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Nicholas Corff - Personal Communication

Taped interview, 27 June 2001
by Lowell Skoog

I spoke on the phone briefly with Ruth Trott, Otto Trott's widow. Ruth said she gave Otto's mountain rescue records to the Mountain Rescue Council. She mentioned that Otto introduced the 12-point crampon and short, technical ice axe to the Northwest. He translated the German text on mountain rescue (roughly "Bergwacht") to English and it became internationally recognized. Otto was an expert on frostbite and represented the U.S. at mountain rescue meetings in Europe. I mentioned that I'd recently seen Dwight Watson's film of Otto and others climbing Mt Shuksan in 1939 (see dw-movies). Ruth spoke fondly of Dwight, and said that he and Otto kept in touch throughout their lives.

Ruth referred me to her son son-in-law, Nicholas Corff. Nicholas has Otto's autobiographical notes, and hopes to turn them into a book. Otto Trott was born in Berlin in 1911. His father was an art dealer and a lover of mountains. Otto had two sisters who lived in Europe all their lives. His father took him climbing for the first time when he was eight years old.

Background in Europe

Otto attended college in Freiburg and spent time in Innsbruck and Munich while completing his medical studies. The university at Freiburg was a center for skiers and climbers. A group of friends formed a "Club for an Agreeable Way of Living" and spent their free time skiing, climbing and carousing together. They rented a room in a farmhouse above Freiburg where they skied on weekends. An inexperienced friend was caught in an avalanche on one of their trips and Otto organized a search using probes. This was probably the first rescue he was involved in. His friend was not found. Otto's awareness of avalanche hazards was further heightened by an occasion when he ventured onto a slope, retreated, then watched the slope release.

In 1931, Otto served as an assistant ski mountaineering guide with Helmut Birkenstock on tours by Freiburg students. "Bi" was Otto's most important skiing mentor. Otto wrote, "Bi was an elegant and polished skier. From him I learned my preference for steep slope skiing." Otto learned to ski at a time when ski technique was moving from stem christie to parallel. Otto Stengle, head of the Department of Sport at the University of Freiburg, accepted Otto as a ski instructor. Otto came in contact with top German skiers of the period, including Max Pahl, university champion in 1936, and Christel Cranz, who went on to win Germany's first Olympic gold medal in skiing.

While studying in Innsbruck, Otto was a climbing assistant to Dr. Rudolf Leutelt, a geographer and guide with the German/Austrian Alpine Club. Leutelt trained Otto as a mountain guide. While in medical school in Munich, Otto climbed literally every weekend, including difficult rock climbs in the Kaiser Gebirge. He climbed in the Dolomites and in Switzerland. Nicolas Corff has a picture scrapbook with "page after page" of photos of the routes that Otto climbed. The Roseg Valley in the Bernina group was special place for him. Otto studied the technical mountaineering literature of the day, including Hazards in Mountaineering by Zsigmondy and Paulcke. He was once injured in the mountains, requiring assistance to get out, and the experience reinforced for him the danger of hypothermia and the need for preparedness.

In 1935-36, Otto passed his basic medical school exams in Munich. He had finished his studies, gotten his degree, and finished his internship. But the Nazi authorities would not grant him a license to practice medicine. Otto was part Jewish on his father's side. He did not practice the religion nor think of himself as Jewish, but he was persecuted for it nonetheless. Otto's parents were arrested by the Gestapo at one time. His mother was high Prussian, and they were released after a month or so.

Pre-war Mountaineering in the Northwest

In October 1937, Otto immigrated to the United States alone. He had to redo his medical residency at Syracuse, NY after immigrating. He paid for this in part by working as a ski instructor. He eventually travelled to the Northwest. On first seeing Mt Rainier in 1938 he wrote, "Tears came to my eyes. I had reached alpine country again."

Otto made an early friendship with Dwight Watson that lasted throughout their lives. Otto recorded his impressions of Watson, describing his consistent good humor and his ability to maintain an energetic monologue for hours while driving to the mountains. During a 1939 trip organized by Watson to make a climbing film, Otto was introduced to Mt Shuksan. The peak made a strong impression on him, reminding him of his beloved Piz Roseg. During the climb, Otto observed his companions, including Fred Beckey, Sigurd Hall and Andy Hennig, laboriously chopping steps on ice, even while wearing crampons. Nicholas showed me a memoir in which Otto recalled their conversation:

"What on earth are you doing?" asked Otto.

"Cutting steps. Don't you see it."


"So we don't slip. Isn't that obvious?"

"But you have crampons," Otto said.

"Certainly. So we have safe footing on the steps."

"Please," said Otto. "Wait a moment and watch me. I would like to show you something you do not seem to be familiar with."

