Add Heading HereThe North Face of the Eiger
Sometimes in life it’s good to set a goal, something that takes planning, is measurable and achievable. For me I cope with the humdrum of everyday life by creating a personal challenge, usually associated with mountaineering.
When I saw the local forecast, predicting a clear spell which would give the snow and ice enough time to stabilize followed by a window in the weather large enough for a multi day trip, then I knew it was time to tackle the notorious North face of the Eiger.
During the winter I had kept myself in a good shape just waiting for this opportunity. Whenever possible I would go ice climbing or dry tooling (climbing on rock with ice axes and crampons). When no partners were available, I would solo easy ice routes or do pull ups with ice axes on door frames, all with the aim of improving stamina and strength.
The Jungfraubahn train in Grindlewald took us away from scenic grassy pastures to the base of the mountain and although tempting, we could have even taken a trip with a group of camera happy Japanese tourists, right through the Eiger to the far ridge. This was the first time I had seen the North Face. Part of me was ecstatic with excitement, but the bigger part of me was anxious, full of doubts. Why had the route which we were planning to climb claimed 70 lives? and why had it claimed the lives of 1 out of 13 of those who had previously attempted it?
At camp there were a few climbers waiting around for ideal conditions. There were two Danes hoping to make the first Danish ascent and three French guys planning on flashing the route in one day, by using techniques such as simultaneous climbing and soloing in order to cover the easier terrain faster. Two Austrians had used the stealth tactics of climbing around a third of the route the previous day, leaving ropes in place on the difficult sections then using the train tunnel window to come back down. This meant they could get a head start and do the whole route in a day. My math’s isn’t great but doing some quick sums a 1 in 13 chance of survival was giving me reason to be concerned.
We packed our bags with the absolute minimum so that we could travel fast and then we ate as much as our anxious stomachs could hold, before settling down for the night.
The sky was a brilliant blanket of stars and the silence was a deep nothingness, it was midnight and we plodded along until the big black void was above us and we could see the French climbers torches just ahead, but moving fast.
We got the ropes out and climbed together and when the going got difficult we belayed each other, alternating leads. The day passed like this, exchanging the odd word or joke but never stopping. The only sounds were the familiar thump of the axes or crampons as they penetrated the solid ice and the occasional screech of metal scraping on rock. By 6pm we were on the 3rd ice field and our home for the night was in sight, death bivy - an area about the size of a sofa sheltered from the falling stones. Its name came from a German party who in 1939 attempted the route using hob nailed boots; they had to shelter here from the storm, but never left.
It was great to finally sit down and get some warmth and food into our tired bodies. There wasn’t much sound other than the occasional small avalanche of rock/snow and the circling helicopters which seemed to be appearing more regularly later in the day, presumably sightseers.
We had to sleep in our harnesses with the ropes attached in case we decided to go for a little sleep walk. We weren’t concerned about our lack of comfort; it was great to be sitting in our bags on our little ledge in time to see the distant peaks change a seemingly thousand shades of red and orange.
The second and planned last day was expected to have the technically hardest climbing in it. From the start we climbed vertical ice, and sections of rock that for entire rope lengths seemed to have match box sized foot holds and nothing for our hands. One section that seemed never ending finished with a strenuous mantle up and over an overhang, and with tiring arms all I could manage was a desperate grab at a sling tied to a piton, which to my dismay pulled out and sent me sailing down the face, luckily to an abrupt stop as the rope became taught. Gingerly I carried on. Then route finding became challenging too, with chimneys that lead to seemingly impassible walls of rock. Already totally exhausted, we didn’t want to climb the wrong one. When this happened we would have to down climb it and then try the one next to it.
As the light began to fade we decided the 60 degree slope of ice in one of the gullies would be as comfy as it gets, so we got to work digging out a couple of bum sized ledges, melted some snow, ate the last of our food, then settled down for the night.
Avalanches came down all night filling my sleeping bag (Jim my climbing partner had regrettably decided against taking one so as to travel lighter). I had just about dropped off to sleep when an avalanche bigger than the others sent me shooting down the face and towards a dark void. To my relief I jolted to a halt thanks to my rope and harness which I had slept in.
At around 4 am we decided that this disturbed fitful sleep was pointless, and as Jim’s shivering was worrying me, we set off on the final exit cracks. Eventually, the angle of the rock eased and we hit the final ice slope leading to the summit ridge. We plodded on, at a snail’s pace, on calf burning 45-50 degree ice, and summitted around midday.
After three days of technical, heart wrenching climbing, we were both relieved to be sitting on the summit of our world with our dreams fulfilled. We had a beautiful panorama of the Monch and Jungrau mountains to our side and the inviting safety of the Grindlewald valley below. The clouds were coming in fast leaving an incredible tail of cotton wool behind them, so we decided to get down before the weather broke. We packed our rope away in preparation for the supposedly straight forward three hour descent.
The terrain wasn’t technical but it was exposed, and a slip could lead to an uncomfortable journey. Jim lost his footing a couple of times, one ending in him sliding down a rock gulley for 5 metres then stopping on a football sized rock at the bottom, no more than a foot print away from a 30m cliff.
We arrived in Grindlewald and every muscle ached from the exertions of the last few days. Since the previous afternoon we had halved a pastry and drunk a litre of water, so we were both hungry and dehydrated beyond anything we had experienced before. Despite this, when we saw our friends, we were grinning from ear to ear and hugged them affectionately. They congratulated us and they seemed as proud and relieved as we were. We joked and exchanged stories then heard the bad news. One of the French men, after summiting in one day, slipped on the descent and died.
Although we didn’t know him well, it hit us all hard as we realized how thin the line is that we are walking on every time we venture into the mountains.
Photos words and adventures by David Gladwin