The White Spider
Heinrich Harrer The White Spider
THE STORY OF
THE NORTH FACE OF THE EIGER
Translated from the German by
With additional chapters by
HEINRICH HARRER AND KURT MAIX
With an Introduction by
An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
This edition published by Harper Perennial 2005
Previously published in paperback by Flamingo 1995
Previously published in paperback by Paladin 1989
First published in Great Britain by Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd 1959
Revised edition 1965 Second revised edition published by Granada Publishing 1976
Copyright © Heinrich Harrer 1958, 1964
This translation copyright © Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd 1959 Introduction copyright © Joe Simpson 2005 PS section copyright © Miranda Haines 2005
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Heinrich Harrer asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
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Source ISBN: 9780007197842
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The North Face of the Eiger has always held a lingering fascination for me from the moment I finished reading Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider at the age of fourteen. This gripping account of the first ascent in 1938 and the subsequent and often disastrous attempts that followed should really have put me off mountaineering for life. Only a week earlier I had been taken rock climbing on a small limestone crag on the edge of the North York Moors. I was unaware that the arcane world of extreme mountaineering even existed, let alone considered devoting the rest of my life to it. When I closed the book, my head was filled with grim black-and-white images of men fighting for survival in a ferociously steep and unrelentingly dangerous landscape. I could not imagine any more frightening way to die. Avalanches, rock falls crashing past like gun shots, lightning blasting through storm-lashed days, men pinned down unable to escape, dying slowly before the horrified gaze of tourist onlookers in the valley below - why would anyone want to place themselves in such a nightmarish situation? I had no idea, so I read the book again.
I was no better informed at the end of the second reading, but I knew one thing: I wanted to find out. Despite the terrible hardship and awful deaths, I was forcibly struck by the fact that these men had chosen to be there. They couldn’t all be idiots. There must be something very special about mountaineering for these people to think that such risks are worth it. I became a mountaineer inspired by the most gripping and frightening mountaineering book I have ever read.
Eleven years later, much to my chagrin, I found myself hanging helplessly from a rope, battered by avalanches and storm winds, badly injured, and about to plunge into a nightmare every bit as bad as those described in The White Spider. Today, thirty years after reading Harrer’s book, I am astounded by the number of young people who tell me that my account of this survival epic in Peru, Touching the Void, inspired them to take up climbing. It is some consolation to know that my rather odd decision-making processes as a fourteen-year-old are being replicated today.
In many ways The White Spider is an unlikely success. The language can seem archaic and incongruous today. The grainy black-and-white photographs seem old-fashioned compared to the sumptuous photography in modern mountaineering literature. Today, standards of climbing have far outstripped anything that would be found on the 1938 route. It should really be a relic of mountaineering history accessible only to the most avid of climbing aficionados. And yet it is these very criticisms that make it such a fascinating and seminal book.
It is not solely about mountaineering. It is about humanity, courage, strength in adversity, and the power of the mind. It is impossible to read this book without being awed by the single-minded determination of a small band of poorly equipped climbers struggling to survive in a world that few of us can imagine. It is also impossible not to ask why they chose to do such a thing. Unfortunately the only way to understand the answer to that question is by going and doing it yourself. A climber would never ask such a question, and a non-climber would never understand the answer.
When I read of Toni Kurz enduring such a terrible, drawn-out death, hanging alone on a rope, his companions dead around him, his rescuers tantalizingly out of reach, I was horrified and fascinated in equal measure. This, I was later to discover, is the essence of mountaineering: that strange mixture of fear and excitement, the addiction of apprehension and anticipation without which mountaineering would simply be another sport. It is far, far more than sport. It is not done to win a game, to gain a gold medal, to beat a fellow competitor. It is a nonsensical game of life, and it is this absurd pointlessness that makes it so addictive. If death were not ever present many would not be drawn to it. Death, in a paradoxical way, validates the life-affirming nature of the game played. It becomes, in the end, a lifestyle rather than a sport; a game of risk in which what you stand to lose far outweighs whatever you could possibly win. After many years I finally understood what Toni Kurz thought was worth dying for, and yet I could never describe it properly to others. That in itself was reason enough to do it.
The White Spider is at once the most exciting and compulsively gripping of books and at the same time repellent and disturbing. Heroic in scale, legendary in the stories of long-lost lives that it recounts, it allows readers to experience vicariously the terror and the exultation of mountaineering from the warm comfort of their armchairs. It leaves you with a haunted sense of wonder. As you close the book you are confused by the life-enhancing delight of climbing that shines through stories of the most appalling human experiences. It leaves you filled with apprehension and wondering what it would be like to be up there on the forbidding fastness of that storm-lashed face.
Harrer writes about the aura of fatality of the Eiger’s North Face and of the ‘hunted’ feeling that climbers experience on the climb. The grim history lies scattered all around. Broken pitons, the shattered rocks strewn with the debris of past ascents, torn rucksacks, tattered ropes drifting in the wind, indistinguishable scraps of colour-drained clothing, the unshakable sense of other people’s tragedies found in lonely spots all over the face. I had always been haunted by the North Face of the Eiger.
In September 2000, when Ray Delaney and I made our first attempt on the 1938 route, it was less a climb and more a pilgrimage in the footsteps of our heroes. It was exciting and frightening and loaded with the psychological baggage of all that we knew about it. We too felt that hunted sensation as we mutely witnessed the deaths of two young men, then crept, cowed and haunted, back to the safety of the valley. We tried again during the following two summers, beaten back each time by foul weather and cold, uncomfortable bivouacs. Today we still think about returning to this seminal mountain to complete our farewell ascent to a lifetime of mountaineering that was inspired, for me at least, almost entirely by reading The White Spider.
One successful ascensionist described his time on the face: ‘I seemed to have been in a dreamland; not a dreamland of rich enjoyment, but a much more beautiful land where burning desires were translated into deeds.’ That to me was inspirational. The words of an intelligent, sensitive man who had ‘in complete harmony … a perfectly fashioned body, a bright, courageous mind and a receptive spirit’. A man who thought that sometimes in life it was worth gambling far more than you could ever possibly win.
Sheffield September 2004
Joe Simpson is the author of Touching the Void and The Beckoning Silence.
“WRITING a book about the North Face of the Eiger? Whatever for?” The question was put to me by a man of some standing in Alpine circles. I was taken aback and slightly cross, so I gave him a somewhat off-hand answer: “For people to read, of course.”
That started him off on a passionate tirade.
“Who’s likely to read it? Don’t you think the handful of climbers who are really interested in that crazy venture have had quite enough literature on the subject already? Or do you just want to join the sensation-mongers, from whose ranks a serious climber like yourself should keep as remote as possible?”
I answered him: “If all climbers shared your point of view, it wouldn’t be surprising to find the newspaper reports overflowing with misstatements and exaggerations. I believe the public has a right to authoritative information, especially when mountaineering problems become human ones. And I think it is a climber’s duty to contribute to the formation of public opinion in such matters.”
And with that I dropped the unpleasant argument.
However, he had failed to shake my purpose to write a book about the Eiger. I had already been engaged on the preliminary work for months, indeed for years. My home was piled high with books, periodicals, newspaper-cuttings—about two thousand of them in various languages—on the subject of the Eiger’s North Face. I had written, and received replies to, innumerable letters. Every letter from a climber who had actually done the North Face was a personal document and, more than that, the documentation of a personality. I had no intention of allowing the History of the Eiger’s North Face to become a mere calendar of climbs, its foreground theme was to be the men who had done those climbs.
This man, who was so shocked at the idea of my writing a book about the North Face of the Eiger, was akin to a certain type of climber, who plants himself on a pedestal of extreme exaltation and merely smiles superciliously at the nonsensical idea of writing for the layman about climbing. But one cannot ignore public opinion and at the same time expect it to judge one sympathetically and intelligently.
No less an authority than the late Geoffrey Winthrop Young, one of the Grand Old Men of British climbing and outstanding in its literature, recognised the demands of the age and dealt with them in his article “Courage and Mountain Writing”. He understood well enough the general public’s thirst for sensation, but he faced it squarely and yet refused to give in to it.
“The modern lay-public,” he writes, “is now ready to read mountain adventures among its other sensational reading. It still demands excitement all the time. The cut rope is no longer essential, and the blonde heroine has less appeal, now that she has to climb in nailed boots and slacks. It wants records, above all. Records in height, records in endurance, hair-breadth escapes on record rock walls, and a seasoning of injuries, blizzards, losses of limbs and hazards of life…. I have suggested that the writers and producers of mountain books must also take some of the responsibility….”
Responsibility with regard to the subject-matter—responsibility with regard to the wishes of the reader. The key to a proper comprehension and understanding between the layman and the climber may well lie here.
And how is the climber to write? In Young’s view: “If he is to be read by human beings, he must write his adventures exactly as he himself humanly saw them at the time. General or objective description, such as satisfied the slower timing of the last two centuries, now reads too slowly, and is dull.”
But how can he avoid becoming a positive bore, if he intends to write a whole book about a single Alpine mountain-face and the solitary route up it? Once again I will quote Young: “However well-known the peak, or the line of ascent, no mountain story need ever repeat itself, or seem monotonous. Both mountain surface and mountain climber vary from year to year, even from day to day.”
There is no mountain, no mountain-face anywhere, of which that can more truly be said than of the Eiger and its North Face. And all the men concerned—those who succeeded, or those who tried and failed—were all sharply defined personalities. No two of them were alike.
“A book about the Eiger? Whatever for?”
The question continued to rankle, though probably the man who asked it never intended to make me angry. Yet the barb persisted. And, though I needed neither an explanation nor a justification for my undertaking, I was greatly heartened to read the following words in an article by Albert Eggler, the well-known Alpine climber and leader of the Swiss Everest Expedition of 1956: “However, we Westerners more especially, who owe the improvements of our lifetime to the selfless devotion of a few exceptionally courageous and probably highly zealous men, ought not to be too hard on people who take on an assignment which in the end proves too big for them. Men who take unusual risks are not by any means the worst types. But what we could and should do is to open the eyes of young climbers in appropriate fashion to the very special dangers of the mountains. And in this direction, a great and worth-while duty still lies before the Alpine clubs and Alpine publications generally.”
