"Grade VI" and 1930s climbing histories
mechanical advantage footnote
Buy the books here:
Volume 1: (mostly) European Tools and Techniques to the 1930s
Volume 2: (mostly) North American Climbing Tools and Techniques to the 1950s
Let’s begin with the Emil Solleder (1899-1931) quote from the 1920s:
“I recognize well that the pure technique of climbing after Dülfer has made no progress. Rope maneuver and rope, and if today we go to an extreme limit, technically everything remained as in the past. The nail technique is the itself; according to the training the climber will resist more long in the awkward places requiring a nail, and so on until it is exceeded; the less trained climber will have to do without nail or fix it with a badly planted one. It is time however of the there is no doubt that in the present era ascents were possible much better. It is a fact that new ascensions have succeeded in the recent years, such as the Fiechtl-Weinberger route at Predigtstuhl, the south-east face of Fleischbank, north face of Furchetta, la north-west face of the Civetta present even greater difficulties than the latest new ascents of the pre-war years. I attribute however, the success of these very modern climbs is not a one any improvement of the technique but only to a changed one psychic attitude of the performers. And let me explain. Before the war, ascents of the difficulty of the east face of the Fleischbank counted as the most serious undertakings, only possible to people with the greatest attitudes and with the best work out. However, the years immediately following the war showed that even men of mediocre aptitudes, with good training were in able to perform such ascensions. Precisely for this fact, the individuals who from time to time with their ability stood at the head, they were pushed farther and farther upward into the difficulty of the climbs they carried out, and, which is mine judgment is decisive, most essential strengthened in theirs awareness of being up to even greater difficulties. Now, there is no doubt that this consciousness will live up to abnormally difficult climbing performances, represents a main factor for the overcoming of the performances. In other words, the awareness of the extent of one's abilities, in leading group of climbers, is strengthened in the proportion in which the majority of climbers succeed in perform greater performance, and with this awareness they come now made of performances whose possibility would be placed in doubt from the beginning still a few years ago, and that indeed maybe not it would not even be tempted.”
A look at histories as written in the 1930s
The Sport of Climbing, by Domenico Rudatis. A nine-article series on the early history of the Dolomites published in Lo Sport Fascista, 1930-1.
An early climbing history called “The Sport of Climbing” was published in Lo Sport Fascista, “an episodic collaboration, from Winkler’s first exploits to the latest Italian exploits” (Luigi Piccioni, 2014). In the ‘nine dense episodes’ published between 1930 and 1931, the 99-page series details the progression of climbing difficulty. The author Domenico Rudatis (b. 1898 Venice, d. 1994 New York City) was an accomplished climber and also a frequent contributor to the early issues of Lo Scarpone, a bi-monthly newspaper published by the Italian Alpine Club covering the latest news of alpinism and skiing.
Rudatis was obsessed with climbs of “the sixth grade” which as the time was the top of the grading scale originally devised by Willo Welzenbach, but evolving, as all grade systems do, to define the long (600m+) technical mixed free and aid rock routes that were booming at the time, such as the impressive and visionary Solleder-Lettenbauer route on Civetta, declared by Rudatis in his text as the definitive first “Grade VI.” Rudatis’s definition of the sixth grade is quite specific—four criteria are specified, tailored to the exact potential of new routes that were becoming accessible with new tools and techniques developed prior to WWI (covered in the Pitons and Piaz chapters of this series).
footnote: it would be interesting to examine various grading definitions over the years. In my time, the Welzenbach Grade I to Grade VI system had evolved to represent the time required for big walls, with Grade IV being a long all-day route like the East Buttress of El Capitan, Grade V requiring a single bivy, and all the multi-day big walls in Yosemite noted as Grade VI’s (which ranged from easy routes like the Nose to the hardest nailups like the Sea of Dreams). Big wall Grade VII’s appear in the literature starting in the 1990s, with myself a reluctant verifier of the grade, clarifying that Grade VII climbs, if they had to be defined, dated back to the 1970s: see this note on bigwalls.net, written in the 1990s.
