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Mauerhaken Streit: The Great Piton Debate of 1911

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The Campanile Basso in the Dolomites, Italy, where the Paul Preuss free soloed a new line on the formation’s east face in 1911CC BY-SA 3.0

We Americans sometimes like to think that we invented rock climbing and the important ethics of the sport. Older climbers will remember the “Great Debate” in 1986 at the American Alpine Club, concerning the acceptance of rappel bolting, hang-dogging, and chipping of holds in the USA—trad versus sport—to keep up with the numbers of the European free climbers. The oldest climbers today will remember the Robbins vs. Harding big-wall debates of the ‘50s and ‘60s: how many direct aid bolts were acceptable on a new multi-day route, siege tactics vs. alpine tactics, and if bolts should be chopped if they could be bypassed by free climbing or hard aid climbing using (supposedly) the more-ethical pitons?

The Austrian alpinist Paul Preuss

However, the first serious ethical debate in climbing history took place in 1911 over a period of a few months, in the pages of the German Alpine Times publication. The catalyst was a brief, commissioned op-ed by young-gun, 25-year-old Paul Preuss, the first great free soloist and the most ethical zealot in climbing history. Paul had recently onsight free-soloed two cutting-edge routes in a five-day period. First he did the second ascent of the 5.7 West Face of the Totenkirchl, probably the hardest route in the Wilde Kaiser Mountains of Austria, adding a completely new upper half to the line. Then he climbed a totally new 5.7 line on the brittle rock of the Campanile Basso in the Dolomites and then down climbed his route.

Reacting to the new-fangled practice of placing pitons for protection, Preuss disavowed all mechanical assistance, creating the disparaging term “artificial aid.” His basic premise: If a climb was too difficult for the leader to basically free solo, up and down, it was his duty to down climb and return when he was a better climber, or pick an easier route. Although ropes (and even pitons) might be taken on a climb, he thought they should only be used when unexpected circumstances of danger arise and it was time to retreat.

Rock climbing was an essential part of mountain climbing, but it also existed as a distinct sport and, as such, had different goals. In Alpinism, the goal is to get to the top of a mountain. Nature provides many objective obstacles. Rock climbing, especially on shorter routes, is far more contrived and therefore must have more rules to keep it sporting. It was also believed by many climbers at that time that any sport where you were not risking your life to some degree had little moral or emotional value, because it was not “sporting.”

Preuss wrote that the use of pitons, even for protection, allowed a “battle with unequal weapons” on rock climbs. Ropes and hardware were not to be used to “swindle” your way up a climb. He chose to climb free solo or, when with a partner, used no protection while leading. He did not want climbing ethics to descend to the pathetic point where every route had a fixed protection piton “every five meters.” Hah! On some sport climbs today, that might be considered run-out.

Preuss listed his personal six rules of ethical climbing as:

  1. You must not only be good enough for your chosen line. You must be better
  2. “Not one step up where you cannot go down.” The skill of down-climbing needed to be learned and continuously practiced
  3. Physical aid (ropes and pitons) are only to be used when an unexpected danger arises
  4. Pitons are not to be used for upward progress, either for direct support or psychological aid
  5. No weighting the rope to progress: up, sideways, or down
  6. Security is paramount, yes, but it comes from training and experience, not from equipment

He quotes Goethe “It is in limitation that the master shows himself.” If the climbing world had strictly adopted his beliefs, there would certainly be far fewer climbs (and climbers still alive) in the world.

Most climbers today find this position at once laudable and unrealistic. This was also true in 1911. In the next few months, the most influential climbers of the day wrote their responses. This was followed by an in-person debate with five or six speakers and hundreds of attendees in January of 1912 in Munich.

Tita Piaz, the Devil of the Dolomites

“Devil of the Dolomites” Tita Piaz, the leading rock climber in the Dolomites for the previous decade (who Preuss greatly admired), was seven years older than Preuss with a wife and family. While Piaz agreed in principle, he took a more progressive position. He believed that the use (but not overuse) of pitons for protection (not progress), would allow ascents of the many large, unclimbed walls of the Alps. He did not want to see young climbers die just to preserve an ethical high ground. What about the relatives of the dead climbers or the rescuers who might be risking their lives to help a stranded or hurt climber? If the overuse of pitons can “save the life of even one man” it is justified. He also wrote that Alpine guides, who made a living in dangerous mountains, should be allowed to use any method to protect their clients. He thought Preuss was imposing rules (and was therefore constrained, not free) and it should be the individual leader deciding what is safe. “We go to the mountains to be free of limits,” he said. Piaz said that Preuss was the greatest talent as a climber, but his idealism lacked enough life experience.