But was the duty really worth while? Was it really a duty? And, if it was, dared I, could I perform it? I kept on remembering that question: “a book about the Eiger? Whatever for?” I am not usually the kind of person to dither about a selected target, or about a route, once I have recognised it as the right one. To spur me on, I had all the mass of writings and photographs, the notebooks, the letters, much of the material already sorted and arranged under the individual attempts on and ascents of the Face. But those misgivings aroused by a thoughtless remark were a poor source of driving power to start me on my work.
Then, one day, my old friend Kurt Maix called on me. In Austria there is no need to introduce Kurt. In his own country everyone who has anything to do with mountains or mountaineering knows him. His ability to describe things graphically has enabled him to interest laymen and those who know nothing of mountains in Alpine affairs, and to tell the devoted readers he has won for himself in this way everything he wants to, and everything he knows how to, about climbing and climbers. And that means plenty. For not only was he in his day a pretty sporting climber; but he continues to take a lively, indeed a passionate, interest in everything to do with mountains and mountaineers. He is no hack-writer; every report on a climb, an expedition, a successful ascent, or an accident is a living experience for him. And though Maix is a journalist and writes by profession, he has never renounced his role as the mountaineer he remains at heart.
I was delighted to see Kurt again, but it was high time I were getting on with my book. After our first joyous greetings, I said to him: “I’m sorry I haven’t much time for you. I’m up to my neck in work.”
“So I hear,” said Kurt. “They tell me you are writing a book about your African trip and Ruwenzori.”
“No, not about Ruwenzori,” I confessed.
“Then what is it about?”
I hesitated a little. Perhaps I was afraid of another answer like the one which had made me so angry a few days ago. Then I blurted out:” About the North Face of the Eiger.”
Kurt looked surprised for a moment; then he said, with obvious delight: “But that’s grand news!”
Still a little dubious, I asked him: “What’s grand about it?”
“Why, that you’re the one who’s going to write the book about the Eiger. Not only because you were one of the party which made the first ascent. But because a book of yours will have more effect on our youngsters than a thousand warnings from elsewhere. They’ll believe you.”
“Certainly, there will have to be warnings,” I said.
Kurt shook his head vigorously.” No,” he said,” I don’t mean that you will warn them in the ordinary sense. You won’t raise a minatory finger, with a superior smile. All you will need to do is to present the Face as it actually is. Its history is more than a record of mountaineering disasters and successes. It is a history of human development and human tragedies. Someone had to write this book about the Eiger some time. I would have done it myself, if—”
“If I were properly qualified to do it. But this is a book which can only be written by someone with personal experience of the Face. General mountaineering knowledge, imagination, reconstructions and a study of the sources, all these aren’t sufficient here.”
I remembered a broadcast I had heard, the previous year. Fischer-Karwin, the Austrian Radio’s star interviewer, had been asking Kurt Maix for his views about the mountaineering accidents of the summer of 1957. Kurt had answered: “I refuse to lump the tragedies on the Eiger Wall together with other accidents which resulted from carelessness or insufficient experience. Anyone who makes headway on the North Face of the Eiger and survives there for several days has achieved and overcome so much—whatever mistakes he may have committed—that his performance is well above the comprehension of the average climber.”
And now here was Kurt, thrilled at my determination to write the book. His enthusiasm was infectious and convincing. Had I really been annoyed a few days ago by a thoughtless remark? I had already forgotten about it. Suddenly, I saw a strange picture before my eyes. I was standing at the bottom of a high and difficult mountain face, intending to climb it solo. Then I was joined by another solitary climber who, too, stood looking up the face, just as I had stood, searching, studying, assessing. An unexpected meeting, a brief word of greeting, and a decision was born to climb the face as a pair.
Following a spontaneous impulse, I asked Kurt: “Will you help me with the book? There is so much basic material that it needs continual revision and sifting. Thoughts and questions keep on cropping up which call for definite answers. It is often very hard to provide the right answer oneself. Could you stay for a few days?”
Kurt stayed for many days. We worked like demons, from morning till night. We wallowed in reports and statements, made notes, headings, began to write things down, mostly each working on his own. But we both looked forward to the evenings, when we joined up again and shared the experiences and fresh knowledge the day had brought. Those evenings frequently extended far into the night, occupied by long conversations which always seemed too short. Everything always revolved about the North Face of the Eiger. Yet it was a focus from which our thoughts could range outwards in all directions. And from some small occurrence on the Face we often travelled directly to life’s most serious problems. Memories which I had long since thought deeply overlaid came vividly to life again. A great deal of what was eventually set down and developed in the book arose out of our nightly talks. They were good days, those, with Kurt as my companion, and both of us spiritually in the shadow of the Eiger’s Face.
I have always been disappointed when climbers who lead a first ascent on a difficult climb fail to acknowledge the support of the second man on the rope. One loses nothing by reporting that the rope moved through the safeguarding hands of one’s partner while one was mastering an overhang. And now that the book about the North Face of the Eiger is finished, I would like to shake hands with Kurt Maix, just as I would on reaching a summit.
But there are many others besides Kurt whom I must thank for their share in the completion of this book. Their role has been that of the porters and team-mates on an expedition, who pitch camps and shuttle loads, so that the assault party can push on up to the top. The late Othmar Gurtner, that great Swiss mountaineer, author and editor, provided me, out of his rich store of knowledge, with endless facts, basic sources and special Eiger-documentation. How grateful I was for my acquaintance with Guido Tonella, who wields his pen for truth and justice as bravely as any Cavalier of old his sword. How gratefully I recognised in my correspondence with Lionel Terray and Gaston Rébuffat that brotherly comradeship which unites all climbers. And what thanks I owe to all the others who helped me, by their letters and reports, in my labours of compiling this book. Anderl Heckmair, Erich Vanis, Erich Waschak, Sepp Jöchler, Karl Blach, Sepp Larch, Jean Fuchs, Karl Gramminger, Alfred Hellepart…. Technical considerations alone prevent my naming all the others to whom my thanks are due. And then there are the dead, whose memories, whose achievements and whose letters survive as living witnesses of strong and good men: Fritz Kasparek, Ludwig Vörg, Hans Schlunegger, Karl Reiss, Jürgen Wellenkamp, Hermann Buhl and Louis Lachenal.
As I write these lines, the summer of 1958 has begun. It is five years since the last party succeeded in climbing the North Face of the Eiger—the twelfth to reach the top safe and sound. So far there has been no thirteenth. I know that within the next few weeks some keen young climbers will be trying to break the barrier of Tragedy which seems to hang over the thirteenth climb of the Face. They are continually in my thoughts.
Easy enough to say it; but I mean it in all sincerity. I mean it as seriously as I mean the warning every reader of this book can draw from its pages. Obviously I could not fail to do justice to the rare beauty and the unique size of this mighty Face and of the route which leads up it; that would have been letting myself down. But I can only hope that Kurt Maix was right when he said: “No one who reads your book can fail to know, afterwards, whether he belongs on the Face or not….”
A few days ago two climbers came to see me. One of them was young Brandler, the very same Brandler who in 1956 saw Moosmüller and Söhnel go plunging to their death near the Difficult Crack. In those two years since Moosmüller’s falling body brushed past him, a boy has grown into a man who knows what responsibility means. He has worked hard and become a good mountaineer, not only an exceptional rock-climber. This summer he wants to try the Face again. His rope-mate is to be Hias Noichl, that outstanding Tirolean mountaineer and long-distance ski-runner. Brandler asked my advice about equipment for the climb. Ought I to have dodged the responsibility, by warning him and begging him not to try the Face again?
I could see that both were well-trained and well-prepared for an attempt on the Face. I could see that the character and skill of both men would make for a harmonious rope of two. I gave young Brandler as much advice as I could. We spoke in a matter-of-fact way without a touch of sentiment. Even when we said goodbye, I refrained from voicing the hope against hope which had been welling up within me all the time—“Come back safe, my friends….”
But I watched them both for a long time, as they went further and further away down the road….
Berge der Welt (Schweizerische Stiftung für Alpine Forschungen), Büchergilde Gutenberg, Zürich-Frankfurt, 1955. English edition: The Mountain World 1955, Allen and Unwin, London.
The success of Kurt Diemberger and Wolfgang Stefan is described in the Epilogue.—Translator’s note.
IT is common form to congratulate people on their birthdays. It is also customary to pay a suitable tribute to buildings, cities and associations when they reach a certain age. Biographies and autobiographies are written, and historical records, from the most comprehensive tomes to the smallest pamphlet. Why, then, not write a book to celebrate the birthday of a mountain, or even of a face of that mountain?
Admittedly, it is not the birthday celebration of the mountain or the face itself, but the remembrance of the day which first brought a human being into direct personal contact with it—the remembrance of the first ascent of a peak or the first successful climb of a face.
The 13,041-foot summit of the Eiger, in the Bernese Oberland, was first trodden by the foot of man just a hundred years ago, in 1858. Its North Face was climbed for the first time only twenty years ago, in 1938, and it was the climbing of this Face that first made the Eiger world-famous. Thanks to this, its name has become better-known than that of the Matterhorn or Mont Blanc. It has become familiar to millions of readers of innumerable newspaper reports; it has been mentioned hundreds of times on the radio. It became the epitome of everything tragically sensational that mountaineering had to offer the reader. When millions, who had never seen either the mountain or the Face, formed their own picture of it, it could hardly help being a caricature. What I propose to do here is to draw a true picture of it; one which will be hardly less exciting, but whose drama will be based on truth and fact, not on the uninformed imaginings of some pen-pusher. For the true story of the Eiger’s North Face is even more terrible and more glorious than men have yet been able to discover.
I am one of the party of four who, in July 1938, just twenty years ago, first succeeded in climbing the North Face. My memory of it is like a birthday celebration of my own, and has accompanied me to this day without ever diminishing in strength. Not even my great experience in Tibet, which gave such a decisive twist to my life, has ever succeeded in cancelling it out; nor did the memory ever fade during the thirteen years I spent in Asia.
I do not think any one of us who climbed that 6,000-foot bastion of rock and ice was at any time in fear of his life. But after our safe return from the venture we felt more conscious of the privilege of having been allowed to live; and this feeling of awareness has never left me since that climb of the mighty North Face. Maybe my memory of the Eiger’s Face has often given me the strength, the patience and the confidence to cope with apparently hopeless and dangerous situations, and helped me to believe in life at times when all the circumstances seemed most hostile to life itself.
