The plan was on
I stopped at a gas station and bought batteries for my headlamp. It was a beautiful morning this last day of July in 1996 as I drove eastward along the Rhone valley. The wife and the two teenage daughters were swimming in the thermal baths up in the spa village Leukerbad where the family was on holiday. The extent of my two days expedition was by no means clear to the ladies. I was on my way to climb the Eiger.
The higher I drove the darker the sky became. When I passed the Grimsel Pass at 2165 meters large raindrops hit the windshield. My goal was the little mountain village Grindelwald, located in the Swiss canton Bernese Oberland. The plan was on and I had passed the point of no return.
We had climbed together for five years by now and made both easier and more difficult routes together in the Alps. The last thing he said to me was "See you next year, Hannes." A year had passed by and I waited at the railway station worrying about the weather. Ten minutes before the train was to leave Ueli Bühler arrived in a car driven by a female chauffeur. Ueli had become a married man since last year and when the driver stepped out of the car it became obvious that a third family member was on its way. Without too much deliberation, I asked about her feelings of having a mountain guide as husband. This was probably the most common question she had to answer. She kindly replied "It's his job."
We checked the equipment but did not say anything about the dark clouds. The famous and expensive train took us up towards Europe's highest railway station Jungfraujoch. We did not go all the way up since we got off at the Eismeer station. The station is located in a tunnel at the foot of the Eiger south face. The train left and we were on our own. We walked through a narrow, dark and slippery tunnel out on to the glacier. (Today it is necessary to abseil down since the glacier has retreated considerably.) A thousand meters above our heads was the summit of the Eiger.
To the hut
The goal this afternoon was the little hut standing on the narrow Mittellegi ridge 600 meters under the summit. We had barely taken the first step when it started to rain again. Wet inside from sweat and outside from rain, we reached the first rocks. I had imagined a pleasant simple three hours tour. The reality proved quite different because it is one thing to climb to the hut in dry conditions and quite another when it is wet and slippery. After a rope length with water pouring into the jacket sleeves we arrived at the hut at six o'clock in the evening.
The Mittellegi ridge is rightly called "the knife edge" and is perhaps the most spectacular ridge climb one can undertake in the Alps. It is never more than a few steps wide with the exception of the place where the hut is located where it is possible to move a little more freely without being lost in the abyss. The ridge has two faces, one to the north where you far below can see green meadows and mountain villages, and the south where the view is a dramatic mountain and glacier world.
We were welcomed by a sign saying, "The snow is our drinking water, use the toilet!" Toilet was perhaps not the right word, "A hole with free-fall", would be a better term. Inside the hut were a dozen people, most of them were lying in the bunk beds. Not all people who visit the hut intend to climb Eiger, many find the hut visit an adventure in itself.
Two people were scheduled for the climb next morning; John from London and Yuko from Tokyo. They told me they had been at the hut for two days waiting for better weather, or rather John from London told me since I could not understand Yuko from Tokyo. Both men were to do the climb together each with his own guide. They were optimistic about the weather. I was not but did not say anything. There was some concern in the hut as a group of four Japanese women, despite the bad weather, had started the climb earlier in the morning. The comfort in the hut had increased significantly this year since it had a guardian during the summer months. A three course dinner was served; hot tomato soup, polenta with fresh salad and fruit. Normally polenta, a yellow corn batter, is not my favourite dish but it gave energy for coming needs.
I went to bed because I was freezing. One, two, three blankets did not help and tomorrow's ascent seemed very distant. What was I doing here in the first place? What made a perfectly normal family-man want to climb one of the most dangerous mountains in the world? Why was he willing to cling to mountain sides with one thousand meters of emptiness under his soles? A little background may shed some light on this seemingly idiotic behaviour.
A long time ago I read “The White Spider” by Heinrich Harrer, the classic book about the first ascent of the Eiger north face in 1938. Finishing the book I could not image how anyone of free will wanted to expose himself to such horrifying experiences. And above all in no way could I picture myself in such situations. In no way! Still I could not get the Eiger out of my mind.
I read about Max Sedlmayer and Karl Mehringer who perished in 1935 giving name to the place on the face called “The Death Bivouac”. I read about how the men of 1936 were unable to reverse the Hinterstossier traverse and how they died, how Tony Kurz died hanging in his rope close to the rescuers. I read about how Stefano Longhi perished and how Cladio Coriti was dramatically rescued in 1957. I read about how Barry Brewster died and how Chris Bonington and Don Whillans rescued Brian Nally in 1962. I read about John Harlin who fell to his death when the rope snapped during the Eiger direct climb in 1966. I read everything there was to read about the Eiger, but in no way could I picture myself up there.
