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Home » The Stettner Way: The Life and Climbs of Joe and Paul Stettner

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The Stettner Way: The Life and Climbs of Joe and Paul Stettner

John D. Gorby

Fascinating history of two of the pioneers of mountaineering in Colorado.

Brothers Joe and Paul Stettner were legends within the early mountaineering community, putting up some of the most difficult routes in North America during a career that spanned the beginnings of modern rock climbing in the 1920s, to well into the big-wall climbing era of the 1950s. Often considered the first true sport climbers in America, contemporary and fellow climbing legend Paul Petzoldt called them "the human flies" for their bold and acrobatic style.

But this is a story of not only climbing adventure, but of lives touched by many of the great dramas of the 20th Century. Born in Germany before the First World War, the brothers experienced wrenching social and political upheaval after the war, as Germany descended into near chaos. With a father who was politically active, the family was under threat as violent factions clashed for power. The boys found at outlet in adventuring in the nearby Austrian Alps, quickly honing their skills. This was an era of great climbing innovation in Europe. The carabiner was only introduced to climbing a few years before the war, in this same region, and new mountaineering techniques were being perfected to take advantage of the new tools.

When their father was brutally murdered by predecessors of the Nazis, the Stettners brothers were faced with the awful reality of what Germany was becoming. Making a fateful decision, they left their family and escaped to America, bringing their advanced skills and new techniques to the virgin rock walls of this country. Soon it was apparent how advanced their skills were over what was happening here in the 1920s. In America at that time, only a handful of largely European-trained climbers understood the principles of modern roped climbing. It would be another decade before Robert Underhill made his famous trip to the Sierra Nevada to introduce up-to-date concepts to Sierra Club members. In the meantime, the Stettners were establishing routes far beyond what anyone had attempted before. Their bold lead of Stettner Ledges on Colorado's famed Longs Peak in 1927 established a benchmark for two decades.
Bob Godfrey and Dudley Chelton, in their book Climb! Rock Climbing in Colorado, had this to say about the significance of the climb:

"Stettner Ledges became, and has remained, a classic ascent. In 1927 it was the most difficult Colorado high mountain rock climb and probably the most difficult in the United States . . . No other climbs were to occur in Colorado until the mid-1940s surpassing them in daring and technical difficulty."

The Stettners quietly continued their remarkable ascents in the Rockies, with important climbs in Colorado and Wyoming's Tetons. But the gathering storm in Europe once more caught up with their new lives. As their adopted country went to war with their birth country, the Stettners helped to free their homeland from the Nazis. Joining the renowned Tenth Mountain Division and training at Camp Hale in the Colorado mountains, they served with valor, with Paul earning a Silver Star for bravery against a German gun emplacement. In their service with the Tenth, the brothers befriended many of the famous American mountaineers of that age, like Paul Petzoltd, who were drawn to that unit.

After the war, the brothers again returned to the mountains to put up big climbs. The 1947 climb of the spectacular East Face of Monitor Peak in Colorado, by Joe Stettner, Jack Fralick, and John Speck was the first big-wall climb in America, several years before the flowering of big-wall climbing in Yosemite. In their adopted home of Chicago, they were instrumental in starting the small, but influential Chicago Mountaineering Club and they became mentors for several important climbers of our age.

The Stettners were famously modest, even secretive about their accomplishments. For many years, rumors circulated around campfires in climbing camps about the brothers and their routes. Fritz Weiss traveled to Colorado's Longs Peak after hearing about the Stettners' climb and left totally frustrated, unable to locate the elusive and difficult route. The Stettner Way is an important book as it finally sets the record straight about two pioneer American climbers, answering several climbing questions from an age when few bothered to write it down in a guidebook. Written in an "as told by Joe" style, The Stettner Way is full of interesting stories and personal anecdotes by Joe as he recounted his long, adventurous life to the author just prior to his death at age 95 in 1997. Vintage photographs, route maps, and a list of their significant climbs from 1920-1977 are a treat for active climber or arm-chair mountaineer alike.

A Foreword by Jim Detterline, head climbing ranger for Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, puts perspective on the Stettners' remarkable legacy, as he recounts how as a "hot" young climber with several 5.11 ascents under his belt in the 1980s, he was still humbled and inspired by the Stettner Ledges.

Author and mountaineer, JACK GORBY has thirty years of climbing experience with significant ascents in Alaska and the Alps. He guided for Colorado Mountain School in Rocky Mountain National Park for fifteen years. He's written several climbing stories for the publications of the Chicago Mountaineering Club from his home in that city and was an intimate of the Stettners for nearly 20 years.

Book specs:
208 pages, 6" x 9", 75 B&W photos, 3 maps, paperbound
ISBN 0-9724413-0-1



USD $14.95