Desert In The Sky
An Account of climbing the Eiger West-Flank
Intended Route: Photo courtesy of Mark Hallam
On arriving at the access window on the Northwest side of the Eiger, I turned the latched handles simultaneously. The steel access door burst open blowing me almost head over heels! A huge volume of air rushed outwards pressurised by the upward moving train within the tunnel. I stood there watching as the train moved along slowly, wondering how bizarre it must look for the passengers eyeing me peering towards them at such an obscure and inconvenient location.
At the summit of the Rockstock (2663m) I dumped my sack on the deck and sat marvelling at the incredible views. With pristine clear blue sky’s I scoured the opposite face for my intended route. After many months in the planning it all finally lay before me!
The Eiger West flank, Charles Barrington Route!
I entered the Col linking the Rockstock with the Eiger . Making my way up the scree infested slopes. Zig zagging along the faint tracks I eventually reached the large tongue of snow that formed the first part of the Barrington Gully.
Access Window on Rockstock
The voice echoed from my side. I turned slowly to see a lightly equipped female traversing with great speed towards me.
“Hello” I replied
She skidded to a halt inquiring.. “Where are you climbing today?”
I explained my plans as best as possible in the hope of some positive beta in return.
She looked at me and dispensed of any small talk “The rock is too wet, the snow is too soft. It’s too dangerous at the moment,maybe better to try tomorrow!”
I made my excuses and thanked her for the opinion …
“Well I’ll take my chances and see how it goes. Thank's all the same!”
She smiled with perceived admiration.
”Ok good climbing. Oh!.. And be careful!”
She skipped off down the moraine towards the station with great skill, moving fast and light like a seasoned fell runner. I wasn’t going to let the seed of doubt nurture within me. I turned back upwards and pushed for the gully.
Donning crampons I pulled an axe from my sack, the snow was surprisingly firm considering the informal warnings and the morning sun was radiating full force from above the Monch. There were sights and sounds of excessive melt water all around.
Not just 2 days earlier there had been a good dump of light snow along the range and now it was beginning to give way yet again to the summer sun.
I reached the corner of Barrington’s Gully and found the snow slope almost as high as the buttress. The huge ice form arched at the edges like a shoulder, making transition to the rock face more than just a leap of faith. I looked further upwards and it appeared the slope cambered around the corner and almost touched the rock. It looked an ideal platform to mount the face.
I walked inside the gully along the buttress examining the huge slope whose shoulders now towered above me. A large van sized crevasse came into view as I rounded the corner. It’s position was right underneath the area I wanted to use to gain access to the face. I peered into the crevasse and shuddered to see how hollow the snow slope had become. Ice & melt water gushed a full torrent directly through the guts of the slope and dropped to a depth of approximately 30ft and then into unknown chasm beyond? Suddenly the platform didn’t look quite so appealing, if anything suicidal. I gazed in awe for some time at this phenomenon. After a while of reflection I turned to seek another access!
I tracked back along the dry alleyway that divided the rock face from the snow gully, eventually coming to a sharp corner where a strategic length of red static rope lay anchored from the top. The rope seemed new and well placed as I pulled, hung and tested its strength and durability. The 30ft climb was on inverted rock and would require some form of Jumar or Prussic to gain the top. Without the aid of Jumars and a dislike of using Prussics I decided I would hand climb the short distance freehand?
I threw off my sack and crampons and clipped them in to the end of the excess rope in the hope of hauling the load upwards later. I took an ice axe and mounted the snow shoulder to just below the peak. Without crampons I felt twitchy and vulnerable. I kicked into the snow trying to get a better footing. Reaching out with the axe I hooked the rope, pulling it tight towards my chest where I snapped a carabineer to the axe and let it slide down on top of the sack. I breathed deeply, focusing on where my feet would land once I executed the Tarzan swing. I knew I would need to move quickly and forcefully before any lactic acid built up in my arms. With this in mind I launched off the slope and planted my feet sweetly on the rock, Swinging briefly to the right I managed to re-gain balance. After a moment of composure I pumped quickly for the top, my hands burned and smarted on the 10mm rope. Reaching the top and gasping for air I looked at the rope indents branded within my hands. I watched intrigued as the bloodless white dissolved back to its usual pinkish hue! With the sack haul complete and time to spare I sat peering out over the valley.