Going on holiday to Italy in 1987 I got an idea; to drive by Grindelwald just to have a look. With low clouds and rain we did not see much. Still I could not picture myself up there. Again the next summer we stayed two nights in Grindelwald on our way to Italy. This time I saw the north face of the Eiger first hand. And it was more impressive than I ever had expected. Just by chance we stayed at the same hotel as two older gentlemen; Andrel Heckmair and Heinrich Harrer. They were guests of honours at the fifty year anniversary celebration of their first ascent of the Eiger north face. It was a privilege to meet them and hear them talk about old days. But in no way could I picture myself up there.
There was nothing more to read about the Eiger but I still could not stop thinking about it. Gradually, very slowly I began to picture myself up there. But there was still 600 vertical meters to go.
After a sleepless night we got up at four o'clock. I did not feel in good shape and would rather have slept on but that was not an option. Full of muesli and coffee Ueli and I left the hut as the third and final pair. The stars twinkled and in front of us we saw a terrifying silhouette disappearing into the dark sky. With head lamps glowing and with a surrealistic feeling we balanced out on the narrow Mittellegi ridge.
Full concentration was always on the next move, whether it was an easy step or a more difficult passage. The precipices on both sides were hard to forget. Soon enough we were in the heels of Yuko from Japan and his guide. Overtaking was not easy. Yuko behaved as if he had overestimated his ability. While the sun broke the horizon we got past and never saw them again.
Snowfall earlier in the night had made the going even more precarious since some sections were covered with a thin sheet of ice. I carefully watched Ueli’s foot steps in the difficult places in order to repeat them myself.
Half an hour passed and I began to notice blood stains on the rocks. It proved to be John from London who had cut himself badly in one hand on a sharp rock. John looked unhappy when we made our way past.
Again I got a reminder of human realities. In the very last second I managed to save the rope from being dragged over a call of nature. My guess was that it had something to do with the four Japanese women since there were traces of people having spent the night there.
I had taken off my gloves when climbing the first fixed rope. Being cold I was going to put them on again but now there was only one of them. The missing one was probably a few kilometres lower down. Anyway, we continued climbing the Grossen Turm, a prominent rock, followed by a short down climb.
The hard part
Mountain guides are proud people. Among the most embarrassing things that can happen is if the guide only can manage the situation by lying down on his stomach and sliding backwards over the obstacle. Just before the big climb we came to a narrow passage that can be described as a jumper horse from gymnastics class, however, five meters long, sloping downwards and covered with ice, and also one kilometer down to the floor - on both sides. "Look at the guide" said Ueli ashamed when he slid over the horse backwards on his stomach. How I came across I do not really know, but somehow I did.
The next thing to overcome was the hardest part of the whole ridge, a high steep wall on the north face side. During the first ascent in 1921 the four men spent seven hours to climb 200 meters here. One of the men, Samuel Brawand remembers, “No words were said. It was a fight to live or to die. We must go on up and up, down was impossible.”
The local guide association had kindly put up a fixed rope to assist on this rather difficult passage. The only problem was that the thick rope was frozen stiff and completely covered with ice. Smashing it against the rock Ueli succeeded in removing most of the ice before he apparently without any problem disappeared upwards.
I myself however struggled with the help of the frozen rope between the belay points. While trying to reduce my heart beat I looked for the pole. During the first ascent the ascenders had used a long pole to help overcome this steep part. But no pole was to be seen so I had to trust being secured by Ueli’s rope. Finally I arrived in reasonably good shape on the little plateau at the top of the fixed rope. Not so good was the fact that I had seen my sunglasses, first slowly then with increasing speed, disappear into the abyss. Only one glove and without sunglasses, what would happen next?
My pride tells me never to propose a break. But after having done the hardest part Ueli suggested a pause and no one was happier than I. A mug of sweet tea and a chocolate bar made the difference. At the horizon of the blue sky we could see the Matterhorn and further away even Mont Blanc. Closer, almost like we could touch them, were the beautiful four thousand meter peaks the Mönch and the Jungfrau.
Still one hour remained to the summit. This last part was on snow so we put on the crampons. With ice axe in hand we were on the move again, most of the time slightly to the left of the ridge. For each step we drew the ice axe deep into the snow to secure the loose footholds. The summit ridge was a slightly overhanging snowy crest. We walked on the south side as long as possible but finally there was no room left. Half past nine we cut a few steps and climbed up on top of the ridge. Ueli went ahead the last twenty meters to film me taking the last steps.
