Hommage an den großen Einen
On the 21st anniversary of the passing of the Great One, how do you truly pay homage to one of the most formative figures of modern climbing? Here, VL‘s own Johan von Shag pays his respects to a man who has inspired so many to make a life in the vertical.
Most people know Wolfgang Güllich for his pièce de résistance, Action Directe (9a/35), and his local offering to the Antipodes, Punks in the Gym (8b+/32). Most often it is the headlines of a story or a life that we know, at the expense of the details. What most of us don’t know was Güllich was a humble man, who shied away from the limelight and the elite climbing scene of his birth place Germany and neighbouring France, which during his lifetime was the epicentre of sport climbing and home to lycra du jour. Looking at photos of Gullich from back in the day, there is no doubt he was trendsetter, a hipster if you will. Short shorts, the occasional dodgy moustache and THAT mane of hair. It was said that his hair got its lustrous shine having lived on a diet of Pfeffernusse, Bratwurst and steins. Photos of his show a powerful energetic figure.
Güllich was more than a one-dimensional climber, rather he pushed its limits on all fronts. He put down hard routes in the Frankenjura, at legendary French crags of Buoux, Verdon, on the Gritstone of the UK’s Peak District and at our beloved Mt Arapiles. He trad climbed in Yosemite, which culminated in the striking solo ascent of Separate Reality (5.12a/24), and made expeditions to Trango in Pakistan and Patagonia, where he established iconic routes including the Yugoslavian Route, Eternal Flame and Riders on the Storm.
With similarities to what he found at Yosemite, Güllich thoroughly enjoyed the laid back nature of the climbing community at Mt Arapiles in the mid ‘80s, which was a far cry from increasingly competitive scene in Europe. Sleeping in and spending quality time at the pub with a little bit of climbing thrown in was a lifestyle he revelled in. And the more casual pace of life obviously didn’t affect his performance on rock with an onsight of Yesterday Direct (at 28 perhaps one of the hardest onsights in the world at the time), first ascents of Wisdom of Body (30) and, of course, the technical and powerful Punks in the Gym.
Apart from Ben Moon’s Hubble – which, though graded 8c+/34 Wolfgang always thought of as a soft 8c – from 1984 to 1991, Güllich established every major grade from 8b (31) to 9a (35) making him one of, if not the most successful climber of his time. Looking back from this day and being able to map the evolution of climbing since, the question must be asked, had Wolfgang not died in 1992, would he have gone on to do the world’s first 9a+? The thing about such flights of imagination is that no matter the amount of speculation we’ll never know. What we do know is that Kanal im Rucken (8b) and Punks in the Gym (8b+) came without much fuss for Wolfgang. However, to break into 8c and move even further into the rarefied air beyond would require something special.
Güllich was more than a beast on the rock, he was a critical thinker with a flair for the creative. He studied sports science and physical education and when faced with the key question that haunts all climbers, how to get stronger, he applied his own creative theorisation and developed the one training device climbers the world over look to for gaining dynamic power and maximal strength. In 1987, the Campus Board was born. Simple in its design, brutal in its application and effective in its results, the Campus Board focussed Güllich’s training and played the central role in taking his finger strength to the next level. Applying plyometric training principles (exerting maximum force in as short a time as possible) to the apparatus, comprised of wooden rungs bolted to a gently overhanging board, gave Güllich the impetus to break into that rarefied air and establish the world’s first 8c/33, Wallstreet and ultimately the world’s first 9a/35, Action Directe.
Along with legendary Yosemite climber Ron Kauk, Güllich was hired by Sylvester Stallone to be his stunt double in Hollywood’s attempt to showcase the sport of climbing, Cliffhanger. Fame begrudgingly followed from movie stardom and the growing significance of establishing the world’s first 9a, a feat that had Wolfgang subjected to a gruelling interview circuit around Europe. Exhaustion overtakes even the strongest, and on the morning of August 29,1992 Güllich fell asleep behind the wheel of his car when driving home from a radio interview in Munich. Two days later, broken beyond repair, his life support was switched off and the climbing world lost one of its greatest.
The following quote best sums up my lifelong admiration of Wolfgang,“You don’t go for coffee after climbing; rather, going out for coffee is part climbing”
For Wolfgang, climbing was about more than sending the hardest routes in the world. It was a human pursuit. And coffee describes that, it is social, drunk to cement friendships and loves and business. And so this quote carries more than the sweet high we get from caffeine, it carries all the beautiful interactions we have with people. Climbing is about the connections we make, be it at our local cliff, or at an iconic overseas crag that fills both our day- and night-time dreams or sometimes it’s simply shooting the breeze at the café or the pub.
RIP Wolfgang Güllich.