On June 28, 1937, Fritz Weissner led the bold first ascent of Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming. He climbed a series of wide cracks in three pitches to the summit, followed by Lawrence Coveny and William P. House, putting up a route that nowadays goes at a sandbagged 5.7+, and most folks will advise that you take a fat No. 6 Camalot or a Big Bro to protect the wide crack – or scare the crap out of yourself doing it without.
When Wiessner led the route 75 years ago, he placed one lonely piton the entire climb. In the National Park Service report of the climb, Wiessner “afterward declared that it was unnecessary and wished that he had not used that safety precaution.”
Wiessner was born in Germany and learned to climb in the Austrian Alps, putting up hard routes in Europe that, retroactively rated, go at 5.11 – at a time when the hardest-rated climb in America was 5.7. He moved to America in 1929 and put up routes all over the States, including at Cannon Mountain, the Adirondacks, Devils Lake, the Tetons, and Mt. Waddington. And he refused to let anyone else lead, preferring to take the sharp end of the rope, which in those days was a static hemp or manila line, which meant the lead climber could not fall.
In 1935, while climbing at Breakneck Ridge, Wiessner saw the cliffs of the Shawangunks off in the distance. The next weekend, he started climbing there, putting up the first technical route and thusly opening “The Gunks” to climbing, beginning its legacy as one of the most famous climbing areas in America. He met Hans Kraus, who also preferred only leading climbs, and was forced to relent and allow someone else to lead. The two put up dozens of classic climbs at the Gunks, many of which are some of the most climbed – and most sandbagged – today, including High Exposure and Horseman.
Reinhold Messner once called Wiessner the most pivotal mountaineer of the 20th century – that’s coming from the mouth of a guy who was the first to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks, as well as the first solo ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen. Wiessner got to within 700 feet of the summit of K2 in 1939, a high mark that would not be bested for another 15 years.
A famous anecdote about Wiessner has him climbing with a much-younger partner sometime in the 1970s. After leading the first pitch of the climb, the younger climber admitted to Wiessner that he had free-soloed the pitch a few days earlier. Wiessner replied that the young man must have been climbing pretty good. He took the rack, and somewhere in his 70s at that point, led the next pitch without placing a single piece of protection. The partner followed the pitch, finding Wiessner at the top, grinning. “I must vee climbing pretty good, too,” Wiessner said.
Controversy dogged Wiessner throughout his career, in particular for events that occurred on K2, but that’s another story (see Jennifer Jordan’s excellent The Last Man on the Mountain for more). He climbed till he was 86, and in his lifetime, saw the evolution of climbing in America, and inventions like dynamic ropes, camming units, sticky rubber, chalk, harnesses with leg loops, and indoor climbing training walls – which made climbing easier for those who followed him. The first 5.11 route in America was climbed in the ’60s, four decades after he’d climbed that hard in Europe. He died in 1988 after a series of strokes.