Back to

Featured Column

Food & Drink



Activities & Recreation

Arts & Entertainment

Real Estate Services

Service Businesses

Professional Services


Building & Materials

Public Resources

Update Your Listing

by Susan E. B. Schwartz

In the tradition of gripping, true-life adventure tales comes the biography of Hans Kraus.

It is a story of remarkable guts, grit, and wit . . . camaraderie and celebrities . . . tragedy and humanity. . . and one man's determination to find meaning and make a difference, in the mountains and in medicine.


Hans Kraus was a legendary rock climber, known for hair-raising ascents on two continents. Few realized he was the same man considered one of the great unsung medical pioneers of the 20th century.

Making headline news throughout the second half of the 1950's, Kraus was guest of honor at Eisenhower's White House and the cover story of major magazines throughout America, including Sports Illustrated. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, through his pioneering work in muscles and fitness, Kraus uncovered a shocking truth about American children. And Kraus’ work curing back pain brought him into the Kennedy White House and inner circle of Camelot.

INTO THE UNKNOWN: THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF HANS KRAUS includes the never before told story of Kennedy's back, based on new documentation, including Kennedy's own White House back records and first time interviews with two Kennedy White House doctors. Kraus lived his life so fully and so fearlessly, another famous climber said of him, “His cojones were so big, he needed a bag to carry them in.”


"Into the unknown with a few small soft-iron pitons
and a hemp rope, boldness and big cojones."
Climbing author, Dick Williams, describing Hans Kraus in the mountains

"So far ahead of his time; it will take fifty years for others catch up."
White House doctor, Dr. Gene Cohen, describing Hans Kraus in medicine

"The Side of a Cliff, Two Hundred Feet above the Ground"
1965, Shawangunk Mountains, New York State

He was hanging there, in the air.

Air was everywhere. Above, below, ahead. To the left and right. Seemingly against logic, wherever he looked —hundreds of feet of sheer, open air. The wind whipped at his face, hawks swooped below his feet, and he felt serene and at peace.
At sixty, also seemingly against logic, he was very much in his prime. After all, how many men—of any age—could crank a one-arm pull-up or full split like he still could? Or climb such a fearsome, overhanging, exposed rock wall, such as the rock buttress from which he now dangled?

Steep and jutting sharply from the cliff, the buttress looked unscalable, unattainable; or, as the guidebook put it, like a journey "into the unknown." Perched on a hillside, to a climber dangling off its side, the buttress felt even higher than its footage, and colder, windier and wilder than anywhere else on the cliffs. And seemingly against logic, it offered complete exposure—air on four sides.

Experts warned: "Its ‘psychological grade’ is several notches harder than its climbing difficulty grade." What did they say, then, to the sixty-year-old man dangling from its side?

He had been the first, nearly a quarter of century ago, to scale the rock buttress—wearing sneakers, tied to a hemp rope little better than laundry line. Years passed before anyone else dared try. Even after climbers had specialized, safer gear, the buttress remained a climbing test piece, entitling bragging rights.

One climbing expert shook his head and marveled, "His cojones are so big, he needs a bag to carry them in." The man’s reputation continued to grow with the years. When climbers spotted him on the hiking trail below the cliffs, they murmured and pointed in excitement.

"There he goes, that’s him."
"Is it? Are you sure?"
"Yes, yes, see!"
They looked closer.
"It is! It is!"
"That’s Hans Kraus!"

Yet climbing was just one part of Kraus’ remarkable story. During the week, Hans Kraus led a separate, equally remarkable life outside the mountains, pushing into other unknown territory.

Twenty-nine years later, it was 1994, and I was recently elected to the American Alpine Club Board of Directors and wrote regularly for adventure magazines. When the climbing magazine Rock+Ice asked me to feature Hans Kraus (1905-1996), I was thrilled.

