Kurt Albert: Free Wheel
Kurt Albert defined free climbing and took it to the remote mountains of the world. Behind the stories of wild adventures and great deeds, there was something exemplary in the life cut short.
The British star Jerry Moffatt tells a story about a trip he made with Kurt Albert to the bouldering paradise of Hampi in the Indian state of Karnataka. This was in the early 1990s, when few climbers had been there, and the massive plateau sprinkled with golden granite boulders was still being explored.
One morning he and Kurt crossed the Tungabhadra River in the little pitch-covered wicker coracle that served as a ferry and found a beautifully shaped block with a steep wall. As often happens in India, a crowd quickly gathered to watch as Albert tried to muscle his way up, only to drop to the ground.
Kurt Albert was a Bavarian oak, 6’1”, 176 pounds, naturally powerful, with thick arms and broad shoulders. At this point in his life, he was well into the second phase of his exceptional climbing career. In the first phase he brought free climbing to West Germany, where he set new standards and developed a new way of climbing. He even gave it a name—redpointing.
When he could no longer keep pace with the revolution he’d helped launch, Kurt reinvented himself as a new kind of free climber on big walls from Pakistan to Patagonia, joining Germany’s best climbers to produce climbs like the Yugoslav Route (5.11d) on Nameless Tower and the 44-pitch 5.12c, A2 Royal Flush, on the east pillar of FitzRoy. In the early 1990s, Albert began a series of expeditions employing a new twist on the alpine ideal of “fair means,” renouncing motorized support or porters while climbing massive routes like Fitzcarraldo (5.12a) in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, for which he and his partners walked and canoed 1,200 miles to approach and return. By the time he went to Hampi with Jerry Moffatt, the transformation—from honed, calorie-counting sport climber to freewheeling caballero—was complete.
One of the Indian onlookers, a slight figure dressed in flimsy cotton, walked over and looked up at this titan with his shaggy hair and thick moustache, pumped up and breathing hard, like Thor at the end of a workout. The Indian’s thin brown hands reached up to Albert’s swollen biceps and gave them a firm squeeze. Then he looked into the German’s face, and said: “Very big guts.”
Last September, Albert, 56, was guiding a group of novices, friends from the same soccer team, on a via ferrata in the Frankenjura region north of his home town of Nuremberg at a place called Hohenglücksteig. It translates as: “the path where you feel glad to be high up.” Kurt had driven through the night back from a slideshow in Hamburg and was managing on an hour’s sleep. He was standing on a wide ledge, leaned back into his harness, perhaps to rest, perhaps for a clearer view of something, and then was gone. A carabiner was left on the safety wire, and the sling into his harness was empty. He landed headfirst on a boulder.
When the life-support machine was finally switched off, the German media hailed a fallen hero, a man who not only transformed his sport (Albert had been awarded the highest sporting accolade in Germany, the Siberne Lorbeerblatt), but also kept the crowds laughing with his slapstick humor. Despite the warm eulogies, beyond the initial sense of loss and shock, the gap Kurt Albert has left behind still seems vast. It feels like there’s more to be said. Behind the stories of wild times and great deeds, there was something else about him, something exemplary.
A week or so after Kurt’s memorial service I was drinking coffee with Norbert Sandner at his home just outside Nuremberg, a city that is stolidly Bavarian and prosperous and just a teensy bit dull. Sandner had known Albert as long as anybody. They shared an apartment and many adventures when they were young, and when Norbert had children and became more settled, he acted as an anchor for Kurt to tie himself to when he needed one.
Sandner handed me a fresh cup of the good stuff while he explained how one of Albert’s favorite tricks worked. This one involved appearing to hurl a full cup of coffee at someone while surreptitiously hanging on to it, essentially to scare the bejesus out of the person. Another favorite ruse was secretly slotting a beer-mat under a tablecloth and then propping a glass of beer against it at an angle, giving the impression that he had a preternatural sense of balance.
