American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fritz Hermann Ernst Wiessner, 1900-1988

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 1989

FRITZ HERMANN ERNST WIESSNER 1900-1988

Bom in Dresden on February 26, 1900, Fritz Wiessner was an active climber from his earliest youth. Practising on the pinnacles of the Elbe Sandstein Gebirge, he became one of the best climbers in the area by the time he was 18.

Having studied chemistry in Germany, Wiessner established a chemical business when he came to the United States. Its most notable product was Wonderwax, which Fritz tried to perfect by every means possible, even to the point of experimenting with his friends by daubing downhill wax on one ski and uphill on the other. The result was an adventurous ascent and an even more interesting downhill run.

Fritz married Muriel Schoonmaker in 1945. Their son Andrew, now a successful environmental lawyer, and their daughter Polly, an anthropologist with the prestigious Max Planck Institute in Germany, are both married and have two children apiece. Fritz did not fail to turn his family into climbers and skiers. His wife was his companion on many outings, which may have been hard on her at first. I recall her relief one Sunday evening. “Thank God, another of those strenuous, dangerous weekends is over!”

Fritz was a well known climber in his native Germany, where he had achieved prominence in 1920 when he solved two pre-eminent problems of the day: the southeast face of the Fleischbank in the Kaiser Gebirge and the north face of the Forchetta in the Dolomites, where he had already put up several new routes.

When he came to America in 1929, Fritz found an entire continent of unclimbed mountains and cliffs. His ability and technique were so advanced as to leave the small climbing community speechless. His best known achievements were the first ascents of “Mystery Mountain” Waddington in British Columbia and of the Devils Tower in Wyoming. When he climbed Waddington with Bill House, the latter was obliged to give Fritz a shoulder stand. When Bill grumbled under the weight, Fritz retorted simply, “O.K. Why don’t you lead?” Bill stopped complaining.

Having been a member of the German expedition that had reached 23,000 feet on Nanga Parbat in 1932, it was only natural for Fritz to be asked to lead an American K2 expedition in 1939. However, there was trouble from the start when two of the most experienced climbers selected had to cancel. In spite of the reduced number, they managed to put up nine well-equipped camps. Fritz set out from Camp IX for the summit with the Sherpa Pasang Dawa Lama. After overcoming a difficult tract of steep rock, they stood only 750 feet below the summit. As Fritz prepared to push on, Pasang refused to follow. Since they could not get back to camp before sunset, he was afraid the mountain spirits would prevent their returning. Although Fritz might have continued on alone, he would not abandon his companion. Years later, when asked if he regretted his decision, he replied that he would have done the same thing again. He could not leave a man alone on the mountain to wait anxiously for hours until his return. Thus, Fritz lost the summit, but the loss, which was to haunt him for the rest of his life, also made this his finest hour: the renunciation of a life’s dream to safeguard a companion. His accomplishment was incredible; without oxygen and using the primitive, heavy equipment of the day, Fritz had reached 27,500 feet and led every foot of the route himself.

A series of unfortunate events prevented Fritz from staying at the high camp and trying for the summit again. Four people, one American and three Sherpas, lost their lives when a severe storm struck. Fritz’s enormous feat went unrecognized. The expedition was blamed for losing four lives, and Fritz resigned from the American Alpine Club.

His fame continued to grow in the climbing community as the vast majority of alpinists began to understand the inherent risks in high-altitude climbing. They came to accept the fact that parties trying for Himalayan summits suffer losses as the inevitable price of their attempt. In 1966, the American Alpine Club made Fritz an Honorary Member.

The American Alpine Club also designated Fritz as its representative to the UIAA (Union Internationale d’Associations d’Alpinisme) to establish climbing standards and codify route descriptions. In 1987, the UIAA gave him the rare distinction of making him an Honorary Member.

Fritz frequently climbed abroad, where he scaled all the 4000-meter peaks of the Alps some three or four times. He remained in touch with the international climbing community, many of whom he introduced to the Shawangunks in the Catskill Mountains, a two-hour drive from New York City. Fritz first discovered these cliffs in 1937. He pioneered many of its routes, including the first 5.8. He continued to climb in the “Gunks” until he was 87. He still soloed many of his easier climbs and even went as second on many 5.9 pitches.

Always kind and generous to young climbers, Fritz made it possible for many of our promising young people to go abroad, taking several of them to his home grounds in Saxony. Fritz was admired and loved by those who were fortunate enough to know him personally.

He leaves a legacy even more important than his many climbing accomplishments: his respect and reverence for the hills. He felt that the climber and mountaineer is merely a guest in the mountain environment, which must be left pristine and undisturbed. For him, climbing was an extremely personal, even spiritual art, incompatible with commercialism, publicity and competition. This attitude still prevails among those who view competitive and commercial ventures as alien to the feeling that first called us to the mountains.

Fritz Wiessner remains a role model whose actions and spirit will continue to inspire mountaineers for generations to come.

Hans Kraus, M.D.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.