The Lauberhorn, Monch, and Jungfrau immaculately lay abound me!......I was now on the Eiger for real!!
I followed the Cairns up to the top of the buttress without incident. Continuing to hop up and down large steps. After a while I eventually entered some level ground around 3010m. This was the promised bivvy area!
The bivvy was a creative construction of wooden planks bedded onto a flat piece of rock with a dry stonewall 1 foot high surrounding 3 sides of the base. I cleared a 5-inch blanket of snow from the boards and piled it to one corner so as to melt for cooking and drinking at any time I required a water top up.
Some years earlier I had befriended an experienced alpinist.
Robert Thornton's website “ Alliance of solo alpinists
“ was a trove of information and knowledge with the aim of helping solo climbers to maximise their experiences when tackling great routes in the Alps and beyond. Knowing Robert had soloed the Eiger many times, including some of the harder routes,
I began to press him on the idea of myself doing the easier Barrington route and it’s pros and cons against the other routes on the Eiger.
One of the big issues detailed to me was the lack of ice and availability of water during a summer ascent. Apart from hauling litres of water in your pack it was more efficient to carry a little water and extra fuel to melt what water you required. This was always pending on conditions and if there was enough ice available or close to the bivvy area…. My luck was in!
It was still early in the day and things were going well. After making a quick brew, I decided to scout for a little hidey hole to store my excess gear the following morning when I push for the summit!
The plan was to leave as much equipment near to the bivvy area as possible, making travel to the summit as light as possible and retrieve the bag on the way down. With an ideal alcove found not 30 yards from my new base I decided to probe a little further to see what the first part of my morning ascent would feel like. The route looked simplistic up to the Kanzeli (Mushroom shaped rock favourable with base jumpers). After doing reconnaissance I was feeling confident of starting in the dark well before the sun rose.
Barringtons Gully - Crevasse
For now, the sun was still hung high in the sky and the Westflank was alive with the noise of running water and cracking ice. I sat comfortable for some time enjoying the evening sunshine and exquisite vistas. I stuck my mug under a stream of water running down the rocks next to 2 newly placed bolts. I remember thinking how unfortunate other climbers had been years previous with such dry seasons. The mug filled instantly and I smiled at the blessing of water.
By late afternoon the sun was floundering and I lay down on my matt to eat, I watched with intrigue as two Swiss Hornet jets flew back and forth and then disappear as quickly as they had arrived. The clouds were thickening and at times I lost all vision of the high points and their approach. My concerns were little as the forecast for tomorrow was good! After a quick brew I clipped my self in and drifted off into a content sleep!
At some unknown period in the night I broke from my slumber. Lying on my back I looked up mesmerised by the clear night sky, Satellites moved across the canvas skyline, meteors flashed through the canopy and the stars gave a picture like those you see only in movies. At one point I heard what seemed like voices, it wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this unusual phenomena. I rolled my head back expecting to see approaching head torches, but I knew the voices weren’t there and I shut my eyes in the hope of drifting back to sleep.
Crunch!..... The Eiger vibrated as a huge serac not to far away gave way to gravity.
I sat up quickly peering into the precipice before me. My bivvy bag crackled as I rose. It was frozen solid and my whole bivvy area was in deep freeze. My feet had been cool for some time, but now they were feeling uncomfortably cold. I wrestled out of my sleeping bag and put each foot into a spare dry bag, it wasn’t long before my feet sweated up and the warmth returned. The breeze had increased and compounded the feeling of coldness. I pulled my neck scarf up around my ears and zipped my quilted jacket up around my chin. I instantly felt warmer and tried to force another sleep….but never really succeeded!