Self-confidence is the most valuable gift a man can possess, but it is not a gift freely granted. The blindly arrogant possess it least of all. To possess this true confidence, it is necessary to have learned to know oneself at moments when one was standing on the very frontier of things, times when one could even cast a glance over to “the other side”. And then one had to examine oneself with unsparing clarity to establish what one felt, thought or did at such a moment.
On the “Spider” in the Eiger’s North Face I experienced such borderline situations, while the avalanches were roaring down over us, endlessly. This sector of the Eiger’s upper wall has won its name from its external likeness to a gigantic spider. Seldom has an exterior attracted a name which at the same time suits the inner nature of the object named so completely. The “Spider” on the Eiger’s Face is white. Its body consists of ice and eternal snow. Its legs and its predatory arms, all hundreds of feet long, are white, too. From that perpetual, fearfully steep field of frozen snow nothing but ice emerges to fill gullies, cracks and crevices. Up and down. To left, to right. In every direction, at every angle of steepness.
And there the “Spider” waits.
Every climber who picks his way up the North Face of the Eiger has to cross it. There is no way round it. And even those who moved best and most swiftly up the Face have met their toughest ordeal on the “Spider”. Someone once compared the whole Face to a gigantic spider’s web catching the spider’s victims and feeding them to her. This comparison is unfounded, exaggerated, and merely a cheap way of making the flesh creep. Neither the savage wall nor the lovely mountain have deserved this slur. Nor have the climbers; for climbers are not flies and insects stumbling blindly to their fate, but men of vision and courage. All the same, the “White Spider” seems to me to be a good symbol for the North Face. The climber has to face its perils on the final third of the wall, when he is tired from many hours and days of exhausting climbing and weakened by chilly bivouacs. But there is no rest to be had there, no matter how tired you are.
He who wishes to survive the spate of avalanches which sweep the “Spider” must realise that there is no escape from this dangerously steep obstacle; he must know how to blend his strength with patience and reflection. Above the “Spider” begin the overhanging, iced-up exit cracks; that is where sheer strength tells. But here the man who abandons patience and good sense for fear-induced haste will surely finish up like the fly which struggles so long in the spider’s web that it is caught through sheer exhaustion.
The “White Spider” on the Eiger is the extreme test not only of a climber’s technical ability, but of his character as well. Later on in life, when fate seemed to spin some spider’s web or other across my path, my thoughts often went back to the “White Spider”. Life itself demanded the same methods, the same qualities, when there no longer seemed to be any possible escape from its difficulties, as had won us a way out of the difficulties of the Eiger’s North Face—common-sense, patience and open-eyed courage. Haste born of fear and all the wild stunts arising from it can only end in disaster.
I remember a saying of Schopenhauer’s: “Just as the wayfarer only surveys and recognises the road he has come when he reaches some high place and can look back over it in its entirety, so we ourselves are only able to recognise and value a stage in our life when it is over.” The North Face of the Eiger and the crossing of the “White Spider” were for me an expedition and a stage in my life at one and the same time; though I only realised it a good deal later. Today I have no doubt whatever about the invaluable contribution a difficult and, in the eyes of many, an incredibly dangerous climb on a mountain can make to a man’s later life. I do not believe in a blind Fate which dominates us; nor can I unreservedly agree with Schopenhauer’s statement—” Fate shuffles the cards, we play them.” I am quite certain that we have a hand in the shuffling.
There is nothing new to be said about the behaviour of man in exceptional circumstances of danger or crisis. It has all been thought and said already. But if I had to write an entry in the autograph-album of the worshippers of blind Chance and inevitable Fate I could not find better words than those used by the Athenian, Menander, more than two thousand years ago. “A man’s nature and way of life are his fate, and that which he calls his fate is but his disposition.” This truth was brought home to me clearly for the first time on the slope of the “White Spider”. Perhaps all four of us were the fortunate owners of a disposition which was the basic factor in our successful climb; training, scientific preparations and equipment being only very necessary adjuncts.
The North Face of the Eiger was described for the first time in Alpine literature by A. W. Moore, whose splendid book The Alps in 1864does full justice to its savage grandeur. Moore, with his guides and companions—among whom there was a lady, Miss Walker—made the third ascent of the Eiger on July 25th, 1864; then they climbed a little way further, along the North-West Ridge, from which they could look straight down the precipitous North Face.
“Of the thousands,” Moore writes, “who annually pass under the shadow of this magnificent wall, which in height and steepness alike excels the corresponding face of the Wetterhorn, few can have failed to be impressed with its rugged and precipitous character. But grand and striking as is the view of the cliffs from below, no one who has not looked down them as we now did can appreciate them properly. Except in the Dauphiné, I have never seen so sheer and smooth a precipice. A stone dropped from the edge would have fallen hundreds of feet before encountering any obstacle to its progress. It is rather remarkable (and fortunate) that while the northern face of this great mass of rock is cut away abruptly, in such an inaccessible manner, its western face should be so comparatively easy and practicable….”
“Inaccessible”—it never occurred to Moore that there could be even the possibility of making a way up this wall, in which the eye can detect no holds at all. E. H. Stevens, who produced the new edition of Moore’s book in 1939, added a footnote to the above description of that terrific Face. It reads: “This is the terrible ‘Eigerwand’ (the western section of the North Face) which in the last two or three years has been the scene of such shocking disasters to several parties attempting, with reckless and ill-considered daring,to solve this last and greatest of Alpine problems. The ascent was finally achieved in 1938.”
As one who belonged to the party which succeeded in the first ascent of the Face in 1938, I should like to observe—with due respect for our critic’s judgment—that I neither felt mentally deranged twenty years ago nor consider myself mad now.
It has been widely deplored that the very creed of mountaineering should have been debased by the climbs and attempts on this particular Face, in that it has become an arena, a natural stage, on which every movement of the actors can be followed. And the applause accorded to successful climbers on their return is argued as another outward sign of their inward decay….
Nobody regrets it more than the men themselves who climb on the Eiger’s North Face. They desire nothing more than peace and quiet; they do not want to be looked at. They long for the days of their grandfathers when nobody took any notice of climbers or bothered to watch them. Full of nostalgia for those good old days, I read the end of Moore’s account of his first climb of the mountain, the return to Wengern Alp. Alas, my yearnings for peace and quiet and a tranquil ending to that fine performance were not to be granted, even then. This is what I read: “Hence, running over the easy rocks and smooth snow, we got to the gazon at 2.40, and after a rapid walk over the pastures, amidst the firing of guns at the hotel, which was commenced as soon as we appeared in sight, at 3.10 p.m. once more arrived at the Wengern Alp, where we were received with an amount of enthusiasm and hand-shaking that was quite overpowering….”
That happened on July 25th 1864, at the height of the “golden age” of Alpine climbing. Am I really supposed to be disappointed because the climbers of the day were just human beings, with all the human weaknesses and follies? All I can do is to record, with a smile of amusement, that when we got back nobody fired off any guns to greet us. They certainly had more feeling for style and dramatic effects a hundred years ago!
When was the Eiger first climbed, then?
We know now that it was on August 11th 1858. But when I looked for a report about this still considerable achievement of a first ascent in the contemporary issues of the Alpine Journal, I had no luck at all. It was said that a Mr. Harrington or Harington had reached the summit with some guides. This was the only mention of the name Harrington, and small wonder; for the name of the first man to climb the Eiger was not Harrington at all, but Barrington. Mr. Charles Barrington.
It was not till 1883, twenty-five years after his first ascent, that Barrington wrote his long-overdue report in the shape of a letter to the editor of the Alpine Journal. From this article-in-form-of-a-letter we learn that Barrington—himself not even a member of the Alpine Club, which was just one year old at the time of his climb—arrived at Grindelwald early in August 1858 and engaged two celebrated guides, Christian Aimer and Peter Bohren, the latter being characterised by his nickname of the “Wolf of the Glaciers”. On August 6th they climbed to the Strahlegg and on the 9th ascended the Jungfrau from the cave in the Faulberg, returning to Grindelwald the same evening. Glacier-burn must have played havoc with Barrington’s face, for he describes, in his humorous way, how he spent the night, “sleeping with a beefsteak on my face….”
But young Mr. Charles was by no means satisfied with his Alpine performances. With all the liberality of a man who hasn’t a farthing in his pocket, but still enquires the price of the World, he asked what else there was to do. Good advice costs little, its implementation is expensive. “You could do the Matterhorn—or the Eiger. Neither has been climbed as yet,” came the answer.
The Matterhorn was way over there in the Valais and would doubtless cost much more. At Grindelwald the Eiger was right in front of one’s nose and there was enough money for it. So the Eiger be it! About midnight on August 10th Charles and his guides arrived at Wengern Alp. Barrington lay down on a sofa and slept for three hours. At 3 a.m. on the 11th, Barrington, Aimer and Bohren left the inn and started off for the Eiger. As soon as they reached the rocks, Barrington, according to his own account, took over the lead. Thanks to young Charles’s delight in rock-climbing, they went up, not by the normal route in use today, but almost straight up the crest of the North-West Ridge, and reached the summit well before noon. On the descent, they followed the Couloir and went on down the slope over which the usual ascent route runs today. They still had a few adventures to contend with. Twice they were almost swept away by avalanches; fortunately it was only “almost”, and four hours after leaving the summit the three men were all safely back at Wengern Alp. Barrington ends his account thus: “Thus ended my first and only visit to Switzerland. Not having money enough to try the Matterhorn, I went home…. Had I not been as fit as my old horse ‘Sir Robert Peel’ when I won the ‘Irish Grand National’ with him, I would not have seen half the course….”
He was a true sportsman—a word with which the English chronicler acknowledges alike Charles Barrington’s exploits and the tone of his report. So it seems that the racing motif as one of the mainsprings of the Alpine urge is by no means the contribution of modern, decadent youth. It has smouldered unseen in the youth of every age, whenever that youth is as “fit as Sir Robert Peel”, and has always stirred mountaineers, starting with the Balmat-Paccard conflict, and continuing through the rivalry of Whymper and Carrel, to Buhl versus Rébuffat among the young men of today. The unique thing about the urge to climb is that it springs from many other bodily, spiritual and ethical motives besides its purely “sporting” basis. It is impossible to classify mountaineering, or to integrate it with a stratum of the cultural life of today. It must be accorded its own unique place, just as the waywardness of mountaineers cannot be eradicated from the scheme of things.