The Rudatis history provides historical information about the progression of difficult climbs in the early era of big wall climbing. Much of the lore of Angelo Dibona, Hans Dülfer, Paul Preuss, and others originate from Rudatis’s history. A case has been made on Rudatis’ lack of inclusion of the women pioneers; in the text, climbing is depicted as a patriotic struggle and an “intrinsic renewal of men, of mentality, atmosphere, will, soul” with “naked virtues of athletic value, audacity and will” who make conquests of virgin peaks in dangerous mountain environments (footnote).
Footnote: Rudatis uses the terms “conquer” and “conquest” over 100 times in the article. The origin of the terms conquer and conquest in mountaineering are interesting, having been used prior to document the explorations and colonisations of new lands. Whymper uses ‘conquer’ a few times in Scrambles Amongst the Alps In the years 1860-69. It is used to document the climbs of the highest peaks such as Denali (then Mount McKinley) and the initial exploration of the North and South Poles, but the terms really kick up in the climbing literature in the 1930s, then in titles like High Conquest: The Story of Mountaineering, by James Ramsey Ullman, 8 vo., 334 pp., illustrations and maps. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1941. Dozens if not hundreds of books on Everest have been written with conquest and conquer in their titles, and the recent National Geographic Society’s subtitle for their 2020 book of Mountaineers is “Mountaineers: Great tales of bravery and conquest (Hardback)”.
HISTORY “DNA”—the missing “v”
One of the key “DNA” markers of reference to the Rudatis histories is his spelling of the guide/carrier Nino Povoli/Pooli (1862-1935). In the original source journals, the first attempt of Campanile Basso team was Carlo Garbari with Antonio Tavernaro and Nino Povoli. Prior to the first ascent, Povoli famously tried to climb direct up the final face (according to Piaz, at gunpoint by Garbari), and later returned to climb the face with Riccardo Trenti (see Basso chapter). In the German Alpine Journals, (1898, 1906, 1908), Nino is only referred to as Povoli (the Pooli spelling does not appear). Likewise in the Italian Alpine Journals, only the Povoli spelling occurs in the pre-WWI period.
In a 1927 article on Campanile Basso by Vittorio Fabbro in the Italian journals, we see for the first time the spelling of Nino’s name without the “v”, as Pooli. Rudatis picks this up in a 1929 article, then sets the name in stone, so to speak, in the 1930-31 Fascist Sport articles and thereafter the Pooli spelling takes over. In dozens of “History of Mountaineering” books, even very recent ones, the Fabbro/Rudatis spelling for Povoli as Pooli persists. Perhaps the earlier journals were incorrect, though in some 1920s-1930s journals both names persist; regardless, the Pooli spelling indicates followings of Rudatis’ history, with his focus on the numerical progression in the pre-WWI years (and lack of coverage on women pioneers)—so perhaps it is time to have another look at the pre-WWI years with access to primary searchable journals and the availability of old and forgotten books.
Rudatis’s concepts of climbing
Rudatis’ concept of “di natura omogenea” applies to both the climb and the climbers in the first two criteria. ‘Omegenea’ translates to a “uniform whole, harmonious in its constituent elements”, and is reminiscent of the ideology of Cesare Evola, an Italian philosopher and mountaineer popular with young Italian fascists at the time. Rudatis is most proud of Italian climbs and climbers, but is equitable in respect to the accomplishments of hardmen of other nationalities. In defining the sixth grade, Rudatis provides examples of climbs and climber “schools” in the Kaisergegbirge (München/Munich school), Gesäse (Vien/Vienna school), and “especially our Dolomites!”
Tools are precisely specified: “The means of mutual insurance, which are all and alone artificial means allowed in climbing are exclusively: ropes, nails, carabiners and hammer.” Rudatis further distinguishes from techniques used in the Western Alps (where pitons were used more sparingly): “The superb Dolomite walls are not in fact they have never seen the use of fixed ropes, poles, ladders of rope and various instruments like the other regions of the Alps.” For the proper use of pitons, the acrobatic free and aid climbing standards established by Dülfer before WWI provides the concept of fair use; Rudatis reminds: “that driving nails in certain circumstances is a hard work and fully worth as much as the overcoming of rock difficulty without artificial aids.” (footnote)
Footnote: Rudatis also appears to advocate rock modification, probably because it was often a fine line between removing loose rock and sculpting holds on many first ascents: “The same criterion should be extended to the eventual use of the hammer for to give some grip or some support, I use that in practice; however, it only happens exceptionally. Thus we also have the principle: Handles or supports engraved or otherwise modified with a hammer must be considered as natural, in the judgment of the difficulty. This, of course, even if this hammer work requires considerable effort. This principle had never been posed until now, but it is just as logical and necessary as the other established by Dülfer regarding nails.”