I stowed all unwanted gear in my Bergen liner and tied the cord at the top with a double knot, pulling extra hard in the hope it would deter any curious alpinists from snaffling my gear whilst I tried for the Toposummit. It seems incredulous to think that you would get some scaly popping up the Eiger in the off chance of grabbing some free booty, but no matter how stupid I always told myself I was behaving irrational I always continued to be cautious. Quality cold weather gear, coats, bags, mats, stoves & accessories all come at a very high price. I placed a polite note written in English, German and French informing of my summit bid.
Throwing the rucksack on my back, it felt featherlite compared to the previous days haul. Rope, ice Axes, Pitons, ice screws, Crampons and a few other bits of protection made up the sum total of my summit pack.
It hadn’t occurred to me until now but the face seemed eerily quiet compared to the evening before. The sound of running water had ceased and a world of static ice had taken its place. Knowing how the sun arched across the face I knew the ice would give me much needed water later in the day. I unscrewed the top off my large Nalgene bottle and topped up my day drink. The remaining water I drank before I trundled off towards the hidy hole I’d found the previous day. Standing before the mini cave I could see a vast amount of verglass ice had formed far and wide across the face. The route to the alcove was guarded by a maze of black ice streaks. On further inspection the whole face appeared to be a puzzle of either dry rock or treacherously thin ice.
I searched around looking for an alternate route, any route!
A dry line veering far to the right took my eye. I carried the full dry bag with excess gear along for maybe some 100m before finding another suitable hidy hole. I dropped the bag in its place and popped the written letter of intent in a plastic sealable bag and zip tied it to the pull cord.
Gingerly I began to climb between the ice lines. Dark black menacing streaks wove indiscriminately about the face halting me on more than one occasion. Finally giving in I threw the pack off my back and laced up my crampons. I placed my foot on the verglass ice and it bonded in well. I moved leisurely …for a while my confidence grew. It wasn’t long though before I entered some acute sloping dripping strata and I yet again reverted to being ultra cautious and twitchy.
Heading towards the intended route I paced slowly along the ledges and lips. Every now and again the Formica thin ice shattered and my crampons skated violently from underneath me. I found myself more frequently doing the splits and other contortions the further I proceeded.
Stopping to check my position, I looked up and noticed I was still way off the planned route. Not making much progress and the thought of tearing a muscle, or worse still taking a fall I decided to ditch the ice gear back to the Rucksack. After sometime I made my way around to the Kenzeli and looked back at my original intended route towards the bivvy. It was a simple route that had been made quite elaborately exhaustive by the early morning ice.
Sitting next to the iconic mushroom I took the Topo guide from my jacket pocket and studied the next leg of the climb.
The Westflank route itself was not as popularly documented as were other routes on the Eiger. Back home I could only find one description of the Barrington route. The Topo was quite excellent and very well detailed. The original author
had climbed the route placing sticks with red ribbons along the way to aid with his descent. His trip was very well planned out and became a great inspiration towards my own goal of the summit.
The route appeared to take on a steeper feel and I headed for the large snow field at around 3450m. The verglass still played havoc in trying to find any way markers or pitons described within in the Topo. In fact, since leaving the bivvy I hadn’t seen one Cairn, Piton or Red stick marker. Unconcerned I crossed the main Gully and moved up towards the snow field. It wasn’t long before the ice bullied me into some steeper ground on the opposite intended part of the snow field. Overlooking the huge bergschrund between the Eiger and the Monch, I realised I needed to start to make moves further leftwards. Before long I was edging towards a steep and not far from vertical section of rock. Not great in length but still requiring some skill to cross I edged committingly along the rock face. Cheek firmly pressed against the rock I teetered slowly towards safer ground. I paused at what I considered to be the crux of the pitch. Breathing heavily and trying to get a feel of how much steeper the passage was becoming I felt my left leg begin to shake uncontrollably. A sign of body stress and requiring some form of action before all my energy sapped away. I spread my fingers and flattened my palms against the rock. I wriggled my toes in my left boot towards the safer ground. Afraid to take any actual steps I moved centimetre by centimetre until the grade eased and I finally rested without compromise.