The history of the Eiger is a typical piece of Alpine history. First came this Charles Barrington who, in all the simplicity of his uninformed upward urge, “bagged” the peak, merely because the Matterhorn was too expensive. Just a year later we find here one of the most gifted brains and sensitive spirits which has ever climbed in the Alps, a nature as far removed from “Sir Robert Peel” as it could possibly be. This was Leslie Stephen, who traversed the Eigerjoch in 1859 with George and William Matthews and three guides.
The South-West Ridge was climbed in 1874, the South Ridge in 1876. In 1885 some Grindelwald guides succeeded in descending the Mittellegi Ridge, always the shortest direct route between their village and the Eiger’s summit, had it not been so difficult. They roped down the great rock pitch in the upper part of the ridge.
1912 brought the triumph of Science, for in that year the Jungfrau Railway was completed. The line runs for miles in the very heart of the mountain, through the Eiger’s rocky core. Only two windows open out from the tunnel into the air of the North Face; and these were destined to play their part one day in the tragedies yet to be enacted on that grim precipice.
It was not till 1921 that the Mittellegi Ridge was at last ascended. Once again the success was scored by three Grindelwald guides, Fritz Amatter, Samuel Brawand and Fritz Steuri senior, accompanied by a tourist, a very youthful Japanese, Yuko Maki. Thirty-five years later he was destined to lead a successful Japanese attempt on the eighth-highest mountain in the world, 26,650-foot Manaslu. Yuko Maki was the first to forge a direct link, so to speak, between the Eiger and the Himalaya. Later on, it was of course perfectly natural for the names of many of those who have climbed the North Face of the Eiger to appear and reappear in the story of the world’s highest peaks.
1932 saw the last great first-ascent in the classical style on the Eiger, When Dr. Hans Lauper and Alfred Zürcher, those outstanding Swiss climbers, with two world-famous Valaisian guides, Josef Knubel and Alexander Graven, reached the summit of the Eiger by the North-East Face.
Every side of this mighty peak had now been climbed, except one only: the absolutely unclimbable, the “impossible” Eiger Wall, which receives and retains the bad weather as it comes raging in on the mountain from the north and north-west; the wall, high up on which the “White Spider”, with its slender arms, hundreds of feet long, all of snow and ice, seems to be waiting, clawing the rocks.
It was not the “Spider” which was waiting. It was men who were waiting—the young men. They were waiting and biding their time. For now there was no longer a Matterhorn to be climbed for the first time, there were no more virgin summits such as the pioneers of the “Golden Age” could select at will. The last of the great faces had gone, too. In 1931, the brothers Schmid had scaled the North Face of the Matterhorn and in 1935 the North Wall of the Grandes Jorasses had fallen to Peters and Maier.
But what about the great Face of the Eiger—the wall over which the “White Spider” brooded?
Was it really impossible, or was there perhaps, after all, a way to its top?
No one who had not tried could answer that question. Someone had to come and be the first to try it.
And in the summer of 1935 someone came.
The Alps in 1864, by A. W. Moore, edited by E. H. Stevens. Basil Blackwood, Oxford, 1939.
The author in his original has rendered these words as “resulting from a sick mind”.—Translator’s note.
A.J., February 1883.
Leslie Stephen, The Playground of Europe.
IT is not only the young who are “ready with words”. The broad mass of the public is ever ready to express a glib opinion about events and matters which it does not and cannot understand. It passes judgment and condemns, giving the descriptions of “folly” and “a gamble for life” to what are in truth “a love of adventure” and “the preservation of life”. Modern science and psychology have also provided a phraseology in support of its criticism and condemnation. “Inverted inferiority complexes”, “Self-justification of the maladjusted”, “Mock-heroism of failures in life”—one could produce a list, pages long, of the expressions which have been used to delineate at once the good sense and the nonsense of mountaineering and to damn it at the same time.
But, are we really supposed to believe, for example, that in 1888 Fridtjof Nansen set out to cross the inland ice of Greenland on skis because he was suffering from an inferiority complex? Or that the great Norwegian explorer and campaigner for peace undertook that remarkable journey simply to serve the cause of Science? What lured him on was, of course, the great adventure, the eternal longing of every truly creative man to push on into unexplored country, to discover something entirely new—if only about himself. In that lies the detonating spark, the secret source of strength, which enables men to achieve the extraordinary. Is it good sense or nonsense? Who can decide? Who dares to deliver judgment? Should the adventurer outlive and survive his adventure, and should it result in a tangible, easily comprehensible success, the Public is generous with its applause. It is only too ready to haul into the glare of publicity and set upon a hero’s pedestal—after he has succeeded—the very man it previously scorned, condemned to ridicule, accused of irresponsibility. Contempt and hero-worship are equally unhealthy and both can lead to mischief. But ever since men have existed, the enterprising and daring men have had to translate their “out-of-the-ordinary” ideas into deeds somewhere between the two extremes of scorn and rejection on the one hand and recognition and adulation on the other. And it will always be so.
Where mountaineering is concerned, there is an additional difficulty. With the best will in the world no one can inject a secret element of general usefulness to mankind into a climb of the Eiger’s North Face. Such a climb must remain a personal triumph for the climber himself. And however many considerations of material weight one may adduce, they do not bear comparison with the risk, the indescribable labours and difficulties, which demand the very uttermost ounce of physical, spiritual and mental resistance. To win fame at the expense of that horrific wall? Of course ambition plays a great part in such a venture. Yet, a mere fraction of the energy evoked, coupled with the cool judgment required, would lead to outstanding success, to fame and an assured livelihood in any calling, or any less dangerous form of sporting activity, you may name.
Self-examination? Compensation for an inferiority complex? A climber who dares to tackle the North Face of the Eiger must have examined and proved himself a hundred times in advance. And suppose he has at some time suffered from complexes—and where is the man who has not, unless he is satisfied with the dull existence of a mere vegetable?—he must have found the right adjustment long before he gets there. A climb of the North Face as a counterbalance to hysteria? A hysteric, an unstable character, would go to pieces at the very sight of the Wall, just as surely as every mask of the kind men wear before one another in the daily round of life falls away in face of this menacing bastion of rock and ice.
Let us grant courage and the love of pure adventure their own justification, even if we cannot produce any material support for them. Mankind has developed an ugly habit of only allowing true courage to the killers. Great credit accrues to the one who bests another; little is given to the man who recognises in his comrade on the rope a part of himself, who for long hours of extreme peril faces no opponent to be shot or struck down, but whose battle is solely against his own weakness and insufficiency. Is the man who, at moments when his own life is in the balance, has not only to safeguard it but, at the same time, his friend’s—even to the extent of mutual self-sacrifice—to receive less recognition than a boxer in the ring, simply because the nature of what he is doing is not properly understood? In his book about the Dachstein,Kurt Maix writes: “Climbing is the most royal irrationality out of which Man, in his creative imagination, has been able to fashion the highest personal values.” Those personal values, which we gain from our approach to the mountains, are great enough to enrich our life. Is not the irrationality of its very lack of purpose the deepest argument for climbing? But we had better leave philosophical niceties and unsuitable psycho-analysis out of this.
First, let us take a glance at the two men who in mid-August 1935 took up their quarters in a cow-hut among the meadows of Alpiglen, which they proposed to use as their base—the first two ever to dare an attempt on that mighty Face, Max Sedlmayer and Karl Mehringer. They were wiry, well-trained types, men with frank, wholesome faces. Not theirs the steely iron-hard features of legendary heroes, or of filmstars of a certain stamp. One would hardly have noticed them in the ordinary way, probably because they were just that little bit more reserved, quieter and likeable than the average young man. Their calm and relaxed demeanour marked them out as people who had a firm standing in every-day life, men who had no need either to justify themselves by an unusually perilous venture, which might cost them their lives, or to await the applause of the masses to tell them who they were.
The very way in which Sedlmayer and Mehringer went about the reconnaissance of the Face spoke volumes for their character. They approached their mountain calmly and without fuss. There was no challenging smile on their faces, no show of conceit. They knew well enough the measure of their undertaking and went about their preparations in all seriousness. Of course the real preparation, the spiritual mentality, the long years of hard training, the sober assessment of their own capabilities, all these already lay far behind them. They were not world-famous; only a narrow circle of friends knew them. These sternest of critics, all members of the climbing élite, knew that Sedlmayer and Mehringer were among the best, the most careful, the toughest and most penetrative of climbers, tested and tried a hundred times over on the severest of climbs.
But even if you choose a herdsman’s hut as your base, you cannot keep your most secret plans secret in a tourists’ centre. The rumour filtered through that there were two men intending to attempt the North Face of the Eiger. There were plenty of well-intentioned, warning voices. But what is the use of warnings and advice? Nobody knew anything about the Face, then; all that was known was its grim, ever-changing countenance—ice, rock, snow… avalanches… volleys of falling stones. An unfriendly, merciless countenance. All anybody could say was: “Don’t climb the Face, it is horrible.” But was its horror stronger than Man’s will-power, than his capacity? Who could answer that question? Nobody had yet been on the Face. Sedlmayer and Mehringer would be the first. And they were preparing themselves for this climb as for no other climb in their lives. They knew that this was no mere case of a difficult first-ascent, but of a positive irruption into the Vertical, which the two of them were making. How long would it last? Two or three days, or more? They took provisions along for six days. Their equipment, too, was the best yet seen at that time. The worst of it was that they didn’t yet know what was most essential for the Eiger’s North Face; was that Face of ice, was it of rock? Not even long study through a strong telescope could answer that question, for the Face continually altered its appearance from day to day, nay from hour to hour. The only unalterable features were its pitiless magnificence and its utter unapproachability. All experience won from other mountains seemed useless here. Experience of this gigantic wall could only be gained on the Face itself.
