Stefan, you are probably the most popular German rock climber. Initially, as a tournament pro and later with quite unusual expeditions. Many first ascents, iconic photos, epic movies. How did it all start?
Stefan Glowacz: When I was 17, I did an apprenticeship as a tool maker. However, I was only really interested in climbing. I was crazy about it. No matter what the weather was like, I always went to the climbing garden straight after work. Also, I screwed a chin-up bar onto the ceiling for training. At the end of my apprenticeship, I took eats into work for everybody – and then I went straight off to America to go climbing for three months.
The call of freedom?
Exactly. Back then, in 1984, travelling to the USA was incredibly expensive, especially because of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. We spent all our money in the first month. We somehow managed to survive for the rest of the time. One way was to raid the all-you-can-eat buffets offered by the fast food restaurants with Tupperware containers, which we filled up. After that I had to go back to the workbench.
Stefan Glowacz (52) grew up near Garmisch-Partenkirchen and is one of the most successful German climbers. The only more intense experience than his climbing expeditions was when he became father of triplets. His children are adults now. Stefan is now married to his second wife Tanja Valérien who is the daughter of TV sports legend Harry Valérien. They live at Lake Starnberg.
Climbing experts did not really exist – how did you manage to succeed?
With lots of luck. At one point, Hans-Martin Götz appeared on the scene. He was the agent for Patagonia in Germany at that time and wanted to found a company with me. He gave me an estate car and I drove around as a sales person. Then, the photographer Uli Wiesmeier joined the game. I knew him from climbing in the Oberreintal. Uli worked as a carpenter but had already started travelling with multi-visions presentations. So we started our careers together – I went climbing and he took the pictures.
This strategy – a sportsman and a photographer on a journey together – turned you into marketing pioneers …
Uli was definitely the business-minded one, I only had climbing in my head. He came up with the idea of a picture book called “Rocks around the world” which made both of us famous. Uli also convinced me to take part in the first big climbing competition in 1985, it was something like an unofficial world cup, the best climbers took part. We drove to Italy in an old VW transporter – and I, the no-name from Bavaria, actually won! It surprised all of us, including me. From then on, it all took off. Without being asked, I was suddenly the frontman of the climbing generation. Suddenly, I was able to live off the fruits of my passion. We travelled from competition to competition and I had an absolutely great time.
Did the competitions change climbing?
Definitely. The artificial climbing walls were the forerunner of today's climbing halls which motivate so many people and lure them to the sport. And climbing itself took on a new dimension.
That led to heated discussions in the scene. On the one side, the competitors with you as their poster boy, and on the other side the red-point scene around the legendary shining light in the shape of Wolfgang Güllich.
Wolfgang was not so much into competitions. He was the initiator of modern sports climbing, extremely innovative and very athletic. The first person who actually trained systematically and in doings so, moved on to higher levels of difficulty. However, he was not a gifted on-sight climber, so he could not accomplish difficult climbing routes in an easy first attempt. And that is what competition is all about.
When Uli Wiesmeier's book was published and put you in the spotlight, the talk was about poster boy Stefan – and suddenly, there were two opposing camps.
Oh yes, there was a lot of gossip. Wolfgang was seen as the pure climber who camps out at the side of the road. Actually, he never had to worry about money and always had sponsors. Some people pigeonholed me for commercialising climbing. I just did not want to go back to the workbench. So I also did a show for a sponsor and climbed up a facade in the city.
Later, you often went on expeditions with Kurt Albert. He was Wolfgang Güllich's congenial climbing partner. Maybe you were not so different at all?
Our philosophies were basically the same. If Wolfgang had not died so early, he would probably have joined the expedition. (Wolfgang Güllich died in 1992 in a car crash, editor’s note.)
Wasn't all the commercial banter a bit frustrating?
Once in a while, but there was a lot of music in the scene then. I miss that nowadays. There are many great climbers but hardly anybody talks about developments. Who actually writes controversial articles? Huberbuam and me are the only ones who include that in our presentations. In the past, the scene had more charismatic guys who wanted to say something. Without controversy, the sport will become impoverished.
Mountain sports are maybe fine without such constant discussions, don’t you think?
I actually don’t believe that. One example: Our sport is based on the honesty of its protagonists. When Adam Ondra goes into the forest and says he has climbed a 9c route, everybody believes him. He can open a new dimension without having a judge or an official to witness it. Such a philosophy is a very valuable part of climbing. However, debates are necessary to ensure everything remains trustworthy. Debates have always pushed climbing a bit further. If you do not keep up discussions in public, there will be more dishonesty.