Looking downward far in the distance towards the bivvy where my day had began I noticed 2 Alpinists checking the makeshift sleeping area, Possibly for a summit bid the following day. The bivvy area now looked a minuscule postage stamp sized patch and I marvelled at the bleakness of the rock formations below.
After berating myself of the previous awkward situation I took out my water bottle and quenched my thirst. I drank liberally topping up my bottle with melt water as I moved towards the snowfield. The sun was covering the face now and the ice was letting loose it’s grip!
Still on the right hand side of the snowfield I donned my crampons and moved into a rock garden filled with random pockets of deep powdery snow. I moved through the rocks with ease and for the first time during the day I was enjoying my situation. Only for a short while later I felt my bladder feeling full and the urge to urinate. At a comfortable stance I hammered a piton into the rock and front pointed hard into the snow. I loosened my buckle and wriggled my harness over my hips. Unable to get my over trousers down far enough to extract myself and the bib and brace trousers hindering me badly, I grew more desperate I cursed loudly. I planted my axes and ripped at the Velcro without due care, jigging like a schoolboy I managed at the last second to relieve myself outside of my base layer. The stained snow looked very dark yellow, almost brown …I knew I was dehydrated!
I shook my bottle and sucked away listening to the air whistling through the top lid.. Pulling the drinks holder and sling around to the front of my body I struggled to push the bottle into its neoprene holder. I loosened the Velcro strap which secured the bottle whilst in transit and at that very moment my world seem to fall away from me!
The snow stance gave way and I dropped. Sliding like a guillotine I lurched for my axes, which also followed me in the downward motion. Suddenly and mercifully I shuddered to a stop. My crampons bit onto something hard and the daisy chain yanked hard against the piton. The slide must have been only 3ft at most, but enough to raise my terror alert and I felt my heart pounding, requiring me to gasp for air.
Looking over the North-Face
After a short while of reconciliation and rest I continued upwards. Things improved and I settled into a nice rhythm of plodding, resting then plodding again. Resting below one of the large spurs I was startled momentarily as a man blazed straight through my path, startling me! Wearing only boots minus crampons he showed all the signs and confidence of someone who knew the face very well. Some metres back I saw his partner, looking not so fresh and wearing crampons with a grimace that suggested he was suffering to keep pace! I acknowledged them briefly and deduced this was a guide with his client who had traversed the summit from the Mettilligli side of the Eiger earlier that morning.
Continuing to plod towards point 3668m I heard a Swiss Mountain Rescue Helicopter buzzing actively below me. I sat watching for a time but the suns rays were beaming down on my face and I felt the acrid stinging sensation of sweat in my eyes. Rubbing them only increased the feeling of discomfort but as always seemed the natural thing to do. After looking up to check my progress I felt my vision whirl and my head thicken momentarily. I cranked my neck forward and looked down towards my feet. The sensation subsided. (I had not acclimatised since driving from the UK and with limited time I'de picked the first good spell of weather to bag the summit)
I stripped off my soft shell jacket and stuffed it into my sack. It felt good and refreshingly cooler. Reaching around to grab my water bottle I fumbled as the straps on my sack and harness intertwined. After a degree of fumbling I decided to visually check to see why I couldn’t reach the bottle. I glanced at the neoprene bottle holder. The glance turned to a stare. It was empty and my water bottle was gone!