A Shawangunks climber myself, I knew that the 5’6" Kraus was a giant in the sport of rock climbing; first in his native Dolomites in Italy, then, after moving to the U.S. in 1938, in the world famous Shawangunk Mountains of New York. What I did not know was that Kraus was also a giant outside of the mountains as well.

In 1963, Time Magazine had compared Kraus to three towering scientific luminaries who changed human existence forever—the inventors of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, and the inventor of the smallpox vaccine, Edward Jenner. So what was Kraus’ remarkable medical breakthrough?

The answer is startlingly simple: Exercise!

It was Kraus, based on his landmark research during the 1940’s at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, who first linked exercise and health. Exercise, he would explain to dubious audiences, plays a crucial role in almost all aspects of health. Lack of exercise causes many diseases, he would warn, citing obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, depression, diabetes, back pain, and many cancers. Exercise even cures some of these diseases, he would continue to skeptical looks, occasional guffaws, sometimes outright laughter.

Kraus also sadly predicted the current U.S. health crisis—epidemic obesity, which is poised in 2005 to replace smoking as the leading cause of preventable death and to shrink the U.S. population lifespan for the first time in 200 years.

In the 1950’s, Kraus created sensation, controversy, and headlines, as he exhorted Americans to exercise. While Kraus is largely unknown to Americans today—except for thousands and thousands of adoring former patients and fellow climbers—in his day, Kraus was big news. When President Eisenhower invited Kraus to the White House in 1955, the event was covered by the major newspapers and magazines. (Sports Illustrated, for instance, ran a feature article, separate cover story, and two-page photographic spread). Throughout the rest of the decade, Kraus and his fitness campaign were front page news—even the Sports Illustrated cover of August 1957.

Yet not only did Americans resist Kraus’ exercise message — painfully clear today—amazingly, many declared themselves insulted. Some even went as far as to call Kraus a Nazi! (Ironic, considering that the Trieste-born Kraus was part Jewish, and fled the Nazis for New York.)

But until Kraus retired at age 89, his practice boomed. Kraus treated many for free, as well as a blue chip roster of Nobel scientists, Olympic athletes, royalty, millionaires, movie stars, and U.S. presidents, like John F. Kennedy. In fact, the complete story of Kennedy’s back has never before been told, since Kraus had never previously allowed his White House medical records on Kennedy to be seen.

While researching the Rock+ Ice article, I realized that a 3,000-word magazine piece could never capture Hans Kraus’ complex and remarkable life. I vowed to write it as a book. My motivation, as readers will see in the book’s epilogue, was as much personal as literary. But first I had to make sense of Kraus’ seemingly two distinct lives in the mountains and medicine.
In the course of the ten years of researching and writing this book, I came to see that they were, in fact, two halves of a seamless whole. The glue was a searing boyhood tragedy when Kraus was sixteen years old. From it, he drew the strength to face his wealthy, domineering father, define meaning in his life, and live life on his own terms.

Pushing into the unknown, both in the mountains and in medicine, was Kraus’ way of making sense of what had happened and dealing with his lifelong guilt: In the mountains, the physical and emotional commitment of hard climbing brought Kraus numbing relief from his emotional pain. In medicine, the satisfaction of healing others’ physical pain brought him the closest he knew he could ever come to finding something like atonement and redemption.

When Hans Kraus set off at age ninety, on that last, ultimate journey into the unknown, he died a fulfilled man, in his own bed, surrounded by his family and wife of thirty-eight years, at peace, in control, knowing he touched the lives of thousands and thousands and thousands of people for the better.

Throughout it all, he never lost his trademark wit, verve, passion, or sense of purpose. Or his youthful zest of meeting challenges head-on, chin-up, eye-to-eye, with dignity and unswerving honesty. Hans Kraus led a remarkable life, and he did it with a remarkable soul.

Not to mention that bag of remarkable cojones.
Click here to buy the book!
There will be a slideshow at Rock and Snow, Sept 10. 8pm. 845-255-1311