The weather would be the decisive factor. The two Munich men knew that only too well. But they also knew that the famous period of settled weather for which they ought, by the strictest of basic climbing rules, to wait, apparently didn’t exist where the North Face of the Eiger was concerned. It might be perfectly fine for miles around; the Eiger and the North Face have their own particular weather. Quite a small cloud, caught in the huge perpendicular upthrust of the Wall’s concave basin, can kindle a fearsome storm of hail, snow and raging winds, while the visitors in Grindelwald, just below down there, are comfortably sunbathing on their chaises-longues. Every shred of weather working up from the plains fights its savage opening engagement on that Face. Even the clouds which have already dumped their load of rain on their approach to the Hills, join up again on the Eiger’s Face with redoubled strength, to fight a last desperate rearguard action before drifting off to float about the other summits as exhausted, harmless tatters of mist. Or else the mere contrast between the cold air trapped on the Face and the sun-warmed air external to it forms a cloud pregnant with tension of its own making, to whip rain, snow and ice into the Eiger’s flanks.
These two men, who believed they had spotted a route—probably the only possible one—up the Face, had noted all this. The lowest point of the Face was at about 6,900 feet. The first 800 feet of the climb—although steep and exposed to falling avalanches and stones—looked difficult but not impossibly so. With field-glasses it was possible to distinguish some holes in the rock up there—the windows of Eigerwand Station on the Jungfrau Railway, which winds its upward way for miles in the heart of the mountain. About 400 yards to the west there is yet another such gallery-window in the Face, the window at the 3-8 kilometre mark from which, during the construction of the line, they used to dump the rubble down the outside of the mountain. Of course, one could take the train to Eigerwand or the window at Kilometre 3-8 and start the climb from there; but one might just as well climb the Eiger by the normal route and only look at the Face. No, the railway inside the mountain was meant for the rest of the world. For the men interested in the climbing of the Face, only one thing counts—a climb, unquestionable in the eyes of sporting and climbing circles, from the lowest point to the 13,041-foot summit of the Eiger.
Sedlmayer and Mehringer studied the Face for days on end, prepared their gear for the climb, lay there for hours on the Alp, looking through field-glasses. Above the railway-window in the Face a vertical rock-step went surging up for more than six hundred feet. Could it be climbed? That could only be decided once you got up there. Above the step gleamed an ice-field, the First Ice-field, as it is now called. How high was it? How steep? Very hard to decide those questions from down below.
Above that again a second rock pitch, followed by a huge sheet of snow and ice, which one would have to ascend diagonally to the left. Then there was a third ice-field, whose rock and ice outlines had a strange shape, almost that of a huge hawk beating upwards with outspread wings. To reach the beak of this hawk one would have to climb a sharp arète leaning against the perpendicular summit-wall at that point—a ridge later christened the “Flatiron” by its climbers. Could all this be climbed? From the ridge one would have to traverse leftwards across that steep, third ice-field, from whose further end an abrupt ramp goes surging diagonally to the left across the Face towards the Mittellegi Ridge. Could it be climbed right up to its top? Could one traverse off it to the right on to the huge snow-field which throws out slender snow- and ice-runnels in every direction like a huge spider crouching above the gulf 5,000 feet beneath? And finally: could one climb from the “Spider” to the Summit through the cracks and couloirs above?
Nobody who had not tried it himself could give a definite answer.
Max Sedlmayer and Karl Mehringer left their shelter in the herdsman’s hut at Alpiglen during the night of August 20th-21st, 1935. At 2 a.m. on the 21st—a Wednesday—they started to climb the Face. As soon as daylight came, queues gathered round the telescopes at Grindelwald and Kleine Scheidegg. All day long people watched the intrepid Munich pair; the criticism of the know-it-alls died away into silence, quenched by admiration and sheer wonder. The two men were climbing magnificently, in spite of the steepness of the Face, in spite of their heavy rucksacks. One could see clearly as they belayed each other, as they roped their rucksacks up difficult pitches after them. Not an ill-judged step or an unconsidered movement. Even the guides, watching everything that goes on in their own sector of the mountains with a suspicious and critical eye, had to admit that they were watching two master-climbers at work.
Following a perfect line of ascent, straight up towards the summit, hardly stopping to rest, Sedlmayer and Mehringer were gaining height steadily, like some perfectly-functioning machine, rope’s length by rope’s length, almost as if they were giving an exhibition at a climbing-school. By dusk, they had disposed of the whole lower section of the Face. At 9,500 feet, 2,600 feet above the point where they started to climb, they bivouacked, well above the windows of Eigerwand Station, whose lights shone down almost like stars.
Thursday dawned. Even the sceptics were now almost convinced that the bid was going to succeed. Indeed many were striking bets that the pair would reach the summit this very day, early in the afternoon. But the Face is terribly deceptive. It was still a long way to the top, and the route as difficult as it was unexplored. The spectators, avid for sensations, showed their disappointment. Their gladiators are a lazy lot. There is only that ridiculous little belt of rock; how high can it be? They turn down their thumbs, shaking their heads angrily. Why, it can’t be much more than sixty feet!
But no. It wasn’t sixty feet, it was more than three hundred. Three hundred feet of vertical rock, up which two heavy rucksacks as well as two men had to come. And these two men were climbers, not gladiators. They tackled the cliff, which was of such a degree of severity that it would have graced some tower in the Dolomites more fittingly than this ghastly Face of the Eiger, belaying and safeguarding one another, neither of them aware that they were being, nor in the least desiring to be, watched. Their thoughts were far from the rest of the world, not through any feeling of superiority, but simply because the mountain had taken complete possession of them and because they were constrained to fight with every fibre of their being, with all the awareness of men in mortal danger, to master the difficult pitch. Stones and fragments of ice began to fall from above; so steep is the cliff that they went whistling far out over their heads. After long hours of punishing work they reached the top of the step in the wall. But by then it was afternoon.
It took the whole afternoon to cross that first, steep ice-field—the one that looks so ludicrously short from below. Again and again they could be seen covering their heads with their rucksacks or using them to give some kind of cover as they moved on. The mountain artillery was at work.
At dusk they bivouacked at the upper rim of the First Ice-field. It was impossible to see from below whether they had room to sit; there could be no question of lying down. They looked as if they were glued to the Wall. It was a very long night, but the weather continued to hold.
All through Friday the spectators watched Sedlmayer and Mehringer, who hardly seemed to be gaining height any more. The traverse from the First to the Second Ice-field seemed to be very difficult, too. The huge size of this field could be gauged by the tiny size of the dots which were men, by the short distances which were none the less rope’s lengths of a hundred feet. Again and again the climbers were forced to halt, clearly to shelter against falling stones and ice fragments. The roping-up of the rucksacks took up much time. Slowly, terribly slowly, they gained height, as the hours raced by like minutes; but still they moved upwards towards the left-hand rim of the Second Ice-field. Everyone was asking: “Where will they bivouac”? No one was destined to see, for a curtain of mist sank slowly down the mountain-face, to sever one world from another.
During the night, the weather broke. A strong gale tore across the ridges, rain pattered down on the valleys and, up above, the wind chased the hail-stones along the mountainsides. At first it was just a thunderstorm; but the crashing of the thunder was shot through with the crackle and rattle of falling stones and ice. So great was the din up on the storm-bound Face that the peaceful sleep of tourists at Alpiglen and above on the Kleine Scheidegg was disturbed.
This appalling weather lasted the whole of Saturday. To the hammering of the falling stones was added the rushing roar of avalanches. The cold grew intense. The night temperature down at the Kleine Scheidegg fell to 8° below zero. What must it be up there, high on the North Face? Could the two men still be alive? Many continued to hope against hope; but no one could know anything of Sedlmayer and Mehringer’s desperate fight for life, for the curtain of cloud never parted for a single instant. Their fifth day on the Face was followed by another murderously cold night.
It was now Sunday, the 25th. Who would have dared to believe that the two men from Munich could still be alive? Then, towards noon, the covering of the mists lifted for a little while. A watcher with his eye glued to the telescope cannot believe his eyes. But suddenly there can be no more doubt and he shouts:
“I can see them! They are still alive! They are moving! Climbing!”
And so in fact they were. One could see the tiny dots, moving slowly upwards across the sheer, smooth shield of ice which leads to the “Flatiron”. So they were really still alive, after five days on this fearful Face, after four bivouacs in spite of the bitter cold, raging storms, avalanches, everything. They were alive and still moving upwards.
Hope flickered again; an unnatural optimism surged up. Surely the lads were going to pull it off in spite of everything. Otherwise, they would certainly have turned back!
But the guides and the climbers, who had spent a life in the mountains, remained silent. One doesn’t announce publicly that one has written men off as lost. The guides and the climbers knew well enough why they hadn’t turned back; it was because the avalanches and the falling stones had caught them in a terrible trap. In addition there were the fearful difficulties of rocks, now plastered with ice and snow, and at the very best swept by cascading waterfalls. The only hope now was to fight a way out to the top. That is what the guides and the climbers knew. They sensed, too, that Sedlmayer and Mehringer, the first two to attempt the North Face, also knew it all too well and were struggling forward simply because one mustn’t give in.
The two men climbed on, towards the arête of the “Flatiron “.
The curtain of the mists closed down again, to hide the last act of the first tragedy of the Eiger’s North Face from the eyes of men.
A gale, whipping the snow-flakes horizontally against the rocks, the thunder of avalanches, the plash of waterfalls, in which the staccato rattle of falling stones mingled shrilly—these were the melody of the Eiger’s Face, the funeral organ-voluntary for Max Sedlmayer and Karl Mehringer.
On Tuesday the 27th, friends of the two men reached the mountain from Munich, among them Sedlmayer’s brother and that Gramminger who was later to achieve world renown in the field of mountain rescue. They tried everything to effect a rescue, but there was nothing left to save. There was nothing to be seen or heard from the summit, from the towers of the West Ridge, or from below. No human sound interrupted the grim voice of the mountain. It was impossible to climb up on to the Face from below. To bring aid from above was out of the question.
Sedlmayer’s brother and his friends—tried and tested climbers all—stood powerless before the fury of unbridled nature.
Swiss military planes tried to fly along the Face during the following days. They discovered no sign of the missing men. Weeks later, on September 19th, when the weather at last improved, came Ernst Udet, Germany’s ace airman. This was an extraordinary twist of fate. In 1928 Dr. Arnold Fanck had introduced Udet to mountain flying during the filming of the “White Hell of Piz Palü”. Then it had been make-believe; Udet had to fly close to an ice-slope to try to locate a party which had lost its way, and to lead the rescue operation. This time it was tragic actuality. Only now there was no question of rescuing anyone only of finding some bodies.