Resting at point 3668m I pondering my situation briefly. I felt thirsty, but the target of climbing the next leg took prime concern. The unknown steepness of the ascent, black rock, laced with ice and snow now took on a more menacing direction. My heightened mental awareness was now in overdrive as I teetered whilst picking away slowly with my axes along the lip of the steep West Ridge. Looking 1 mile straight down the North face into the boiling clouds my stomach danced. The exposure was extreme and the huge sense of mass that the Eiger exuded weighed heavily on my consciousness.
Eventually after traversing slightly away from the ridge the uneasy gnawing feeling of the North face subsided. Still on equally steep ground I hunted around with axes for good placements. The snow was shallow, soft and felt gritty underneath. Placing protection was not an option. I plodded with heavy legs towards the false summit. A cluster of protruding large rocks choked with ice and snow, each section linked with vertical shallow smooth gullies.
My head thumped again as I looked up towards the false summit
I plucked a golf ball size piece of snow and rubbed it around my lips. I threw the remainder in my mouth and sucked the sorbet until it melted.
Doing little to quench my thirst I continued the next leg of the climb. I had reached as far as my Topo was detailed. Any climbing from now was all of my own judgment. It seemed laughable that I should be concerned when the whole day up to this point had been anything but per-se!
Looking back from 3820m
Arriving at the false summit (3820m) the gradient cambered towards a good belay stance. Without a partner I considered my options on the steep vertical gully which barred my way to the final summit snow slope. A chink of light glistened about 30ft up the gully and I spotted what looked like a new bolt? This would be my lifeline. Smashing my axe in just above head height, I carefully pulled and checked it’s worth. Happy with the placement I heaved myself up and kicked hard with the crampons. Continuing upwards I reached a bare section of rock. I slammed again with my axe, but the blade ricocheted with a high-pitched note. I tried again and again equally unsuccessful each time. Arms pumped and my breathing off scale I desperately stretched with the axe. Holding the very tip of the axe handle I managed to expose some softer ground. Scratching with the other axe I managed a marginal placement and pulled towards the clip. I threw my right sided axe into the bolt loop and felt a wave panic loose its grip from my body.
I cursed yet again at the severity of the climbing. It was an easy grade 3 at most but the altitude and my waning strength compounded the difficulty.
I held on to the biner and sling for a short time until my breathing was controlled and I eventually felt good to go again.
Looking down I noticed that the point at 3668m was now coming under attack with thick fast moving clouds. One minute it was there and then suddenly it vanished from sight!
Picking through the perilous rock section was slow and committing. Aware of the lapse of time and deteriorating weather I decided against all common sense and continued to climb. Thirsty and against the clock I ditched the idea of any self-belaying. Heaving my way up the rock face I caught a glimpse of the summit and my spirits and energy lifted.
The bright blue sky created a stunning backdrop for the summit as I exited the final rock section. Now on the final slopes and buoyed by my new enthusiasm I began to kick harder. Taking far fewer rests and pushing into the red I pulled myself forward.
Looking up my head pounded once more and my craving for water hit me like a train. Shovelling snow into my mouth I chewed uncomfortably and felt my throat tighten as I swallowed. As the tightness and pain intensified I spat out the remainder. Grabbing my axes and delirious with summit fever I dragged myself towards the summit.
At first it was calming and cooling against the body. Intensely overheating I welcomed the cooling with great relief.
It was only when I broke from my trance that I noticed the clouds were enveloping around me and pushing fast towards the summit. I halted and looked down at the swirling mass of grey cloud shifting quickly upwards, collapsing ominously over into North face as it moved.
With a grimace and concern I continued. Suddenly the view ahead disappeared and every corner of my vision became blank and white. I clung on motionless pondering my situation.
Anxious to be back at the Bivvy before dark, the thought of possibly spending a night without warm weather kit or water and my raging thirst all started to prey upon my mind. At this point even in touching distance all my hopes of making the summit were dwindling quickly! Eventually after a while of stalling a hole appeared in the clouds and gave me glimpse of the summit. With the altimeter reading 3920m I dropped my head and continued upwards.