Otto taught them the "Eckenstein technique" (flat-footing) which was well established in Europe. The rest of the party soon picked it up. Otto was attracted to the unclimbed northwest face of Mt Shuksan. He asked his friends, "Who climbs this face?" and they responded, "Nobody." Otto thought to invite Sigurd Hall to attempt it, but Andy Hennig, a recent immigrant from Salzburg, Austria, expressed interest in the climb first. Otto agreed to climb with him on the condition that he (Otto) would lead all the ice pitches and they would share the leading on rock. Two weeks later they climbed the Hanging Glacier route, probably the hardest alpine climb done in the Cascades before World War II.

Otto made the second ascent of the North Peak of Mt Index with Erick Larson in 1940, verifying that Lionel Chute had previously climbed the peak. Otto wrote that Chute was a member of the Yakima Cascadians. Otto introduced modern crampon techniques, short ice axes, ice pitons and other European developments to the Northwest starting in 1939. Nicholas feels (and I'm inclined to agree) that Otto was the most accomplished pre-war mountaineer in the Northwest, yet his contemporaries did not generally understand or appreciate this.

In late summer 1940, Otto climbed Mt Rainier with Virginia "Ginny" Hill. This was probably Otto's first climb of Rainier. They left skis at Camp Hazard and, according to Otto, made "a most basic and inexcusable mistake," leaving their sleeping bags in order to move faster through the Kautz icefall. They misjudged the length of the climb and Hill became sick at altitude. Due to their slow progress they were forced to bivouac in the summit crater. After descending to camp the next day they began skiing down the Wilson Glacier roped together. Otto wrote that both Dr. Leutelt and Helmut Birkenstock "had impressed on him that to ski on any glacier, even a small one, without a rope would be asking for trouble." Hill, who was using skis without steel edges, fell and started sliding toward a huge crevasse. Otto braced his skis across the fall-line and slid them back and forth to set the edges, then pulled in the rope with his hands and stopped Hill just short of the crevasse. He vowed, "Never, never will I ski with anyone who has skis without metal edges."

Otto and Virginia Hill considered marriage, but World War II changed everything. Hill became an army flier and Otto became a prisoner of war. Their relationship changed and they realized they had different aims in life. They kept in touch and sustained a close Platonic friendship until Otto died. Otto met and married his wife Ruth in the late 1940s. (Virginia Hill Wood later became a renowned bush pilot and conservationist in Alaska. She died in March 2013 at age 95.)

I mentioned to Nicholas my recent discovery of a Seattle P-I article describing Otto's 1941 ski ascent of Mt Shuksan. During our meeting, Nicholas was not able to find mention of this ascent in Otto's notes. Otto's partner on the ascent, Henry Reasoner, was head of the Mt Baker ski patrol before World War II.

In his autobiographical papers, I noticed a quote that seemed to convey much about Otto's mountaineering attitude. I forgot the author and have paraphrased it: "It is a great fate to live in the mountains. But it is a great stupidity to die in them."

World War II and Post-war Period

In January 1941, "Two serious and most polite gentlemen wanted to see me," Otto wrote. They were from the FBI. Otto had not yet lived in the country five years and he was not yet a U.S. citizen. A year later the men returned, "smiled politely and asked if I had any weapons," recalled Otto. "'Only a heavy machine gun under the bed!' was my answer." Nicholas said Otto was like that with authority figures right up to the end of his life.

In January 1942, Otto was arrested and interned as an enemy alien at Camp Forrest, Tennessee. He was the only doctor around, and he was called upon to look after the guards as well as the inmates. Many people were bitten by black widow spiders and there was no anti-venom available, so Otto developed his own serum. After his release from the camp, Otto joined the U.S. army as a private. The war ended before he could get his commission. He returned to Seattle and restarted his medical practice. Otto brought his parents to the U.S. immediately after the war. They had been starving in Germany. They stayed in this country for seven or eight years.

Otto did less technical climbing after the war than before, but his interest in mountains and mountaineering did not flag. Increasingly, he integrated his medical and mountaineering knowledge, writing papers on mountain medicine and hypothermia and co-founding the Mountain Rescue Council. Starting in the 1950s, Otto and his family had a cabin at Mt Baker ski area where they spent weekends. Otto was the official doctor on the mountain.

I asked Nicholas about Otto's reputation for both a broad sense of humor and for sternness. Nicholas felt that Otto was filled with a "deep angst" and that he used humor to conceal it. "The angst came from being at the top of his culture," said Nicholas, "being accepted. He was a young athlete, a good climber, a medical student. He had great friends. He was at the finest university. But all of a sudden he was rejected, entirely rejected by his country. He had completed his internship, his residency, it was all done. From about 1934 on, there was this increasing level of rejection and he couldn't see himself... He was not raised in a religious environment at all. His parents were not religious. He had no connection to his Jewish background at all, yet an increasing sense of doom hung heavier and heaver over his head."

After Otto came to the U.S. he experienced rejection again, being jailed during the war. Nicholas felt that Otto did everything he could to fit in, including joining the army after his release. He had to start from scratch after he returned to Seattle. "He desperately tried to belong by combining his love of mountains and his love of medicine with a group of fellows," said Nicholas.

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