Does that also apply to the latest discussion about Ueli Steck’s solo climb of Annapurna’s south face?
I will not comment on that because I am not involved in the high-altitude mountain climbing scene. Ueli Steck has started a new alpine chapter – but there is no proof that he actually made it to the peak. Of course, there have to be discussions. Everybody who makes a living from climbing and stands in the first row needs to address the issue. It is all about ethics and they simply radiate from the top. When you plan a milestone it should also be documented, I think. (Shortly after this interview was published Ueli Steck died on an expedition in Nepal, editor’s note.)
Have you ever been rightly chided?
Indeed. When I climbed the “Kanal im Rücken” in Altmühltal, at that time the most difficult tour in Germany. First, you climb up an easy crack and then the difficult part starts. After the easy part, it was too wet to keep on climbing. I climbed back down the crack without falling into the safety rope. The next morning, I returned and was able to climb the route. Prior to that, you would study such big challenges for months beforehand but I had managed “Kanal im Rücken” on only one day – I said. Afterwards, Wolfgang Güllich made a scene in public at the ISPO – the industry’s fair – where many people got together. It had taken me two days, not one! I explained that I had only climbed the easy terrain on the day before and had not tried the difficult part. Doesn’t matter, said Wolfgang. In the end, he was right. It does not lessen my achievement but the discussion was important.
After many years and many titles, you have stopped doing the competitions and have turned your attention to incredible alpine projects and expeditions. Why?
I have always felt the urge for adventures, ever since I was a child. I always felt a longing for Canada – like getting dropped off by a water plane and then spending the winter in a hut. As a teen, I went on expeditions with my friends: from Garmisch across the Notkarspitze to the Plansee. We travelled for a week but only made it to LInderhof Castle because there was a thunderstorm and we got scared.
Climbing became my vehicle with which to once again set out on such adventures. I started my first project at the Wilder Kaiser in 1992. It was like a sign I had been waiting for. We were standing in front of an untouched pillar. Everybody said it was impossible. When we started out, I knew it was exactly what I had always wanted to do. “Kaisers neue Kleider” (The emperor’s new clothes) became the most difficult multi-pitch tour of the world, a situation which lasted for many years.
Was that your key moment?
Absolutely. From that moment on, I wanted to make my own goals and accomplish them. I was scared that sponsors would desert me though. But in fact they were all excited about the things I was doing So I was able to combine adventure with the high performance aspect.
On your first big expedition in Canada, you had to endure and suffer quite a bit – and nevertheless it enthralled you?
My latest movie is called “Roraima: Climbing the lost world”. This sums up my life. I look for the special moments. And the more you need to suffer, the more intense the experience is. Back then, we pulled our boats up the Macmillan River for a week and then paddled down the South Nahanni for 100 kilometres, crossed over the Glacier Lake, climbed up to the base camp, did a first ascent and paddled back for a week. We ran out of food. It was always raining. One of us lost the mosquito net. At one point, we were standing in mud up to our thighs in the middle of the forest. It was raining like cats and dogs and somehow we were trying to pitch our tent. What a disaster! However, I was in the landscape of my dreams and was able to experience all that due to climbing. It was such a privilege and a good plan for the future.
You accomplish your expeditions “by fair means”. Who defines the fairness?
Our goal is to set off on our own steam from the last point of civilisation to do a first ascent and return the same way. Our point of departure is the end of public transport. Others might say that it is only fair when you start cycling from your door step at home and paddle across the German Sea to Baffin Island. Everybody can set their own rules, that is the fascinating thing about mountain climbing. In the end, you only need to tell the honest story about how you did it.
Verticals expert: Stefan Glowacz
What do you say about the thesis that there is nothing left on this planet that has not been done?
The highest peaks have indeed been done, but now creativity counts – and how I climb a mountain. And that means how do I get there, which route do I pick and what aids do I do without. I like the fact that each generation has its own interpretation of mountain climbing. That makes it incredibly colourful and energetic. It just does not stop simply because there are no more new mountains to climb.
To reach your climbing destinations, you have sailed by being pulled along by kites, paddled white-water rivers, across the sea and walked through jungle. What was the most difficult journey?