After establishing the rules and definitions of a “pure and natural” climb in his first few chapters, Rudatis summarises: “The principle remains definitively fixed: ropes, nails, carabiners and hammer are the only artificial means allowed in climbing, and their use is conditional on an assessment of the difficulties based on the purity of the style.” And with his definition of ‘purity’, Rudatis then systematically analyses the numerical progression of graded climbs in the Eastern Alps.
For each “era”, baseline routes from each decade are described, then used comparatively, beginning with Winkler’s solo on the Vajolet Towers in 1887 (“the sport of climbing was born with Winkler”), followed by Piaz’s 5.8 lieback on Punta Emma in 1900, and Dibona’s 1911 route on the north wall of Laiderer, and so on, with subsequent routes in each era compared in terms of difficulty and deemed significant, or not. Though tales of these climbs had been reported in journals, the Rudatis series is one of the first to put them in big-picture context, and many histories even to the modern day have followed the same historical progression outlined in the Rudatis series as their timeline of early climbing accomplishments in the Eastern Alps, as well as clarifying the new mechanical climbing techniques and their inventors (footnote).
Footnote: including my own in the original Mechanical Advantage article (1999) as well as Doug Scott’s Big Wall Climbing. At the time I wrote Mechanical Advantage for Ascent with Al Steck and Steve Roper as rigorous editors, I made use of the most comprehensive climbing libraries in the USA at the time, along with rudimentary translations of primary foreign language journals. I uncovered a few bits of new info, even though Roper commented overall, “You’ve done a yeoman job, but you bit off a big one.” (his view improved slightly later, see note from Roper with bibliography of sources used in the original article at bottom of this page). Now, with access to digital versions of the original journals online, combined with the ability to procure obscure texts that only otherwise exist in a few libraries, a broader view of history can be examined.
Overview of Rudatis’s history
In his review of pre-1900 pioneers, Rudatis lists: “Among the pioneers we cannot fail to mention: v. Barth, Weilenmann, Payer, Grohmann, Ball, Tuckett, Tyndall, Whymper, Freshfield, Sella, Giordano and others, soon followed by a large group of brave as, to name a few more, Mummery, Schulz, Merzbacher, Purtscheller, Vaccarone, Coolidge, de Falkner.” The great guides are heralded: Christian Almer of Grindelwald 1826-1898, Melchior Anderegg of Meiringen 1827-1914 (first swiss guide), Jean-Antoine Carrel of Valtournenche 1829-1890, Pierre Gaspard of St. Christophe 1834-1915, Alexander Burgener of Saas 1844-1910 Johann Grill from Ramsau 1835-1917, Santo Siorpaes of Cortina d'Ampezzo 1832-1900, Michel Innerkofler of Sesto 1846-1900, Daniel Innthaler of Nasswald 1847-1923, Guido Lammer, Émile Rey of Courmayeur, Jean-Joseph Maquignaz of Valtournenche, Johann Stabeler from the Zillertal, François Devouassoud, Alois Pinggera and Peter Dangl (princes), Michele Bettega, Bortolo Zagonel, Giuseppe Zecchini and Antonio Tavernaro of the Pale di S. Martino, Luigi Bernard of Siusi, Agostino Verzi of Cortina d'Ampezzo, Luigi Rizzi from Val di Fassa, and Antonio Dimai, the “king of the Dolomites."
