David Smart on the Remarkable Rock Climbs of Emilio Comici

Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites by David Smart and published by Rocky Mountain Books in 2020.

I wish I would be permitted to simply say that fall is upon us. Normally thats when my outdoor playtime dwindles, I drink more coffee and beer, and enjoy longer evening reading sessions. Yet, there is a cloud of circumstances that make things so unsettled, doesn’t it? Perhaps all the more reason to read fiction and biographies. And I have a biography for you that was, quite seriously, more engrossing and enjoyable than I expected.

As an American, I still have this myth in my head that Americans created rock climbing in Yosemite. Now that I have been tinkering with climbing and it’s books for nearly 30 years, I know that this is not true, but there are still subtle undertones in stories of legends that indicate that to be so. Last weekend I finished David Smart’s latest book, a finalist at the 2020 Banff Mountain Film & Book Competition, Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites from Rocky Mountain Books (2020), which includes the first desert rock climb, years before Shiprock’s ascent, and free soloing big walls. No, it didn’t start in Yosemite.

The book is a climber’s biography, not the story of one gallant ascent, which means it’s about facing one challenge at a time while rebelling or going with the times. For Emilio Comici, that means overcoming his urban impoverished life through spelunking initially and later rock climbing, to the societal trappings of Italian fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. Emilio Comici handled life the way you and I do, which is he made it up as he went along, learning and making adjustments, and hoping for a big break.

In 1920s Europe, rock climbing had been established separately from mountain climbing. The rock climbers were living in the legacy of Paul Preuss, the greatest rock climber and free soloist of the day. Preuss climbed by strict edicts: Climb only what you can climb down and the use of climbing aids invalidates a climb, except under special circumstances. His legacy were climbers opposed to the use of pitons and other aids. Preuss was gone before Comici ever started climbing, having fallen to his death while climbing. Smart wrote what amounts, in the context of Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites, a prequel in Paul Preuss: Lord of the Abyss (2019), which I reviewed last year. However, because of the Great War, and the environmental abuse from the war in the Dolomites, leaving pitons in the rock seemed negligible and petty. In fact, the rock climbers of Eastern Europe adopted piton use much earlier than Western Europe, and Comici was the person who demonstrated what was possible.

David Smart discovered some of the origins of Comici’s chosen routes. He started spelunking, and after a daring rescue, he started climbing rock walls. He applied his spelunking skills with ropes and aids to the mountains. On the mountain walls, not just any line would do, it had to be a direct line from the base to the summit, or as he described it, as following the water drop from the top. Comici claimed that an English climber first used the water drop description, though he did not know any Englishmen or Englishwomen, and the reference hasn’t been found anywhere else.

Before reading this book, I was less familiar with the Eastern Alps and the Dolomites, and I appreciate Smart for not talking down to me; I enjoyed looking up maps and images of the routes. And I have to hand it to Rocky Mountain Books for knowing their audience so as including a map with the collection of unique, relevant photos, was not critical for the book’s success. The book documents Comici’s progression on rock from the North Faces of Sorella di Messo, Dito di Dio, the West Face of Croda dei Toni, the Northwest Face of Civetta, and the peaks of Tre Cime di Lavaredo, which was Comici’s nemesis. Cima Grande, it’s central summit, now stands symbolic of Comici’s vision, boldness, and his lifelong journey with rock.

Emilio Comici’s Cima Grande. (All Rights Reserved)

Cima Grande was the biggest wall yet climbed. And it was all about the rock wall, rather than the mountaineering ascent with a single piolet per climber. Comici made the top of the overhanging wall as he had learned on the previous climbs with pitons. It was criticized by the older climbers, and ignored as an ascent altogether by others. Yet, it was merely another milestone in Comici’s progression. He would return to climb it’s neighboring peaks, and one day, free solo his water-drop line in the style of Paul Preuss.

David Smart’s research provides a depth of context for what made Comici’s life challenges in many ways just like our own and in others very different. Comici grew up in Trieste and worked in the shipyards. His climbing trips were limited to reaching Val Rosandra, a few hours away on his motorcycle. He wanted to climb more and the only way he felt he could was to move to the mountains and guide. After his elders tried dissuading him, Comici moved to the Dolomites, though he contrasted with the guides with steady work. The local guides were local farmers, rigidly Catholic, and were more than a good rock or mountain climb, they were an authentic piece of the Dolomites. Despite Comici’s accomplishments on rock, his local in-authenticity, and his reputation for daring climbs, prompted Dolomite visitors to ask for his autograph rather than his services.

Comici was also smitten by the stereotypical roles of a fascist hero, popular of the day. Such heroes were awarded and paraded for their rescues, accomplishments, bravado, and immature wanderings such as Comici’s forays from Trieste to Val Rosandra. Of course, Comici had some challenges to overcome; he still received funds from his mother and lived at her home in Trieste when injured or retreated, and as one romantic partner complained, he wouldn’t be an adult with this climbing. As Smart’s research points out, Comici did grow in his self image and his affection for Mussolini’s fascism was all an attempt to fit in and be recognized as a masculine hero. Comici had Jewish and ethnic friends, and Smart presents evidence that he did not believe the fascist racist statements would ever be taken seriously or that a concentration camp would be in his home town. Among other changes, Smart points out, after Comici saw Mussolini speak in person for himself, he may have been disappointed and even disturbed because he never mentioned the Duce in his journal again.

One of the traits of a fascist hero Mussolini projected was the awarded man that could be paraded as an example for all particularly children to aspire. Comici wanted this validation of his being for most of his life. Yet, Comici was passed over at various opportunities through his life, including a rescue while spelunking and his proud first ascents, by anyone not just an Italian, of Cima Grande. It wasn’t until after his early death from a fall during a climb done in haste, that he was awarded a title posthumously, and for a lesser climb. Still, as Smart points out, Comici clearly understood that Preuss’ achievements survived his death. Comici’s accomplishments survive his own.

Having read extensively about Cesare Maestri’s Compressor route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia, where Maestri irresponsibly bolted a line up Cerro Torre with a compressor drill, David Smart surprised me with a reason Comici’s climbs were brought up after Maestri’s infamous route-making. Smart explained that some critics looked for precedent and connected Maestri to Comici. Smart draws a clear distinction why this isn’t fair, but you’ll have to read the book to learn why. As well as the earliest form of dirt baggers I’ve found (they were German,) and how Comici was haunted and saved by spirits on his climbs. I highly encourage you to read Emilio Comici to see what climbing was before you even thought there was real rock climbing in the world, because there was and it was serious, committing, and intense. I loved it. I know you will too.

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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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