Introduction by Andrea Gobetti
It is in the bookshop for the types of the Publishing House Editions of the Gran Sassothe volume “When mountaineering spoke German. 1919-1931”work of Alexander Pillory And Paul Ascenzitwo of the most authoritative names in the historiography of mountaineering.
Below, the masterful introduction of Andrea Gobetti:
‘The German Zoo’
“They called it a ‘school’, but to me, given the variety of so-called pupils and teachers, it looks more like a circus, a zoo to which the cages have been opened as happens in the films of Emir Kusturica or Terry rather than an educational institution Gillian and the fantastic specimens gallop free through the cities and let out loud screams as they go beyond the imagination of the spectators.
These are the stories of a vast constellation of Germanic mountaineers, as we will perhaps never again see likes, who just after the end of the First World War arose from the multiform, white “gebirge” of Austrian limestone, and invaded the Dolomites which had just in war, but mocked what was previously called impossible and left its mark on rock and ice from the Alps, to the Caucasus, to the Himalayas.
Mountaineering historians, accepting the suggestion of the mystical and inspired Venetian mountaineer Domenico Rudatis, defined it as a school, but the idea of a school suggests the presence of a master, four walls, pupils in the benches, as well as a specialization , of a title and a common goal among the students. None of this I discover in the acclaimed “School of Monaco” inventor of the sixth grade, as well as the scale to measure it.
The precious casket of memoirs that you have in your hands does not seem to have been easy to compose, behind its pages one can sense a laborious and complex research and translation work, which if some of these unscrupulous protagonists had published their mountaineering reports (in gothic characters of course) for others the disclosure of their successes was not absolutely necessary, nor desired.
Thus, on the sidelines of the best-known events, the authors explore places and characters as remarkable as they are little known, taciturn, distrustful of city lights, indifferent to the sirens of fame, people who have not gone beyond the book of refuge to give history to their exploits.
Generally proud of a post-war poverty, in declared contrast with the means of the noble English tourists who preceded them, the characters of a private redemption from the war catastrophe travel on bicycles as fragile as they are weighed down (those, yes, were mountain bikes), in the agitated sea of the Dolomites and when they look beyond the most beautiful walls in the world, here are the first men of the sixth grade to have their say on the granite and ice walls of Mont Blanc and the Central Alps. One step later and they will mark new first ascents in the Caucasus, the Pamirs and the Himalayas.
Theirs is certainly a new page in the history of mountaineering and will be a stimulus for the birth of a great Italian mountaineering.
Between the lines of this accurate research are collected the life and miracles of a group of legendary characters who look nothing like each other, who have made a action rule; sometimes these forerunners meet each other causing admirable sparks to fly that will mark pages of glory, but calling them a group seems a contradiction in terms, like mentioning a pack of lone wolves and perhaps for this reason a more serious, bland word like “school” was preferred and generic in outlining the intensity of reciprocal relationships.
Nor was Munich the only physical location, which even though it boasted three sections of the German Alpine Club, the capital of Bavaria was not the only German-speaking city where a new way of understanding mountaineering was invented, there was also Vienna, with its noble tradition and the proximity of the Alpine limestone, and of equal if not greater importance was the more distant Dresden, strong with its sandstone towers on the Elbe.
What unites our heroes is an exceptional period, a unique moment that extends over the Germanic world from the Baltic Sea to the Alps.
Conceited, presumptuous and overbearing, the Central Powers have just taken a historical beating, hunger and death are the fruit of their thirst for prey and glory.
Dragged by their emperors, generals and industrialists into a war defined as Great without having had the morality or intuition of greatness, the German-speaking peoples are presented with the bill of damages and victims: they murdered “la belle époque”, all humiliation must follow misery.
The empire has collapsed on itself, the Kaiser’s soldiers have climbed the valleys they had descended with such proud confidence in defeat, the Dolomites have become Italian, Hans Dülfer was killed by a grenade on the French front, inflation is tearing the salaries, every job is good in order to survive.
In the immediate post-war Emil Solleder, who was one of the most talented (and courageous) rock climbers in the entire history of mountaineering, was so penniless that he went looking for gold in Alaska in order to survive. Hans Steger, the future partner of Paula Wiesinger, the first Italian downhill champion, will become a film star, but at the moment, already a German boxing champion, he makes ends meet by unloading ships in the port of Genoa and then as a porter in Naples.
Otto Herzog, among other things the inventor of the use of the carabiner, is a “red” revolutionary, participates in the republic of workers and soldiers that drives out the last Bavarian king, organizes a proletarian expedition to the Caucasus and when the court, of all he other armed ideology, wants to imprison him will be successfully defended by the lawyer Paul Bauer, a mountaineer who will later attempt none other than Kangchenjunga, despite being a nationalist of very different ideas from those of the “tramps” of climbing.