We were standing right above the famous 1800 meter high north face of the Eiger. "Gratulieren" said Ueli as we hugged to celebrate the occasion. Using the tip of my ice axe I wrote in the snow on the very summit: HW 50. It felt somewhat solemn standing on top of the Eiger, 3970 meters above sea level, the first day of August in 1996, especially as it was also my fiftieth birthday. Somehow I could at last picture myself standing on the summit of the Eiger.
Two options existed, and the plan was to go down along the south ridge through Eigerjoch and over to the Mönchjoch hut. Without doubt an exciting challenge since no one had done this route this season due to too much snow. But because I had lost my sunglasses, we chose instead to go down the west flank. Although the trail was longer it was less exposed to snow and I should have a better chance to protect my eyes from the strong sun. We faced 1650 vertical meters to get back down to civilization.
After taking only a few steps we discovered a group of people lower down. As we came closer we saw four women huddled together like frightened baby birds. The four were the Japanese women who had started one day earlier from the hut. They had moved extremely slow and due of the bad weather they had been forced to spend an unpleasant night on the narrow ridge. As they rejected any help saying they were okay we pressed on.
Using strategically located anchors we rappelled down several rope lengths. An incident occurred when I rappelled off in slightly wrong direction towards an ice fall. I had to climb back up again and in doing so one crampon came loose leaving it hanging around my ankle. It took some effort to put it back on. I got new problems when I could not reach the next anchor. In a vulnerable situation on a downward slanting slab I saw the anchor several meters down but I just could not get there unroped. Ueli shouted something from above that I did not hear. The explanation of my dilemma was that I had found the wrong anchor. The right one was just above me and easy to reach.
Route finding on the west flank can be difficult even in good weather and I did not want to think of the difficulties that would arise if the weather deteriorated. Big dark clouds were gathering over the horizon and we still had a long way to go. Half an hour passed by but I did not feel that we made any progress. What I began to feel, however, was a constant strain in my knees. To walk on the small snow fields was a relief compared to the down-climbing of steep rocks.
Two years earlier, Alison Hargreaves was on her way down the west flank. I had recently read her book "A Hard Day's Summer" in which she explains what happened. She must have been more or less on the same ledge as we were. The only difference was that she found a Gore-Tex jacket. Gradually when going further down, she discovered several other items, including a pair of trousers and a crampon. Finally came the inevitable, a man in the grotesque position became visible below a cliff.
It turned out that two Spaniards had started their climb up west flank early in the morning. After a couple of hours, one of them had chosen to go down while the other one continued on his own. In the warm weather he took off his outer garments and put them under the lid of the backpack. Something went terribly wrong, no one knows what, and he fell. I tried not to think about the poor Spaniard and focused strictly on my own doings. Sadly Alison died on K2 the following year.
Down and out
About halfway down, we met two Austrians and two Germans, who were on their way up. Ueli thought the weather was going to deteriorate drastically and he advised the four not to continue. The Austrians chose to go down with us while the Germans continued. I did not have the strength for a conversation so I contended myself with listening. The two young Austrians seemed impressed when they learned that Ueli made guided tours up the north face of the Eiger. The risk factor was high and hence the price.
Still, we had a long way to go and my thirst became more and more intrusive. I had only had half a liter to drink in the last eight hours and Ueli kindly gave me his last few drops of cold tea. The German guide book tells of the western flank "Sehr lang und Mühsam" which is said to mean “Very long and tiring.” I could not but agree.
As we approached the Eigergletscher station we passed a young woman sitting on a boulder. Ueli exchanged a few words with her. My curiosity took over and I asked, "Who is she?" It turned out that she was married to the guide that went along with John from London. A glance up the mountain revealed nothing and I was wondering if they were coming down at all - our way.
"We were the fastest today" said Ueli while I drank two Coca-Colas in no time. He added "Next year we can climb the Schreckhorn which is of the same difficulty, just a bit longer."
I was sitting in my car. The car was sitting on the train. All three of us, myself, the car and the train, were deep under the Bernese Alps as we travelled the Lötschberg tunnel. Arriving Leukerbad in the evening it became even more obvious that the ladies neither fully understood nor appreciated my achievement. On the other hand people danced in the streets and there were fireworks all over. I felt overwhelmed by such celebrations in honour of my climb and my fiftieth birthday. Until someone told me that the first of August is the National Day of Switzerland.
Thanks to desainme and isostatic for comments on the original text.
Thanks to Ueli Bühler not only for excellent guiding of a poor client but also for carrying and filming with the client’s camera.