The Eiger is a 3,970-metre (13,020 ft) mountain of the Bernese Alps, overlooking Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnenin the Bernese Oberland, just north of the main watershed and border with Valais. It is the easternmost peak of a ridge crest that extends across the Mönch to the Jungfrau at 4,158 m (13,642 ft), constituting one of the most emblematic sights of the Swiss Alps.
The most notable feature of the Eiger is its 1,800-metre-high (5,900 ft) north face of rock and ice, named Eigerwand or Nordwand, which is the biggest north face in the Alps.
The North Face, considered amongst the most challenging and dangerous ascents, was first climbed in 1938 by an Austrian-German expedition.
While the summit was reached without much difficulty in 1858 by a complex route on the west flank, the battle to climb the north face has captivated the interest of climbers and non-climbers alike. Before it was successfully climbed, most of the attempts on the face ended tragically and the Bernese authorities even banned climbing it and threatened to fine any party that should attempt it again. But the enthusiasm which animated the young talented climbers from Austria and Germany finally vanquished its reputation of unclimbability when a party of four climbers successfully reached the summit in 1938 by what is known as the “1938” or “Heckmair” route.
The climbers that attempted the north face could be easily watched through the telescopes from the Kleine Scheidegg, a pass between Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, connected by rail. The contrast between the comfort and civilization of the railway station and the agonies of the young men slowly dying a short yet uncrossable distance away led to intensive coverage by the international media.
Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer, arrived at Grindelwald to attempt to climb the face.
They waited a long time for good weather and when the clouds finally cleared they started. The two climbers reached the height of the Eigerwand station and made their first bivouac.
On the following day, because of the greater difficulties, they gained little height.
On the third day they made hardly any vertical ground. That night a storm broke and the mountain was hidden in fog, and then it began to snow. Avalanches of snow began to sweep the face and the clouds closed over it.
Two days later, there was a short moment when the clouds cleared and the mountain was visible for a while. The two men were glimpsed, now a little higher and about to bivouac for the fifth time. Then the fog came down again and hid the climbers. A few days later the weather finally cleared, revealing a completely white north face.
The two climbers were found later frozen to death at 3,300 m, at a place now known as “Death Bivouac”.
The next year ten young climbers from Austria and Germany came to Grindelwald and camped at the foot of the mountain. Before their attempts started one of them was killed during a training climb, and the weather was so bad during that summer that, after waiting for a change and seeing none on the way, several members of the party gave up.
Of the four that remained, two were Bavarians, Andreas Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz, the youngest of the party, and two were Austrians, Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer.
When the weather improved they made a preliminary exploration of the lowest part of the face. Hinterstoisser fell 37 metres (121 ft) but was not injured. A few days later the four men finally began the ascent of the face.
They climbed quickly, but on the next day, after their first bivouac, the weather changed; clouds came down and hid the group to the observers.
They did not resume the climb until the following day, when, during a break, the party was seen descending, but the climbers could be seen only intermittently from the ground.
The group had no choice but to retreat, since Angerer had suffered serious injuries from falling rock.
Hinterstoisser could not recross the Traverse to safety because the group had previously removed the rope that had helped them across and they became stuck. (A section of the North Face was later named “The Hinterstoisser Traverse” in his honor).
The weather then deteriorated for two days.
The group decided to abseil down the vertical face (“The Great Rock Barrier”) to the base of the mountain.
However, as Hinterstoisser set up the last stage of the descent an avalanche came down the mountain, wiping out Hinterstoisser, who had unclipped from the group. He fell to his death and was found at the bottom of the mountain days later.
Later, Willy Angerer, now climbing below Kurz, was smashed against the wall, dying instantly. Edi Rainer, the climber who had been securing the other two, was pulled against the wall and died minutes later of asphyxiation. Kurz, alone now, remained uninjured.
Three guides started on an extremely perilous rescue attempt. They failed to reach him but came within shouting distance and learned what had happened. Kurz explained the fate of his companions: one had fallen down the face,another was frozen above him, and the third had fractured his skull in falling and was hanging dead on the rope.