From time to time, a trick would go wrong and no one laughed harder than Kurt himself. Norbert recalled him losing his grip on a coffee cup and showering someone in cappuccino. Jerry Moffatt was enjoying an après-ski drink with Albert in the late 1980s when he tried the beer trick to impress some girls, and sent a full glass of weissbier everywhere. At his memorial service, as his friends packed away the champagne glasses, Moffatt suggested they smash one because, as everyone agreed, Kurt would have.
Some of Albert’s gags were shockingly hardcore, but only at his own risk. He once blew his Achilles tendon tower jumping in what was then Czechoslovakia. Tower jumping is one of those cultural traditions boys do to impress girls (or each other) after a beer or two, the Czech equivalent of running with the bulls in Pamplona. One notoriously awkward roped leap required Kurt to catch a big flake on the opposite wall. Miss it, and he’d swing back into the launching tower and smack his head. People had died doing just that.
Albert thought about it. He had, after all, trained as a high-school physics teacher. He understood angles, velocity and distance; all the elements critical in sticking a tower jump. And it was doubly important to get it right, because he was doing it on German television. He patiently explained to the camera how he had paid out more slack than necessary, so if he fell, he would swing harmlessly below the undercut wall.
“Nothing can happen,” he concluded.
Kurt leaped, missed the hold, and in a moment replete with all the grim humor the gods usually reserve for jackasses, the loop hooked around his ankle and then tightened violently as his weight came on the rope. Kurt’s Achilles tendon went pop and he was lowered to the ground. The crew rushed to his side but he held up his hands—“No, it’s OK”—and hopped back to his car.
“Typical Kurt,” says Moffatt, who a few years later found himself standing on top of the same tower, this time for a British television show, interviewing Kurt about the accident.
“The only way I’m jumping off this tower again is if someone pushes me off,” Albert said to the camera, at which point Moffatt slammed him in the chest and sent him over the edge for a 30-footer.
“The whole thing was Kurt’s idea,” Moffatt says, then, adopting a mock German accent: “Hup! It will be funny.”
The stories pile up on each other. Like the time Albert was filmed climbing an overhang built across the roof of an indoor hall. Kurt dropped onto the last, very distant bolt and took a huge but carefully calculated pendulum—straight into the cameraman. The clowning-gone-wrong became part of his shtick during slideshows.
“Even in the Frankenjura,” says Sandner, “where everyone had seen his shows, he’d draw an audience of 500 because he was so funny and entertaining. It wasn’t like an Alex Huber show that’s technically perfect. There’d be mistakes, slides on the floor, that kind of thing. The Huber brothers are pros, and act like it. Kurt would never say he was a professional.”
Albert’s greatest achievement, then, was to pull off a spellbinding balancing act. He embraced climbing’s absurdity, while simultaneously reveling in its grandeur. He was a joker, yet capable of intense effort and concentration, especially with friends who were equally enthusiastic. His 1989 ascent of the Eternal Flame (5.12b, with three points of aid) on Nameless Tower is a good example. With two partners already home in Germany and Wolfgang Güllich injured, Albert took the lead, persevered and advanced the route to the summit.
“In his heart he was a cowboy,” says an ex-patriot American climber, Jesse Guthrie, an erstwhile rodeo competitor himself. “He loved the Utah deserts. He loved the big open spaces. No rules, no regulations.”
Kurt was just born like that. He grew up with his parents and elder brother in an apartment in south Nuremberg. His dad worked as a sales manager for Schöller, which still makes Nuremberg’s famous gingerbread, or Lebkuchen. Years later, while touring his old neighborhood with Jerry Moffatt, he pointed out the building where he had lived as a child.
“It was four or five floors,” Moffatt recalled. “Kurt pointed to the guttering where his best mate dared him to traverse across. It was about five meters across, from one balcony to the next.”
Kurt told Jerry he’d shot across it. Moffatt remarked that the traverse looked terrifying for a climber, let alone a small boy.
“Oh, jumping off the top board at the swimming pool was even more scary,” Albert replied.
Jerry was surprised and asked why.
“Because I couldn’t swim. I had to jump right next to the edge so I could hang onto the side when I came up.”
Then they passed the church his family attended.
“And that’s where the priest chased me down the road for mucking around during confession. He shouted at me to never come back.”
