Hermann Huber 1930 – 2022. He is succeeded by two sons, Wolfgang and Bernhardt, and their respective families in Spain and Australia.
Hermann Huber, ‘Mr Salewa’ was, first and foremost, a Bavarian mountaineer, proud of his region and dialect, who combined his manufacturing skills with his understanding of the key needs of mountaineers and turned it into a worldwide business. Several of these devices became dominant designs /go-to devices for climbers worldwide.
Born and bred in Bavaria, he was always in love with his area, family and local friends whilst mountaineering worldwide. Living on the south side of Munich and later with a ‘speicher’ in a ski village close to the Austrian border, he was within a short cycle ride or drive to the rock, snow and langlauf loipe on the Austro-German border.
At 14, he recalled helping pick up the bomb-scattered pieces of the DAV library and museum on the Prater Insel on the Isar in Munich after the allied bombing raids of 1944. He learned English by talking to American troops when the Allied forces occupied Germany in 1945. This language ability proved vital in developing contacts at the international trade shows in Cologne from the 1960s. His late 1940s climbing trips across the borders into Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and France were necessarily illicit because he was, like many in central Europe in the immediate post-war period, effectively ‘stateless’ and thus without a passport. In this period, Bavaria as a region considered whether to become a self-standing nation before Germany came together again. Today we can still see the signs ‘Freistaat Bayern’ when crossing the Bavarian border.
He was one of the earliest Europeans to ascend El Capitan’s nose and had expeditions to the Andes, and Borneo. He converted his expertise into a climbing manual, ‘Bergsteigen Heute’, ( Climbing Today) in 1975, which ran to several editions and was translated into several languages. Original German language copies can still be bought via Amazon,
The leadership of innovation in primary climbing methods and devices by the German-speaking nations is probably under-recognised by other countries, especially the British climbing community. From Dulfer and friends, pre WW1, who created the methodology of double ropes and karabiners (which came much later into post-WW2 UK) to Welzenbach, ‘the father of modern alpinism’,; Hermann’s memory and friendship reached back, in some cases, to early pioneers and he ranks amongst them as an equipment pioneer. He was in close touch with famous contemporaries; Ricardo Cassin, Pierre Allain, Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, and more.
He was apprenticed at 15 to a Munich company Sattler und Lederwaren Fabrik gmbh (saddlery and leather goods manufacture) which was later contracted into SALEWA. Today Salewa has its headquarters in Bolzano, SudTyrol, Italy and is owned by Oberalp.
The company was initially comprised of two parts, carpets/furnishing and leather goods; the latter gradually morphed into a sports division. An early product success was manufacturing and selling large quantities of ski poles. A small subcontractor of metal stampings for these ski poles later became the key to developing the new processes for making the Salewa crampon.
The stitching skills and materials were all present in the business, so he developed packs for his early Andean expedition. These craft products made in canvas and leather were discontinued later, as Salewa took on the distribution agency for Karrimor as the latter had already begun the distribution of Salewa hardware into the UK. Salewa 10-point crampons were first introduced into the UK by Sheffield and London-based retailer Jackson and Warr (who were later absorbed into the Blacks group) in the early 1960s. Graham Tiso set up his retail business in Edinburgh in 1962 and took over UK distribution in the late 60s. As the market demand increased, this was handed over by mutual agreement to Karrimor in 1975.
Climbing hardware. Climbers today around the world all benefit from the adjustable crampons, belay plates and tubular ice screws. Indeed it is hard now to understand how climbing would be without them. This shortened account is taken from recorded talks with Herman in his ‘Speicher’. The full story was published in ‘Invisible on Everest, Innovation and the gear makers’ in 2003.
How and why Hermann created the Salewa adjustable crampon.
The Eckenstein crampon of 1912, made by Grivel in Courmayeur, was hand forged in 2 or 3 parts and sized to the individual buyer’s boot. Other workshop forges, often run by alpine guides, became famous and synonymous with climbing hardware: Simond, Charlet-Moser, Stubai, Ralling and more. Adjusting or refitting to another boot needed heat and hammers, not easy everyday things to handle and not retail friendly. In the late 50s, Hermann realised that the blacksmiths were getting older and supplies were decreasing whilst demand was increasing. Although not an engineer by training, he realised that more efficient processes were needed, which were independent of craft skills. The old forging method meant that the 2 front points were not joined transversely, so 12 points were only feasible by welding in a bridge. (E.g. By Heckmair on the Eigernordwand first ascent.) Also, what he and his friends all needed was a crampon easily adjustable between climbing and ski boots which would then be something more commercial to be supplied via Salewa retailers. They invested in press tools using the ski pole supplier as tool maker and installed much bigger presses.
