Everybody called my climbing partner Sherpa: he was one head smaller than I, he usually walked behind me, carried a heavier rucksack and was unusually strong. Every weekend we went climbing. Even after 15 hours of climbing, I have never seen him being tired. I was more fragile, was the decision maker, who had to say NO and sometimes "let's get back". "Do you know that Kurt wants to do the Eiger north-face? Would that be something for us?", he asked me and I started studying the Eiger. I finally decided not to do it, since rocks on the head may not be healthy. But I was attracted to another wall that is said to be more difficult but less dangerous than the famous north face: Eiger's NE-face! Lauper opened it in 1932.
We had never been on the Eiger before, but I knew that its problem was the weather. A cold wall north face near lovely Interlaken. A small wind carrying moist air to the ice wall was enough to raise hell within minutes. I proposed: let us climb it first on the easier Mittellegi ridge with the following objectives: a) climb the first part of the wall from Alpiglen and find out about bivouaking and then traverse to the Mittellegihut; b) climb the Mittellegi ridge and observe from there all the details of the Lauper route; c) study the descent of the Eiger, so we could find the way also at night. He agreed and off we went.
As usual, the friends at my office asked me where I was headed for and wished me good luck.
Getting To Grindelwald
It was September 2nd 1961 when we drove from Lucerne to Grindelwald. When we passed along the narrow road of the town Lungern a 80 year old man left the sidewalk without minding the traffic and stepped on the road just in front of my car. I pushed on the break, but I could not avoid that his head hit the front of my old VW beetle and fell on the road. We jumped out of the car and tried to help him to get on his feed and led him to his nearby home. Fortunately he managed to get up the staircase by himself, but we got greeted by his angry wife. We regretted, exchanged addresses and after half an hour we continued our trip.
Had my wife been with me at this incident, I assume she would have opted for driving back home. Wasn't this a signal from the universe that we had not tried to interpret?
When we arrived in Grindelwald I hardly managed to get a place to park my car and the train to Alpiglen left. We waited impatiently for the next train.
Getting To The Mittellegi Hut
We were late and had to hurry. But we enjoyed the good weather, blue sky and no wind. After reaching Wandflue we did not continue to the north face, but kept slightly to the left and entered a gorge. It was easy going and we approached very soon the first piece of snow. We crossed it, reached the rock on the east side of the gorge and climbed up to ca. 2900 m. Instead of going on directly to Mittellegi hut, we kept right towards the Eiger for another 200 meters and were convinced that bivouacking here is possible. While we progressed rather fast, an airplane circling the Eiger was annoying. We did not come here to listen to the noise of an engine. It seemed that Karl is in the north face and the pilot would take pictures of him. Meanwhile the pilot discovered us as well and he flew so near that we could see his head. We wished him to hell. It seemed to help; either he actually went there or he ran out of gas. Anyway the noise stopped.
In the meantime it was evening and we had to rush to reach the hut before night. We put on our crampons and started with the crossing of some steep snow and ice fields. Then we heard some thundering, fog started immediately building around us. I tried to remember the direction of the hut and we hurried. Suddenly it became very dark and it started to rain. The lightning came nearer. We crossed a layer of rocks, then we touched ice, the rain intensified. Within half an hour it was dark and we put on the headlights. The axe started to sound and there was some pricking in the hands. Soon the axe glowed; we did not dare to touch it and we put on the gloves and held the wooden part. Another lightning, the glow disappeared. Then it started again, the axe got brighter and brighter and we expected the next lightning. What should we do? We cannot stop, we had no bivouac equipment, we must reach the ridge and then find the hut that is located up there.
The lamps on our heads got weaker, they were lousy and we wondered why the manufacturers cannot produce headlamps with long-lasting batteries that would operate in cold and rainy weather. We did not see much, but every few minutes it was like day time, the lightning was bright and we memorized our surroundings in those moments and climbed right after the strike in a very dark environment. Soon the axe started shining and gave us some light for the next few feet. But how about getting hit? The lightning hits on ridges, not on steep flanks! Let us hope so! But I felt uneasy about our lightning rod: the rope. So we decided to unrope. The night show continued with about a dozen encores before we reached the ridge and the hut (3355 m). We noticed a horizontal metal tube in front of the hut, ca. 4 ft long, that glowed and sounded like our axe, but much more intense. I assume it was meant to decrease the voltage in the air and thus avoiding a direct hit.
The hut was crowded and some guys wondered where we came from. The normal approach is by taking the Jungfraubahn and climb from the rail station Eismeer (3160 m). The (old) hut had 14 places, over 30 mountaineers were there that night. We lay on the wooden floor and tried to recuperate. We felt fine. Tomorrow will be an easy day and the sun will shine again.
