Paul Preuss: Lord of the Abyss
Paul Preuss

Paul Preuss, born on August 19, 1886, in Altaussee, Austria, was an Austrian alpinist known for his daring solo climbs and his advocacy of an ethically pure style of alpinism, an excellent chess player, tennis player, ice skater, and very multilingual, he spoke English, French, German and Italian. His early years were marked by a childhood illness, polio-like in nature, which left him partially paralyzed at the age of six. Despite this setback, Preuss developed a passion for the mountains, often accompanying his father on excursions and later pursuing summits on his own.

After completing his education in plant physiology at the University of Vienna and Munich University, Preuss embarked on a climbing career characterized by remarkable achievements. At the age of twenty, he began climbing at a high level, achieving his first significant solo ascent, the Pichl-Route on the North Face of the Planspitze, shortly before his twenty-second birthday.

Preuss’s climbing career was distinguished by numerous solo ascents and first ascents, totalling over 1,200 climbs, with a significant portion done solo. He excelled not only in rock climbing but also in snow and ice ascents, as well as ski mountaineering. Despite his preference for solitude on the mountains, Preuss was known for his amiable personality and close friendships with fellow climbers, including women like his sister Mina.

Throughout his climbing endeavours, Preuss maintained a commitment to ethical purity in alpinism, advocating against the use of artificial aids such as pitons and ropes. He believed in climbing in a style that relied solely on the climber’s skill and judgment, rather than technological advancements. His views sparked debates within the climbing community, leading to the Mauerhakenstreit, or piton dispute, in which Preuss argued for a return to a more traditional, minimalist approach to climbing.

Some people would wonder, “Paul who?” You would not be by yourself. According to what David Smart says in the preface of his book, Paul Preuss: Lord of the Abyss, a significant number of contemporary climbers have never heard of Preuss, and the majority of those who have heard of him are currently unable to correctly pronounce his name. (It is a pun on the word Royce.) Even though I had read about Preuss when conducting research for a writing project, there was not a lot of information available on him. Not that there is no literature about Preuss; there is a great deal of it; what is left of his diaries, articles published by and about him, and even two novels written by Reinhold Messner are all examples of this. However, the majority of this material is written in German and is buried in archives in Austria and Italy.

Preuss’s philosophy on climbing, encapsulated in his six principles, emphasized the importance of human achievement and a respectful relationship with the mountains. He believed in the superiority of the climber over the climb, rejecting the notion of using artificial aids except in cases of immediate danger.

The emergence of Paul Preuss’s ethics of pure style in alpinism began to gain recognition in the summer of 1911. Preuss made a significant impact with his second ascent of the West Face of the Totenkirchl, a climb known for its difficulty. While the first ascent had taken seven hours, Preuss completed the climb solo in just two and a half hours, including a new variation. This accomplishment showcased Preuss’s commitment to climbing in a pure style, without relying on artificial aids.

Following this feat, Preuss continued to demonstrate his adherence to pure alpinism principles with a solo first ascent of the East Face of the Guglia di Brenta. He also made the second ascents of routes established by prominent climbers such as Angelo Dibona, deliberately avoiding the use of pitons left by previous climbers. Preuss believed in climbing in the footsteps of his predecessors, like Georg Winkler and Emil Zsigmondy, who climbed without guides or solo, respectively, adhering to a pure style.

Preuss articulated his views on pure alpinism in his essay “Artificial Aids on Alpine Routes,” published in September 1911. This essay ignited the Mauerhakenstreit, or piton dispute, a debate among alpinists about the increasing use of artificial aids in climbing. In response to criticisms and debates, Preuss distilled his ethical principles into six main points, emphasizing the superiority of the climber over the climb and the ethical use of equipment only in cases of immediate danger.

Preuss staunchly opposed the use of pitons, ropes, and other artificial aids except in dire circumstances. He believed that climbers should rely on their skill and judgment, rather than technological advancements, to overcome challenges on the mountain. Preuss advocated for the practice of down-climbing and emphasized the importance of mastering the art of climbing without artificial aids.


In his final years, Paul Preuss became one of the most sought-after lecturers on alpinism in the German-speaking world. Renowned for his wit and captivating speaking style, Preuss delivered over fifty lectures in the year leading up to his death, earning a living through these engagements. Martin Grabner suggests that Preuss’s lecture circuit not only established him as a precursor to modern professional climbers but also solidified his role as an advocate for pure climbing ethics.

During the summers of 1912 and 1913, Preuss reportedly learned modern ice techniques from Oscar Eckenstein, the inventor of the ten-point crampon. This knowledge expanded Preuss’s repertoire and contributed to his reputation as a versatile and skilled alpinist.

In 1912, Preuss witnessed a tragic accident on the Aiguille Rouge de Peuterey in which British mountaineer H. O. Jones, his wife Muriel Edwards, and their guide Julius Truffer fell to their deaths. This event further reinforced Preuss’s preference for solo climbing, as he believed it to be safer than roped ascents, where the lives of others were at risk.

