Bob Wightman

The North West Face of the Eiger

The pinnacle of pre-war alpine climbing, the NW face of the Eiger, commonly called the North Face though there is actually also a NE face climbed by the Lauper Route.

I was first made aware of the Eiger north face when, as a child, I attended a lecture by Chris Bonington about his ascent of the face (the first by a British climber). After I began climbing I purchased and absorbed the classic text “The White Spider” by Heinrich Harrer. Harrer was a member of the first ascent party of the face in 1938. In fact their route has become known as the 1938 Route. The era of their ascent was dominated in Europe by the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. This, and the fact that Harrer was a member of the Nazi party has meant that a notoriety has been wrapped around the ascent for many of the intervening years.

It is probably unfair to taint Harrer with the Nazi association. After all, the horrors of the regime were not known to the majority and like all politicians, the Nazis liked to align themselves with sports men and women especially the successful. Thus when a Austrian/German team made the first ascent of the last great problem in the alps, The Eiger Nordwand, they were assured of being cast into the political spotlight regardless of their innermost feelings. Many sports stars in the UK have accepted honours in the New Year or Queens’ birthday honours list without them being associated with the political party in power at the time. Why should they be? It is only politicians appealing to the popular vote.

Anyway, enough of the politicking, on with the climb.

I was coming to the end of my second season in the Alps. And quite a successful season it had been too, what with ascents of the West Face of the Petites Jorasses; The American Direct on the Petit Dru and The Cecchinel-Nominé on Mt Blanc being among the many I had completed up to that point. My previous partners had returned home, one having taken a 60 metre fall on the Cecchinel-Nominé! Not my fault I hasten to add.

Dai Lampard was in a similar position to myself and was staying on in Chamonix as the season drew to a close. We were both going on a trip to attempt Gasherbrum IV in the Karakoram the following year that Dai was organising but despite knowing each other for some years had not climbed together. Dai had also had a successful season though not with such trustworthy companions as I had managed. his ascent of the Walker Spur was spoilt by his partner having blagged that he had done big routes in the Alps when in fact he had done very little. “Fancy the Eiger?” was the question popped over the bar one rain sodden afternoon. “Well, yes actually”

So it was that we headed over to Grindelwald following the weather front that appeared to signal the start of autumnal weather. Our mode of transport was Dai’s VW camper van that boldly advertised the motorbike shop in Bolton from where he had bought it. Also with us was Dai’s wife, Rhona.

The next couple of days saw us mooching around Grindelwald and the Lauterbrunnen valley in spirits as gloomy as the weather. Each day we would perform the ritual of visiting the tourist information office in Grindelwald to view the forecast. Each day we walked away, the prognosis poor.

Then suddenly the mood and forecast changed. It seemed that fine weather was on the way. We hurried back to the campsite and began to prepare. “It is dangerous this year” said the campsite owner when we told her the reason the tents would be empty for a night or two. If the warning was meant to deter us it failed. We set off that afternoon along the footpaths leading to Kleine Scheidegg, laden with food and equipment for the North Face of the Eiger.

The+North+Face+in+Alpenglow.
The North Face in Alpenglow.

The paths were mainly surfaced with tarmac for the early steep part of the climb towards Scheidegg. Eventually we emerged into the region of alpine meadows that lay beneath the north face. At this point, rather than continue towards Scheidegg, we turned left and climbed the grass slopes to the tracks of the Grund-Scheidegg railway line. We happened to cross the line near a platform that was presumably used to drop off workmen. This would provide a comfortable bed for the night. The foot of the face was around an hour’s walk away.

The evening meal passed quickly but with a sense of foreboding as the setting sun coloured the face above us blood red. Eventually there is no reason to stay up so we try to get some sleep.

The morning comes soon enough and we exchange trainers for plastic boots and leave extraneous equipment with Rhona who is remaining in the valley during our climb. A quick goodbye and we begin the plod across the upper grass slopes that slowly turn into scree. We eventually fetch up against the first rocks of the face. The face appears lean and we put on harness and uncoil the ropes in preparation to begin. Dai takes the first pitch and begins to climb.

Within a couple of metres he has come to a halt. “It’s icy!” he explains and downclimbs back to the starting point. Although from below the face looks bare, every ledge is banked up with snow and ice from the front that we had accompanied when travelling to Grindelwald. Having fixed his crampons to his boots, Dai set off again, threading his way between outcrops taking the easiest line up this lower part of the face. Normally this section of the face is composed of a series of easy rock steps that are often soloed. Today however the steps are banked out with snow. The snow is thin and icy at the front of each step, soft at the rear. This makes moving from one step to another very trying as the snow collapses with annoying regularity as we move off one step onto the next.

Passing+the+first+pillar.
Passing the first pillar.

Slowly the first difficult section drew near. The Difficult Crack. Normally a rock climb around Diff in standard it was to be far harder in the present conditions. Indeed the pitch to reach it was awkward and verglassed. The crack itself was also verglassed, and steep. Somewhat perversely a new rope hung down the pitch, fixed at top and bottom. It was, we were later to find out, fixed for the French mountain guide Christophe Profit who had climbed all three of the big alpine north faces in a single day, being flown by helicopter between each climb! For now though we had to get up this obstacle.

The climbing lived up to its name. The pitch was steep and awkward in plastic mountaineering boots and crampons. Small flat holds covered in verglass with the occasional peg for protection. The in situ rope came in useful now and then as progress was made.

By the time we had completed the difficult crack the day had worn on and it was late afternoon. A short way ahead lay the Hinterstoisser Traverse, the key passage to the upper face and the point of no-return for one of the earlier attempts. A couple of ropes lay stretched across the steep slab. However there was also a four centimetre thick slab of ice covering the slab and this hid the ends of the ropes so that we were unable to determine how they were attached to the mountain. In addition to this, the sheet of ice was detached from the rock by a couple of centimetres! My lead.

At+the+end+of+the+Hinterstoisser+Traverse+at+the+end+of+the+first+day.
At the end of the Hinterstoisser Traverse at the end of the first day.

I clipped a runner to the ropes, they were frayed from the wind rubbing them against the rock, but there was nothing else. My axes slipped all too easily through the skin of ice and struck the rock behind. Nervously I started across with occasional slips of axes through the ice. The fixed ropes disappeared into the ice so my movable runner was left behind for a few moves until they appeared again ready for another runner. Eventually I pulled onto solid snow at the far end of the traverse. A few metres above lay the Swallows’ Nest which would have to be our bivvy place for tonight.

Sunset+from+the+Swallow%27s+Nest+bivouac.
Sunset from the Swallow's Nest bivouac.

Occupying the ledge were two German climbers, one old, one young. As I brought Dai across, I chatted to them as best I could with my non-existant German and their broken English. It transpired that they were father and son. The father was 60 years old, the son 16!

Dai arrived at the ledge and since the Germans were occupying the best part of the Swallows’ Nest we had to excavate our abode from the banked snow. Whilst we were doing this, two more climbers, both English, arrived and began to create their bivvy site on the other side of the Germans. The face, and this bivuoac site in particular, were getting busy!