30 years ago today German climbing legend Wolfgang Güllich died in a car crash aged just 31. He established the world’s first 8b, the world’s first 8b+, the world’s first 8c and, with Action Directe in Frankenjura, the world’s first 9a. A truly visionary figure, his influence extends well beyond sport climbing and even today his routes in far-flung corner of the globe such as Patagonia and the Karakorum are considered absolute milestones in big wall climbing in the high mountains.
Legendary rock climber Wolfgang Güllich died 30 years ago today, on 31 August 1992, following a tragic car crash on the motorway in Germany. He was a mere 31 years old and at the apex of his astounding career. Even now, three decades later, it is hard to overemphasise his legacy and influence on the modern sport climbing and mountaineering.
Born in Ludwigshafen on 24 October 1960, Güllich took to climbing in the Südpfalz aged thirteen and soon his entire life revolved around this sport. Gifted with supreme physical and mental capabilities, he quickly made for a name for himself by repeating the region’s hardest routes and then establishing his own.
Climbing trips to the Elbsandsteingebirge behind the Iron Curtain in communist-ruled DDR, proved formative, as did early trips to the USA. Towards the end of the 70’s he struck a cord with Kurt Albert who in 1975 had introduced the “rotpunkt” philosophy which, translated into English as “redpoint”, is recognised nowadays as the basis on which performances are measured in this sport.
Albert and Güllich quickly became figureheads of this sport climbing movement. They lived together in the Frankenjura for 11 years and formed an inseparable and extremely powerful climbing partnership – so much so that in 1984 the German government recognised their services to climbing by awarding them, and another pioneer Sepp Gschwendtner, its highest sport accolade, namely the “Silberne Lorbeerblatt”.
Güllich spent the next decade climbing hard worldwide, proving his worth time and time again and raising the sport climbing bar on a staggering three separate occasions. In 1984 he established the world’s first 8b, Kanal im Rücken in Germany’s Frankenjura, in 1985 he pushed the envelope with the world’s first 8b+, Punks in the Gym at Mt. Arapiles in Australia and then two years later, in 1987, he created the world’s first 8c, Wallstreet in the Frankenjura. Gullich’s hegemony was broken only once, when Britain’s Ben Moon entered a new realm of difficulties in 1990 with his Hubble at Raven’s Tor, speculated by some to be even harder than the Englishman had originally suggested.
In 1991 Güllich upped the ante one last time with his magnum opus, Action Directe, widely considered the world’s first 9a and the benchmark of its grade. No other sport climb has fuelled the imagination as much as AD and it has emerged as one of the most famous, coveted sport climbs in the world.
Güllich’s natural strength was second-to-none, yet while he rightly pointed out that the body’s most important muscle is the brain, he also realised that to make a significant step forward, his already rigorous training regime would have to undergo a marked change. The key would be to focus on the specific requirements of each individual route. It was with this in mind that in 1988 he helped developed the Campus Board at his local gym, the Campus Centre. The “Campus Board” is now found in practically every climbing gym throughout the world, and the invention of this training tool would ultimately prove fundamental to future successes. Blasting up and, in particular, dynoing down the rows of tiny crimps perfectly suited the ferocious power needs of the nearby Frankenjura.
Although the younger generations know Güllich in particular for Action Directe, his climbing represented far more than this inspirational line. Güllich’s legacy in fact extends far beyond sport climbing and his thirst for the unknown wasn’t refined to the sport crags. He made important early repeats worldwide, including the first repeat of Tony Yaniro’s testpiece Grand Illusion in the USA, and he also occasionally climbed without a rope. His audacious first free solo of Separate Reality in Yosemite, carried out in 1986, beggared belief and was immortalised by his friend and photographer Heinz Zak who carried out the same feat in 2005.
During the late 80’s this quest led him up into the high mountains in far-flung corners of the globe. In 1988, for instance, he travelled to Pakistan’s Karakoram where together with Kurt Albert, Bernd Arnold, Martin Leinauer, Hartmut Münchenbach and Martin Schwiersch he made the first free ascent of the Nameless Tower via the Yugoslavian route. Only a year later and just a few meters to the left he added an absolute milestone to high altitude climbing when, with Kurt Albert, Christof Stiegler and Milan Sykora, he made the first ascent of Eternal Flame up the Nameless Tower. And then in early 1991, the same year therefore as Action Directe, he transferred these mountain skills to the inhospitable Paine Towers in Patagonia where together with Kurt Albert, Bernd Arnold, Norbert Bätz and Peter Dittrich he helped make the first ascent of Riders on the Storm. Another absolute breakthrough in big wall climbing in the Greater Ranges. These expeditions convinced Güllich that cutting-edge rock climbing at altitude was still in its embryonic stages, and also gave him critical distance from the at-times oppressive Frankenjura climbing scene. Importantly, they also provided the motivational spark that set the flame to what would evolve later into Action Directe.
When Güllich climbed Action Directe on 14 September 1991 he was enjoying the happiest period of his life. He had married just five days prior to freeing his masterpiece, and was looking forward to embarking on new adventures life would throw at him. Over the previous decade he had led sport climbing to new heights in terms of absolute technical difficulties, explored its potential at high altitude in the harshest of mountains, and was undoubtedly no way near his athletic apex. All this ground to a cruel and tragic halt on 31 August 1992 when he died as a result of a car crash on Germany’s Autobahn. The sudden loss of Güllich stunned the close-knit climbing community, his premature departure leaving a gaping void that only over time was filled by the heritage of routes he left for everyone to enjoy. Even today repeating a route first ascended by Güllich is cause for pride.
This is an abridged version of a more comprehensive article “Action Directe, Wolfgang Güllich’s 25-year-old Frankenjura masterpiece” published on 14/09/206