Amazingly after about 10 minuets I climbed back out from the clouds. With a short distance between the summit and myself I began counting my steps in blocks of tens until eventually I pulled myself onto the summit.
Feeling tired but thankful, I began to savour my moment. At this point all my anxieties about the descent, time, water and deteriorating weather evaporated from my mind. I sat devoid of any feelings apart from gratitude and contentment!
I tried to memorise the vision which lay before me, a panoramic Alpine view! 360o of contrasting snow, rock and meadow which filled me with a joyful emotion!
The moment ceased as an intimidating amount of cloud quickly hugged around the summit and myself. Immediately my anxieties and thirst returned. Sliding lethargically towards the edge I bellied down and began to make my descent.
Good snow and a brief clearing of cloud made enjoyable work of the pitches towards the rock garden. Moving off the rock and back onto the snow slope I spied the 2 Alpinists making a push from 3680m up towards my location. Hanging back rather impatiently I watched as they traced my earlier footsteps, eventually ascending almost directly under my feet.
Summit 3970mThe Descent
Joining me on the ledge at (3820m) we acknowledged our newfound company with a handshake. Congratulating each other on our efforts they informed me that they had arrived from Slovenia just 2 days earlier. Sleeping at the Eigergletscher station they had set off just before sunrise in the hope of returning from the summit to the station the same day?
I gave them as much info as possible regards the next rock pitch and a rough timescale to the summit. Undeterred they set about building their belay for the route that lay before them.
I had my concerns for the Slovenians, the lateness of the day, the deteriorating weather and the ever-dwindling light. Without conveying these fears to them I moved out onto the steep snow slope heading towards 3680m.
Not long into the descent of the slope I heard a shout of alarm!
I looked up and saw a large football size piece of ice sliding at speed right towards my location. Unconcerned and rather amused I widened my stance hoping of letting the ice slide between my legs. But some 20m away the ice block kicked upwards and began to menacingly spin at about chest height with increased velocity. Quickly tipping my head forwards I held out my axe and braced myself. Fearing the full impact I peered attentively from under the lid of my helmet. Heavily on the wrist the ice struck the bridge of the axe and it was with great relief when it disintegrating into many pieces.
I looked upwards towards the Slovenians, without contempt and an exchange of signals and farewells I watched until they turned the corner of the pitch ahead of them!
With the cloud moving quickly and randomly between myself and the summit I once more felt alone on the Eiger! My thirst began to gnaw away at me yet again.
As I crouched looking directly over the North Face I could see my efforts from earlier in the day. My crampon marks stabbed into the snow and leading off towards the Southwest. In the knowledgement that I had been off route for most of the ascent I now had an option open up before me?
A new set of footprints followed by a set of crampon markings (Swiss Guide & Client) veered from my original ascent trail and descended downwards tight against the Westflank. Filled with a new excitement but a good amount of doubt I hacked quickly along the face and down towards bare rock. The clouds parted briefly and I spotted a red steel Piton embedded just in the distance. I removed my crampons and began the descent of the black dry rock. It was with relief as I arrived at red Piton. For this was the true ascent/descent route that I had read & re-read about for many months prior to my visit on the Eiger.
Whipping my pack off I unraveled my rope and set about abseiling the route towards the next red peg. The clouds continued to come thicker and quicker. They parted briefly, showing the way across the face. I moved downwards with good speed and after rappelling 2 more pitches I arrived at the snow field.
The weather had now turned grim. Grey cloud, zero visibility and the odd snow flurry added towards my ever growing anxiety. I was desperate to get to the bivvy area to retrieve all my warm weather clothing, food and more importantly take a drink from the snow melt which ran close to the bivvy ledge.
I traversed slowly downwards on the snow field. guessing and hoping of bumping into another red steel peg. I sucked and padded the dry powder snow around my lips. The burning was intense and just infuriated my thirst even more!
