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Dateline 1927: Stettner Brothers Climb Hardest Route in America

Joe Stettner climbs a face at Camp Hale in 1943. He helped train 10th Mountain Division soldiers during World War II.

Stettner Brothers Drive Motorcycles to Colorado

On Saturday, September 23, 1927, Joe Stettner (1901-1997) and Paul Stettner (1906-1994), two German immigrant brothers from Chicago, Illinois, rode their Indian motorcycles west from Chicago through sunshine and rain storms to the Colorado Rockies on a 24-day road trip. The pair was laden down with climbing equipment, including German pitons which had arrived a few hours before their departure, a "sign of good fortune" they believed. Speeding along concrete roads in Illinois, the brothers made good time before slowing down to 20 mph on the rough dirt highway across Iowa and later bouncing down a muddy road filled with potholes in Nebraska.

Ride up Pikes Peak and Climb at Garden of the Gods

After reaching Denver, the Stettners turned south and drove to Colorado Springs, racing against an automobile with speeds reaching 80 mph. The next day they rode their motorbikes to the summit of 14,115-foot Pikes Peak on the world's highest auto road. They wrote in their journal: "A glorious view was the reward for our effort. The very cold temperature on the summit admonished us to quickly turn around." The following day they "gathered equipment for a new trip to the Garden of the Gods" and spent the "entire day climbing, photographing, and patching up our pants (torn by the sharp rocks)."

Search of a New Climbing Rope

The next day they traveled north to the Longs Peak Inn near the base of famed 14,256-foot-high Longs Peak, centerpiece of Rocky Mountain National Park. Here they attempted to purchase a rope, the only piece of gear that they didn't have, but "the owner refused to sell it or let us use it," saying it was too late in the season to attempt the East Face of Longs Peak. Others told them that "there had been several serious falls on this wall and, of the eight parties that attempted to climb it this year, only one had been successful." With dwindling supplies and hopes of climbing, the Stettner brothers went north to Estes Park where they found "some sisal hemp rope-a big coil, half-inch thick, stiff and heavy" in the general store. They bought 120 feet of it.

Hike to Timberline Cabin

That same day they headed up the trail to spend the night in Timberline Cabin at Jim's Grove. They reached the hut, three-and-a-half miles up the trail, just as a big storm hit. They patched the roof to keep rain and cold out, fired up a stove to brew hot drinks, and stretched out on "sacks of straw to sleep." They noted, "The only thing we mountain rats lacked was good music."

Finding a Route on the Lower East Face

The following day, September 14, they woke to clear skies at 5 o'clock in the morning. "It was a promising day for our climb." The brothers hiked across boulder-strewn slopes on the north side of Chasm Lake below the monolithic East Face, then stopped and eyeballed the wall. They noted the two established routes--Keiner's and Alexander's Chimney--and studied them, but their goal was "to find a new route." Using binoculars, they pieced together "a line of broken plates, ledges and cracks that we could eventually use as a route" right of Alexander's Chimney. "We finally decided," they wrote, "to ascend via these ledges as close as possible to the water markings coming down from Broadway," a horizontal ledge that divides the East Face.

Snow Climbing to the Route Base

The Stettners quickly climbed steep hard snow beneath the face, using crampons and ice axes for purchase. Below the proposed route, they changed from hobnail boots into "felt-soled rock climbing shoes" (called manchon) and bundled up the ice gear and slid it down the snow slopes for later retrieval. They soloed the first 100 feet, then tied into the rope. "With great trouble we fought our way upwards. Time-wise it appeared that we would have to retreat."

Cracks, Slabs, and a Slip

Paul Stettner described the climbing, "Slowly we made our way over smooth slabs. The view down the steep wall to the snowfield far below was wonderful. All around us was deep silence, broken only by a call from one of us to the other, or the sound of a hammer being used on a piton." The pair slowly worked up cracks and slabs and short overhanging sections. At one point Joe slipped but Paul him tight with the belay. He said, "The rope round my waist wrung me totally together, like a wet rag…."

Paul Takes a Leader Fall

They hammered pitons in cracks for protection but also found long sections where no cracks were found. Here Paul led "without much security." At one smooth section, he took a short leader fall, writing, "My fingers gave way, and so did my toes, and I found myself going down. Through friction my speed was lessened, and Joe, who was stationed at the piton, brought me to a stop." After a short rest, Paul tried again and successfully smeared up the slab. Above, a light snow began to fall as the pair scrambled up easier rock to Broadway, reaching the ledge system five hours after starting. Paul had led every pitch.

Seven Hours to the Summit

The Stettners continued climbing above Broadway, following Kiener's Route to the summit of Longs Peak and reaching the summit at five o'clock in the afternoon after seven hours of climbing. They said, "…we shook hands and recorded our climb in the register. We decided to stop for a short break and ate bread and sardines, our only meal of the day." They descended down the steep North Face, locating a thick metal cable in the snow and growing darkness, which they hand-over-handed down to the Boulderfield below and the trail back down the mountain.

Back to the Cabin and Chicago

A couple hours later, the brothers reached the cabin, made a meal, and crashed for the night. "Soon there was again peace for us in this little house." The next day they retrieved their equipment below Mills Glacier and hiked down to the motorcycles. A few days later on September 19, they left Rocky Mountain National Park and headed east to Chicago.

Stettners Tell Only One Person about Route

After climbing what was arguably the hardest route climbed in the United States at that time, Joe and Paul Stettner modestly said nothing about their ascent and achievement. Men of actions rather than words. They told Charley Hewes, a writer and poet, who told Swiss mountaineer Walter Kiener who lived near Longs Peak. So for years no one knew about the route except a few local climbers.

Hardest Climb in the United States

In 1935 climbers made several attempts to do the second ascent; one ended with a broken foot and rescue. The second ascent came in 1936 by Warren Gorrell, Charles Hardin, Ernie Field, and Eddie Watson; and the third not until 1942 when Joe Stettner teamed up with leading Colorado climber Bob Ormes. For almost twenty years, the route, named Stettner's Ledges, was the hardest rock climb in the United States along with Lizard Head, also in Colorado and led by Albert Ellingwood in the early 1920s.

Stettner's Ledges ascends the lower East Face below the obvious Diamond on Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo @ Stewart M. Green

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