Many pre-WWI heroes of the Dolomites are included: Swiss Johann Jakob Weilenmann, Bavarian Hermann von Barth, French Étienne Giraud, Ludwig Purtscheller, Hermann Delago, Georg Leuchs, Robert Hans Schmitt, Karl Berger and Otto Ampferer, Johann Saunter, Ludwig Norman-Neruda, Alfred von Radio-Radiis, Eduard Pichl, Hans Barth, Hanns Pfannl, Hans Helversen, Franz Nieberl (‘Pope of the Kaisergegirge’), Tita Piaz, Georg Sixt, Sepp and Veit Innerkofler, Max and Guido Mayer, Luigi Scotoni, Gabriel Haupt and Karl Lömpel, Otto Herzog, Hans Fiechtl, Alfred Deye, Willi von Redwitz, Rudolf Fehrmann, and even our American hero, Oliver Perry-Smith, for his free-climbing testpiece on Campanile Basso in 1908.
Rudatis states, “We do not intend to make the history of climbing here, not even in close summary; instead we will mention, much more briefly and usefully, only the milestones of progression.” Climbing milestones are very much presented as the domain of men, and very few women climbers are mentioned. A Miss Grete and Miss Fitzgerald appear in the context of accompanying others on an ascent, and three leading women of the era are referenced in the context of being led by guides: Jeanne Immink, Rolanda and Ilona Eötvös, who all had very strong and expansive climbing records, quoted below:
“The following year, 1891, the guide Antonio Dimai, leading the famous Dutch climber Jeanne Immink, made the second ascent to Punta delle Cinque Dita by the Schmitt chimney.”
“Two routes excel in 1905, rising to this superior level. One is the ascent of the south face of Teston del Pomagagnon by the guides Antonio Dimai and Agostino Verzi of Cortina d'Ampezzo leading the famous climbers Rolanda and Ilona von Eötvös.”
Beatrice Tomasson and the Tomasson-Bettega-Zagonel route on the South Wall of Marmolada are also described, but mainly to make the case that the route was not a milestone on the path to the sixth grade. Today it becomes clear that original route on the south wall of Marmolada in 1901 was the first “It goes, boys” (Lynn Hill) climbing moment of the century, and the ascent was well-recognized in its time as a significant breakthrough in long vertical rock routes, referenced frequently in books and articles before WWI as a classic testpiece. Guido Rey devoted a whole chapter to the climb in his 1913 “Alpinismo Acrobatico.” In the history of big walls; imagining and climbing the south wall of Marmolada—the longest and one of the most difficult of the time—set the new standard for the century, so it is hard to imagine how it ever lost its spot in the climber’s “Guinness Book” of historical superlatives, which seems to have happened after the 1930s, until the article by Hermann Reisach in the Alpine Journal in 2001 (Beatrice Tomasson).
Footnote: It is curious that Rudatis does not mention Mary Varale, who was a contemporary at the time with an extensive record of ascents. Mary was married to the sports journalist Vittorio Varale, who helped edit the articles; her climbs seem to be on par with many others that are referenced by Rudatis.
Despite the lack of coverage of women pioneers, what is true is that the material Rudatis covered became a major reference in the following decades, as it does document well many of the key developments in the Eastern Alps 1900-1930 period, where big wall climbing tools and techniques developed. So let’s look at how the progression was presented in the 1930s (and perhaps consider other important and comparable routes that could be added):
(rough draft)—OUTLINE OF 1930s VERSION OF HISTORY:
Route Timeline per Rudatis
1884 Croda da Lago: Guide Michele Innerkofler and Roland Von Eötvös
1886 Cima della Madonna: Georg Winkler and Alois Zott
1887 Vajolet: Georg Winkler
1890 Cima Piccola: Hans Helversen
1891 Punta dell Cinque Dita (2nd): Antonio Dimai and Jeanne Immink
1892 Rosetta in Pale di S. Martino: Antonio Tavernaro, Bortolo Zagonel, Antonio Crescini.
1893 Cimon della Pala (‘Matterhorn of Dolomites’): Antonio Dimai with Leon Treptow.
1895 Vajolet: Hermann Delago
1896 North wall of Hochtor in Gesäuse: Heinrich Pfannl and Thomas Maischberger
1897 West wall of Laurino: Luigi and Simone Rizzi with Emil Munk
1898 Marmolada west ridge (later ‘armed with metal ladders’): Luigi Rizi w/ Hans Seyffert and Eugen Dittmann
1899 Basso di Brenta: Karl Berger and Otto Ampferer
1899(): traverse of three southern Vajolet towers: Eduard Pichl and Hans Barth
1899(): NW della Civetta: Dimai with Swinnerton Phillimor and Arthur Guy Anders Raynor.