The outstanding Grindelwald guide and ski-runner Fritz Steuri accompanied Udet on his daring venture. Flying to within sixty feet of the cliff, they located one of the missing men—which of them was it?—knee deep in the snow, still upright, frozen to death at the last bivouac at the point of the “Flatiron”, at the upper rim of the Third Ice-field, ever since known as the “Death Bivouac”.
Two men had perished on the Face.
But courage had not been quenched, nor the eternal yearning for adventure, nor the longing to press forward into the unknown. It was decided to search for the bodies next year and, if possible, to bring them down.
All the same, it was possible to recognise the mistakes—avoidable mistakes—the first pair had been bound to make just because they were the first. And if the youth of the climbing world, itself brimming over with life, felt they were fulfilling their duty towards the dead men by trying to bring down their mortal remains, their enthusiasm and imagination were at the same time fired by their thoughts of the menacing Face and the way up it.
Youth didn’t bother its head about the sharp tongues of the wordy warfare which flared up after the first tragedy on the Eiger’s face. It only heard in the mountain’s threats a siren call, a challenge to its own courage. It even invented the pious untruth that it was its duty to fulfil the bequest of the men who had died. Perhaps it even believed it. But the real spur was that inexplicable longing for the eternal adventure.
1936 was to be the year marked by the shattering death of the last survivor of two parties; of the man who tried to come back from the beyond into the world of living men—the year of the tragedy of Toni Kurz.
Kurt Maix, “Im Banne der Dachstein Südwand,” Publishers, Das Bergland Buch, Salzburg, 1952.
As is often the case with mountain folk, whose features have been carved by wind and storm so that they look older in their youth, younger in their old age, Albert von Allmen’s face is ageless. He might be in his middle thirties or his middle fifties.
The mountains have been von Allmen’s strict teachers and loyal friends, even if his profession leads him more into than onto the peaks. For Albert is a Sector-Guard on the Jungfrau Railway. He is responsible for everything along the line inside the Eiger, and sees to it that nothing goes wrong in that long tunnelled section; but he is equally interested in everything that goes on outside. True, he doesn’t quite understand the young people who are trying to climb the terrific Eiger precipice, but, even if he thinks them a little deranged, he has a soft spot for them. Von Allmen’s eyes are kindly eyes. They are surrounded by many little creases which record not only cares and the hard life of the mountains, but also the joy of laughter.
At noon on July 21st 1936 Albert was standing outside the gallery entrance at Kilometre 3-8, after opening the heavy wooden door.
It was a Tuesday. Ever since Saturday the 18th there had been four climbers on the Face; two Austrians, Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer, and two Bavarians, Anderl Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz. Everyone had fallen for the fresh-faced, clean-limbed Toni Kurz, not only because he was himself a professional guide, but because of his laugh. When Toni laughed, it was as if life itself were laughing. All young men, these; Angerer, the eldest, was twenty-seven, Kurz and Hinterstoisser just twenty-three. They had already climbed almost as high on the Face as Sedlmayer and Mehringer the year before, on their ill-fated attempt from which they did not return. But these four would come back safely; what had been seen of them during the last few days gave solid grounds for hope that this time there would be no disaster.
None of those present had seen such magnificent climbing. True, one of the climbers, apparently Angerer, seemed to have been struck by a stone. That was why the party had been moving so slowly for the last two days, and that was probably why they had decided to turn back. The descent over ice-fields and rock cliffs swept by falling stones and avalanches looked ghastly enough; but the four men were moving steadily, if very slowly, downwards towards the safety of the easier ground below, in obvious good heart and without a moment’s hesitation The three fit ones were continually attending to the one who had clearly been hurt. They couldn’t be bad, these lads who looked after each other so well. They must be fine fellows, even if a bit crack-pot.
Albert von Allmen thought of the Sunday tourists and excursionists, the blasé men and the ladies in high heels who went to the tunnel-window at Eigerwand Station and uttered their “ah’s” and “oh’s” as they gazed at what seemed to them the terrifying gulfs and immeasurable heights of the Eiger’s precipice. It was people like those, hungering for sensation, who were now crowding round the telescopes at Grindelwald and Kleine Scheidegg. And then too there were the pronunciamentos of the know-it-all’s, busy weighing up the chances of another catastrophe or of the safe return of four living men to the valley.
They must get back safely, thought Albert. His sympathy lay with Youth, youth generally, but particularly these four youngsters on the Face. It would be a good idea to take a look at them and hear for himself how they were getting on. Allmen pushed back the bolts of the heavy wooden doors and stepped out into the open, as he had done a hundred times before. He was used to the grim aspect of the Face; but that day, perhaps because there were people on it, it seemed particularly horrific. A layer of glassy ice overlaid the rock; here and there a stone came clattering down; many of those lethal bullets went humming menacingly down for thousands of feet quite clear of the Face. Then, too, there was the hissing of snow-avalanches as they slid down, whole cascades of snow and ice. The very thought that there were living men somewhere up in that vertical Hell was oppressive. Could they still be alive?
Von Allmen shouted, listened, shouted again.
Then the answer reached him. A cheery, gay answer. The voices of four young people shouting, yodelling. Albert couldn’t see them, but, judging by the sound, they couldn’t be more than three or four hundred feet above him. It seemed incredible to him that anyone could climb down those icy, perpendicular or even overhanging rocks, continually swept by falling stones; but these crazy kids had so often shown how possible it is to climb impossible things. And, above all, there was that cheery shout coming down from above:
“We’re climbing straight down. All’s well!”
All well with all of them. The Sector-Guard’s heart beat faster for joy.
“I’ll brew you some hot tea,” he shouted back.
Smiling with pleasure, Albert von Allmen went back through the gallery-door to his shelter inside the mountain and put a huge kettle on for tea. He could already see, in his mind’s eye, the arrival of the four lads, exhausted, injured perhaps by stones, maybe seriously frost-bitten, but alive and happy. He would meet them with his steaming tea. There was no better drink than hot tea for frost-bitten, exhausted men. He was slightly cross at the time it was taking the water to start bubbling; the lads would be here in a minute or two.
But the lads didn’t come in a minute or two.
Long after the tea was ready, they hadn’t come. Albert set the golden-brown drink on a low flame, just enough to keep it hot without getting stewed.
Still the lads didn’t come; and the Sector-Guard, this man whose age it was impossible to guess, had time for second thoughts….
In truth, one could not hold it against a public avid for sensation that it should be thronging inquisitively about the telescopes. These climbs on the Eiger’s Face had been worked up into a publicity feature. The Press and the Radio had taken charge of the “Eiger Drama”. Some of the reports were sound enough, informed by the heart and mind of true mountain folk behind them, others displayed a woeful lack of knowledge of the subject.
1936 had started badly. The first to arrive had been the Munich pair, Albert Herbst and Hans Teufel, who were already at Kleine Scheidegg before the end of May. Had they come to look for last year’s victims? The thought may have been there, but their secret aim was certainly the ascent of the Face. They were splendid climbers, to be sure, but perhaps lacking in that calm and relaxation which is the hall-mark of the accomplished master-climber.
They did not come to grief on the Eiger’s Face. They knew that to start up that gigantic wall so early in the year, in almost wintry conditions, would be nothing short of suicide; but the waiting about became unbearable. According to the calendar it was summer by now, but storms and snow didn’t seem to mind about that. So Teufel and Herbst decided as part of their training to climb the as yet unclimbed North Face of the Schneehorn. This was purely an ice- and snow-slope. Conditions were far from favourable. The heavy falls of new snow had as yet failed to cohere firmly with the old snow beneath. In spite of this, the pair tackled the ice-slope on July 1st and succeeded in reaching the summit cornice, beneath which they were forced to bivouac. They suffered no harm from their night in the open and, next morning, reached and traversed the summit. Everything seemed to be going well; but on the descent, while they were crossing a snow-slope, an avalanche broke away, carrying them with it for some six hundred feet. Teufel struck the lip of a crevasse, breaking his neck. Herbst got away with his life.
That was a bad enough beginning….
A few days later two Austrians, Angerer and Rainer, arrived and put up a tent near the Scheidegg, both proven climbers, especially good on rock. As such, they were particularly outstanding at route-finding on vertical cliffs. They remembered how difficult the great rock-step below the First Ice-field had proved, and how Sedlmayer and Mehringer had taken it out of themselves on it. They felt sure there must be a direct route over to the right—up what later came to be known as the “First Pillar” and the “Shattered Pillar”—towards the smooth, perpendicular, unclimbable wall of the Rote Fluh (the Red Crag, a long-established feature of the Eiger’s base). Below it, there must be some means of traversing across to the First Ice-field. Would such a traverse be possible?
On Monday, July 6th Angerer and Rainer started up the Face by their newly conceived route.
What did the wall look like at that particular moment?
The late Othmar Gurtner, the great Swiss climber and well-known writer on Alpine matters, wrote the following on July 8th in a Zurich paper, Sport.
An unusually changeable period of weather has hampered the progress of glaciation during the last few weeks. Heavy falls of snow and cold, raw days have preserved powder-snow down as far as 8,000 feet…. If one examines the North Face of the Eiger thoroughly for its conditions, one is led to the following possibly deceptive conclusion: on account of the heavy covering of snow the lower parts of the Face, and also the two great shields of ice above Eigerwand Station, invite climbing in the cold hours of early morning, when the snow ruined by the evening sunshine has become crusty again. It is possible to kick safe steps without use of the axe and to move forward very quickly in such snow; at the same time it lacks solid glaciation, i.e. firm consolidation with the old snow beneath. Because of the slight amount of sun on the Eiger’s North Face it behaves like typical winter snow. Higher up on the Face and especially on the almost vertical summit-structure itself, the powder-snow is plastered on the rocks like sweepings from a broom. And, in between, there is the glitter of water-ice … this ice has its origin in the melting water which runs down from the mighty snow-roof of the mountain. So long as there is water-ice hanging from the summit structure, the whole Face is seriously threatened by falls of ice. Then one can actually see whole torrents coming down and craters made by them very closely situated in the snow. The Face is at the moment in the terrifying conditions which persist between winter and summer….
As we write this report, the Rainer-Angerer rope is moving “according to plan” up the death-dealing wall on whose actual conditions we have reported above….
