American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Oliver Perry-Smith, 1884-1969

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1970



Our Honorary Member, Oliver Perry-Smith, died quickly and peacefully at his son’s home in Denver, Colorado on May 13. He was originally a Philadelphian, of distinguished ancestry, but from 1902 until the outbreak of World War I he lived in Dresden, Germany, devoting his life to mountaineering and skiing, in both fields excelling most of his contemporaries. His father had died during the Spanish-American War, and his mother, remarrying in 1902, went to Dresden, where her son soon joined her.

Young Oliver’s interest in climbing was aroused by his grandmother, who had travelled extensively and had watched by telescope various ascents of Mont Blanc and other peaks. As a schoolboy of 18, he found companionship with Dresden climbers who were making history on the towers of nearby Saxon Switzerland and were developing under the inspiration and guidance of Rudolf Fehrmann, the brain and leader of the early climbers of that area. They went to the Alps together on the several occasions, and Oliver found a friend in the young guide, Josef Knubel. He led on the Grépon when Geoffrey Young was of the party, and with the latter and Knubel did the north face of the Weisshorn, both in 1909. Fehrmann wrote: “Perry-Smith was the strongest individual personality I have ever known.” Young called him “one of the finest transatlantic climbers.”

From 1909 until 1914 he competed in skiing, being the first American to threaten Norwegian supremacy. This is not the place to outline his record, which has been fully set forth elsewhere.1

Perry-Smith made more than 90 ascents in Saxon Switzerland, 33 of which are rated VI or above; there were 32 first ascents, 13 solo climbs and 36 additional ones on which he led. In the Alps his repeated ascents include the following: Weisshorn (5), Matterhorn (3), Dent Blanche (3), Zinal Rothorn (2), Wellenkuppe (2), Obergabelhhorn (2), Giula de Brenta (2), Kleine Zinne (2).

His son, Crosby, also a member of our Club, writes of his father: “I feel it wouldn’t be out of order to say he had a special brand of leadership marked ‘not transferable.’ As we found out, each person must develop his own leadership; it cannot be bought or inherited, and certainly can’t be passed on by any process of succession.”

J. Monroe Thorington

1American Alpine Journal, 1964, 14:1, pp. 99 to 120. On page 116 it states that 1910 was Perry-Smith’s last climbing season in the High Alps. Since this paper was written we have seen a card from him dated 12 August, 1913, saying: “Wir haben den schwersten Gipfel der Schweiz – Dent Blanche – in 34 Stunden von Zermatt bestiegen.”

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