For many it’s time for little money and great choices, and the proletariat breaks into mountaineering, which was already the domain of scientists, then of the nobles and then of the bourgeoisie, conquering a place of all respect right from the start.
Instead of the good society, infested with long-winded prose writers and well-mannered colonialists, now at the head of the consortium there are workers who know how to bend iron. They won’t measure the height of the sky, they won’t melt away the beautiful souls in the living room, but they invent the nail with the hole in the head, the carabiner, as well as the twelve-pointed crampon. Can you stop a German from doing things right? Technique is the new frontier, the new style of climbing walls. The Germanic vocation for avant-garde mechanics is exalted on the overhangs, but it must be said that despite inventing aid climbing these mountaineers will never exaggerate in using new inventions. They did invent beautiful pitons, but they remain “extremely sparing in their use”, as was written by Enzo Cozzolino from Trieste a few decades later.
Woodsmen appear on the climbing stage who know more than the devil with ropes, there are students and public officials who, before becoming Nazis or retreating into the silence of the mountains, are animated by courage, by the desire to overcome themselves; in some of them dwells the Nietschian yearning for the superman, in others rather that of natural, simple, vagabond, anarchic freedom.
They are different spirits, deeply convinced of themselves and of their own path, which has sometimes led them to diametrically opposed ideological positions, so much so that I still hear them arguing in the pages of this book, so I believe that being embalmed in a single page of history would have been the last of their wishes.
The fact is that with them, according to Gian Piero Motti’s History of Alpinism that has never been reread enough, begins the long route of bolting that leads the art of climbing to derive from the purism of Paul Preuss up to the desecrating apogee of the famous compressorata of Cesare Maestri on Cerro Torre and then back.
With a prophetic vein Motti writes that, following that extreme profanation, the orbit of mountaineering will return to the bare hands of Preuss and in fact, more than 40 years after his intuition, today’s deeds of Alex Honnold and the new climbers seem prove it. What will come next? What still invisible holds, like those of the sixth grade in the 1920s and those of 9A just a few years ago, will appear on the walls and in the mind of those who climb them? What and who will happen to today’s purism?
We leave the subject to the prophets and to those who find relationships between the world of climbing and that which, full of contradictions, continues to revolve around the sun, of course it is curious, perhaps notable as the great director simultaneously with the extraordinary inventions of the “Munich school” German Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is making the cinema perform unheard-of acrobatics, in 1922 he films the famous The Vampire, bringing cameras (at the time colossal) to natural environments for the first time to capture their essence and four years later he surpasses himself and all of world cinematography in the very cruel The Last Laugh (the tragedy of the hotel porter stripped and stripped of his uniform which reflects the state of mind of dethroned Germany). In that film, still silent, the filming technique reaches and exceeds all previous limits with the invention of the track and the crane from which to hang the camera. It is the technological revolution of the point of view.
More than one of Germany’s best mountaineers will turn to the cinema precisely in the years in which the innocent, or naive, exaltation of strength and courage will become a weapon of Nazi propaganda and there will no longer be room for the “mountain vagabonds” , but only for heroic looks and myths of victory.
Thus in the camera of Leni Riefenstahl, whose favorite cameraman was the mountaineer Hans Ertl, winner of the north face of the Gran Zebrù, the moments are immortalized in which from a desperate but glorious post-war period we pass to a terrible pre-war capable of obscuring, forget that impetus to the impossible that had electrified, galvanized Germany in the aftermath of the great military defeat.
Paul Ascenzi. Born in Rome on 13 April 1953, graduated in Medicine and Surgery, he is full professor of Biochemistry at the Roma Tre University, Corresponding Member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and Academic Member of the Medical Academy of Rome. Academic member of the Italian Mountain Writers Group and in the past Editorial Director of the magazine l’Appennino of the CAI Section of Rome, he carried out intense mountaineering activity above all in the Western Alps and climbed the highest peaks and volcanoes in Africa, the Americas, the Europe and Oceania. Historian of mountaineering, he has published and translated numerous books.
Alexander Pillory. Born in Genoa on 29 July 1946, he is an internationally renowned mountaineer, mountaineering historian, mountain guide and opinion maker (tourist-environmental problems of the mountains and the theme of freedom in mountaineering). He has to his credit 500 first ascents in the Alps, Apennines and other mountain ranges, and several extra-European expeditions.
When mountaineering spoke German
Author: Paolo Ascenzi, Alessandro Gogna
– Rome – 2022