Welzenbach’s Climbs. A Biographical Study and the Collected Writings of Willo Welzenbach. Eric Roberts. The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1981. 272 pages, black-and-white photographs, $14.95.
Introduction to Alpinism 101. All right, class, What are the two ice- climbing meccas of Europe? Yes, the Argentière Basin, good and …? Come on; right, the much less known, but equally spectacular, Lauter- brunnen wall in Switzerland. The major differences? The Lauterbrunnen faces are larger, looser and more remote. And the final question: Who, and in what years, made the first ascents of the three major faces here and the nearby Gspaltenhorn North Face which is second only to the Eiger as the largest alpine face in Switzerland and is almost 6000 feet? Messner? Bonatti? Terray and Lachnael? No, it’s one name and one date. The man was Willo Welzenbach and the year was 1932. Impressive, yes; but truly incredible when you learn the details and attempt some of these routes yourself. Remember this was 1932—no Gore-Tex, no twelve-point crampons or drooped tools. Most of the routes were done in a day without bivy gear, only hob-nailed boots, ten-point flexible crampons and felt soled klettershoes for the hard rock pitches. On the first ascent of the 6000-foot mixed Gspaltenhorn North Face, Welzenbach dispensed with the rope altogether. This is but a fragment of his vast achievements.
To American alpinists, the name Welzenbach has been hazily synonymous with ice climbing and Europe but little more. Why? The majority of his great routes lie outside of the Chamonix area which is about as far as most American climbers get. Secondly, he shunned publicity and, until now, there was almost nothing written about him in English. His frequent partner, Karl Wien, said: “For Welzenbach deeds mean everything, fame and glory nothing. Not only what is achieved counts but how it is achieved.” This sounds amazingly similar to Messner’s “alpinism of style” though stated forty years earlier.
The late Eric Robert’s thorough study attempts to burn out the haze and transform our vague conceptions of Welzenbach into a precise picture. And in this he succeeds. Welzenbach was not only the greatest climber of the period between the wars but, perhaps, the most monumental alpinist of our time.
Welzenbach traveled from mountain range to mountain range systematically devirginizing one alpine cherry after another but this alone does not explain his greatness. He redefined the meaning of the word possible and pushed alpine climbing standards light years ahead. Welzenbach played a major role in the development of ice pitons (which he used for belaying only) and innovated the use of such rock techniques as tension traverses onto ice. He was the creator of today’s universally accepted alpine grading system. Welzenbach was different from many climbers of his and this generation. He was not a “climbing bum” or “Wanderkind” who spent months cycling through the Alps and climbing. He was an affluent, professional engineer for the city of Munich who did most of his climbing on non-stop, burn-out weekends or during his summer vacations. His career and financial and geographical situation allowed him to take advantage of spells of good weather by speeding in and out of ranges by train or sports car.
If you are looking for a fast-paced, gripping book, forget Welzen- bach’s Climbs; if you want the enlightenment of discovering our “alpine roots”, then this book is a must. After a brief but informative introduction, the author alternates between translations of Welzenbach’s German Alpine Journal climbing accounts and his own thoroughly researched pieces that detail related background information in addition to giving his own observations and reflections. This is much appreciated, since Welzenbach possessed a laconic, unembellished writing style analogous to that of a guidebook editor—i.e., dry and boring. I was amazed at Welzenbach’s ability to write such matter-of-fact accounts of his truly epic climbs. But, the occasional subtle gems that lie in wait for the reader make the tedium worthwhile. And some accounts, like Welzenbach’s amazing and controversial first ascent of the Grand Charmoz North Face (where he and Merkl were forced to bivy in a blizzard over sixty hours with the most marginal of gear) are gripping despite the dry manner.
Though he was the greatest of alpinists, we are left with the impression of a man who rather than being a superman was a very human, energetic, farsighted amiable individual who could survive the worst of conditions, climb the most insecure and dangerous of routes safely, yet knew when it was more prudent to back off, and who, like the more mortal of us, experienced fear. He never attempted a route he did not feel thoroughly prepared for. Welzenbach raised his own and the world’s climbing standards in incremental stages. Each succeeding success would open his eyes to the possibilities of something more extreme. In reference to this he said: “It is a well-known fact that things that strike fear into us at first glance lose their terror as soon as you look at them from a set distance and reflect upon the circumstances…uninfluenced by momentary moods or impressions…" His partners felt that Welzenbach possessed one of the keenest mountaineering minds they had ever known. Despite this, he occasionally admitted to early morning fears and desires to attempt easier established routes than go for the virgin faces decided upon the evening before.
Throughout Welzenbach’s accounts, there are such often repeated phrases as: “the climbing was almost enjoyable” or “we had barely escaped the horrors of the Gspaltenhorn Wall and yet already we yearned for a new adventure,” and “I felt that my soul had been released from a nightmare upon exiting the face.” Through his mental, moral and physical struggles with the elements and the resulting successes, he said he “achieved values that make life worth living, that give existence a lasting meaning …" and pure enjoyment of the heights is combined with delight at victorious struggles and in success to produce a feeling of harmony in our hearts. This sense of satisfaction is inseparably bound up with the character of extreme mountaineering, indeed it is what gives this sort of alpinism its aim and purpose.”
In his long and prolific climbing career, Welzenbach never took a fall or required a rescue. Yet he was still a believer in fate or luck. There are many analogies one can make between him and Reinhold Messner, but this is not one of them. Messner has stated unequivocally that he does not believe in luck. Despite Welzenbach’s expertise and successes, he stated: “For success you need not only ability but luck as well, because the dangers threatening a climber are too diverse and too unpredictable to ever be counteracted by advance deliberation. The final destiny of an individual will always remain entrusted to the hands of fate.” But, as his frequent partner, Erich Schulze remarked: “Welzenbach proved that the dangers inherent in his undertakings could to a large extent be counteracted by deliberation and prudent tactics.”
In 1934, while attempting Nanga Parbat, Willo Welzenbach, age 33, met death. The cruel paradox here is that it was delivered neither by fate nor faulty decisions on Welzenbach’s part. Rather, death was delivered by the subjugation of his own better judgment to that of the expedition leader, Willi Merkl. In his last letters home, Welzenbach saw the writing on the wall but, displaying true Germanic characteristics, he refused to mutiny and so robbed the world of the most profound alpinist of this century.