Never Too Late To Learn

Words by Joh Duvall 

“My dad still says I’m not a climber because you have to start at a very early age.”

Soon to turn 51, these are words that Wolf Riehle has clearly not taken to heart. The German-born Ketchum resident began his high-altitude adventures less than a decade ago, and in that span has traveled the world to stand on some of its most prominent peaks.

But it’s not the accomplishment of standing on the summit, or having the stories to go with it, that drive Wolf up the steep slopes in adverse conditions, even after losing a portion of two fingers to the elements.

“It’s about the places and the raw feelings you take home. That’s what really counts—everything else is so fleeting,” Wolf says. “Overall, having found a passion you can follow is the greatest gift.”

Regardless of that passion, Wolf readily admits that his father’s words do carry a certain wisdom, noting that unlike athletes who grow up mountaineering, he has to work especially hard to develop the necessary intuition and skill, which will likely never become second nature as if he had been raised in the mountains.
Without knowing his personality and given his background, one could be excused for finding his relatively newfound interest curious, to say the least.

Born in Suttgart, Germany, in the early ‘60s, Wolf’s life was never permeated by the mountains, other than a few vacations to the Dolomites and Alps, and even then, the peaks were more of an abstract thought than a future goal.

This began to change when he moved to Ketchum in 1997 with his wife, Feli, and son, Fynn, and came into contact with climbing culture. This was actually his second trip to Ketchum, the first was when the couple traveled to the Wood River Valley in 1990 to get married, a choice inspired by their coffee table book by local photographer David Stoecklein.

“I really loved those romantic images and talked to the Sun Valley mayor [JoAnne Levy], who only agreed to marry us if we did it outside, which is totally foreign to Germans,” Wolf says with a laugh. “It only took me two to three days to fall in love with this place, mostly because of the people, who were so laid back and friendly.”

Even after relocating, it took years before he headed up into the thin air. After spending two years getting an MBA at Boise State University, the former marketing executive for a European cigarette company purchased Big Wood Bread in 1999, which he owned and operated until he sold it in 2008.

In that time he began paragliding on Bald Mountain, a sport that eventually took him to the Argentine foothills of the Andes where he saw for the first time the South Face of Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America and one of the Seven Summits, standing at nearly 23,000 feet.

After a little research, Wolf signed up to climb that illustrious mountain in 2005, showing up to find seven other team members with climbing resumes that included numerous 8,000-meter peaks such as Everest and Denali.

“And here I was saying, ‘I’m a baker boy from Ketchum and have climbed Baldy many times!’” Wolf says. “It was one of the toughest things I have ever done. It was snowing and windy—a total whiteout—and in my naiveté, when five turned around, I decided to continue, and luckily at the crux the weather broke and we found ourselves on the summit all alone. I felt like I was drowning because of the altitude, but it was so overwhelming and gratifying, never mind the discomforts. I decided then that I would like to pursue climbing more.”

And that he did. The following year he climbed Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world at nearly 27,000 feet, an trip that introduced him to Himalayan climbing, the politics of an expedition base camp, and the effects of high-altitude sickness from the lack of oxygen.

But despite the risks, the concern of his family, and the long duration of being away from home without regular contact, Wolf was hooked. “I caught high-altitude fever and thought I could handle it,” he laughs.

That fever led him back to the Andes, this time to the Cordillera Blanca in Peru to increase his technical skill on higher and more difficult terrain, beginning soon thereafter to add rock and ice climbing to his skill set.

This quickly led to a desire to combine his high-altitude and technical experience into a single climb, encapsulated by Ama Dablam, one of the most arresting Himalayan peaks, standing at 22,493 feet with some technical terrain not found on even some of the highest summits.

“I thought it was a natural progression,” Wolf says. “I thought I wasn’t over my head in terms of strength and experience, but it showed my inexperience. When I set out for the summit, I underestimated the weather—it was a bluebird day, the previous day had been mild, so I didn’t think I needed my burly gloves and big puffy jacket. But then it happened. We were on the face and exposed to ferocious winds, and I was with basically ski gloves that I had never tested.”

Despite treating his fingers that had turned a waxy white then blue back in Kathmandu, the end result was losing half of the last two fingers on his right hand one month later when he returned home.

“It felt like the expedition was a failure despite our summit success,” Wolf says. “And I had adjustment problems—not to mention the issue of aesthetics. But what really changed everything is I went to the Y and climbed and climbed and climbed to get more strength and flexibility in stubs. In fact, I completely overcompensated to get tremendous strength in remaining parts of my fingers.

“However, what remained was fear that it would happen again, so I stayed away from high altitude and did fantastic climbs in the Dolomites and the Alps. This was a milestone for me since I’m European and able to go back and climb in the cradle of mountaineering.”

It took three years before Wolf felt enough courage to take on something more extreme, this time heading into some of the most inhospitable environs on the planet, Antarctica and its highest point, Mount Vinson. The five-week trip included a successful summit and skiing 120 kilometers to the South Pole.

“Of all the wonderful places I’ve visited, that was the most impressive expedition and experience. You are pulling a sled at 10,000 feet, because that’s how thick the ice is, and it stretches as far as the eye can see and as much as your mind can imagine. It was a spiritual experience.”

While Wolf is now spending his time improving his rock climbing and doesn’t have a clear goal for what’s next, he says Makalu, one of the hardest 8,000-meter peaks, is especially appealing due to its beauty and the fact that it’s in a less-traveled region of Nepal.

What’s certain is that his drive remains, surely to lead to other notable adventures.

“What’s driving it? There’s a tremendous curiosity and urge to enter this world of simplicity, yet tremendous focus. A world that can be heaven and hell at the same time. Your senses are addressed and shortened, and you have to be as present as you can be and all that matters are those nine cubic feet in front of you. You have to be so aware it’s phenomenal.”