The first deliveries in 1962 were a disaster because of faulty hardening processes, and H sat down and personally checked each and every piece, 42VPN, throwing out all rejected pieces. He was under tremendous pressure because the new product was listed in the Sport Scheck catalogue. He realised they had to invest in an in-house heat treatment plant. The steel specification was also improved over the years, and the need for large minimum orders helped keep smaller or potential competitors at bay. The patent he wisely took out also provided protection, even, surprisingly, for Hermann, when it was upheld in the French court after Charlet copied the design.
Updates and improvements followed the original 1962 version regularly. The picture of c1980 shows how front bale wire and heel clamp devices worked in conjunction with a scissor action
which tightened the crampon across the width, making the crampon much tighter on the boot and avoiding compressing the feet in cold weather with the original leather straps.
The Salewa Chouinard rigid crampon followed later because boots were not stiff enough in this period for prolonged front pointing; it was still length adjustable but without a hinge.
The Sticht plate was the first belay device and was named after Fritz Sticht. The first version was without an attached spring. The spring was added within two years to help prevent rope jams. This plate avoided the dangers of rope burn and, sometimes, the garment wrecking technique of wrapping the dead end of the rope around your arm and body. This device, linked with the rapidly rising performance of kernmantel ropes, made holding a fall much easier and, indeed, safer. The old rule that: ‘the ‘ leader must not fall’ was replaced step by step over several years by ‘the leader must fall to improve’. Today, in 2023, around 40 different belay devices exist.
In 1968 Hermann joined Pit Schubert of Germany, who set up the DAV safety commission (which eventually became the UIAA safety commission for all climbing PPE). Later, the specifications and standards set were auto-adopted as CEN. Today, we see CEN and UIAA stamped into our karabiners and other pieces.
The Salewa ‘Firngleiter’ was a very short (130cm) but rather wide ski which could be carried easily on a pack for a climb and then used for mountain descents on the alpine spring snow.
Personal footnote. I owe Herman a great debt because he introduced me to alpinism on the Sud West Grat of the Gerber Kreuz in the Mittenwald area. During this climb, my perspective of UK climbing suddenly widened. I saw climbing in a different light and began to develop my skills and joined climbing expeditions around the world. On every occasion when I was in Munich, we both snatched valuable time out to climb or ski together. I fell in love with this south Munich area and, with Hermanns’s help, bought a small house in Gaissach between Bad Tolz and Lengriess. I had no use for the attic/Speicher and gave this to Hermann, who created a small apartment with a room full of his memories and expedition artefacts. This room is visible in the pictures of a recent interview.
Here are some great memories: a nordic ski traverse along the Karwendel valley from Scharnitz to the Eng, with an unplanned overnight bivouac because we didn’t reach the Falkenhutte (which lies under the famous Lalidererwand). We had planned to go through to the Achensee, but the snow ran out. We had many short outings to make the 25km circuit of the Eng and also Jachenau. He initiated me into the nuances of nordic ski racing and waxing in the Oberammergau ski marathon at distances of 42km and 90km.
A ski ascent of the Hoch Gluck from the Eng. Accompanied also by Hans Lettenberger (the former Salewa manager) and Otto Wiedemann. Otto was an Austrian Guide, a one-time climbing partner of Reinhold Messner on the Eiger in 8 hrs, and the retail customer trainer for Salewa.
In exchange for these alpine experiences, we organised trips for Herman and later Otto to experience Scottish ice climbing with Alex McIntyre. Quote from Otto: ‘The Scottish route with Alex was for me better than the Eiger Nordwand’. Otto came to compete in the KIMM, the 2-day mountain marathon held in Arran in 1980 with Hans Engl (an Oxygen-free Everester). They both found the boggy terrain and technical navigation rather challenging. Nordic skiing, langlauf.