Instead, Kurt settled on a church of his own choosing, joining the local section of the Deutscher Alpenverein (DAV), the German Alpine Club. His brother, Horst, who is an antiques dealer, climbed too, but as Sandner says, “[Kurt] became so good and so famous so soon that competing was hard. Kurt was so strong, and muscular from a young age.”
By the time he was 16, Kurt had done routes like the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses and the North Face of the Eiger.
“He was a real talent,” says Sandner. “We were in two different DAV sections and there was a bit of competition. My section thought I was the best, his thought he was the best.”
Then they met, and instantly became friends, and Albert moved in. At that time, however, German climbing was off the pace. In the U.S. and Britain, and soon after in France, a campaign was already underway to rid climbs of their points of aid.
In Germany, however, the stubby cliffs of the Frankenjura were still seen as merely training for the big mountains.
“When we met we were both aid climbers,” Sandner says. “A bit of free between the pegs, but if it got harder, say, 6b [5.10c], then we’d grab something and try to be fast.”
On trips they were doing big alpine rock routes in the Wilder Kaiser or the Wetterstein. On the weekends they’d be hanging from pegs at home. All that changed for Kurt in 1972 when he went to Elbsandstein, then in East Germany. Sandner had been there first, and can still remember the overwhelming impact it had on him.
“It was so foreign for us. It was much more of a shock than going to the States. Everything was so limited. You needed an invitation; you couldn’t drive there, only go by train. You couldn’t even bring a newspaper. It was like we were coming from the moon.”
The climbing, on the other hand, was superb and totally free. Kurt was staggered to discover routes at 5.10 done in the 1920s.
“Before,” as he told Rock and Ice in 1993, “all I was doing was aid, and I could do every route. I realized that free climbing was what I wanted to do.”
He and Bernd Arnold, the bold free climber responsible for pioneering so many hard routes on the sandstone towers of East Germany’s Elbsandstein, became good friends, and he experimented with climbing barefoot.
“Kurt was stronger than Bernd,” Sandner says, “but he respected him for the serious climbing in the Elbsandstein.”
It took a little while for Kurt to replicate the pure free-climbing ethic he’d witnessed near Dresden on the crags around his home in Nuremberg, but by 1975 he was freeing as many aid routes as he could, the climbing equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. And to show other climbers that a route could be done without pulling on pegs or stepping in etriers, he painted a red circle at the base.
“We had a spray can,” says Sandner, “that you’d use on cars. At the beginning, the old climbers didn’t like it. The red dots were pretty big. The last ones he did with nail varnish and a little brush.”
Albert’s tactic was only to paint the dot once he climbed the route clean in one lead, rather than using the yo-yo tactics then standard in the U.S. and Britain. History is a little murky on whether Kurt was the originator of this style. Something similar was going on in France around the same time. But redpointing has become the gold standard free-climbing ethic the world over, and is the term we all use to describe a clean ascent. The following year, the American climber Henry Barber passed through the Frankenjura while taking up an invitation from Bernd Arnold to visit Elbsandstein. Kurt, Norbert and the little band of free climbers springing up in the Frankenjura were blown away.
“[Henry] was very influential,” Sandner recalls. “He only climbed with a swami belt, so we got rid of our chest harnesses and did the same. Then John Bachar came, and he really set the standard here.”
Bachar’s legendary obsession with training opened a door in Albert’s mind, and he began to train more systematically.
“The Germans had a great respect for the American climbing lifestyle,” says Jesse Guthrie. “When Bachar came over the first time, those guys were really impressed, even though John was not the typical American climber. But they liked that Camp 4 mentality.”
Albert and Sandner visited the Valley for the first time in 1977, and Kurt went to the States so often through the 1980s that he kept a truck at Guthrie’s house, which was then in Boulder.
“He was fascinated with John Gill,” Guthrie says. “He was often at Fort Collins and around the Front Range, doing Gill problems. He was interested in how early Gill was doing his training programs. Kurt was scientific. He did experiments with training.”
