American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Hermann Ulrichs, 1902-1988

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1989


Hermann Ulrichs was bom on August 3, 1902 in Alameda, California. His family had settled in the area in the mid-1800s. With the death of his mother when he was eleven and graduation from high school at fifteen, Hermann found himself out on his own at an early age.

In 1921, at the age of 19, Hermann made the third ascent of North Palisade in the Sierra Nevada. Having out-paced the rest of his group and without the benefit of the written guide, he climbed a new route, living on chocolate until he joined his friends two days later. To many of the group, what he had done was nothing less than totally irresponsible, and the actual truth of his story was doubted until another team climbed the mountain and found his name in the register.

Despite the condemnation that he was occasionally subjected to, the freedom that Hermann found in this kind of solo adventure can be traced through his climbing career. Without any formal instruction in rock-climbing techniques, he went on to climb peaks throughout the Sierras, including the first ascent of Bear Creek Spire solo. In 1925, having graduated from the University of California Berkeley as a chemical engineer, he packed his bag and set out for Boston on foot. Detouring northward, he climbed Shasta, eventually making his way to the

Canadian Rockies. There, using a borrowed alpenstock, he made a solo new route on Mount Sir Donald. The ascent sent a shock through the climbing community, where guideless climbs were considered reckless and solo climbing bordered on the suicidal. Later, with support from Henry Hall, Hermann was invited to participate in the fourth ascent of Hungabee. It was this association that led to his eventual membership in the American Alpine Club, although in later years he dropped and joined the club several different times.

Hermann climbed extensively in the Canadian Rockies. He had made ascents of Mount Victoria and Mount Edith before finally making his way to Boston. He spent a season in the Alps but in 1927 he was back in the Rockies. It was here, during a climb of Mount Lefroy, that Hermann again ran afoul of the Guides. While descending, he made a steep and dangerous glissade within sight of the hut and in front of a party of guides and their clients. The next day, when M.D. Geddes attempted to repeat the same glissade, he fell to his death. The blame was pinned squarely on Hermann’s shoulders. In many ways this changed the way Hermann looked at mountaineering, and although climbers like Val Fynn stood by him, he couldn’t help but think that he in some way was responsible. Later that year he made a solo climb of the northwest face of Mount Stephen.

In the 1930s, Hermann’s attention turned to the Cascades where he made countless climbs and the first ascents of over 20 peaks. At the same time he was pursuing his second love, music. It was this aspect of Hermann’s life that gave him the greatest pleasure when his climbing career slowed. Eventually he earned a master’s degree in music in 1951. His last climb was Mount Lassen at the age of 80.

On February 17, Hermann died in his home in San Anselmo. As was so typical of him, he requested no services or memorials. He was the last of the generation of mountaineers who pioneered climbing in the North American ranges. He climbed in his own way and for his own reasons. For those of us who knew Hermann, we shall miss the spirit and passion he had for the mountains and his music, his keen sense of humor and the way he shared these with his friends.

Brock Wagstaff

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