Oliver Perry-Smith America's First Climbing Ace AAJ 1964

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Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Original Post - May 9, 2010 - 10:46pm PT
Easily the most talented and accomplished American climber prior to World War I, Oliver Perry-Smith is neither widely known or appreciated since his best routes are tucked away in the traditionally bold and little visited Dresden area. He was an integral player in developing what would become the prevailing bold style in Saxony.

Perry-Smith left the scene just ahead of WWI and left behind an impressive body of testpiece climbs while his contemporaries in North America were still exploring the frontiers of fourth class technical climbing. J. Monroe Thorington provides an exhaustive survey of the career of this extraordinary gentleman in the 1964 American Alpine Journal.









































donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
May 9, 2010 - 10:49pm PT
I've always wondered about the arrogance or ignorance of American climbers in the late 50's (you know who they are) who claimed the first 5.9 ascent.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - May 9, 2010 - 11:01pm PT
I hope that we get lucky and somebody posting has done his hardest routes. Moves of 5.7 difficulty would be radical enough for those days!
jogill

climber
Colorado
May 9, 2010 - 11:27pm PT
For more on this superb early rock climber, visit my website:

Early Rock Climbers
Alan Rubin

climber
Amherst,MA.
May 10, 2010 - 10:26am PT
Steve, Thanks for posting the article. It has always been one of my all-time favorite climber profile articles--a truely exceptional performer. I was only able to do one of OPS's routes during my very brief visit to Dresden in 1981--the Sudriss on the Falkenstein--solid 5.8, maybe 9 wide crack--and far from his hardest, but what a great climb up an amazing formation. If it wasn't for a team of East German climbers whom we met on the summit and led us down the inobvious descent "maze" we'd still probably be up there today!!!! (No guidebook etc, just recognized the route from one of the photos in the article, so we were lacking in little details such as how to get down.) Even in the strictly-controlled society that East Germany was then, the locals whom we met were exceptionally open and friendly, even inviting us to spend the night in their tiny weekend home to save us from having to take the train ride to and from the city despite the possible risks from the Stasi-- the secret police. I remember one of the most enjoyable evenings ever communicating quite effectively despite knowing few words of each others languages and passing the tiny German/English dictionary back and forth looking for the correct words as we learned of each others lives and climbing in the then very separated societies. And the next day they brought us to some most excellent climbs--though not OPS's.
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
May 10, 2010 - 12:12pm PT
"Daddy, how do they get the rope up there?"
"Well, son, they hand it to a stud like Mr Perry-Smith and he climbs up there all by his lonesome dragging his huge sack of cojones."

So for my edification how did they get down?
Alan Rubin

climber
Amherst,MA.
May 10, 2010 - 01:14pm PT
Very good question Reilly. I know that on the Falkenstein we had to jump a rock "crevice" or 2, down climb some steps carved into the rock--apparently initially carved by lookouts in the middle ages or earlier--then down a series of interconnected chimneys and passageways. On our other climbs--up isolated towers (Falkenstein is more of a "butte" than a tower)we rapped off. I'm not sure when rappelling was "invented" but I always associate it with Hans Dulfer (early body rappels were called "dulfersitz"in German) but he was active towards the end of OPS's career, and therefore after many of the ascents of the most audacious towers such as Barberine (pictured in the article). Usually during the early days of climbing the leaders (normally guides in the Alps) would lower the followers/clients down the steep bits and effectively solo down-climb themselves afterwards. And I'm sure that similar tactics were used on the easier towers, but would have been even more impressive than the "up' climb on Barberine, etc. My guess is that they used some primitive (and very dangerous) form of roping down--such as hand-over-hand down a rope--on these routes. Maybe John or Steve has more info on this.
Fat Dad

Trad climber
Los Angeles, CA
May 10, 2010 - 01:57pm PT
Back in 1985, I submitted an application to go on a climber's exchange to Dresden that was sponsored by the AAC. Ad Carter reviewed the applications and I was one of the American climbers selected to go. Unfortunately, at the time, I was fresh out of college and had traveled to Paris for a month over the summer (not so unfortunate really) to study French.

While I was gone, my acceptance letter came in the mail and my parents said nothing. By the time I flew home to LA, I read the letter saying I have to be in Prague in three days. I was out of cash, no visa, no way of getting back to Europe on such short notice. I had to call Ad Carter to let him know in the hopes that someone else might be able to fill my spot. Man, was he pissed.
jogill

climber
Colorado
May 10, 2010 - 09:31pm PT
My guess is that they used some primitive (and very dangerous) form of roping down--such as hand-over-hand down a rope--on these routes. Maybe John or Steve has more info on this.

