Fritz Wiessner- A Man For All Mountains


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Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Original Post - Mar 21, 2009 - 08:58pm PT
I have been wanting to start a Fritz thread for a while especially after roaming over his routes in the Gunks last fall.

Hard to find a more astonishing climber and his style was always exemplary. Top of my pantheon for sure and I had the great fortune of climbing with him and John and Ila Rupley when I was a teenager.

Plenty more to follow, but this fine Ed Webster piece appeared in the Legends of North American Climbing issue December, 1988.


Social climber
Mar 21, 2009 - 10:28pm PT
hey there, say... this sounds great... i will be back to read, as more comes in, too...

thanks for thinking up such a share... :)

i love to hear history stuff... and learn about the heart and work/climbs of a man... and all the wide open adventure they have seen... how they first started and all the etc...
east side underground

Trad climber
Hilton crk,ca
Mar 21, 2009 - 11:10pm PT
you have to admire Mr. Wiessner,for not going to the summit to stay with his sherpa, great story

Trad climber
the base of the Shawangunk Ridge
Mar 22, 2009 - 12:20am PT
Good thread! I will be getting out tomorrow in the Near Trapps- I think I will climb one of Fritz's routes in honor of this great man.
paul roehl

Boulder climber
Mar 22, 2009 - 01:05am PT
Seem to remember Weissner doing the Nutcracker after age 70. Is that right?
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Mar 22, 2009 - 01:11am PT
It wouldn't surprise me but I can't confirm that one.

From the same issue, one of Fritz's finest efforts.

Patrick Sawyer

Originally California now Ireland
Mar 22, 2009 - 01:17am PT
A legend.

From Wikipedia

Fritz Wiessner (February 26, 1900 - July 3, 1988) was a pioneer of free climbing. Born in Dresden, Germany, he emigrated to New York City in 1929. He became a U.S. citizen in 1935.

Wiessner started climbing with his father in the Austrian Alps before World War I. At the age of 12, he climbed the Zugspitze, the highest peak in Germany. In the 1920s, he established hard climbing routes in Saxony and the Dolomites that have a present-day difficulty rating of up to 5.11. This was at a time when the hardest free climbing grade in the United States was 5.7. At the age of 25, he made the first ascent of the Fleischbank in Tyrol, which was proclaimed the hardest rock climb done at that time.

Wiessner was not an imposing physical specimen; he stood 5'6" tall, balding, slope-shouldered and stocky, with a wide and friendly grin. His specialty lay in wide crack climbing, or offwidth, a technique that demanded both technical mastery and uncommon strength.

In 1931, Wiesner made contact with members of the American Alpine Club and immediately set a new standard in American rock climbing. Across North America, he established an incredible list of first ascents at such climbing areas as Ragged Mountain (Connecticut); Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire; Wallface Mountain, New York Adirondack Mountains; Devils Tower, Wyoming (the first free ascent); and Mount Waddington, British Columbia.

Fritz Wiessner, age 81, Mt Lemmon, 1981, climbing on the Rupley Towers. Photo: John Rupley

In 1935, while climbing at Breakneck Ridge on the Hudson River, Wiessner spotted the gleaming white quartzite cliffs of the Gunks in the distance. The following weekend he set off in search of the tantalizing cliffs and immediately set about climbing the highest point in the area, a cliff now known as Millbrook mountain. Along with John and Peggy Navas, he established a route now named Old Route 5.5, the first recorded technical rock climb in the Gunks, and in doing so established the area as a mecca for rock climbers.

Wiessner, often in partnership with fellow immigrant Hans Kraus, established numerous first ascents in the Gunks, including many climbs that are popular (and intimidating) to this day. Perhaps their best known combined effort is the very popular High Exposure buttress 5.6, which they first climbed in 1941 with a hemp rope and three soft iron pitons. Other notable Wiessner first ascents in the Gunks include: Gargoyle 5.5; High Traverse 5.5; White Pillar 5.7; Baby 5.6; Frogs Head 5.6; Gelsa 5.4; High Corner 5.7; and Yellow Ridge 5.7. In 1946, he led Minnie Belle, the first 5.8 in the Gunks.