1899/1900 NE Punta Emma: Tita Piaz
1901 Totenkirchl Pfann chimney
1901 North wall of Admonter Reichenstein Heinrich Pfannl and Thomas Maischberger.
1901-1904 Kaisergebirge: Hans Pfann, Franz Neiberl, Georg Leuchs
1902 Campanile di Val Montanaia: Viktor Wolf von Glanvell and Günther von Saar
1903 Torre de Pissadù in Sella group: Leo Heiss from Monaco, ‘emient solo climber’
1904 Basso ‘Pooli’
1905 Teston del Pomagagnon South Wall: Anonio Dimai Agostino Verzi with Roland and Ilona von Eötvös. —> Campanile Dimai
1905 SW wall of Cimone, Georg Leuchs ‘Altarpiece’
1906 Campanile Toro: Piaz and Bernard Trier
1907 Torre Leo in the Cadini di Misurina: Angelo Dibona and Johann von Pauer
1907 East wall Cima Piccola di Lavaredo: Otto Langl, F Horn
1908 Roda di Vael west wall: Dibona and Verzi with Alfred Broon and Hanson Kelly Corning
1908 Basso SW: Rudolf Fehrman and Oliver Perry-Smith (variant by Luigi Scotini)
1908 Totenkirchl West Wall: Tita Piaz, Josef Klammer, Rudolf Schietzold, Franz Schoffenegger.
1909 Cima Piccola di Lavaredo N face western chimney: Fehrman and Oliver Perry-Smith
1910 Feldkopf Zsigmondyspitze NE face; Hans Fiechtl Hans Hotter. most difficult granite climb of its time.
1910 Piccola Civetta: Gabriel Haupt and Karl Lömpel
1911 Punta della Cinque Dita “Diagonal Crack”: Haupt and Kurt Kiene
1911 Basso Preuss
1911 Lalider North wall: Dibona, Mayer, Luigi Rizzi
1912 Lalider: Otto Herzog and Georg Sixt
East wall Fleischbank (400m): hans Dülfer and Werner Schaarschmid (attempted previously by Fiechtl, Sixt, Herzog, Adolf Deye), then repeated 7 times in 1912 by Sixt, Deye, Pfann, and others.
Schüsselkarspitze south wall, in the Wetterstein: Herzog and Fiechtl
1913 Direct west wall Totenkirchl: Dülfer and Villi von Redwitz
Cima Grande west wall: Dülfer and Walter von Bernuth
Cima di Mezzo of Predigtstuhl
Jumps to 1919-1920
1919 EAST FACE Predigtstuhl (900m) EAST FACE Predigtstuhl (climbed 16 times in next two years)
1921 West face of North summit Predigtstuhl: Paul Diem Karl Schüle
1921 HaHe-Verschneidung on Dreizinkenspitze (Karwendel): Gustav Haber and Herzog
1921 Cima Ovest of the Praxmarerkarspitze
(controversy with repeat ascent with pitons lost and rescue)
1923 direct Predigstuhl: Franz Weinberger and Fiechtl
1923 Hochwanner in Wetterstein (700m): Ludwig Bauer, Georg Gruber
1923; Mandelkogen north edge (1913: Preuss RIP): Karl Schreiner, E. Hein from Graz
1924: Pelmo north wall: Roland Rossi and Felix Simon
1925: SE Wall Fleischbank: Roland Rossi and Fritz Weissner (extensive use of nails)
Aug.1925 La Furchetta—tried by Dibona-Mayer-Rizzi and Dülfer-Trenker (to Pulpit Dülfer), then death of J. Verrà, then another attempt. Then Solleder and Weissner
Aug.7,1925 Civetta Nw wall: Solleder and Gustav Lettenbauer (15 hours)
(TKO: also prior—Dibona also on Croz d’Altissimo upper part of the corner. rope traverse. Piaz represented but mostly for his free climbing skill, his technical breakthroughs are not especially noted).
(this is one of several histories that could be further researched)
Random Teaser: Original Sadek design hooking pitons (photo from Vladimír Procházka).