He was an überman—born in war-torn Germany, handsome and charismatic, the first person to climb and ski an 8,000-meter peak without supplemental oxygen. But he also had a shadow side, one that involved betrayal, intrigue, maybe even manslaughter.
DECEMBER 29, 2021
This feature article was first published in the 2016 edition of Ascent and won that year’s Banff award for Best Mountaineering Article.
It snowed yesterday, breaking some branches on my aspens. My garden shears with the green handles hung where I had left them after last October’s pruning. I took them in my hand, knowing what was about to come. The reckoning began all over again. The mountain rose up. The climb resumed, my circular climb, toward a summit I can never reach, and Fritz will never quit.
Precious fragments, psychology calls them, those all consuming remembrances that leap from the most common things.
The French novelist Marcel Proust had his little cookies called madeleines. One dip into his tea, one taste, and suddenly he would plunge into the universe of his childhood.
Citizen Kane had his Rosebud sled. The smell of granite, the sound of chandelier ice, that menthol blue of crevasse walls. We all have memory fragments.
I didn’t go looking for those green-handled shears in order to remember. But I knew before grasping them that they would return me to Makalu via my friend’s garage one spring afternoon in 1978. That was when I was asked about going to Tirich Mir to identify the body of Fritz Stammberger who had vanished there in 1975.
I said yes without thinking. I’d never been to Pakistan, and didn’t know the way in, nor the mountain. Nor how I was supposed to find Fritz after the Canadians who’d spotted a naked body in the ice retreated in a storm before they could mark its location. I just wanted to go.
I tried to figure out what would need doing. I would take pictures, lots of pictures, and look for a diary or his odd round snow glasses.
Anything else? I asked my friend.
Yes, he said, fingerprints.
Of course. I would take an ink pad and some heavy paper.
No, said my friend. Fingers. We’ll need fingers. And his jaw.
This was in the days before body farms and TV forensics shows. It shocked me. “You mean break them off? And what, pull his jaw off?”
“We’ll get you some shears,” said my friend. “Like garden shears.”
Fritz Stammberger (1940-1975)
“German expatriate, and resident of Aspen [Colorado] since 1963: Printer, extreme skier, Himalayan mountaineer, writer, filmmaker, publisher and local activist.”
A less formal obituary might have included: Beefcake, lone wolf, Himalayan bad boy, kamikaze, pioneer, showboat, visionary, CIA/KGB double agent …
Few climbers have ever heard of Fritz. Fewer still can name his accomplishments or controversies. And yet Fritz played a significant role in American mountain culture.
Back when American climbing was focused on the first free ascent of the Naked Edge and the right or wrong of Warren Harding’s bolt-bloat on the Dawn Wall, Fritz had his eyes on the Himalayas. It was an era when Himalayan mountaineering was a marathon race between nations (one mostly unattended by Americans), when the only question about siege tactics was how huge was huge enough, when Sherpas were nameless cannon fodder, and oxygen systems were essential weapons. Conversely, Fritz talked about international unity in the mountains, streamlined alpine-style climbs that did not rely on Sherpa muscle, and high-altitude soloing. In 1964 he became the first person to ascend without bottled oxygen and to ski-descend an 8,000-meter peak (Cho Oyu). He was the first to ski the “Deadly Bells” including North Maroon Peak (14,019 feet) near Aspen. And in addition to his climbing/skiing chops he printed Climbing magazine almost from its inception.
He truly was a superman, the übermensch of Nietzsche, an evolved being who dwelled on mountaintops separate from the herd below. Think of Batman brooding on a spire above Gotham.
The difference between Batman and Fritz was his conviction that Everyman could become Superman. He knew how powerful he was, but also believed we all harbor that power, the power of will and the will to power. If he could do it, he believed, anyone could do it. He was the ultimate equal-opportunity mountaineer, elite but not elitist. He wanted the so-called herd to escape from the valley and join him on the climb.
I know because, for a short while on a big mountain decades ago, I climbed with him.
It was Fritz who introduced me to Makalu’s South Face in 1974. Charismatic, handsome and immensely powerful, he was a wild horse and the world was open range. I wanted to be like that, I tried to be, but it nearly killed me, just as it had killed other men, and just as it finally killed Fritz himself. Superman may be super, but he’s still a man.
Big calves, big heart, big dreams: multi-lingual, brimming with stories: Fritz was unlike anyone I had ever met. He had a boyish esprit, a vocabulary filled with English polysyllables that you had to practice to pronounce, and dressed in what was once described as “Teutonic Mod, with bold colors in tight wear from Sporthaus Schuster.” His were the sort of Hollywood good looks that can relax you at a party, because while he was in the room you were never going to get a date anyway.
Three months before the expedition’s departure, he married Janice Pennington, a former Playmate of the Year and a model on the game show The Price is Right.
Tall, honey-haired and California-regal, Janice had a magical naiveté. In a scene straight out of a fairytale, she had been literally swept away by this mountain man who worked as a printer in Aspen. On their second date, when she could not decide on the right shoes for the ballet, he insisted she go barefoot and carried her to the car. Beauty and the Beast: no casting company could have conjured such a coming together and had a movie audience believe it. They were made for each other. After Fritz went missing, Janice would nearly destroy herself searching for him.
It all started with the oddest want ad. Fritz’s 1974 expedition to Makalu needed a volunteer to help pack for a Himalayan expedition.