Franz Nieberl, a guide and author from Kufstein known as “The Pope of the Kaiser Mountains” and 11 years older than Preuss, was scandalized. In an essay, he attacked Preuss ad hominem at first. After calling his words “poisonous fruit” and then attacking Preuss’s personal heritage and recent religious conversion, he went on to show some of the rhetorical flaws in the arguments. If climbers were to totally follow Preuss, he argued, we must not only outlaw pitons, ropes, and rappelling, we must also ban all technology, nails on the boots, shoes in general, and even the tradition of shoulder stands. Reductio ad absurdum, we must climb barefoot, alone, on rock and snow. Preuss was going too far, as every other “sport” allows some technology and can still be sporting.

Let it not be said that Preuss was a pedant, sternly demanding from on high that others follow his ethic. He presented and lived an ideal with very few exceptions on his climbs and did not expect many disciples. On a recent climb, in order to protect his followers from an unprepared bivouac, he down soloed and placed two pitons for them (one of the climbers had sneaked them up in his pack) on a traverse, ensuring safe passage to the top before nightfall. On another occasion, when describing a long, solo first ascent on rock, he openly admitted to violating his ethic. His fingertips were worn and bleeding from the rock and so, near the top, he said he resorted to aid—in the form of athletic tape—but, he said, only with the sticky side in, so it was still a free ascent. At least he had a sense of humor. One wonders what he would think of chalk, resin, and sticky rubber—not to mention aid climbing, projecting, and chipping holds. His actions in the mountains, however, were serious, with 150 solo first ascents among his 1,200 climbs. Two years later, he was to die attempting a large, onsight, free solo first ascent. Perhaps more than any other climber, he walked his talk.

Paul Jacobi, the same age as Preuss, thought that Preuss’s ethic was laudable but inconsistent. Preuss wrote that only climbs done completely free give the leader meaningful feelings and that all other routes bring up worthless (wertlos) feelings. Not necessarily true, Jacobi said. Climbers go to the mountains for a variety of reasons. (I might add here that had Preuss been, for example, Charlie Porter in 1972 with the state-of-the-art pitons, leading the first ascent of the RURP pitch on the Shield on El Cap, he likely would have had some feelings of “worth” on a strictly aid piton route.) Anyway, Jacobi continued, if you carry technology (rope) for emergency as Preuss did, then you have it for psychological support in your mind as well as in your pack. Is a belay anchored to the rock, either by a loop of rope or piton, only artificial aid at the moment the forces of a fall comes on it?

Hans Dulfer, six years younger than Preuss, thought him a hero for his ethics and his climbs. Although Dulfer is known today for inventing aid techniques like the tension traverse and perfecting the rappel, most of his climbs contained, like Preuss, hard, unprotected, ground-up climbing. Also, it is probably important to remember, given the poor protection, poor belay techniques, and ropes that could (and did) break, that all other climbers of the time, even using technology, were not a great deal safer than Preuss free soloing. Today, the difference between a fall on a sport climb and a fall free soloing is vast—literally, life and death.

I was pleasantly surprised at the intelligence and the articulation of all the participants. They mostly listened to what was said or written, thought about it, and presented their logical rebuttals with the long-term interests of the sport in mind. Also, due to the small number of climbers and the thousands of potential new routes, there was no mention of any environmental ethics—permanent damage, i.e. piton scars, fixed pitons, chopped holds, bootnail marks, rubber streaks, etc. The Clean Climbing/Leave No Trace ethic was probably first created about this time, but in the Elbsandsteingebirge in East Germany, and not yet in the Alps.

When the final in-person debate started, the mood was intense at first, but then a surprising thing happened. Nieberl and Jacobi agreed with most of the six theses, at least in principle, differing mainly in degree. Georg Leuchs summarized: “On a new route, Piaz might allow 20 protection pitons, Nieberl 3, and Preuss none at all.” None of the speakers accepted aid pitons. Everyone, including Preuss, agreed it was difficult to define when exactly an “impending danger” became real enough to allow aid for escape. A snowstorm closing in? Excessive loose rock? Twilight? Preuss’s dichotomy, aid and free, was accepted, as was the need to keep some risk in the sport. However, two years later the Great War began, forever changing the world’s moral perspectives, and many climbers, including Dulfer, Jacobi, and 14,000,000 other young men, sadly, would not return to climb or debate anything ever again. Perhaps this is the only moral we need to remember.