Everything involving a kayak. We practised the Eskimo roll day after day on the Eibsee but it did not always work out when we were on Baffin Island. I almost drowned. And dynamics in white-water are such that you can only control matters to a certain limit. You cannot simply get out of the boat when you have had enough. You have a rope when you climb, but when you sit in a kayak, you have a problem if, for example, you cannot reach the eddy.
For your last trip to Baffin Island, you even developed your own special sled?
All the experiences from my last expeditions have flown into the development. Especially all the things that did not work out were important. We could use the sled as a wagon, raft and portaledge (a sleeping platform on a steep wall, editor’s note), so we were prepared for everything. The development cost 60,000 euros which is a lot of money for me. But BMW and Red Bull were excited about the idea and gave us the services of a carbon specialist.
Thanks to your experience, your sponsors are also making better equipment?
For the last 20 years I have been working with Gore. The first Gore-Tex jackets were like armour. A lot has changed since then. Apart from climbing equipment, the outer layer of clothes is the most important safety relevant equipment. When we were in Patagonia, our tent was ripped apart and all that protected us was our jackets. I mostly make suggestions about the cut or reinforcements. Pure technology originates in the laboratory, and we – the athletes – test it under natural conditions before it hits the stores.
You also have a long relationship with Marmot?
Forever. It all started 15 years ago when Andy Schimeck became the new boss of Marmot. I had just split up with Jack Wolfskin because they preferred to advertise in football stadiums. I feel quite connected with Andy, who is also a mountain guide and an adventure freak. When he has to save money, we talk about it honestly and find solutions. The great thing about the outdoor industry is that there are still real characters out there. Other companies, however, only try to create an image with a lot of money.
Sponsors can also be seen critically, like Red Bull …
I was one of Red Bull’s very first athletes. I started the collaboration with Dietrich Mateschitz on the basis of a handshake and have never had a written contract. I was really impressed by that. I learnt from Dietrich Mateschitz what it means to be a responsible athlete who can decide for himself what he wants to offer to his partner in return. With sponsors only from the outdoor industry, I could never have done 80 percent of my expeditions. Climbing is not a sport which makes you rich. I do not know a single climber who earns six-digit money. At Red Bull I am now also something like a mentor and I get asked which new, young climbers they should support.
What do you say about the well known criticism of Red Bull that their athletes run high risks?
I can say what I perceive. Red Bull sees us athletes as the experts. We suggest a project that they support. Nobody has to risk life and limb. Some of my ideas have even been rejected. A pull-out can also be interesting, it sometimes makes an athlete even more likeable, and the contract will not be cancelled. The problem is with extreme sports like wing suit flying where you can only get better when you increase the risk. Wing suit pilots are now flying above plateaus where they can touch the grass with their stomachs. Such dynamics come to play because of the kind of sport and not because of the sponsor.
At Red Chili, you are your own sponsor?
I am not a sponsored climber at Red Chili but an entrepreneur. I founded the company 20 years ago together with Uwe Hofstädter. I am the visionary with the ideas and Uwe is the man for the daily business dealings. We were convinced we could make better climbing shoes than anybody else. Hence our slogan of “Only climbers know what climbers need”.
What do you – as an entrepreneur as well as a mountain expert – say to young athletes who are looking for a sponsor?
Be professional and think. Entrepreneurs have certain expectations. Sponsored athletes are important because you see that the products work. The athlete should say: I want to do this expedition and I need such-and-such a budget. In return I do my own marketing, document the tour on Facebook, offer you pictures and make sure that articles will get published.
One of your important companions was Kurt Albert. He always said that you should never only rely on one safety point …
I only rely on one hook at very exceptional moments, his sentence still haunts me. Especially because just that led to his own death. He fell and died when his only climbing protection accidentally unhooked in Franconia.
What else did you learn from Kurt Albert?
Kurt influenced both my climbing and my attitude to life. The independence, the life for passion, the life philosophy – Kurt showed me how to live. When I was young, I always wanted to be like him, and when we started teaming up, my perception of him was simply reinforced. He lived his life with no compromises. Even the worst things were still fun with Kurt. Everybody knew that it was serious and it would hurt. But we never lost our sense of humour.
The documentary about the expedition to the table mountain of Roraima is also an obituary of Stefan’s long-standing climbing partner Kurt Albert.
They headed off into the jungle together with Holger Heuber. Their first trip failed, back home Kurt Albert was killed in an accident, so Stefan and Holger Heuber had to manage the second trip on their own.
DVD, running time 102 min, product no.: 23.67.94, € 9,99
16. Mai 2017, Interview: Julian Rohn & Stephan Glocker