The warning expressed in that report was written by a very great expert.
But Angerer and Rainer were no suicide squad; they, too, were well aware of the great danger, transcending all human strength and courage. They succeeded in opening a new route up the lower part of the Face to just below the Rote Fluh, where they bivouacked; next morning, July 7th, they climbed down again, and reached their tent wet through and tired, but safe and sound. “We shall go up again,” they said, “as soon as conditions improve.”
The papers scented a coming sensation. Now that climbing attempts have been focused in the limelight of public interest, their readers had a right to be kept informed in detail about proceedings on the Face of the Eiger. The reports were almost like communiqués of the General Staff during a war, even down to the constantly repeated titles: “The battle with the Eiger Wall”, “The Acrobatic Contest on the Eiger’s Face”, “New Life on the Face”, “Lull in the Eiger Battle”, “The all-out Investment”, “First Assault Repulsed”. And sometimes they even went to the length of puns, such as Mordwand for Nordwand.
The ill-fortune of Herbst and Teufel appeared in many papers under the common headline of “Accidents and Crimes”. Many sarcastic comments appeared on the subject of “extreme” climbers and the public, avid for a show. But was it really surprising that people who knew nothing of mountains should make pilgrimages in their thousands to savour a shiver of horror while standing in perfect safety at the eyepiece of a telescope? The Eiger’s Face had become a magnificent natural stage.
The newspapers of July 7th and 8th certainly carried widespread expressions of delight at the safe return of Rainer and Angerer. All the same, every word and movement of the two men was recorded, and interpreted however it suited best (for gladiators must needs bow to the wishes of their public); yet the climbers themselves wanted only to be left in peace and, finding they were not, defended themselves after their own fashion. Many high-sounding phrases were uttered and accorded more weight than is normally given to the pronouncements of V.I.P.s. “We are having another go!” they said. What presumption, after the grim bivouac, which many papers had described as a life-and-death battle, while Angerer and Rainer laugh it off scornfully with: “Grim? No, only just a trifle wet!”
And since these were no men of worldly affairs, but just ordinary lads, who did not weigh every word in the balance, and certainly didn’t suspect that under the tension of the moment it would be given undue emphasis or be wrongly reported, they gave this answer to the barrage of questions as to why they came here bent on such a venture: “We have to climb your Wall for you, if you won’t do it yourselves!” Or, still more in keeping with their pathetic youthfulness and the age in which they lived: “We must have the Wall or it must have us!”
That sparked off a new storm.
In this context, an article in the Berner Bund, which read: “Everyone who has come to know these charming, good-natured lads heartily wishes them a successful outcome to their venture,” did much to pour balm on wounds.
Yet neither ridicule nor solemnity could influence events. On Saturday July 18th 1936, the two ropes Angerer-Rainer and Hinterstoisser-Kurz started up the Face. At first they moved independently; at the level of the bivouac previously occupied by the two Austrians they roped up as a foursome. The rope joining them was no longer a dead length of hemp for them but, as it were, a living artery, seeming to say: “for better or for worse, we belong together”. This was an uncommonly daring, but in no sense feather-brained undertaking.
They climbed the exceptionally severe crack below the Rote Fluh successfully. Above it, Andreas Hinterstoisser was the first to achieve the traverse to the First Ice-field, climbing in text-book fashion with the help of the rope. This technique of the “rope-traverse” had already been discovered and developed before the First World War by that master of rock-climbing, Hans Dülfer, during his first ascents of the East Face of the Fleischbank and the West Wall of the Totenkirchl in the Kaisergebirge. In this way Dülfer showed how to link climbable pitches by the use of a diagonal “lift” from the rope on unclimbable ones. The current joke about the Dülfer technique ran: “You go as long as it goes, and when it doesn’t go any more, you just do a traverse and go on.”
It was this kind of traverse which Hinterstoisser did on the Eiger Face. He had discovered the key to the climb. When they had all completed the traverse, he retrieved the traversing rope. In doing so he threw away the key. If it came to a retreat, the door to the way back was now locked behind them … but who was thinking of a retreat?
Many were watching the four men through field-glasses. And the spectators forgot their criticisms in admiration, even astonishment, at the speed and assurance with which the two ropes crossed the First Ice-field, climbed up beyond it and reached the barrier between it and the Second—the greater—Ice-slope. Since the Sedlmayer-Mehringer attempt, everyone knew how difficult those rocks must be.
But what had happened? Suddenly the second pair, Rainer and Angerer, were seen to be following the leaders slowly and hesitantly. Hinterstoisser and Kurz were already moving up to the rocks above the Rote Fluh. The other two remained motionless for a long time. Then it could be seen that one was supporting the other. Had there been an accident?
It will never be known exactly what happened, but it seems almost certain that Angerer was struck by a stone and Rainer was busy tending him. Presently Hinterstoisser and Kurz could be seen letting a rope down from their stance, which was plainly safe from bombardment by stones. Their joint efforts succeeded in bringing Angerer up to them. Then Rainer followed quickly, without making use of the emergency rope.
The tiny nest in the rocks above the Rote Fluh thus became the first bivouac-place for this party of four. They had reached an incredibly high level on their first day—more than half-way up the Face.
On the morning of Sunday the 19th there were more crowds around the telescopes. They saw the four men leave the bivouac at about seven o’clock. And how was the injured man? Obviously better, for instead of retreating, they were climbing on, across the huge slope of the Second Ice-field. All the same, they were moving more slowly than on the first day. Were they all tired, then, or was it all because of the injured man? Why didn’t they turn back?
One fact stands out for certain; the four men were a united, indissoluble party. Kurz and Hinterstoisser, climbing in the lead again, never thought of leaving Rainer behind with the injured man. The Austrians didn’t want to rob the other two of their chance of reaching the top. And so they all stayed together, though the leaders had frequently to wait for quite a time.
The weather was neither fine nor definitely bad. In the context of the Eiger, conditions were bearable. By the end of this Sunday the party had reached the Third Ice-field; a little below the bivouac which had proved fatal to Sedlmayer and Mehringer, the four men made ready to spend their second night in the open. It had been a good day’s work, but they had not gained enough height to make sure of a successful push forward to the top on the following day. What kind of a night would it be? In what condition is Angerer and how are the other three? The spectators down in the valley don’t know any of the answers. They withdraw for the night, rubbernecks, reporters, guides and mountaineers. Tomorrow will show….
The next day was Monday, July 20th. Once again no movement could be seen in the bivouac till seven o’clock. It was a tiny place, with hardly room to sit down. Once again Kurz and Hinterstoisser began to climb the steep ice-slope leading to the “Death Bivouac”. After about half an hour they stopped. The others were not following them. Nobody knows what the four men said to each other. Whatever it was, the decision taken was crucial and bitter for the leaders, a matter of life and death for the other two. It was clear that Angerer was no longer in a condition to climb any further.
All of a sudden the Hinterstoisser party could be seen climbing down to the bivouac, where they remained for some time; then they all began the descent together. A human being was more important than the mere ascent of a mountain-face. Perhaps the united strength of the whole party would succeed in bringing the injured man down?
They crossed the great slope of the Second Ice-field comparatively quickly; but the descent of the rock-step, on the doubled rope, to the First took several hours to accomplish. Once again the watchers were amazed at the care and assurance with which tie ropes were handled. But night fell just as the men reached the lower ice-field. Close to where Sedlmayer and Mehringer’s second bivouac had been, they camped for their third night on the Face. There could not be a stitch of dry clothing on their bodies and this third bivouac must needs sap their strength; yet three must now have enough strength for the fourth. They had only managed to come down about 1,000 feet during the whole day; fully another 3,000 of the Face still gaped below them. Still, once the Traverse and the Difficult Crack were behind them, the safety of the valley would not be so far away. They knew that part of the Wall from having climbed down it once already.
Yes, but that Traverse….
It would be the crux of this new day, Tuesday, July 21st. All four seemed to have stood the bivouac quite well, for they came down the ice-slope to the start of the Traverse at a good pace; but at that point those watching could suddenly only see three men at work. Had one of them fallen off?
Mists wreathed about the Face, the wind rose, the rattle of falling stones grew sharper, avalanches of powder-snow swept the track of yesterday’s descent. The worst danger from falling stones would be over as soon as the four men were safely across the Traverse. But where had the fourth got to?
When the cloud curtain parted again, the men at the telescopes could see all four climbers again, but Angerer, apparently hors de combat, was taking no part in the attempts to master the Traverse. One man seemed to be taking the lead in these efforts—surely it must be Hinterstoisser, the man who first dealt with this key point on the way up. But now there is no traversing-rope fixed to the rock. And the rock doesn’t seem to be climbable without artificial aids.
The weather was worsening; it had in fact already broken. The water which had all along been pouring down the rocks must have hardened into ice. All the experts with field-glasses could sense the fearsome tragedy to come. Retreat was cut off; nobody could move over the glassy film overlaying the rock, not even an Andreas Hinterstoisser. The precious hours of the entire morning were consumed by vain, frustrating, incredibly exhausting and dangerous attempts. And then came the last desperate decision: to climb straight down the vertical rock-face, some 600 or 700 feet high, which at some points bulges far out even beyond the vertical.
The only way led through the line of fire from stones and avalanches. Sedlmayer and Mehringer had taken a whole day to climb that pitch, and that in fine weather on dry rock. Now all Hell had broken loose on the mountain. But it was the only chance.
They began to get the ropes ready for the descent through thin air.
It was at this moment that they heard Albert von Allmen’s shouts coming up from below.
Someone shouting, so close at hand? Then things could not go wrong! A man’s voice, giving strength and courage and the certainty that the bridge back to the living world was still there. And in spite of the dangers and their awareness of the seriousness of their situation, they all joined in yodelling back: “All’s well!” Not a single cry for help, not even an admission of their terrifying peril.
Albert von Allmen was getting cross. How long was he expected to keep their tea warm? Presently his irritation changed to apprehension. Two whole hours had gone by since he spoke to the climbers, and still no movement at the entrance to the gallery. Could they have climbed down past it? Could they have missed the ledge, which runs across to the window?
The Sector-Guard went back to the door. The Face was looking grim and ghastly now; visibility was very restricted; mists were steaming up everywhere. Stones and avalanches were singing their pitiless song. Albert shouted.
And back came an answer.