Seems like I've seen a photo (maybe one on my site) in which a crude Dulfer-like arrangement was used. But it was such a macho game at Dresden that I suspect they went hand over hand a lot. As late as the early 1960s, Bob Kamps and I would occasionally descend Needles (SD) spires hand over hand. You could walk down on the nubbins. Maybe klk would chime in on the issue of very early rope-downs?
Pate

Trad climber
May 10, 2010 - 11:13pm PT
Wow- that's a great post Steve. How did those "mid-century" legends claim the 5.9 grade with O.P.S. having seemingly walked it 40 years earlier? And he didn't even have tennis shoes.
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
May 10, 2010 - 11:17pm PT
Claiming the first 5.9 was easy for Americans without a worldview and for Californians without a national view. Truth be told some righteous, unreported climbing was going on in New England at an earlier time. Oh, and then there was Europe.
PhilG

Trad climber
The Circuit, Tonasket WA
May 11, 2010 - 03:31am PT
Steve
Thanks (again) for a very interesting and historic post. I agree with Jim's observation that it was typical for climbers in the 60's to be quite unaware of any climbing activities outside of one's own little close knit group.
Alan Rubin

climber
Amherst,MA.
May 11, 2010 - 09:27am PT
Being a nit-picking lawyer, I will point out that technically the 1950s Californians DID climb the first routes GRADED 5.9--its just that much harder routes had been climbed long before elsewhere, but either were ungraded or graded using other systems unknown or undecipherable by them.For example, John Turner was grading his routes in New England and Canada as 5 or 6, the British mostly "very severe', or, occasionally "extremely severe" or, even, "exceptionally severe". And what did the Dresden "5c" mean to them--even if they were aware of the grade? The Californians developed a new, more nuanced grading system, or,actually, they greatly improved upon the existing system in that area, in a successful effort to better communicate the relative difficulties of the routes that they were climbing. It was only the implication, or maybe the explicit claims, that these routes represented new levels of difficulty that was incorrect.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - May 11, 2010 - 08:36pm PT
As good as OPS was, it would be very interesting to know how long his Grade VI and VII testpieces went before being repeated by anyone else. His compatriots seem like a pretty game bunch in their accounts of their climbs. What was OPS using for footwear on the hard stuff? Wrestling shoes or somesuch?
klk

Trad climber
cali
May 11, 2010 - 09:13pm PT
So for my edification how did they get down?

Down-climbing was standard. Many of the towers have easier routes. The Falkenstein, for instance, would've been downclimbed via the Schusterweg, which is a set of easy 5th class chimneys.

Roping down would've been done as folks have suggested-- leaders in last position as they had been the first. The leader must not fall used to mean something.

The development of rappelling or abseiling is a bit mysterious. In the Alps (i.e., Golden Age and earlier), it was fairly common to fix a rope (sometimes a knotted one) over steep dangerous passages for the descent. (Mummery's account of the Grepon has a classic account.)

Doubling a rope, so you could pull it and take it with you, seems to have appeared by the late 1870s. The earliest illustration I've seen dates from 1883. In it, the climber is yarding down hand over hand. But all sorts of frcition techniques were well known for rope climbing, and everyone who'd trained at a Turnverein would've known them. The Dulfersitz was likely a minor improvement upon a chaotic mix of techniques employed at different crags.

And if you had a long enough rope, someone on the ground could lower the leader off the opposite side of a tower.

But basically, you're soloing all day, all the time. There was no real protection. You had to be proficient at downclimbing. Just like now, for those who still do it.

jogill

climber
Colorado
May 11, 2010 - 09:20pm PT
They appear to have worn some sort of rubber or rope soled gym shoes, as can be seen in some of the photos on my site. They did take off their shoes and climb barefoot or in socks upon occasion. OPS's first climb in Saxony he dressed in elegant British attire with nailed boots,and was chastised for his footwear, I believe.

I don't remember CA climbers of the 1950s claiming the very first "5.9" ascents (Alan's comments being appropriate), but they were pleased with themselves. The feats of Joe Brown were known and admired and it was assumed he was climbing at least at their level. But Saxony was indeed a foreign country and I don't recall any one alluding to the spectacular early history of the area. I only learned about it years later. But do keep in mind that routes on soft sandstone change over time and that shoulder stands were employed frequently on short difficult pitches. The runouts are a different matter!
klk

Trad climber
cali
May 11, 2010 - 09:22pm PT
But they were pleased with themselves.

heh.


hey john-- check yr email. i'm en route to the front range.
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
May 11, 2010 - 09:25pm PT
he dressed in elegant British attire with nailed boots,and was chastised for his footwear, I believe.

Off-topic ironic aside: I saw Russians in nailed boots in the Pamirs in the late 70's!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - May 14, 2010 - 11:31am PT
So does anyone think that OPS flirted with 5.10 anywhere along the way because solid 5.9 rated difficulty seems like a sure bet.
klk

Trad climber
cali
May 14, 2010 - 12:54pm PT
So does anyone think that OPS flirted with 5.10 anywhere along the way because solid 5.9 rated difficulty seems like a sure bet.

Teufelsturm is a candidate.

P-S and Fehrmann probably did some climbing that we'd call 10a or so. Again, we don't always know exactly what they did-- some of the cruxes on the early routes involved short, difficult traverses into the crack systems. They may have tensioned some of those. (i.e., look at that traverse photo from the AAJ, above).

Fehrmann and others pressed well into grades we'd call 5.10 after P-S had left Dresden.
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