Book(s) review: The Eiger Nordwand (North Face)

This post would normally end up in my books blog, but due to its nature, and my limited climbing ability, I’ll post it here.

I’ve been reading books and watching programmes about climbing the North Face of the Eiger for a while now. This mountain fascinates me, particularly as my mountaineering skills and fitness level mean that I will certainly never climb it. However, as a confident hillwalker, and novice climber, I can appreciate the skill and bravery of those who have tackled it.

The Eiger was first climbed in 1858, by Almer, Bohren and Barrington, by the west ridge. This is on the right hand side of the photo.

North Face of the Eiger

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However, the North Face was a different proposition altogether. Standing 13,041 feet tall, the North Face, or Nordwand in German, throws a series of challenges in the path of any trying to force passage. The first to succeed in climbing it was a German / Austrian group, of Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vörg, Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek. In turn, they were following a number of unsuccessful attempts to climb the North Face, which had given vital information concerning the best routes. Some locations now bear the names of those who did not survive, such as the Hinterstoisser Traverse. When you look at the photo below, imagine doing the traverse without a rope in place, on streaming stone, or iced rock. The doomed attempt by Hinterstoisser, Kurz, Angerer and Rainer went fatally wrong here, as they had taken Hinterstoisser’s rope to climb higher. Unable to return by this route, they elected to abseil directly down, and were ultimately swept to their deaths by an avalance, with the exception of Toni Kurz, who died hanging from the end of a rope, almost within reach of the mountain guides trying to save him. One thing that the history of the Eiger brings home hard is  the bravery of the alpine mountain guides, who often risked their lives to try and rescue those in need. Such behaviour followed, even in the face of official bans by local authority.

Hinterstoisser Traverse

Hinterstoisser Traverse

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The thing to remember here is that Hinterstoisser did the traverse you’re looking at, without a rope to guide him. It’s a testament to the skill and courage required by climbers on the Eiger, that this is regarded as routine nowadays. I certainly don’t see it as routine!

I would imagine that a labelled diagram would be useful for those unfamiliar with the various sections of the climb. Here it is below:

From the Hinterstoisser Traverse, things only get harder. From all of the accounts that I have read, one of the most significant dangers on the mountain, aside from the technical and physical challenge of climbing it, is rockfall. Many have come to grief as rocks are sent hurtling from the upper slopes to crash and ricochet among the lower regions. Even a small stone, falling three thousand feet, can cause serious injury. Photographs of the snow fields show them pocked as if by cannon balls. Imagine climbing a steep face, thousands of feet up, with this stuff hurtling down on you.

The Eiger’s weather too is famous. Storms are frequent, and when it warms up, the ice above releases its trapped stones, as well as water in torrential sluices. One photo in Joe Simpson’s “The beckoning silence” shows waterfalls cascading into the abyss. In Simpson’s book “The beckoning silence”, and Heinrich Harrer’s “The White Spider”, the torture of climbing up what has effectively become a waterfall is described.

“The Ice Hose does justice to its name. The rock was thickly plastered with the stuff; but even the hose part couldn’t have been more accurate. Water was pouring down under the frozen layer, between the ice and the rock. The only way was up through it. The water poured into our sleeves, flowing right down our bodies, building up for a short time above the gaiters, which were supposed to separate our trousers from our boots, before finding its way out. It is severe, calls for the best climbing technique, and demands the most ingenious balancing manouevres”

The nature of this mountain makes climbing it an extreme commitment. There simply isn’t an easy way off, if you decide either that conditions are too severe, or a party member has become injured. Finding a safe place to sleep, or a “bivi” was a major challenge for the first climbers on the North Face. The Swallow’s Nest (see figure above) was one such place. Beyond, the ice fields beckoned. Many stories of the early twentieth century revolved around team members being struck by falling stones, and requiring evacuation. For others, it has simply been a slip that continued out into free space, such as one climber who fell from the Silver Canyon.

One of the major features of the North Face is known as the “White Spider”. Named for its position and shape, perched high up on the face, it is a challenge that must be overcome by all. Beyond the Spider lie the Exit Cracks. If you think it gets easier here, you’re in for a surprise. Many climbers have died here, and there is still the summit slope to contend with.

Of course, another thing that sets the Eiger apart from other mountains is the access that non-climbers have. Telescopes have been trained on the North Face for decades, allowing the public to watch every hand hold and ice step cut. Indeed, in the 1930s, watching people try, and fail, to climb the mountain was a voyeuristic kick indulged by many.

What has fascinated me is what drives climbers to tackle this mountain, in particular the early attempts, when people would struggle on the Face for days. By way of a contrast, in our modern age, the North Face has been tackled successfully in just under three hours by Ueli Steck of Switzerland. The levels of physical fitness and commitment for such an endeavour are staggering. Here is a link to some good footage of his climb:

So, what makes people climb peaks like these? Mallory famously said “Because they’re there”, but many authors tell of feelings of calmness, exhilaration, of being at one with their surroundings. For me, I love being among the mountains, but this level of climbing is beyond me on a mental level, let alone physical. While it guarantees that I will never attempt such climbing, it increases my admiration for those brave souls who try themselves in the high arenas.


6 Comments on “Book(s) review: The Eiger Nordwand (North Face)”

  1. Skip says:

    Impressive stuff. I once went up to the Jungfraujoch by train and stopped to look out the gallery window. It’s was unbelievable – there I was inside, with several windows in the wall giving a view far higher than the highest building, looking down on the landscape below (including other mountains). And the gallery window is only part of the way up the Nordwand. Quite astounding to think of people ascending it.

    • foinaven says:

      Glad you like it. The door leading from the railway has been used many times as part of rescue missions. As far as I remember, Toni Kurz ended up hanging not far away on the end of his rope. The mountain guides could just touch the tips of his feet with their ice axes, but he was too weak to hold a knife and cut himself free. Tragic.

      As you say, the view is spectacular, and only part of the way up. Epic climbing!

      • JesmondCat says:

        The first time I became aware of this was a Clint Eastwood film, The Eiger Sanction. I remember some climbing bits in it…

      • foinaven says:

        Yes, one of Eastwood’s sillier films, though I remember watching with horror as one person falling caused others to be dragged to their deaths. That image stayed with me for life.

  2. Filip Vandermeulen says:

    Dear writer,

    I feel very common with you. I used to climb in the alps when I was 20. My greatest experiences were on maintains like the Weisshorn, Piz Bernina, Zinalrothorn and the like. Although these mountains are giants, they do not compare to the Eiger. The Eiger is fascinating in the sense that as a climber (and even as a non-climber as in your case) it dominates your minds. Once you have let yourself in with its history and its nature (even when it is from books), it sticks in your brains forever. To climb it, you need to be very strong mentally, physically and in personality. But the reward is great in personal enrichment and enhancement. Question only is if this is worth the risk. And the answer is probably ‘no’ from a rational point of view. But this doesn’t matter, the reality is that I will always dream of being on the EIger, no matter it’s price.

    • foinaven says:

      Thanks for your message Filip – it’s great to get climbers’ veiwpoints on this. I’m happy hillwalking and scrambling, but lack the technical proficiency to climb well.
      The Eiger has been on my mind for a long time now, particularly the kinds of people who do manage to climb it. I also found the story of those who failed and the guides who tried to rescue them fascinating.

      Thanks for feeding back – that’s exactly the kind of thing I was asking for!

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