By then, Sandner and Albert had rented an apartment in Oberschöllenbach, north of the city. Or, rather, their girlfriends had. Norbert and Kurt went climbing and called home every so often until the place was ready. That apartment on Moselstraße 7, which Albert shared later with Wolfgang Güllich, became one of the most significant addresses in free-climbing history. It was essentially open house for the best sport climbers of the 1980s, people like Ben Moon, Ben Masterson, Ron Fawcett, Chris tian Griffith, Jesse Guthrie, Ron Kauk and John Bachar. There could be 20 people staying at once, even sleeping in the bath. People would steal gear and make phone calls abroad without paying, and Albert and Güllich wouldn’t flinch. More important, in an era before the Internet, their place was a hub of ideas and information.
The neighbors would look askance at some of the antics of the ever-changing cast, and once or twice the police were called. Jerry Moffatt even ended up signing posters for one cop whose kid was a fan. It always seemed to work out.
Moffatt, like most who stayed there, still can’t get over the generosity.
“If you went to Germany, they’d look after you. They were incredibly hospitable. They’d show you new routes. They wanted you to do things that hadn’t been done. And these were three-star classics. They wanted you to have a great trip. If you went to France, the climbers there weren’t going to say, ‘Look, I’ve bolted this line, I’ve tried it a couple of times, it’s going to be a classic, why don’t you have a go?’ No way.”
When Sandner moved out, Güllich, the promising youngster from the Pfalz region, moved in. Albert’s girlfriend, Ingrid Reitenspieß, with whom he had his first serious relationship, became Wolfgang’s girlfriend. Pretty soon Wolfgang took Kurt’s position as the leading sport climber in Germany, too. If Albert felt aggrieved, he didn’t show it. All three would sit on the sofa in the basement watching television together.
“You never saw him angry or jealous,” Sandner says. “But when Wolfgang became famous, Kurt gave up a little. He wasn’t as motivated as he had been.”
Yet many contemporaries felt that Albert was the more naturally gifted climber.
“Wolfgang wasn’t a great onsighter,” Sandner says. “On form, I would say Kurt was the better all-around climber, although maybe not as powerful.”
Jerry Moffatt agrees: “Wolfgang could be pretty shaky and dragged his feet. Kurt had more finesse. He wasn’t so supple as Stefan [Glowacz] is, but he calculated everything. He’d have it all figured out. He wasn’t shaky, just strong and accurate with his feet.”
If anything, Jesse Guthrie says, Albert himself was most impressed by Moffatt.
“Kurt was awestruck by Jerry. He would say quite calmly that Jerry Moffatt was the best climber in the world. Better than Wolfgang. Mostly because Jerry could do stuff so quick and onsight what nobody else could touch. He had tremendous respect for Jerry.”
On his first trip to Germany, having driven overnight crushed in the back of Güllich’s Golf, Moffatt went straight out and climbed Albert’s masterpiece Sautanz (5.12c), which had been the hardest route in Germany in 1981. The Australian star Kim Carrigan, who had done the fastest ascent so far, in just three days, was also staying at Albert and Güllich’s and came along to belay. Despite the lack of sleep and long journey, Moffatt fought his way to the top first go. Then he did the same to John Bachar’s newer testpiece Chasin’ the Trane (5.12d) and capped that with an onsight repeat of Güllich’s Heisse Finger (5.12d). Pretty soon he had added his own Frankenjura super route, at a grade harder—The Face, the first 8a (5.13b) in Germany.
There were two responses to Moffatt’s blitz. Head for the gym, or do something else. Albert and Güllich headed for the gym. Sandner was a member at a local fitness center called Campus, and Albert went along to use the pull-up bar he’d installed. Pretty soon the climbers asked to use a quiet, empty corner to build a wooden structure with finger ledges—the very first Campus board.
“I see them everywhere now,” Sandner says. “When I think of how it started, I have to laugh.”
Moffatt recalls them training but was also amazed at how naturally powerful Albert was.
“He could always do one-arm pullups. Always. And he was a big bloke. He was heavy. Yet he never got injured. Never hurt a tendon. Never did his elbows. He was just this great big Bavarian brick of muscle.”
