The Stettner Way: The Life and Climbs of Joe and Paul Stettner. Jack Gorby. Golden: Colorado Mountain Club Press, 2003. 210 pages. Paperback. $14.95.
When I opened this book and began reading a description of the authors visit to Joe Stettner’s home, only to run into paragraph after paragraph— then page after page—of quotes from Joe, I cringed. I’m no fan of long quotations; to me they usually signal a lack of storytelling ability.
But I was soon drawn in and within a couple of chapters (all extremely brief in this book), I was hooked. This remarkable tale of survival, escape, adventure, and mountaineering across two continents soon made me forget any of my beliefs about reporting styles. Indeed, it is exactly this style, and Jack Gorby’s subtle presence— carefully nudging the story along—that makes this “as-told-to” account work so well.
The Stettner Way chronicles the lives of two of the most significant characters in American mountaineering from their humble beginnings in pre-World War I Germany to their fabulous though perhaps even humbler climbing careers overseas. Although the story might seem written for an audience of climbers, the plot is so intertwined with history, politics, travel, adventure, and romance that it’s more like an epic—in fact, it’s not hard to picture this book being made into a big Hollywood-style film.
After the death of their father at the hands of a street gang in 1919, the two teenaged brothers immersed themselves in mountains and mountaineering. Virtually untrained and with very little gear they accomplished an impressive string of ascents in the German Alps. By about 1925 it was apparent that Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels were on their way to power, and their mother urged Joe and Paul to leave Germany, which they did. Joe started a new life in Chicago; Paul first went to Sweden, then joined Joe in Chicago a year later.
This is where the story gets impressive. They lived most of their lives in Chicago, more than 1,000 miles from the nearest big mountains, and were decidedly working class. (Joe was a metal worker; Paul a photoengraver.) Yet with little money and little time off for holidays in the mountains, over the course of 20 years they were able to cobble together a string of nearly-annual trips and a handful of first ascents that made them legends. (The stories of driving motorcycles between Chicago and the mountains, on soft muddy roads, are epics in themselves.)
On their very first trip to Colorado in 1927 they made their historic first ascent of Stettners Ledges on the east face of Longs Peak, a climb that was the hardest in the state until well into the 1940s. In 1933, they did a new route up the huge northern side of Lone Eagle Peak. In 1936, Joe soloed Teeter-Totter Pillar, left of the Diamond, and in 1947 he led the first ascent of the east face of Monitor Peak in the San Juans, a climb worthy of respect even today. Interspersed with these ascents were dozens of climbs in the Tetons, Wind River Range, Glacier National Park, the Big Horn Mountains, and other ranges. And even after their glory days the two brothers continued to explore and climb whenever possible, often as leaders with the Chicago Mountaineering Club and the Iowa Mountaineers.
Gorby’s research into and discussion of each of the Stettners’ major routes is meticulous and artful. Since Joe and Paul never reported their ascents, leaving future climbers to claim them as new, controversy has clouded some of their achievements. But Gorby leaves readers with enough information to make up their own minds about the brothers’ climbs.
There was much more to the brothers’ lives than climbing, and Gorby gives us the whole picture. He completes the portrait with several very personal descriptions of visits to see Joe Stettner in his old age, both in Chicago and in Laramie, where he moved in his later years.
In all, Gorby has done the mountaineering community—especially us Coloradans—a tremendous service. He has gathered up all the relevant documentation and provided a clean, thorough account of the lives of two of America’s greatest but least known climbing heroes. And he has told one heck of a story.
Cameron M. Burns