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Editor’s note: Just as we shipped Climbing No. 290 (in which this interview is featured) to our printer, we learned the terrible news that Kurt Albert had died after a fall in Germany. This interview, one of Albert’s last, now serves as a tribute to a remarkable man. Climbing sends its sincere condolences to Albert’s family and his many friends around the world.
In 1975, Kurt Albert, now 56, painted a red circle on the limestone at the base of Adolf Rott Ged.-Weg, on Streitberger Schild in Germany’s Frankenjura cragging region—his idea of a way to denote that the climb’s moves had been freed. When Albert did the route bottom to top, no falls, he filled in the circle and a new term was born: the rotpunkt, or redpoint.
One of the most charming, funny, and outrageous climbers of our time (he was famously photographed climbing free solo, hanging from an overhang by one arm and hoisting a stein of beer with the other), Albert has been pushing the limits since the 1970s. His career highlights are many: in 1981, he added the ninth grade to German climbing with his Sautanz (9-, or 5.12c). In 1988, he and Wolfgang Güllich did the FFA of the Slovenian Route on Trango Tower at 5.12b. In 1991, the pair teamed up for the nearly free first ascent of the classic Riders on the Storm (5.12d A2), on the Torre Central del Paine in Patagonia. Tall, muscular, and patient, Albert is like a very fit, very funny Buddha. One of his favorite pastimes is figuring out puzzles: Chinese finger traps, Rubik’s Cubes, you name it.
I started climbing at age 14 on a church club outing. I immediately realized I’d found my calling. I quickly started lead climbing and taking on dangerous adventures. Suddenly, I found myself in the Alps trying the hardest routes.
In climbing life, I look for freedom, and I always question standards and rules—I like to do it my way. I don’t like dogma.
The climber who most impressed me was Jerry Moffatt. Jerry was so far ahead of his time. He came to the Frankenjura and did our hardest routes, onsight. Jerry and I became good friends right away… and I wanted to see him finally fall. I went and prepared a route for him… then the next day I took Jerry to Sau Tanz (5.12c). As he approached the crux, he put his finger in the main pocket and found it full of Nivea cream. “You bloody bastard!” he yelled down, and then quickly found a small crimp that I didn’t even know was there, and did the route onsight anyway.
My best climbing partner is “Suzi”—my jumar. I spend 80 percent of my climbing time with Suzi. Everyone kept asking, “Who is Suzi?” And I’d say, “She’s patient and doesn’t complain.”
Wolfgang [Güllich] and I did many wonderful things together—not just climbing trips. We were trying to free the Norwegian Pillar on Great Trango… and as I followed up a freezing-cold pitch, I saw lots of black pebbles stuck to the wall. Thinking I might be able to use the pebbles to free the route, I started up only to see that the pebbles weren’t what I thought they were. Wolfgang had had diarrhea, and it froze immediately to the wall. When I managed to reach him, he only smiled at me.
My scariest moment was when my climbing partner and friend Bernd Arnold fell in a big crevasse on Trango Tower. I thought, “This is it—I’ll never see him again.” In the end, he was lucky and (barely) survived.
One of my best bivouacs was in Venezuela in a hammock on a tepui—pretty exposed, on a ledge with an outrageous view and a beautiful sunrise. The other was on the Cape Renard Tower, in the Antarctic… hanging above the ocean, watching the whales go by blowing and singing, with only icebergs and my partners.
My worst bivouac was in Baffin in knee-deep mud while it was raining. It was bitterly cold, we had no tent, everything was wet, and there were hungry polar bears nearby.
I was at an indoor-climbing demonstration during the inauguration of a new cinema in my native town, Nürnberg. I climbed the ceiling while many important people (including the mayor) watched. Also, TV crews were present. To make it more spectacular, I had to purposely take a fall—a 25-foot pendulum with the highest velocity near the ground. I knocked out a cameraman, with my butt hitting his head (his $50,000 camera flew through the air). The cameraman was unconscious for two minutes.
A lot of dirt and some spiders live under my bed. I don’t like vacuuming.
It’s the brain connected with talent that makes for a good climber.
Sometimes I can be very lazy, and somebody has to kick my ass.
Give me a new body… motivation I don’t need.