ice climb again. And he was Anker’s friend.

Lowe’s widow, Jennifer, knew very well that one day Alex’s body would come to the surface. She said in her memoir that she was not looking forward to it.

Turning to One Another

I reached out to some friends to see how the news affected them, some of whom hadn’t heard the news yet. They weren’t surprised; glaciers routinely turn up what they’ve taken from us. And it wasn’t particularly enlightening; it wasn’t like finding George Mallory’s and Sandy Irvine’s camera. But it made us talk not about new routes and reaching, but about Alex and our humanity.

Alex made them feel good. And he still does. Here are two examples:

Whenever Jason Cobb, who’s written a guest post here on TSM before, thinks of Alex he

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Alex Lowe’s Icicle. (All rights reserved)

thinks of him grinning ear to ear, with his “crazy” hair sticking up, gripping his ice tools. Alex conjures up a sense of daring, and being gifted, while conveying enthusiasm that’s still infectious today.

Another friend, a former contractor I hired to do some data management work, didn’t know about Alex when we met. She was a big rock climber (even climbed when she was very pregnant) and worked for years at out local outfitter on weekends. I wrote my series on The Greatest Climber of All Time because of our conversations about all of the great climbers she didn’t know. Alex naturally came up, both in talks with me and her talks with her colleagues at the outfitter. She asked her colleagues for advice for a thank-you gift when her contract ended; I received Jennifer Lowe-Anker’s memoir, Forget Me Not.

She went on to recognize Alex’s influence on the stories with Conrad Anker, particularly the National Park Adventure IMAX film featuring Conrad and Alex’s son, Max. She emailed me as soon as she heard the news from Shishapangma: “It brings everything full circle.”

Finding Alex again has made us pause and reflect on his life, not unlike on a religious feast day. It’s made us look at ourselves, not just inwardly, but toward one another. I think we live in an era that is simultaneously wondrous and worrisome.

In a day and age where social structures are being “disrupted” and the craziness of a presidential election is crazy unlike ever before, and threat of terrorist attacks hangs over everyone quietly, Alex Lowe and Dave Bridges make an appearance. That’s significant, because in 1999 when they were lost, the world was was also a scary place: in January President Clinton was impeached in a partisan brawl; war broke out in Kosovo; East Timor’s vote for independence was met with uprooting; people fretted about what the Y2K bug would mean; and two students from Colombine High School in Colorado killed 12 students, a teacher and themselves in a searing mass shooting.

Alex shined to us then. Alex shines now. He did that despite the horrors of his times. And now we’ve found him again. Maybe it was just when we needed him most.

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Sources: 1) Alpinist; 2) Rock and Ice; and 3) Jennifer Lowe-Anker, Forget Me Not, (City, Publisher 2009), pages.

Belmore Browne Against Denali

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Despite what his biography says on his official website, today Belmore Browne is better known as an artist than as a mountaineer. Perhaps that wasn’t always the case. But Browne seems to have been mostly neglected except for a handful of recent articulate pieces from an Alaskan newspaper and a few mentions in some recent books.

It’s Browne’s involvement with the history of the attempts that lead up to the first ascent of Denali that interest me; his role and accomplishments should put him in our collective memory more often.

Alaska’s Greatest Challenge

Denali’s summit was first reached in 1913 by Hudson Stuck, the Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon, and Harry Karsten, the “Seventy-Mile Kid,” Robert Tatum, and Walter Harper. Before that it may as well have been the last great problem on earth. Judge James Wickersham stood at the north face and dared to attempt it’s flank in 1903, though he soon declared that wall impassible.

Then in 1906 Frederick Cook returned to the mountain after circumnavigating it in 1903 and came with Herschel Parker and several other Alaskan adventurers. Cook and Parker lead a cross country expedition that took them across Western Alaska, into the Alaska Range and to the a glacier that Cook named for his daughter, Ruth. Crevasses severely broke up the frozen river that season and stopped the exploratory group in their tracks. They turned around going back west to return home.

Shortly before completing the return journey to their starting point, Cook announced he was returning immediately to climb the mountain with one other team member. Belmore Browne, who was among Cook’s and Parker’s men, looked on skeptically with Parker and Cook departed. Cook left, with some gear, but noticeably to both, without a rope, a key piece for safety and moving himself and equipment over glaciers and up slopes. Browne and Parker returned to civilization, with the seed of plans to return.

A Hoax as Big as Alaska

Cook returned announcing that he had climbed the mountain. And he had a traditional summit photo to prove it. Cook was celebrated for his vision, bravery, and the grand accomplishment.

However, Browne and Parker didn’t just doubt Cook, they flat out didn’t believe him. They had seen and been to the Alaska Range. They knew what a concerted attempt would require in time and energy. Denali was too expansive and too treacherous to have permitted Cook such swift access to the top in the time frame he claimed. In addition, Browne and Parker had traveled for weeks with Cook before being sent away and determined that Cook wasn’t trustworthy.

Although Cook’s alleged ascent of Denali is widely discredited as a hoax, the Frederick A. Cook Society continues to promote Cook’s many accomplishments, including being the first person to stand atop Denali, as bona fide truth.

For Browne, Denali hadn’t been climbed yet and still required someone to finish the job. By 1910, in fact, after four years of addressing Cook’s claims, the only way to clear things up was to disprove Cook’s summit photo and dash for the top himself. Browne recruited Parker to help him go for the summit, after they duplicated Cook’s summit photo — wherever it was taken.

Browne and Belmore knew the general return path Cook would have made back to Denali after they separated so they started there and looked to match the features in the photo with their limited maps and their view of the landscape. Then, they found it. Twenty miles southeast from Denali, at an insignificant nub at a mere 5,300 feet above sea level. This was almost 15,000 feet below the summit and nowhere near it. While they managed to prove no one had climbed the mountain yet, their attempt to get to the top was unsuccessful.

The Whiteout

Belmore Browne and Herschel Parker returned to climb Denali in 1912. Unlike any previous attempt, they found a route, and broke the altitude record for the mountain. Bound for the south summit (the highest point), walking up a modest snow field, they entered an absolute white out. The summit was hidden. The return route wasn’t even certain. And the mountain turned away Browne and Parker for good.

Browne would write about his three expeditions in a book first published in 1913, The Conquest of Mount McKinley. Browne also became a renounced painter, and an Alaskan political leader that even helped Alaska achieve statehood.

Browne’s efforts protected the integrity of Denali’s early climbs, laying the groundwork for Hudson Stuck to make his bid. Browne may be better known as an artist today, and he is a better known climber than a politician. Though, maybe he ought to be better known in full.

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Sources: 1) Anchorage Daily News; 2) BelmoreBrowne.com; and 3) David Roberts, The Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America’s Boldest Mountaineer (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).