1912-1913: Paul Preuss

Posted on: March 19, 2020


[This Mountain Profile essay originally appeared in Alpinist 69, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Ugo di Vallepiana on the first ascent, with Paul Preuss, of Pic Gamba on the Peuterey Ridge in 1913. [Photo] Paul Preuss / Courtesy David SmartUgo di Vallepiana on the first ascent, with Paul Preuss, of Pic Gamba on the Peuterey Ridge in 1913. In his biography Paul Preuss: Lord of the Abyss (2019), David Smart suggests that, without Preuss, "climbing may never have developed the ethical, existential core that gave it meaning in the long term." [Photo] Paul Preuss / Courtesy David Smart

PAUL PREUSS ARRIVED IN COURMAYEUR on the Italian side of Mont Blanc for the first time on July 22, 1912. Other climbers expected that he'd make a dramatic debut in Europe's highest mountains. The previous season, he'd free soloed the west face of the Totenkirchl, a 600-meter limestone wall that was one of the hardest routes in the Alps. A mere few days after that feat, he'd made an unroped first ascent of a route that most alpinists considered impossible: the smooth, vertical east face of the Campanile Basso's yellow pillar. In towns across Europe, Preuss had presented lantern slides about his climbs to packed lecture halls. In a series of articles that came to define free climbing, Preuss had argued that climbers should depend only on their skills and judgment—rather than relying on the use of pitons or moving together while roped up. This was a principle he put into rigorous practice on his own climbs.

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When he reached the base of Mont Blanc, the snow line extended down as far as 2500 meters. Hard rock climbing was out of the question. Rather than join the climbers moping around campsites, hotels and bars, Preuss proceeded to tick off moderate peaks—Aiguille du Chatelet, Mont Chetif, Mont Brise, Tete de Bernarde—hardly the grand objectives that had brought him to Courmayeur.

On August 12, Preuss hiked up to the Gamba Hut to await better weather. H.O. Jones, one of the best rock climbers in Wales, was there with his wife of two weeks, Muriel Gwendolen Edwards, and their guide, Julius Truffer. Three days later, Preuss teamed up with them to attempt the only objective free of snow, Mont Rouge du Peuterey, a squat rock peak at the foot of the Peuterey Ridge.

Preuss soloed in front while Truffer led the others on a rope of three without any intermediate protection (a widespread practice at the time). Halfway to the summit, Truffer told his ropemates to wait on some small ledges as he exited a short, steep chimney. Six meters above him, Preuss watched in horror as Truffer broke a hold and fell. Truffer kept plummeting, pulling the Jones couple along with him to their deaths on the Freney Glacier, 300 meters below.

By the end of August, Preuss had gone home to Altaussee to recover and spend time with his family. That winter, he wrote an accident report on the deaths of Truffer and Muriel and H.O. Jones, correcting the dramatic rumor that one of the climbers had held on to the rock for a few seconds before they tumbled. To Preuss, the grievous state of the corpses furnished a reminder of the utmost importance of what he called climbing "securely," the central tenet of his philosophy.

Despite these horrific memories, he began to consider a new project. Viewed from the south side of Mont Blanc, the jagged subpeaks of the Peuterey Ridge dominate the skyline for 4500 meters: stretching from the Mont Rouge de Peuterey to the Aiguille Noire and the rock pillars of the Dames Anglaises; and onward to the Aiguille Blanche, the Grand Pilier d'Angle and the top of Mont Blanc. Preuss planned to climb most of the peaks separately before he enchained them in a continuous ascent: the longest ridge traverse in the Alps.

On July 24, 1913, Preuss met Count Ugo di Ottolenghi di Vallepiana in Courmayeur. Snow covered their intended route—the unclimbed south ridge of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey—so they climbed Pic Gamba instead. From the summit, their original objective looked like a stack of vertical granite towers. Vallepiana thought that Preuss could have climbed the ridge, but Preuss declared, "Others will climb it. I renounce it," because he refused, on principle, to use pitons to make a climb possible.

After waiting several days for the weather to clear, Preuss soloed the Aiguille Noire's circuitous normal route in fewer than five hours. That afternoon, his friend the Count Aldo Bonacossa reported that Preuss was "drinking coffee with us in Courmayeur, none the worse for his experience."

Next, Preuss turned to the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, the last serious obstacle on the Peuterey Ridge before the snow climb to Mont Blanc's summit. Preuss intended to avoid its rockfall hazards via a new route on the southeast face and ridge. He usually climbed alone or with one companion, but he felt that the Aiguille Blanche was a big enough challenge to warrant a party of three. His college friend Count Aldo Bonacossa and Bonacossa's climbing partner, Carlo Prochownick, joined him.

The trio bivouacked at the Dames Anglaises, between the Aiguille Noire and Aiguille Blanche. In the morning, fresh snow coated the Aiguille Blanche, so they attempted a new route on the Dames Anglaises instead. During a second cold bivouac, Preuss kept everyone's spirits high by singing bawdy Viennese street songs.

At dawn, they started up the southeast ridge. Ice sheathed much of the rock, but they were equipped with modern crampons that eliminated the need for step-cutting. Preuss led the whole route, which they completed in a twenty-eight- hour push. In the usually restrained pages of the British Alpine Journal, Gunther von Saar declared that Preuss had "succeeded in solving a magnificent problem."

Preuss had now climbed all the individual components of the ridge. Back in Courmayeur, he waited for warmer weather so that there would be less snow on the rocky sections. On August 28, Preuss sent his mother a postcard with an illustration of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey. "If the weather stays beautiful, I will stay a few days more," he wrote, and he signed the postcard, "Your Old Pauli." But the days they spent on the Aiguille Blanche were the last good days of the 1913 season. With September came more rain and snow.

In early September, Preuss returned to Altauassee, where he tried to make up for a season without major victories by climbing so many new routes that he fell ill. Despite the autumn cold, a storm and a doctor's warning, on October 3, he attempted his last climb, the north ridge of the Mandlkogel. There, he fell and died, a victim, in a way, of his dreams of the Peuterey Ridge and of the weather of 1913 in the Mont Blanc range.

[This Mountain Profile essay originally appeared in Alpinist 69, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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