Sending it back in time, writing about a celebrity free soloist

Author David Smart traces impact of climber Paul Preuss on free soloing today

More than 100 years ago, in 1913, Austrian climber Paul Preuss died at 27 years old while free soloing. Since then, what he did in his short life has shaped the sport of rock climbing. Now, for the first time a biography, sure to be read by Squamish climbers, on Preuss has been written in English.

Author David Smart is the writer behind no less than five climbing guidebooks, his memoir A Youth Wasted Climbing, and two back-to-back historical climbing novels. That's not to mention the four magazines Smart helped create, Gripped Magazine among them. As of 2019, a new biography penned by Smart is also on the shelves, Paul Preuss: Lord of the Abyss.

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The Chief spoke with Smart about his latest book. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Q: How did you first hear of Paul Preuss?

A: I can't even remember when I first heard about him, but he's somebody who was in all the history books for his free soloing — but mostly as a kind of footnote because he died so young. He's much more well known as a historical figure in Europe than he is in North America, but also because in Canada, much of our climbing came here by immigrants from the U.K. or Austria or Germany. They talked about this guy who never used pitons, which were the only form of protecting at the time, or carabiners. He always free soloed. He down-climbed — he didn't rappel. He'd done all these absolutely incredible things. In five days, he on-sight free soloed — so just walked up to and climbed — the hardest existing route in the Alps, and then just a few days later he on-sight free soloed an even harder climb that had never been done and people thought was impossible. Then he down-climbed it. The only thing you could compare it to now is Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan and then a few days later free soloing the first ascent of a climb that had never been done before that was even harder. And then down-climbing it.

Q: Why do you think it's taken so long for his life to be presented like this in English?

A: There are books about him in German, of course, and in Italian. I think free soloing has had a moment with Alex Honnold. There are more people interested in where it came from, what other climbers have done it. Quite a lot of climbers have done some free soloing, but there haven't been that many who really were able to free solo at the highest levels of technical difficulty.

After the First World War, because he was Jewish, he was just left out of several histories of Austrian climbing. His ideal of climbing in a certain way was left off the record, in a way.

Q: Were there any surprises for you while you were writing this book?

A: I was surprised by the vibrancy of the climbing world that Preuss was part of in 1900 in Munich. It's been said that all history is contemporary history. People were worried about the technologization of climbing. Was too much equipment going to ruin climbing? Were there too many people coming into climbing who didn't know enough about it? Was climbing too popular? Will the celebrity free-soloist of the moment eventually die as a result of his activities? I mean, these kinds of things people still talk about in climbing. That surprised me, the repetition of themes that are very contemporary. I guess also his skill. I've done a couple of the climbs that he's done. That anyone would consider doing the things he did certainly impressed me a lot.

Q: What was it like for you putting that into context, having climbed [but not free soloed] some of these routes yourself?

A: It was incredible to think of somebody going out on some of these walls, alone, before any possibility of rescue, climbing as hard as anyone had climbed at that time. You think that's not very hard by present-day standards, but by the standards of the time, it was the very hardest climbing that had been done. What it would take mentally to put yourself to it is incredible.

Q: What do you think that people, and climbers in particular, can learn from Preuss?

A: I think you can learn that climbing has an important philosophical core, that it's more than just climbing at a certain level. What you're doing has to have more meaning than just doing the next hardest thing. Pushing yourself, and limiting yourself to what you can do without compromising your ideals is very important. But also, that free soloing is dangerous, because he died doing it.

Q: How do you hope your book will continue that dialogue?

A: I think it will hopefully deepen people's understanding of how long it's been around. It'll make people think that maybe they should think more about the implications of their presence in the climbing environment.

Find more information at www.rmbooks.com.

 

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