The most notorious mountain in the world – its iconic vertical mile of brittle limestone and ice, called the North Face, is the ultimate challenge for many a mountain climber. But even some of the greatest mountain climbers in the world are not prepared to take on the challenge. It’s not that it’s an impossibly difficult climb – at 1,800 m (13,000 ft) from base to the top of Face it’s not even that high. (The Eiger itself is 3970 m). It’s the commitment it entails. Once embarked on the ascent, that’s it … you need to keep going up.
It’s been well named. Eiger is the German word for ‘ogre’ and ogre indeed it is, but this iconic mountain caught the people’s imagination many years ago and is now the playground for the world’s extreme athletes. It’s been climbed, skied down, BASEjumped off, slacklined on… you name it, it’s been tried. But back to the serious subject of climbing the North Face… aka Death Wall.
Whilst many of the big walls in Europe were scaled in the golden era of the 19th century, the North Face of the Eiger, almost always in deep shade, remained unconquered until as late as 1938 when 4 superb climbers, 2 Germans and 2 Austrians, successfully reached the top by means of what is now called ‘The Classic Route’.
The Eiger drew not only climbers but tourists who went there to watch the various attempts. The foot of the mountain is vertially in the hamlet of Kleine Scheidegg and climbers can be watched through telescopes in the comfort of bars and restaurants. The contrast between this comfort and the struggles and agonies of young men on the Face was hard to resist for many. At times a veritable media frenzy existed down on the watching platforms.
The colourfully dramatic names along the route are there for a reason. Death Bivouac was where 2 young Germans had died in 1935. They had got higher up the Face than anyone else to date.
The Hinterstoisser Traverse immortalises the second attempt to climb the Face, 1936. 10 climbers had arrived aroundabout the same time to challenge the wall, but the weather was so bad that most of them gave up – 4 remained, 2 Bavarians and 2 Austrians. When the weather cleared they set off and it was Andreas Hinterstoisser who came up with the idea of traversing one difficult section. The tragedy was that having successfully traversed what is now known as the Hinterstoisser Traverse, they took up the rope and continued to climb. One of the party, Austrian Willy Angerer, was seriously wounded by falling rock and the group had no choice but to retreat. They reached the traverse and realised their error in taking up the rope. Hinterstoisser tried again and again to cross it, but had to stop because of exhaustion.
Then the weather deteriorated badly and for 2 days the ghouls below could see nothing because of storms and fog. When the storms lifted it was seen that 3 climbers had obviously been swept away by avalanches, but one, Tony Curtz, was hanging on a rope. A rescue mission set off immediately and were able to get to within 40 m of him by access through the window which emerges onto the face from the Eigerwand railway tunnel running right through the mountain. They were able to get him down to within 5 metres of them, but by this time Curtz had been exposed to the freezing conditions of the mountain for more than 24 hours and although coaxed and encouraged he could not get his frostbitten fingers to cut the rope and let him drop to the waiting men. “I cannot go on” he said, and died.
The North Face of the Eiger had claimed its 6th victim.
This was enough for the Swiss. They banned all further attempts at climbing the North Face. But the ban only lasted 4 months and in 1937 the mountain claimed two more – this time 2 young Italians. However, the first successful retreat from a significant height on the wall was also achieved in this year.
It was in 1938 that she was finally conquered. 4 excellent climbers, two Germans, Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig (Wiggerl) Vorg, and the 2 Austrians Fritz Kasparek and Heinrich Harrer, set off independently to climb the mountain. Harrer had forgotten to take crampons and so the German party, which set off a day later, caught up with them when they used the fixed rope that the lead team had left across the Hinterstoisser Traverse. They decided to join forces and roped together as a single group of 4.
They reached the summit at 4 p.m. on 24th July, 1938 and descended in a blizzard via the much easier Western Route.
Since 1938 the North Face has been summitted many times, each time with the climber or climbers looking for further challenges. For example, the first winter ascent was made in the most savage conditions in 1961 by Toni Kinshofer, Anderl Mannhardt, Walter Almberger and Toni Hiebeler.
The British, to this date, had been singularly missing from the roster and this was put straight in 1962 when Chris Bonington and Ian Clough successfully summited.
In 1966, American John Harlin made the first attempt at the ‘direttissima’ – ‘The Direct Route’. Chris Bonnington was to have gone with him, but pulled out because he did not feel comfortable climbing with such a forceful character as Harlin. Harlin then enlisted the brilliant Scots climber Dougal Haston to join the team and Chris Bonnington ended up going along as photographer for the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Using big expedition tactics of installing fixed ropes as they climbed, which allowed the mountaineers to descend and then quickly regain their previous high point,they forced the route with this so-called ‘siege technique’.
This was the first attempt at ‘The Direct Route’, but tragedy struck when a rope snapped and John Harlin fell 1,525 m (5,000 ft) to his death. Dougal Haston joined up with a competing team and successfully summited the route which became known as the “John Harlin Route” in Harlin’s honour.
The John Harlin Route was not repeated until nearly four years later when it took almost three months of endeavour to make the second ascent.
Other notable climbs up the North Face are:
- 1962: Two young climbers finished the climb just after Clough and Bonington (who overtook them) their names were withheld to stop floodgates opening regarding ascents of the Eiger’s north face. They were very young, their equipment was rudimentary, and the letter they left their parents galvanized police action; police were waiting for them on their return.
- 1963: 2–3 August: First solo ascent of the face by Michel Darbellay, in around 18 hours of climbing.
- 1964: 1–3 September: German Daisy Voog becomes the first woman to reach the summit via the face (with Werner Bittner)
- 1974: Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler climb the face in 10 hours.
- 1981: 25 August: Swiss guide Ueli Bühler soloes the face in 8 hours and 30 minutes.
- 1982: Slovene Franček (Franc) Knez soloes the face in 6 hours.
- 1983: 21 March–2 April (13 days in the wall): First winter solo ascent and new route on the face (the ideal direttissima) by Slovak Pavel Pochylý.
- 1983: 27 July: Austrian Thomas Bebendorfer soloes the face without a rope in 4 hours and 50 minutes, almost halving Bühler’s time.
- 1992: 10 March: Catherine Destivelle (France) soloes the face in 17 hours. It is the first solo female ascent of such a serious and dangerous Alpine face.
- 1997: Benedetto Salaroli, aged 72, becomes the oldest man to ascend the face, climbing it in a single day with guides Ueli Buhler and Kobi Reichen.
- 2007: 21 February: Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck breaks Christoph Hainz’s record, soloing the face in 3 hours and 54 minutes.
- 2008: 13 February: Ueli Steck breaks his own record, soloing the face in 2 hours, 47 minutes and 33 seconds.
- 2008: 7 August: Dean Potter (USA) free-solos Deep Blue Sea (5.12+) on the face, then BASE jumps from the top using an ultralight rig he wore during the climb.