In 1935, Wiessner established a climb in Connecticut called Vector that may have been the country's first 5.8.

When rock climbing, Wiessner often paired himself with novices, and with women in particular. He always insisted on being the lead climber (in an era when a leader fall could easily prove disastrous for the entire party and the maxim of the day was "The leader must never fall"). After meeting Hans Kraus, he relaxed his "lead-climb only" rule (which Kraus had also adopted), and the two men climbed as equal partners.

In 1939 he led an ill-fated American expedition to K2, coming within 700 feet of the summit before having to turn back. Wiesser recounted that, although the difficulties of the climb had been passed and the remainder was straightforward, he turned back in deference to the wishes his sherpa, Pasang Dawa Lama, who feared offending his gods by being on the summit in darkness. (Reference: personal communication to John Rupley) No one came as close to the top of the mountain again until July 31, 1954 when the first ascent was achieved by Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni.

During his first years in America, Wiessner founded a chemical company that specialized in waxes, including a widely-used ski wax known as Wiesner's Wonder Wax. He successfully developed his company during the great depression of the 1930s.

Wiessner was also a proficient skier. He was reportedly disappointed that he was not allowed to fight for the U.S. in World War II; he served as a technical advisor to the 10th Mountain Division and to the equipment for cold climatic areas commission of the office of the quartermaster general in Washington DC.
In 1945, he married Muriel Schoonmaker. In 1946, his son Andrew was born. In 1947, his daughter Pauline (Polly) was born. Daughter and son both accompanied their father on many later expeditions and climbing trips. Muriel was a trusted climbing, rambling, and skiing companion to Fritz for the rest of his life.
In 1952, the Wiessner family moved to Stowe, Vermont, where Fritz would live to the end of his days.

Wiessner remained an active climber up into his eighties, often stunning onlookers in the Gunks by soloing his early routes. He loved to solo his climb Gargoyle at Skytop by the light of the full moon.

Once, when climbing with a much younger climber sometime in the mid 1970s, the younger climber led the first pitch, and confided to Wiessner that he had soloed the route earlier in the week. "Ah, you must vee climbing pretty goot!" Wiessner said. He then took the lead for the second pitch, putting in no protection - effectively soloing the pitch. When his partner reached the top, Fritz grinned impishly. "I must vee climbing pretty good too" Wiessner (then in his middle 70s) said. (The source for this anecdote is Guy Waterman).

Wiessner died after suffering a series of strokes at age 88.
Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Mar 22, 2009 - 01:17am PT
There is also a memorial to him by his partner John Rupley, at

I think Ron met or even climbed with him, and may have stories.

Mar 22, 2009 - 01:30am PT
Hearing from Gunks climbers that were around when Fritz was in his 70s, he'd free solo many of the easier classics that were his favorites and not always with the smoothness and grace of his earlier years. But he ended up not dying with his boots on. Some would venture to say, to his dismay.

Social climber
wuz real!
Mar 22, 2009 - 02:05am PT
I never got to meet Mr Wiessner.

though I've done all the routes with his name on them on Deto.

A friend of many of ours, Mark Smedly, once told me he was waiting to do the Weissner route until he had rope soled shoes. If I get some I will be happy to climb it with him. Disclosure,; I have climbed it before, with and without rope and sticky rubber.

One December I led it in Kronhoffers. May be as close as I ever get to the original experience.

thanks for bringing climbing closer to a lot of us, Fritz!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Mar 22, 2009 - 02:17am PT
I have some espadrilles but not of the climbing type. Certainly better than most materials on limestone before rubber came along. The feel would probably be pretty good.

Boulder climber
Gilbert, AZ
Mar 22, 2009 - 11:06pm PT
I got to meet Fritz at Jim McCarthy's 50th birthday party in '83 or '84 (which ever one Jim turned 50, obviously) - what an amazing guy. Since then, I have also climbed with Fritz's son Andy--and with Andy's son Angus. Three generations of climbing Wiessners--that's pretty cool.


Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Mar 22, 2009 - 11:10pm PT
That's interesting Curt. Andy last I knew was living in Vail with his wife Patsy Batchelder. Very cool couple too. She is an old friend of mine, and I believe the grand daughter of Grandma Curry. Are they still there? He is an environmental lawyer.
the museum

Trad climber
Rapid City, SD
Mar 22, 2009 - 11:55pm PT
Back in the day at the Tower, I was camped next to nice old couple. The fellow was William House, and he knew Weissner...we had a nice talk that nite.. it was cool that an old dude and his wife went to the tower to go camping... Ah the memories.
AndySan Diego

Trad climber
San Diego, CA
Mar 22, 2009 - 11:55pm PT
Sometime around 1984. My friends & I were hanging around some boulder problems in Indian Cove at Joshua Tree. We were enjoying a little herbal refreshment. When this old guy approaches. He had these funny Euro looking climbing shoes. We exchanged hellos & we were all stoked to see such an old guy still out climbing. We asked where is rope & partner were? He explained he was just soloing easy routes. But he was more concerned because he locked his keys in his car. Feeling sorry for the Old Guy. My friend Dennis McCarty got his car open with a coat hanger. The old guy was extremely happy & gave Dennis a $20 Bill. But before doing so, the Old Guy signs it “Fritz Wiessner”. Being young fairly new pot smoking punk climbers, we were clueless. It wasn’t until we got back & did a little research that we realized we had met one of the legends of climbing.

Boulder climber
Gilbert, AZ
Mar 23, 2009 - 01:26am PT
Yes, Andy is still in Vail. He is currently with the Western Land Group, a consultant to Resolution Copper Company. That's actually how I (unfortunately) met Andy.


Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Mar 23, 2009 - 02:59am PT
Yes Fritz and I and Royal and Liz climbed Nutcracker on Fritz's birthday. I think it was his 65th birthday, though I'd have to go back and check for sure on that. I recall it was about 1968 maybe. Again, I'd have to check, but that sounds right. On a second rope right behind us, as part of the whole birthday party team were Roper and Chouinard... It was a great fun day. Fritz had a smile the whole climb. He wore some clumsy looking mountain boots but walked right up all the moves, the delicate stuff and even that mildly strenuous mantel at the top. But he obviously had many years of technique. After the climb he took us all to dinner at an upstairs room at Degnan's Royal or someone reserved. Pratt was there, but I don't think he did the climb with us...

Trad climber
The state of confusion
Mar 23, 2009 - 09:09am PT
Bump for Fritz. . .

Some of his routes are uber-classic!
Alan Rubin

Mar 23, 2009 - 01:40pm PT
I could tell many stories about Fritz, he was an amazing man---an inspiration to all of us who had the pleasure to meet and climb with him, and to many more who just were/are aware of his accomplishments.I'll relate one story which in particular captures the essence of Wiessner. During the early '70s the American Alpine Club held it's annual meeting on a couple of occasions at the Mohonk Mountain House in the Gunks. In those days the meeting was held annually on the first weekend of December. I recall arriving for one of those meetings late one Friday afternoon. Those familiar with the northeast, will know that early December is almost invariably gray and raw, and this afternoon was no exception with even a few snow flurries in the gloom of the approaching evening. As the "elite" of American climbing gathered in the Mountain House lobby dressed for cocktails and socializing I ran into Fritz's son Andrew and asked about his father's whereabouts. "He's out climbing" was the reply---of all the assembled climbers, Fritz, then in his early 70s, was the only one out on the rock, soloing one of his favorite routes in far from ideal conditions!!!! I know that Ed Webster was working on a Wiessner biography, I hope he completes the project in the near future. A couple of other comments. The William House mentioned by an earlier poster on this thread, was an amazing climber in his on right. He was Fritz's partner on the FA of Waddington as well as one of the Devil's Tower team, and also made the first lead of the crucial "House Chimney" during an attempt on K-2. To honor another great climber it should be emphasized that while Fritz was on the FA of High Exposure, it was Hans Kraus who led the crucial pitch. There were many giants in those days!!!!

Ice climber
Pomfert VT
Mar 23, 2009 - 02:03pm PT
I find it supriseing ther there are no records that i am aware of with Weissner routs in VT even though he lived much of his life here? I may be wrong but Fritz strikes me as the kind of climber who keeps meticulous records of FA's and possibly have a climbing journal? Does anyone know of any VT routs that Fritz may have put up?
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