Joseph Stettner, 1901-1997

Publication Year: 1998.

With special thanks to David Harrah for his help in compiling this year's section


1901 - 1997

With the passing of Joe Stettner at age 95 on March 14, we must acknowledge the loss of one of the most remarkable figures in American mountaineering history. Joe and his inseparable younger brother, Paul, who predeceased him on May 26, 1994, were at the forefront of the great climbers of their time. But they deserve to be remembered for more than their incredible skill. Their strength of character, devotion to their companions and love of the mountain world arc the Stettner hallmarks that will be remembered longer than their climbing accomplishments. Indeed, they eluded recognition and fame during the early years of their careers, but still became virtually legendary figures.

Until 1940, the Stettners climbed almost exclusively with each other. It was their close association with the Chicago Mountaineering Club from 1940 on that put them in touch with other climbers. Perhaps the most significant contribution I made to the Club as one of the cofounders was my success in bringing the Stettners into membership in that year. Both eventually served as president of the club, and were unquestionably its driving force.

Joe and Paul were bom in Munich in 1901 and 1906, respectively. Joe immigrated in 1925 and Paul in 1926, settling in Chicago, where they worked in skilled trades until retirement. Joe was a metalsmith and coppersmith, and Paul was a photoengraver. Their climbing careers appear all the more remarkable when it is realized that they usually were limited to two-week vacations from Chicago.

The young Stettners were enthusiastic climbers and skiers in the Austrian Alps and Kaisergeberge, but were self-taught and did not arrive in this country as climbing aces. Their biggest climbs were all made in the United States. That for which they will forever be renowned was the first ascent of the Stettner Ledges on the East Face of Longs Peak in 1927, no doubt the most difficult climb in the country at that time. After a five-and-a-half day trip across the dirt roads of the Great Plains by motorcycle, they free climbed the sheer lower face of Longs Peak on-sight by a route that was repeated only twice in the next 19 years. The second of these repeats was led by Joe Stettner himself with Bob Ormes. Paul Stettner had led the entire first ascent in 1927.

On an outing of the Chicago Mountaineering Club based in the Needle Mountains of Colorado in 1947, Joe Stettner made his hardest climb, the first ascent of the East Face of Monitor Peak, with John Speck and me. This was probably the most difficult route in Colorado at that time. Typical of Joe’s warm-hearted magnanimity were his remarks at the top: “Well, John, you will never climb it harder,” and “Now, Jack, you have really done something!”

Other highlights in the climbing records of the Stettners included the North Ridge of the Grand Teton (fourth ascent), Beckey Couloir on the Grand Teton (first ascent) and new routes or variations on Mt. Owen, Nez Perce and the Rock of Ages in the Tetons. Joe and Paul made the first ascent of the North Face of Lone Eagle Peak in Colorado. Joe pioneered “Joe’s Solo” on the East Face of Longs Peak by a line so bold that historians at first doubted its authenticity. Paul led the first ascent of the North Comer of Hallelujah in the Big Horns. Joe led two of the early ascents of the Devil’s Tower (1948 and 1949) and Paul led another (1949).

The Stettner approach to climbing was spontaneous and lighthearted. They climbed primarily for the pure enjoyment of the sport and out of their love for the mountain environment. Records and fame meant nothing to them. They were as willing to spend a long day grinding up an easy climb with a string of neophytes as they were to tackle a tough climb with more experienced companions. The mountains provided fun and adventure to the Stettners and all who went with them. From their companions, they could draw the last breath and drain the last drop of energy, such was their ability to coax, encourage and inspire their struggling teammates. On a practice cliff, their advice to a perplexed rope-mate was often, “Now put your left foot in your right shoe!”

If climbing was fun for the Stettners and their companions, it was also adventurous. Serious falls, forced bivouacs and a narrow escape from a deep crevasse were prices paid for chances taken in the course of nearly 50 years of high-standard climbing. Turning back was not the Stettner way.

Both of the Stettner brothers served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, and Paul was decorated for valor in combat in Italy. The Stettner brothers were always the natural leaders of their ropes. After coming to the United States, neither of them ever climbed as second on the rope, except when they were climbing together. It is safe to say that they were placed in a class by themselves by everyone who saw them climb. For example, Paul Petzoldt, who followed Joe Stettner up the Devil’s Tower, ascribed to him the agility of a circus acrobat. A final assessment of the place of the Stettner brothers in our climbing history was made by Chris Jones in Climbing in North America when he wrote, “A case can be made that the Stettner brothers formed the most powerful rope in the United States.”

Jack Fralick