In the morning the three guides came back, traversing the face from a hole near the Eigerwand station and risking their lives under incessant avalanches. Toni Kurz was still alive but almost helpless, with one hand and one arm completely frozen. Kurz hauled himself off the cliff after cutting loose the rope that bound him to his dead teammate below and climbed back onto the face. The guides were not able to pass an unclimbable overhang that separated them from Kurz. They managed to give him a rope long enough to reach them by tying two ropes together. While descending, Kurz could not get the knot to pass through his carabiner. He tried for hours to reach his rescuers who were only a few metres below him.
Kurz was defeated by his own exhaustion and a knot. He could not summon the strength to get his weight off the rope to pass it through his abseil device.
Then he began to lose consciousness. One of the guides, climbing on another’s shoulders, was able to touch the tip of Kurz’s crampons with his ice-axe but could not reach higher. Kurz was unable to descend further and, completely exhausted, died slowly.
His last words were “Ich kann nicht mehr” (I can’t (go on) anymore)
An attempt was made by Mathias Rebitsch and Ludwig Vörg.
They started the climb on 11 August and reached a high point of a few rope lengths above Death Bivouac.
A storm then broke and after three days on the wall they had to retreat.
Although the attempt was unsuccessful, they were nonetheless the first climbers who returned alive from a significant height on the face.
The North Face was first climbed on July 24, 1938 by Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vörg, Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek
The party had originally consisted of two independent teams: Harrer (who did not have a pair of crampons on the climb) and Kasparek were joined on the face by Heckmair and Vörg, who had started their ascent a day later and had been helped by the fixed rope that the lead team had left across the Hinterstoisser Traverse.
The two groups, led by the experienced Heckmair, decided to join their forces and roped together as a single group of four.
Heckmair later wrote: “We, the sons of the older Reich, united with our companions from the Eastern Border to march together to victory.”
The expedition was constantly threatened by snow avalanches and climbed as quickly as possible between the falls.
On the third day a storm broke and the cold was intense. The four men were caught in an avalanche as they climbed “The Spider,” the snow-filled cracks radiating from an ice-field on the upper face, but all possessed sufficient strength to resist being swept off the face.
The members successfully reached the summit at four o’clock in the afternoon. They were so exhausted that they only just had the strength to descend by the normal route through a raging blizzard.
A proof of the unbreakable bond between Germans and Austrians
Knowing an extraordinary feat of climbing could win him a place on a Himalayan expedition, Harrer and a friend, Fritz Kasparek, resolved to be the first to climb the North Face of the Eiger.
Following his university finals in July 1938, Harrer and Kasparek traveled to Kleine Scheidegg at the foot of the Eiger and set out on their climb.
Halfway up the mountain, Harrer and Kasparek encountered another team making the attempt, Ludwig Vörg and Anderl Heckmair from Germany. The four decided to make the rest of the climb as a single team, with the experienced Heckmair leading.
In 1939, Harrer joined a four-man expedition, led by Peter Aufschnaiter, to the Diamir Face of the Nanga Parbat with the aim of finding an easier route to the peak.
War was declared, and on 3 September 1939 all were put behind barbed wire to be transferred to a detention camp at Ahmednagar near Bombay.
Aufschnaiter and Harrer escaped and were re-captured a number of times before finally succeeding. On 29 April 1944, Harrer and six others, walked out of the camp.
Helped by the former’s knowledge of the Tibetan language, proceeded to the capital of Lhasa, which they reached on 15 January 1946, having crossed Western Tibet (passing holy Mount Kailash), the South-West with Gyirong County, and the Northern Changthang Plateau.
In 1948, Harrer became a salaried official of the Tibetan government, translating foreign news and acting as the Court photographer. Harrer first met the 14th Dalai Lama when he was summoned to the Potala Palace. A strong friendship developed between the two that would last the rest of their lives.
In 1952, Harrer returned to Austria where he documented his experiences in the books Seven Years in Tibet (1952) and Lost Lhasa (1953).
Heinrich Harrer On The First Ascent Of The Eiger
Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek Bivouac On The First Ascent Of The Eiger
Prior to attempting to north face of the Eiger, Vörg had been the first person to climb the west face of Ushba in the Caucasus. It was during this climb on the 7000 ft high ice face that Vörg earned his nickname from his fellow climbers.
