The Original 'Mountain' Bikers

Posted on: May 24, 2011

Goran Kropp rides through Pakistan on his way to Mt. Everest. In 1996 Kropp rode from his home in Sweden to the mountain and back while carrying his climbing gear. On his first attempt on the mountain he broke trail through the Icefall so he would have the option of using pre-placed ladders or fixed ropes. Kropp died in a rock climbing fall in 2002. [Photo] Fredrik Blomqvist / Blomqvist Produktion Sweden

After several hours, the small of their backs ached. Their fingers became accustomed to the grip of the handlebars and peeling them off was like oiling old machinery. The bikes, heavy enough on their own, were laden down with the weight of climbing equipment. But, slowly their legs grew stronger from the effort, and the 300km of riding were well worth the secret they held close to their heaving chests.

It was August of 1931 when the brothers Franz and Toni Schmid put aside their bikes at the base of their dream: the north face of the Matterhorn. At the time, it was one of the most significant unsolved problems of the Alps. Teams of eager climbers traveled to the region, hoping to claim the first ascent of the north face of the Matterhorn, the Eiger or Grandes Jorasses. They pooled their resources and used whatever means necessary to reach the mountains. By the time the climb began, the manner in which they reached mountain's base was more or less trivial. The achievement was the summit. And yet, imagining this historical moment as just the time spent on the face diminishes the accomplishment. The adventure didn't begin when these spirited climbers roped up. It began as they crafted protection at home, as they packed their hemp ropes onto their heavy bicycles, and as they began peddling. For the Schmid brothers, it began in Munich. These men demanded everything from their bodies, and their spirits, long before the Matterhorn was in eyesight.


The brothers climbed the face. At 4478 meters they stood, triumphant and utterly spent. And yet, there was probably some quiet, persistent voice whispering an unpleasant reminder in the back of their minds: Nice job. Now get down there and ride back home.

Heckmair midway through a long approach [Photo] Anderl Heckmair

When men were racing each other to every unclimbed face, bicycling was not the ideal form of travel. Aside from being time consuming, there were risks: a sliced tire, fractured spokes, a sudden crash and the swift snap of a collar bone. But this was a choice often driven by necessity. Although glory and publicity came with solving the last great problems of the Alps, the talented men tackling these problems were by no means wealthy. Anderl Heckmair, for example, was employed by the city gardens Munich. But Heckmair's hobby of taking time off to romp in the mountains made him a less-than-ideal employee. The gardens "regarded [his] mountaineering ambitions without enthusiasm." In 1929, that risk became reality. A day of aggressive skiing landed Heckmair in the hospital with bruises and a broken tailbone. While still in the hospital, the city gardens informed him he was being let go. But Heckmair didn't lose any of his ambition, and even gained some funds. Until he was released from the hospital, the city could not lawfully dismiss Heckmair from his job. He continued to receive his wages, sickness benefits and money from his insurance policy. After healing, he crafted a trailer for his bicycle. With the 1000 marks of hospital savings, he and his friend Hans Brehm cycled to the Dolomites. Later, in 1931, he would ride his bicycle 400km with Gustl Kroner to Chamonix to make an attempt on the Grand Jorasses. This time, he had his equipment shipped ahead. While the decision made the burden lighter, it also meant an exercise in patience. The pair sat and waited in Grand Blanc for two weeks before their gear finally reached them.

Arguably one the greatest climbers of his time, Riccardo Cassin also bicycled his way to the base of many climbs. He worked five days a week at a steel mill, with mountains in view of his daily commute. The weekends were priceless. With the little time he had available to him he climbed. Of course, when he set his sights on something farther away, it took quite a bit more to get there. Cassin once described his journey to the Grandes Jorasses, where he made the first ascent of the Walker Spur: "I had to take the train to Pre-Saint-Didier, bike until Courmayeur and then walk to the Col du Geant, do half of the Mere de Glace as far as the Refugio Leshaux, and then get to the Grandes Jorasses plateau and start the climb. So I was already warmed up by the time I got to the base of the wall!"

In the past 80 years, the character of mountaineering has changed significantly. There have been fewer and fewer peaks that have not been summited. By the 1960s, even the 8000-meter giants had been overcome. Mountaineers need new goals: climbing established routes faster, more efficiently, testing modern training methods on harder lines. And while alpinism remains a challenging and awe-inspiring enterprise, it lost some of its enchantment. Colorful pieces of gear are available at the local shop or the Internet. And the climbs are at most a few days drive away. Airplanes and helicopters allow climbers to access remote peaks without a multi-month long approach. Still, there are some mountaineers who are dissatisfied with oversimplification.

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