Eventually I came to a deep gully with steep walls giving little in the way of passage. I knew the gully from the Topo. This at least gave me a piece of joy that I was on the correct route, however somewhat too far down the face to make a safe crossing. With
Slovenians making progress 3880m
heavy heart I tracked back upwards following the gully. After making what was considered good progress on the descent I now felt demoralised and somewhat desperate having to ascend yet again!
After about 20 minutes trudging and sweating I noticed the remains of some snow prints daubed on a rock. On further inspection I found crampon scratches accompanying them.
I tracked the markings down into the thick cloud filled gully. After a very short descent the gradient cambered out and began to take on more of the usual terrain. At about 45o the rock bands felt appealing compared to the previous last few hours. I down climbed diagonally across the face towards the West Ridge until arriving at a large boulder bound with a big sling wrapped around its girth. Unsure of where to abseil I rested a while and made judgment. The sweat cooled on my back and I felt the cold cut like a knife.
Eventually a small hole burst open in the clouds. I felt a small haze of weak sunlight bounce across my face and for a brief moment I managed to take a heart warming glimpse of the pastures in the valley beyond, but more importantly I spied a red flag topping a cane standing proud down on the face below. Further to the right a white marker pointed to the line of the bivvy site.
At about 19.00hrs I stumbled deliriously towards the bivvy area. My body & mind fraught with the exertions of the day and more overly the lack of water.
My sensations were further heightened in the knowledge that the mountain stream wasn’t too far away. On the approach I stopped to collect my stowed bag with all its essentials. I ripped the sealed note from the drawstring and stuffed it inside my jacket. Rummaging inside the bag I pulled the empty Nalgene bottle from its holder and moved towards the bivvy stream. My pace quickened with excitement and anticipation as the square silhouette of the bivvy drew closer.
Throwing my pack off I stood stunned and bewildered. Unwilling to comprehend what was once a raging water course had now eroded into a chalky dust stain on the rock and not a drop of water to be seen!
The sound of water trickling through the rocks deep below me frustrated the situation further. I hunted fervently within the vicinity but the water refused to give up its location.
With an air of desperation I mulled for a while on the idea of down climbing all the way to the base station. The light was almost gone and I knew the route to be treacherous.
The lower rock bands weren’t as steep as they are high on up but the very nature of the rock in which its formed makes navigating the descent dangerous at best but lethal at night! The dipping outward strata covered in splintered Eiger shale was once eloquently described as “A huge tiled roof covered in a layer of ball bearings”
After dismissing the idea of returning to the Eigerscheler station and the ever growing need to re-hydrate I flicked on my head torch and set off on the hunt for water.
After traversing the near by ledge the sound of water grew more intense. The trickling noise became more of a cascading flow. I moved further and further across the face. Every time I rounded a corner I expected to see torrents of water flowing abound. The disappointment of seeing even more dry rock cannot be put into words and the whole scenario began to take on a cruel and spiteful nature!
This same theme continued for some time until eventually I felt my hands feel cold and noticed I was standing on black damp rock. I fell to my knees and pressed my lips tight to the rock and sucked with desperation. A sharp taste of sulphur made me withdraw my mouth and I coughed as an acrid taste of grit hit the back of my throat.
A black ominous void lay a few yards before me. Difficult to make sense of it’s structure even with the head torch on full power I moved in closer pushing through the thick mist, drawn in once again by the noise of moving water. The ground dropped away before me and faded into a dark formless space.
It appeared I had reached Barrington’s gully. With it’s steep walls and deep gouging line it was the one obvious recognisable feature on the Eiger West Face.
A cascade of water dropped from high above spraying off the slabs as it made its way into the mist hanging below. I could see a ledge about the size of a car bonnet ideally located just adjacent to my position. With a little careful climbing the ledge would make a perfect perch to the waterfall.
