Historical Rock Climbing Images


Page 3.1

Oliver Perry-Smith - Continued

Oliver Perry-Smith
doing a headstand on
Barbarine  ca 1905

Perry-Smith dining with Count ???
on an Elbsandstein Summit

ca 1907

Oliver Perry-Smith
leading a crack climb

Prior to 1913


Perry-Smith? . . .  Possibly
Photo Walter Hahn

Oliver Perry-Smith climbed from 1902 through 1913 - between the ages of 18 and 29. The year Preuss died, Perry-Smith's record of climbs ends. Preuss was only two years younger than the American, and perhaps the two were acquainted. In addition, there may have been a tenuous link between Perry-Smith, Preuss, and Oscar Eckenstein: Eckenstein designed and created very short ice axes, as well as crampons, and spent much time in the Alps between 1900 and 1914. He taught Preuss ice-climbing skills over two seasons in the western Alps. Perry-Smith at least mentions Preuss's routes in the Alps in correspondance; also, the young American is said to have used an unusually short ice-axe on one or more occasions.

Perry-Smith visited the Alps frequently, making a notable traverse of the Matterhorn and actually laying plans to climb its north face.  He finished his mountaineering in the High Alps in 1910, but continued to climb in Saxony until 1913.

A Powerful Skier . . .  

"For several years he had been equally interested in skiing, and soon gained international recognition in this sport as well. As the first foreigner to compete successfully against the hitherto unapproachable Norwegians, his phenomenal strength made him particularly formidable in cross-country runs. His keenness made him a jumper." (Thorington).

C. J. Luther
, a close friend and the ski-historian of Partenkirchen, says of Oliver: "He directed a fresh wind from the outside world to the still dreamy eastern mountains, which put the younger generation on its feet. With an almost primitive drive in sporting accomplishment he was an inspiring companion. His was the tall, muscular stature of the American pioneer; one knew he could not be defeated."  

Although he had raised many a stein with his comrades over the years, by 1914 he "drank nothing stronger than lemonade, even at Christmas and New Year celebrations, when among the winter sport guests champagne flowed in streams."   

In 1911, after placing second in a German skiing event, a critic wrote of him: "An American in whose blood the record-demon courses. He is as unruly as a stallion, and a go-getter. He is not a companionable sportsman . . ." Companionable or not, he captured the cross-country championship of Austria at Kitzbühel in 1914.

In September of that year, he and his young wife, Agnes, and three year old son, Ollie, left Germany for America, and never returned.

As Thorington puts it: "Here we may leave Oliver Perry-Smith, remembering him as the most agile American climber of his time, the first man to consistently climb 6th degree walls and the first American skier to succeed in international competition . . . " 

The Rest of His Life . . .

 What became of Oliver Perry-Smith after he left Germany?  Did he continue to climb in America? To ski? What sort of life did he lead, away from the intensity of Elbsandsteingebirge?

 I recently had the opportunity to speak with Oliver's youngest son (of four), Crosby Perry-Smith, and was able to get a glimpse of Perry-Smith's life in the USA.Crosby Perry Smith Crosby, born in 1923, is an artist at Red Mountain Gallery in Ouray, Colorado, and was – like his father – an outstanding athlete. Encouraged by Oliver to train as a ski jumper, Crosby won the national title at the age of 14 in 1938.

He served with distinction in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy during the war, and upon returing to the US enrolled in Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado. There, he organized the first ski team, and went on to win intercollegiate competitions in jumping and cross country. He was a member of the Olympic Jumping Team in 1952, and coached the US Jumping Team in 1985. Crosby was inducted into the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1992.

 The first question I asked Crosby concerned his father's height and weight, given the comments of his German comrades in the Elbsandsteingebirge as to Oliver's great size and strength. He was over six feet and weighed about 185 pounds – large by current elite standards. But he had great athletic ability, able to high jump over six feet in his prep school gymnasium.

 We then spoke of Oliver's life upon returning from Europe at the outset of WWI. Fortunate to be the recipient of a trust fund, he was able to devote his time to raising his boys and to pursuing his sporting interests. At first the family lived in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, where he built a boat and spent much time sailing. Then the Perry-Smiths – his wife and mother of the boys was the former Agnes Adolph, from an area not too far from Dresden - moved to Lake Placid, New York, where Oliver promoted and enjoyed ski jumping. He encouraged his boys to avoid climbing ("too dangerous") and to develop themselves as skiers. He initiated the "bend at the waist" style of jumping; Crosby recalls his father being frequently penalized for not keeping a straight body – until the rules changed.

 Oliver enjoyed Nordic skiing as well as jumping, and participated in both. He also designed the ski area at Old Forge, New York. But he was very protective of his children. Crosby recalls returning from 
distinguished combat duty in Italy, only to have his father warn him to 
"be careful of traffic in town".

 Although Oliver gave up the sort of feverish climbing life he had led in Dresden, he apparently did climb occasionally in America. Crosby recalls staying with his father and Fritz Wiessner in a cabin at Lake Placid, the night before doing some climbing on Wall Face – a 1200 foot granite formation. He and his dad were impressed when Fritz demonstrated his ability to do 20 fingertip pull-ups. Later, Oliver and Wiessner literally "painted the rocks red" to warn hikers against wandering into dangerous territory. It is also possible that Oliver climbed a bit in the Poconos, when staying in Philadelphia, but details are lacking.

Oliver in Colorado . . .

n the mid 1960s Crosby was an instructor at the Mountain & Cold Weather Command at Ft. Carson. One weekend his troops went climbing on the Flatirons above Boulder, Colorado. There they saw an old man soloing without a rope. It turned out to be Oliver Perry-Smith. When Crosby told his father he didn't think he should be out climbing without a rope on the Flatirons at his age, Oliver said to him, with a grin, "There's only one place I might need a rope."

From Thorington: "In his 80th year he still cherishes the dream of reascending the Guglia di Brenta!"

Oliver Perry Smith died at the age of 84 in 1969. 

Photo of Crosby Perry-Smith by Janet Carlile

Perry Smith at 79

Oliver Perry Smith
 at age 79

Photo courtesy AAC Library

Continue to Page 4