Vörg and Matthias Rebitsch were planning an attempt of the North Face in 1937 when news came that two Austrian climbers, Franz Primas and Bertl Gollackner, were stuck high on the North East face in ferocious conditions. Vörg and Rebitsch immediately began their climb up the Lauper Wall, where they too were caught in the storm. The face was streaming with torrents of water, glazed rocks, and avalanches. They were forced to bivouac high on the face on a tiny perch of rock. In the morning they pushed on to the hut on the Mittellegi Ridge, taking a break to dry their clothes and rest. Late in the afternoon, two guides reported to the hut that they had brought a freezing exhausted Primas down from the ridge, but that Gollackner was dead 500 ft below the summit. They volunteered to recover the body, and carried it down the knife edge of the Mittellegi Ridge. Vörg and Rebitsch had put their own lives at risk for the sake of others; it was a trait in Vörg that would come out again the following year.
Vörg was attempting the Eiger with Anderl Heckmair. They had set off in pursuit of the preceding team in a race to the top. When they caught up with the Austrian team of Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek (Vörg and Heckmair’s superior 12-point crampons were more useful on the Eiger; Harrer didn’t have any crampons at all) they decided to proceed as a four. When they reached the ’’Spider’’ icefield high on the face, they were hit by a ferocious storm, avalanches pounding down upon them. Andreas Heckmair describes what happened when he slipped from the face:
I bore straight down on him in a lightning swift slide. Wiggerl let the rope drop and caught me with his hands, and one of the points of my crampons went through his palm. The force with which I came down on Wiggerl knocked him out of his holds, but he, too, had been able to save himself and there we were, standing about 4 feet below our stance on steep ice without any footholds.
Our Friends…hadn’t even noticed anything had happened. If we hadn’t checked our fall we would have hurled them out from the face with us in a wide arc.
Vörg, it seems, saved the whole party from certain death, and without his bravery there would never have been the legendary tales of Heinrich Harrer.
Vörg was a Gefreiter in the German Army and killed on 22 June 1941 at Siolo on the Russian front.
Kasparek gained his first alpine experiences on the Peilstein in the Wienerwald and in the Ennstaler Alps. After Emilio Comici had been the first to climb the north face of the Cima Grande of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo in 1933, in February 1938 Kasparek and Sepp Brunnhuber made the first winter ascent.
Kasparek died in 1954, falling to his death through a broken snow cornice near the peak of the Salcantay in Peru.
The most experienced mountaineer in a group consisting of himself, Ludwig Vörg, Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek, Heckmair led the most difficult pitches in the ascent, aided by the extensive kit (including new 12-point crampons) that he and Vörg had purchased using sponsors’ money. He ran into several problems on the North Face of the Eiger, including a slip while climbing out of the exit cracks; Ludwig Vörg caught him by his feet, piercing his hand on Heckmair’s crampons as he did so.
The success brought Heckmair fame throughout the world, but particularly in his native Germany. The reception included an audience with Adolf Hitler (whom Heckmair had met before after working with Leni Riefenstahl).
After serving on the Eastern Front in World War II, he worked as a mountain guide in his native Bavaria, and was one of the driving forces in the formation of a professional association for mountain guides.
In addition to the Eiger climb, Heckmair climbed new routes on the Grandes Jorasses and many other alpine mountains. He also participated in expeditions to the Andes and the Himalaya. He was also partially responsible for the development of the “two rope” climbing system.
On November 16, 2015, Steck took advantage of good weather and climbing conditions and pushed for the summit of the classic Heckmair Route (ED2, 1800m, 1938) in a mere 2 hours 22 minutes.
Steck first set a speed record on the Eiger in 2007, when he climbed the face in 3 hours 54 minutes.
Convinced he could do it much, much faster, he trained specifically for the ascent and in 2008 set a mark of 2 hours 47 minutes.
In 2011, Dani Arnold, a young Swiss climber, smashed that record with a time of 2 hours 28 minutes.
In 2014 Ueli Steck made the first solo ascent of Annapurna, and he won his second Piolet d’Or.
Copyright © 2016, Szabo Stefan