Despite accusations of inhumanity due to his soloing practices, Preuss remained steadfast in his beliefs. However, his soloing ultimately led to his demise. On October 3, 1913, while attempting a free solo ascent of the North Ridge of the Mandlkogel, Preuss fell over 300 meters to his death. His body was found buried under snow a week and a half later.

The exact cause of Preuss’s fall remains unknown, but evidence suggests he may have lost his balance while attempting to retrieve a slipped pocketknife. Regardless of the circumstances, his death marked the end of a remarkable career in alpinism.

In the early 1920s, Preuss’s legacy faced erasure due to the rise of anti-Semitism within the German and Austrian Alpine Club. However, his memory was eventually rediscovered in the 1970s. Tita Piaz, Preuss’s friend and occasional opponent, erected a memorial in his honor in the Italian Dolomites. Additionally, landmarks such as the Torre Preuss (formerly the Kleinste Zinne) and the Preusskamin chimney bear his name, serving as lasting tributes to his contributions to mountaineering.

The history of big wall free soloing extends far beyond the modern-day exploits of climbers like Alex Honnold. Over a century ago, Austrian climber Paul Preuss was already mastering the art of soloing difficult rock walls thousands of feet high. Despite his relative obscurity in contemporary climbing circles, Preuss was a pioneering figure whose bold ascents and uncompromising ethics left an indelible mark on the sport.

Born in Paris on March 24, 1964, Preuss developed a passion for climbing at an early age. Despite facing adversity due to a childhood illness that initially left him unable to walk, he defied the odds and embarked on his first technical climb at just 12 years old. This early determination and resilience foreshadowed the audacious climbs and philosophical convictions that would define Preuss’s mountaineering career.

Preuss’s climbing pursuits took him to the Alps, Andes, and eventually the Himalayas, where he achieved numerous significant first ascents, often solo and without the aid of ropes or pitons. His solo first ascent of the East Face of the Campanile Basso in the Brenta Dolomites in 1911 stands out as a particularly daring achievement, highlighting his exceptional skill and commitment to climbing in its purest form.

Despite the inherent dangers of solo climbing, Preuss viewed it as safer and more morally defensible than roped climbing, which often posed risks of entire teams being pulled off the mountain in the event of a leader fall. He staunchly believed in the importance of skill and control over reliance on equipment, sparking debates within the climbing community about the ethics and methods of ascent.

Preuss’s unwavering commitment to his principles ultimately led to his tragic demise in 1913, when he fell 300 meters to his death while attempting a solo ascent of the North Ridge of the Mandlkogel. His legacy, however, lives on through his bold climbs, philosophical writings, and enduring influence on climbing ethics and style.

David Smart’s meticulously researched book, “Paul Preuss: Lord of the Abyss,” sheds light on the life and contributions of this enigmatic climber, exploring his motivations, philosophies, and enduring impact on the sport. Smart’s efforts to preserve Preuss’s legacy serve as a testament to the significance of his contributions to climbing history.

As climbers continue to push the boundaries of the sport, Preuss’s story serves as a poignant reminder of the timeless allure and inherent risks of mountaineering. While modern climbers like Alex Honnold may dominate headlines, the pioneering spirit of climbers like Paul Preuss continues to inspire and captivate climbers around the world.

Notable Ascents

Here is a list of notable ascents by Paul Preuss:

  1. Kleiner Litzner (solo)
  2. Großes Seehorn – Großlitzner (solo)
  3. Kleiner Litzner, North Ridge (solo)
  4. Großlitzner, North Face (first ascent)
  5. Glötterspitze (solo)
  6. Totenkirchl, West Face (second ascent with a new variation, solo)
  7. Guglia di Brenta (also known as the Campanile Basso), East Face (first ascent, solo)
  8. Crozzon di Brenta, Northeast Face (first)
  9. Croz dell’Altissimo, South Face (second)
  10. Grohmannspitze, South East Face (second)
  11. Innerkoflerturm, South Face (second)
  12. Langkofel-Fünffingerspitze-Grohmannspitze-Sellajoch (first traverse in one day, solo)
  13. Delagoturm, South Chimney (first)
  14. Kleine Zinne (first double traverse)
  15. Kleinste Zinne (first ascent and first traverse)
  16. Traweng, North Face (first)
  17. Trisselwand (first)
  18. Grosser Ödstein, North Ridge (second ascent)
  19. Hochwanner, North Ridge (first)
  20. Mitterkaiser, Nordgipfel (first)
  21. Aiguille Gamba (first)
  22. L’Innominata, Southeast Ridge (first)
  23. Aiguille Savoie, Southeast Ridge (first)
  24. Pointe des Papillons, Hauptgipfel (first, solo)
  25. Aiguille Rouge de Triolet, South Ridge (first)
  26. Strichkogel, East Face (first)
  27. Däumling (first)
  28. Gosauer Mandl (first)

These ascents highlight Preuss’s remarkable skill and pioneering spirit in the world of mountaineering.


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