After a few hours we left the floor and occupied a mattress that got free by an early riser. There was quite a turmoil in this little hut and we decided to wait until the majority of the guests had left. We were probably the last who attacked the Mittellegi ridge. The weather was not inviting, clouds still covered the summit and the thunderstorm of last night left some new snow on the ridge. So we waited for the sun and then the climb was quite pleasant. Some difficult passages were made easy by fixed ropes. But it could not be avoided, that with so many people on the ridge, we spent more time waiting instead of climbing. But we did not care and had ample time to study the Lauper route.
Sometimes the ridge gets difficult and is circumvented on the north side. We left the ridge and followed a team frim Basle. Again we had to wait, obviously there seemed be a difficult passage. I looked at these two climbing guys and suddenly one of them fell down about ten feet to my right in this almost perpendicular wall. I expected a sudden halt by the rope, but he fell and fell and the rope got longer. Unbelievable! The climbing guy slipped only 20 ft above the securing friend and the fall should not have been more than 40 ft. I wondered what would happen next. Would the sudden stop tear the rope, would it hurt the climbers? Then the full length of the rope was in the air. No sudden stop, instead the securing guy was hurled way out into the air and there was no danger tearing us down. All happened in complete silence. They were tied together with the rope and fell and fell. I looked at them getting smaller and smaller, after a long time, it seemed more than half a minute, they disappeared in the gorge that we climbed the day before.
Sherpa looked at me and I at him and we both shook our head and thought the same thing. Stupid! Why did he not secure? We were both very angry about this blunder. Without delay, Sherpa climbed on, I secured him. How is it? Difficult? Ice on the rocks! He asked if I was safe and ready, since he was not inclined to follow the Basle team. Complete concentration by both of us. "I am at the bolt, ok, I am fine". After I followed we met two Frenchmen who had seen the fall as well. At that time we were the only people who knew about the accident. (Later I learnt that somebody of Grindelwald saw the fall with the binoculars). The two Frenchmen stood there, pale, and would not move. They seemed to be shocked. I changed my roping and gave one of them a piece to hook on and follow us. As soon as we were back on the the snowy ridge, they recovered and continued on their own. The ridge got flatter, we walked on solid snow and from the north face I could see some traces, must be Kurt's. Obviously he made the north face safely.
The final piece was superb and we enjoyed it. It was like floating lightly in the air, at left the white 4000er of the Bernese Oberland, and on the right the green meadows of Grindelwald. No thoughts about the accident.
Clouds started to surround us. We had a last look from the summit and greeted all those summits we had already visited and also those who would meet us some day. There is our old buddy Moench and the saddle between - called Eigerjoch - had a crowd of visitors. Why? Why would anybody want to climb the Eigerjoch? Certainly not at 3 p.m.! Maybe the Swiss Army had some training there. But on a Sunday? Strange. It did not make sense. We stopped bothering and prepared to go back home.
The clouds began to hide, like yesterday. Again we heard some thunder, again it started to rain before we finished our day. The railroad station Eigergletscher (2320 m) gave us shelter. It was pouring and we staid there a while. Then we continued to Kleine Scheidegg (2061 m); the last train to Grindelwald had left. I was in no mood to walk down to the car, rather stay at the hotel. Sherpa would not mind walking for another two hours, he never feels tired.
Luckily there was a train to Interlaken and from there I would take another train up to Grindelwald. It was 11 p.m. when I arrived at my car, which was the only one left on the parking lot. This is usually the case, when somebody would not return from the mountains. What if my parents learnt from the news that two people died on the Mittellegi ridge and would call the Grindelwald police who would find my license number? Horrible. We rushed home. I arrived home at 1 a.m., all was silent, my parents were all asleep. I felt better.
At breakfast I told my parents that I witnessed an accident at the Eiger. Yes they knew. A plane crashed into the Eigerjoch on Saturday afternoon. Two people killed, one was Annelies. When I had given lessons at a school several years earlier, she had been one of my students, she used to sit in the front row left. I remembered. She was tall, blond, a beautiful girl. The pilot was a journalist of a local paper, they got to know each other a day before the deadly flight.
Then I turned on the radio. Two climbers died at the Mittellegi ridge.
At 8 a.m. I arrived at the office. From far I heard some loud shouting. What is going on here? Three of the girls cried in chorus: He is alive, he is alive!
Names of the dead:
E. Gähler, J. Rohr, Annelies Lüthi, name of pilot unknown
I have read your trip report several times over the last 3 years and it's still the most intense, real life feeling story here on SP that I have read to date. Your history of climbing is one of my favorites, because you are a true Alpinist in the great tradition.
Although I am not an Alpinist, I am humbled by your story and thank you for sharing, including your massive collection of photos... truly a life's work.
Thank you very much!