I pushed the empty Nalgene bottle into the top of my jacket and moved towards the edge of the gully. A series of large shale strewn steps made entrance to the gully tiresome and frustrating. My knees were burning and weary from the days punishing climbing. Lazily I crouched to seat myself on my backside. Just as I outstretched a hand for support my right leg whipped viscously from underneath me. I spun 180o and landed fully onto my stomach. I pushed hands and feet into everything and anything available as I began to slide speedily down the sharp shale towards the gapping gully below. I came to halt metres from the top of the wall but to my horror the water bottle shot from inside my jacket and landed feet away from me. It rolled along the shale building momentum as it went until it reached the dark wall edge and dropped into the black chasm below. I lay motionless as the bottle pinged and popped off the rocks below until the sounds of its descent ceased and all seemed lost.
Smiling and giggling at my dilemma I pondered the absurdity of the whole situation. Climbing down the shale-strewn wall I eventually made the ledge at the waterfall. Pushing my hands into the ice-cold water I gulped greedily from cupped hands.
Immediately as I gulped a severe slicing pain ripped deep from inside my throat., the pain moving upwards towards my tongue. It felt like barbed wired hooks being dragged from deep inside. Coughing and heaving I wretched. Between spitting blood onto the rocks between my feet I managed to sip slowly as again the pain returned but with less ferocity. After about 5 attempts I was drinking without discomfort and it was only when my hands began to freeze I pulled myself from the stream almost satisfied.
Route photo - Courtesy of OM
My initial intentions were to return to the bivvy to collect another water bottle. I still required water for boiling. Food & drink seemed like a good antidote to the perils of the day. It was at this point I remembered the plastic sealable bag I had stuffed into my jacket earlier that evening. I filled the bag full and popped it into my mouth and began climbing back towards the camp.
Finally after some aimless climbing through the dark, I stumbled across one of the bigger Cairns close to the bivvy site.
With a good meal, warm drink and some medication to relieve a mighty headache, I eventually began to settle down. Pulling my down bag up close to my face I recounted the days events. Feeling somewhat humbled by the mountain I recalled on the incident of loosing my water bottle earlier in the day and the consequences which entailed.
I thought of the Slovenians and wondered of their welfare and if the Eiger gods were on their side this night?
Feeling content and nourished I zipped the bag fully around my head and fell into a pleasant and comfortable sleep.
Just after midnight, I was awoken by loud voices calling and yelling! Startled I rose from my perch and scanned the clear night skyline. A continuation of panic filled shouts filled the night air! It seemed that someone was just yards from my position. Turning my head-torch to the cries I flashed a beacon in the hope of reply. Alarmingly a light appeared high up at around 3500m!
With the Slovenians travelling very light I knew they were on an unenviable, exposed position. I stood watching as the flicker of headlights weaved painfully and slowly downwards until eventually they stalled. Soon after they began to rise back up again. I deduced they had descended onto impassable or technical ground. Maybe they had made the same mistake as myself and traversed too low across the face! Eventually the shouting and commotion of the night air ceased and the wandering specs of light dimmed until they finally vanishing altogether from the view. The Eiger fell silent once more and my thoughts were for the team higher on the face!
The next morning broke with crystal clear skies. With a new sunrise the previous days efforts now seemed far behind me. I peered across the face scouting for the Slovenians, hoping to just catch a glimpse of life or movement. Thirty minutes passed and just as my hopes began to fade I saw one of the team heave themselves onto the huge boulder that I had rappelled from the day before.
Eventually joined by his partner they stood looking out high above my position. Huddled tightly together they stamped together in unison beating out the cold from their bodies.
I sat watching for a short while as they began their descent towards the Mushroom. With heavy arms I hauled my sack over my back and headed for the station. Knowing the Slovenians were now approaching safer ground gave me a great sense of relief, but maybe more selfishly a comfort in knowing that the Eiger had made their passage equally as difficult as my own!
View of Eiger from Lauberhorn Station - Summit Day