So why now decide to write about a 2 week trip from nearly a year ago? Well, apart from it being a really fun quick-hit alpine trip, I’ve had more questions about the infamous ’38 route on the North Face of the Eiger than probably every other route I’ve ever climbed. So here it is…
The first ascent of this nearly 1800m high wall came in late July 1938 and followed years of Ill-fated and epic attempts. The successful German-Austrian first ascent captured the public’s imagination and opened a new era in alpine climbing. The events of this period are well documented in climbing history, and Heinrich Harrer’s book ‘The White Spider’ written about the first ascent continues to inspire and enthral all who read it. This is a route that should be on every aspiring alpinists’ tick list. So when the call came through off Kev suggesting we go and have a crack, what other answer was there really?
Our plan was to meet in Chamonix and discuss our options. It was late autumn and due to a bad combination of heavy snow, strong winds and shut lifts, it became clear quite quickly those options would be limited to say the least. This would be the first time myself and Kev Avery had climbed together and Jon Griffith kindly put us up for a few days whilst we decided what to do. We had come out for Grandes Courses and hard mixed, but with conditions as they were it was looking unlikely. After a few days of weather watching, attempts to climb off the Aiguille du Midi and a few too many over-priced coffees, we thought it time to look elsewhere.
‘What about the North Face of the Matterhorn?’ questioned Kev. ‘Maybe conditions will be better over that way?’
I was keen, so yet more unpacking / packing followed. A last minute check however revealed similar conditions around the Valais as we were already experiencing in Chamonix, with more terrible weather and ‘ascenseurs fermes’. Bollocks. Ever get the feeling someone’s trying to tell you something? Now with these two areas looking unlikely we needed a new objective, ideally some distance away and hopefully with better conditions. The Eiger fit these requirements being miles away and after more checking of the weather it seemed things might be more favourable over that way. Jon even gave Ueli Steck a call to see if he knew about conditions on the face. He was away so didn’t, however being aware of the weather the area had received lately he thought it might be in OK nick. That’s good enough for us! More unpacking / packing (getting good at this now) and we were on our way through a maze of tunnels to Switzerland.
We arrived to a damp and overcast Grindelwald and a very snowy looking Eiger North Face. It’s hard to say what I was thinking at that point; keen to get on the route but feeling very aware that conditions might be problematic. Our plan was to catch the afternoon train up to Kleine Scheidegg then onto the next station (Eigergletscher), where we would camp and start the route from the next day. We found a sheltered spot under an out of action lift station and prepared our accommodation for the night.
It was snowing lightly, but the forecast was to improve and be clear by the early hours. We took the opportunity of the remaining daylight to scope the walk in for the next day, tho the mist was down and visibility was poor. We returned to the tent and tried to sleep as best we could. Upon awakening it was still clagged in and snowing lightly and had put a bit more down in the night than we had anticipated. We packed up and started to walk. At around the point where the path begins its final ascent towards the wall we stopped for a minute. We had both been so optimistic about what we were hoping to get done on the trip (despite the weather), however truthfully I was feeling unhappy about committing to the biggest wall in Europe in what looked like pretty bad conditions and a doubtful forecast. I wasn’t up for it. I voiced my concerns to Kev who being the good guy he is understood my reasons and accepted my decision, however I could see he was dissapointed. He had made it as far as Death Bivi a few years ago in even snowier conditions before having to descend. I wondered what he was thinking about bailing from the wall again, this time having not set foot on it. We returned back down to the valley and decided to head home. Both of us had driven out there in our own vehicles, and during the 1000 mile drive home I was really hoping I hadn’t damaged a potential good climbing partnership before it had even begun.
Eiger 1, Climbers 0.
It was time for the rematch. The weather in the Alps was spring like and we had heard reports of good climbing conditions on the Eiger. Me and Kev joined forces again, this time deciding to drive over together to help with the long journey and cost of the trip. We had both been out on the tools and going strong all winter. A day hit up Langdale before we left onto Cambridge Crags and ‘Soul Vacation’ (VIII,8) just before heading out confirmed this and that the technical difficulties of the ’38 route should be fine for us. We were on our way!
We drove all the way to Grindelwald in one hit swinging time behind the wheel. This is a much better way to do it and means you actually get some sleep on route! Upon arrival in our usual car park at the bottom end of the village we found a suitable spot and pondered our options. Our loosely based plan was to rest the day, sort our kit, then head up on the first train the next morning. Kev raised the point of exactly how much rest we were likely to get in a packed van, in a busy car park, in the middle of the day and I was inclined to agree. Fair point. It was still early enough to get packed up and get an early train to get started on the wall, giving us the added advantage of an extra day’s good weather for the route should we need it. A quick pack and 2 more overpriced coffees each (needs must) and it was time to get going.
The train took us quickly from the valley floor up through the alpine meadows and began to contour round underneath the wall. The usual big route nerves were there, but this time very different to last. The feeling was that it was all stacked in our favour and we were gonna send it!
We got off at the top station and traversed round to the base of the wall, meeting a couple of American climbers on the way. They had jumars on their harnesses and big bags. We passed them as the ground steepened up and very soon we were clambering past the Gallery Window and traversing round towards the Difficult Crack. This section of the wall is all pretty easy and swift progress was made. Passing a Swiss / German team at the base of the crack, Kev was soon out in front and dispatched the pitch with ease. We moved together up under the Rote Flue and traversed round to the Hinterstoisser Traverse. Easy and with fixed lines (but a lot of exposure, so generally pitched) I set off across this photogenic gem of a pitch, acutely aware of the history it held. Kev soon followed and then back to moving together again, we moved on up towards the Swallow’s Nest Bivi site and soon after the first ice field.