That didn’t stop Albert trying to match Moffatt’s starvation diet on a visit to Buoux, where they ate just 1,500 calories a day. At times Albert was almost too weak to walk to the base of the crag. His mother, who died shortly before Kurt, would bake him cakes.
“Kurt would sit there and say, ‘Maybe I could have a little slice,’ and then eat the whole thing,” Moffatt says.
For those too young to remember, it’s hard to explain just how quickly sport climbing changed things. It was like a big bang. Moffatt climbing 8a in 1982 was a huge deal. In less than 10 years, seven grades were added to the scale, culminating with Güllich’s 9a (5.14d), Action Directe. Things have moved on much more quietly since then, with only two grades added in 20 years.
Keeping up with that pace of change was always going to be tough and Albert was a little bit older than the new stars emerging. Wolfgang seemed quieter than Kurt, but was much more focused on himself, his career and training. That simply wasn’t what Kurt Albert was about.
“Kurt was really smart,” says Sandner. “He knew he had to live from his slideshows and contracts and he couldn’t compete anymore with the top German climbers. So he decided to bring those free-climbing impulses to the big mountains.”
In 1987, with Gerald Sprachmann, Kurt did the first free ascent of the Swiss Route (5.12c) on the Cima Ovest and followed that up with the first free ascent of the famous Brandler-Hasse (5.11d) on the Cima Grande, both in the Italian Dolomites. The next year he journeyed to the Karakorum of Pakistan with Güllich and Hartmut Münchenbach, freeing the Yugoslavian Route (5.11d) on the Nameless Tower.
Each year brought another big, remote, difficult, free first ascent. Nameless Tower, Central Tower of Paine, Ulamertorsuaq, FitzRoy, Mount Harrison Smith, Tre Cima di Lavaredo, Tupilak, Aguja Mermoz, Cape Renard Tower, Mount Poi, Acopan. In 2009 Albert climbed the 1,880-foot Hotel Guácharo (5.11d) on Roraima Tepui, Venezuela.
The freedom of those days in Oberschöllenbach could never have lasted, but the end was cruel. Ingrid, Norbert Sandner says, both loved and hated the lifestyle she experienced with Kurt and Wolfgang. A lawyer by day, Ingrid would come home at night to dirtbags from half a dozen countries sleeping on her floor. She moved out and married, but somehow things—life—just didn’t work for her anymore. In 1991, her husband, who was a friend of both her former boyfriends, found her in their garage asphyxiated by her car exhaust.
In the summer of 1992, Wolfgang Güllich crashed his BMW driving home from an early radio interview. Like Kurt, his life ended when his respirator was switched off. Like Kurt, there wasn’t a mark on his well-trained body. Norbert Sandner was there to see his friend die. He tracked down Albert in Yosemite to give him the news.
“[Kurt] decided not to come home. He thought there was nothing to be done. He said, ‘It’s all over.’”
Kurt Albert never stopped learning. Perhaps that was the most impressive thing about him. He was open to the world. He became fluent in Spanish after he started dating his Spanish girlfriend, Ari Clols. He learned guitar, and then piano, spending up to five hours a day practicing. To prepare for expeditions, he would train with Suzi, the name he gave his Jumar, plugging up routes like Tower of Power again and again. His mind was as fresh as ever, and if he could feel his body starting to fail, that was just another source of humor.
Kurt was careless of convention—he would never reply to a dinner invitation, or send a birthday card—but if you needed money, he would toss you his wallet.
“If you were ever in danger, or things were going wrong,” Moffatt concludes, “the man you wanted with you was Kurt.”
Just before I leave, Norbert Sandner takes a call. Kurt’s local friends are organizing a dinner that evening, for one last goodbye. After Sandner hangs up, he says again he still can’t believe Kurt has gone.
“He lived the best life I could imagine. He was able to do what he wanted to do. He controlled his life more than anyone I knew. Every day.”
Ed Douglas lives in Sheffield, England, and has been climbing for 30 years. His last book, Rock Athlete, co-written with Ron Fawcett, won the Boardman Tasker Award. A collection of his climbing essays will appear in the fall.
Opening image: Gerhard Heidorn