The ice fields were in as good a condition as they looked from below and we were soon at the Ice Hose. This required a slightly more delicate approach, but soon gave way to easier ground and the second ice field. We just couldn’t believe what great condition the route was in, a huge contrast to last time. The ice field had a good track and we were soon motoring up and leftwards, on a beeline for Death Bivi. A more interesting mixed pitch led us up off the top of the ice field and we were soon at the 5* Death Bivi- our home for the night. The snow ledge itself was well flattened from previous visits and being protected from rockfall by an overhanging wall above definitely makes it the best Bivi site on the route. Add to that a good selection of bolts to anchor to alongside a million-dollar view and you really couldn’t ask for more. It had been a long day and we were happy to just sit, eat and drink and take in our surroundings. We even got some sun for an hour or so before settling in for the night.
There is always a time when sleeping on routes (planned or unplanned and depending if you’ve managed any sleep) when you wake up and realise exactly where you are. In this case nearly 1000m up the North Face of the Eiger with huge rock walls all around me and nothing but frozen water and rock beneath my feet for a very long way. I’d have liked to have woken up and spent some time savouring the view, however it wasn’t my alarm that had woken me, it was voices instead. I looked down and saw a few distant lights snaking their way up towards us. We hurriedly packed and got ready to leave, anxious to keep ahead of the approaching teams. Too late. A pair of what can only be described as European 16 year old looking hotshots were soon on the ledge, had said ‘hey’ and were gone again. Despite setting off soon after, that was the last we saw of them. A 4am schooling off the Continentals. Good skills boys, good skills!
After our hurried start we had The Ramp for breakfast. Super fun mixed taking us up and left all the time to the Waterfall Chimney and Brittle Ledges. The Waterfall pitch was the steepest part yet but with plenty of fixed gear. The rock was dry and not verglassed too, again just couldn’t believe what condition the route was in. It was at this point Chamonix climbing legend and PGHM hero Jeff Mercier caught us up. I recognised him from some of Jon’s pics (also helped by the fact he had ‘Jeff’ written on his helmet in big letters). We said hello and moved on up.
The Brittle Ledges led swiftly to the Brittle Crack and my turn for some steep and shattered limestone mixed. With that pitch in the bag Kev was quick to set off on the Traverse of The Gods. Aptly named, another incredible traversing feature and a crucial section set to take us across to yet more legendary ground- The White Spider.
Sometimes on big routes it can be scary (sometimes really scary) and for brief moments you might wonder why you feel the urge to put yourself in these positions so often. Then there are those times on these routes which are about as far away from that as you could imagine. Times when you feel completely at ease in your surrounds, are having a great deal of fun and feel absolutely in your element. This was that time for me. The route was in great nic, the weather was good, the banter was superb, and we were charging on the North Face of the Eiger. It simply doesn’t get much better than that!
The White Spider was just as I’d imagined- a huge expanse of ice constantly peppered by snow and ice fall and a very bad place to hang around. We put our foot down and soon reached it’s top and with it a queue (there were a fair few teams on the face now) below what we thought to be The Quartz Crack. A team (turned out to be Irish) were well engaged and not making it look easy. They had been on the face a few days and moved at a slow pace. After closer inspection however, It soon became clear this was not the Quartz Crack we were after, and we had in fact wandered from the track and were off route. A pitch or two back over to the right soon sorted that, and with it the Quartz Crack came into view. Kev took this very short but brilliant mixed pitch, which probably contained the best moves of the whole route and belayed at its top. Team Ireland managed to drop an axe when they eventually hit this pitch, I’ve no doubt they came to miss it higher up on the route…
After this a short downwards traverse over to our left on fixed lines led us to the foot of the Exit Chimneys and my turn on the sharp end. Not hard but quite delicate and with sparse protection (the theme of the route for sure), the chimneys succumbed to a steady approach and we once again moved together to their end. It was at this point we came back into the sun and enjoyed its rays for the first time of the day, for just a couple of moments.
After this it was onto the summit ice fields where we started to feel the effects of the altitude and a lack of acclimatisation. A steady pace however soon saw us reach the Miteleggi Ridge. I had traversed the Eiger via the Miteleggi / South Ridge traverse a couple of years ago, however this ridge bore little resemblance to the one I remembered. The ridge was sculptured in many more ways, with only the exposure to remind me of last time. We took coils and moved together to the summit. It was 5pm. A quick man hug sealed the deal and we rested there for 10 minutes before starting our descent of the West Flank.
The descent had a good track and we were soon making steady progress over broken ground down towards the train station. It was at this point the track split with the option of following the ridge line and its anchor posts, or a track further out to the left. I think me and Kev had both grown a little tiresome of different bits of the terrain; for I chose the ridge and he chose to follow the track. Both appeared without difficulty and we agreed a spot to meet lower down. Upon arrival at where I thought we were due to meet and Kev not being there I began to wonder… 10 min turned into 15 which turned into 20. Where was he? I had no signal to call and heard nothing back after shouting. It was getting dark. Shit. Where was he? Was he OK? Then I saw a head torch miles below and knew that must be him. I headed down. It transpired we had both been on about different meeting places, hence the confusion. Looking back it was pretty dumb to split up whilst descending in that situation after a long route, lesson learnt.
The rest of the descent was spent trudging down ever closer to the station and by the time we arrived we were the only folk there. The toilets were open however, so we made full use of the facilities before bedding down outside for the night.
The next morning we awoke early for fresh coffee then a leisurely descent down to Grindelwald and a well deserved big breakfast. Cheers Kev for a good couple of days out!