This time no cheery yodel, but a shocking answer coming now from one man, the last lone survivor, crying for help…. Toni Kurz.
The voice of a brave, unbelievably tough young guide, cradled in Bavaria in the shadow of the Watzmann; a man who had rescued many in distress on the mountains, but who had never yet shouted for help. But now he was shouting, shouting desperately for his very life.
“Help! Help! The others are all dead. I am the only one alive. Help!”
The wind, the avalanches and the whistling stones forbade a more exact exchange of information. In any case, Albert von Allmen by himself could bring no aid. He shouted “We’ll be coming” and hurried back into the gallery to telephone.
Eigergletscher Station, down below, answered his call.
“Allmen speaking. There’s been a fearful disaster on the Face. There’s only one survivor. We must fetch him in. Have you any guides with you?”
Yes, there were guides down there—Hans Schlunegger, with Christian and Adolf Rubi, all from Wengen. Yes, they would come up, of their own accord, even in face of instructions. It was a case of humanity triumphing over the regulations.
For Bohren, the chief guide of Grindelwald, in his concern for the guides under him, had issued a communication to the Guides’ Commission in Berne, and to the Central Committee of the Swiss Alpine Club, which had also been repeated in the Grindelwald Echo.
One cannot help regarding the contemplated climbing attempts on the North Face of the Eiger with serious misgivings. They are a plain indication of the great change which has taken place in the conception of the sport of mountaineering. We must accept that the visitors who take part in such attempts are aware of the dangers they are themselves risking; but no one can expect the despatch of guides, in unfavourable conditions, on a rescue operation, in case of any further accidents on the Eiger’s North Face…. We should find it impossible to force our guides to take a compulsory part in the kind of acrobatics which others are undertaking voluntarily.
That was the Chief Guide’s stated position. Nobody could have held it against the guides at Eigergletscher Station if they had refused to take a single step on to the Face when they heard of the accident. But there was one man still alive. They were all determined to rescue him, to snatch him, if possible, from the clutches of that fatal wall.
The railway provided a train, which immediately took them to the gallery-window at Kilometre 3-8; through it they stepped on to the Face, glistening under its coat of ice. Clouds of snow-dust blew into their faces, as they quietly traversed diagonally upwards on the slippery, treacherous ledges, till they reached a point about 300 feet below where Toni Kurz was hanging from the rope in a sung.
There was mixed despair and relief in his voice—still astonishingly strong—as he heard his rescuers and answered them.
“I’m the only one alive. Hinterstoisser came off and fell the whole way down. The rope pulled Rainer up against a snap-link. He froze to death there. And Angerer’s dead too, hanging below me, strangled by the rope when he fell….”
“All right, pal. We’ve come to help you?”
“I know,” shouted Toni. “But you’ve got to come from above, to the right, up through the crack where we left some pitons on the way up. Then you could reach me by three descents on the doubled rope.”
“That’s impossible, pal. Nobody could climb it with this ice about.”
“You can’t rescue me from below,” Kurz shouted back.
Day was drawing to its close. The guides would have to hurry if they were to get back safely to the gallery window before dark. They shouted up the wall: “Can you stick it for one more night, pal?”
“No! No! No!”
The words cut the guides to the quick. They were never to forget them. But any aid was out of the question in the dark, on this Face, in this weather.
“Stick it, pal!” they shouted. “We’ll be back first thing in the morning!”
They could hear Toni’s shouts for a long time, as they climbed down.
The young Berchtesgaden guide must have despaired of seeing the night through. But life had a strong hold on him; in spite of the gale, the volleys of stones, the fearsome cold, he survived the night, swinging backwards and forwards in his rope sling. It was so cold that the water thawed by the warmth of his body froze again immediately. Icicles eight inches long formed on the points of the crampons strapped to his boots. Toni lost the mitten from his left hand; his fingers, his hand, then his arm, froze into shapeless immovable lumps. But when dawn came, life was still awake in his agonised body. His voice too was strong and clear, when the guides got in touch with him again.
Arnold Glatthard had by now joined Schlunegger and the Rubi brothers. The four guides together were ready to fight this merciless wall for the life of their young colleague from Bavaria. The rocks were covered with an appalling glaze of ice. It seemed almost impossible to climb at all. And there was Toni pleading again: “You can only rescue me from above. You must climb the crack….”
It was impossible. Even Kurz and Hinterstoisser in their full and unimpaired strength could not have climbed the crack in such conditions. It was a pitch which even in fine weather would have seriously tested these four men, first-class guides, brought up in a great tradition, master-climbers all, but little versed in the technique of modern, artificial climbing. It would have called for just that kind of “acrobatics” against which Chief Guide Bohren had taken such a strong stand.
However, the four guides succeeded in reaching a point only about 130 feet below where Toni Kurz was hanging on the rope. So far did the overhang beetle out over the abyss that they could no longer see him from there. If Kurz had another rope on which to rope himself down, he would be saved. But how to get one to him? Attempts with rockets failed. The rope went shooting past Kurz, far out from the Face. There was only one thing left.
“Can you let a line down,” they asked him, “so that we can attach a rope, rock-pitons and anything else you need?”
“I have no line,” came the reply.
“Climb down as far as you can, then, and cut away Angerer’s body. Then climb up again and cut the rope above you. Then untwist the strands of the piece of rope you have gained, join them and let the resulting line down.”
The answer was a groan: “I’ll try.”
A little while later they heard the strokes of an axe. It seemed incredible that Kurz could hold on with one frozen hand and swing the axe with the other. Yet he managed to cut the rope away; only, Angerer’s body didn’t fall, for it was frozen solid to the rock. Almost in a trance, answering the last dictates of the will to live, Kurz climbed up again, cut away the rope there. The manoeuvre had won him twenty-five feet of rope, frozen stiff. And then began the unbelievable work of untwisting the strands. Every climber knows how difficult that is, even on firm ground, with two sound hands. But Toni Kurz was suspended between heaven and earth, on an ice-glazed cliff, threatened by falling stones, sometimes swept by snow-slides. He worked with one hand and his teeth … for five hours….
A great avalanche fell, narrowly missing the guides. A huge block whizzed close by Schlunegger’s head. And then a body came hurtling past. Toni’s? No it wasn’t Toni’s, but Angerer’s, freed from the imprisoning ice. Those were hours of agony for Toni, fighting for his life, agonising too for the guides, who could do nothing to help, and could only wait for the moment when Kurz might still achieve the incredible.
Presently the fabricated line came swinging down to the rescue party. They fastened a rope to it, with pitons, snap-links, a hammer. Slowly those objects disappeared from the view of the guides. Toni Kurz’s strength was ebbing fast; he could hardly draw up the line, but somehow he managed it. Even now the rope wasn’t long enough. The guides attached a second to it. The knot where the two ropes were spliced swung visible but unreachable out there under the great overhang.
Another hour passed. Then, at last, Toni Kurz was able to start roping down, sitting in a sling attached to the rope by a snap-link. Inch by inch he worked his way downwards. Thirty, forty, fifty feet down … a hundred feet, a hundred and twenty. Now his legs could be seen dangling below the overhang.
At that moment the junction-knot jammed in the snap-link of the sling in which Toni was sitting as he roped down. The knot was too thick and Toni could not force it through the link. They could hear him groaning.
“Try, lad, try!” the frustrated rescuers cried to encourage the exhausted man. Toni, mumbling to himself, made one more effort with all his remaining strength, but he had little left; his incredible efforts had used it almost all up. His will to live had been keyed to the extreme so long as he was active; now, the downward journey in the safety of the rope-sling had eased the tension. He was nearing his rescuers now; now the battle was nearly over, now there were others close at hand to help….
And now this knot … just a single knot … but it won’t go through…. “Just one more try, pal. It’ll go!”
There was a note of desperation in the guides’ appeal. One last revolt against fate; one last call on the last reserves of strength against this last and only obstacle. Toni bent forwards, trying to use his teeth just once more. His frozen left arm with its useless hand stuck out stiff and helpless from his body. His last reserves were gone.
Toni mumbled unintelligibly, his handsome young face dyed purple with frost-bite and exhaustion, his lips just moving. Was he still trying to say something, or had his spirit already passed over to the beyond?
Then he spoke again, quite clearly. “I’m finished,” he said.
His body tipped forward. The sling, almost within reaching distance of the rescuing guides, hung swinging gently far out over the gulf. The man sitting in it was dead.
It will never be known exactly how the whole disaster built up or what precisely happened while Sector-Guard and humanitarian Albert von Allmen was getting his tea ready. The very fact that Andreas Hinterstoisser was off the rope at the moment of his fall leads to the conclusion that he—probably the best technician of the four—was trying to find a specially safe place for pitons to secure the descent on the rope. It was impossible to establish from Toni Kurz’s fragmentary and incoherent sentences whether Hinterstoisser was hit by a stone, or whether they all fell owing to a fall of stone, or whether the others were trying to catch Andreas as he fell and so were all pulled off their holds. The guide from Berchtesgaden needed all his strength for his own preservation, nor could he spare thoughts or words for reports. It is quite clear that all three were on the same rope, and that it ran through a snap-link attached to a piton. The fall jammed Rainer against the piton so that he could not move. Tatters of bandage found on Angerer’s skull, when his body was recovered much later, proved that he had been the injured member of the party, seen on the Face by those who watched.
It was one of the grimmest tricks of fate which left Toni Kurz uninjured at the outset, so that he was forced to endure his agony to its uttermost end. He was like some messenger from the beyond, finding his way back to earth simply because he loved life so well.
The tragedy of Sedlmayer and Mehringer had been enacted behind the curtains of the mountain mists. Men could only guess at it. But Toni Kurz ended his brave and vigorous life before the eyes of his rescuers. It was this that made the tragedy of 1936 so impressive and so shattering that it will never be forgotten.
Arnold Glatthard, that reserved and silent guide, said: “It was the saddest moment of my life.”
Unfortunately, not everybody showed that respect and reserve which death—and particularly death in such a manner—commands.
One newspaper wrote of Toni Kurz’s death: “Kurz spent his fourth night complaining. When the search for notoriety and obstinate willpower conspire to bring a man to grief, one cannot really register regret….”
Another, dated July 24th 1936, produced the following remarkable description of the men who climb the Eiger’s Face and the motives that impel them:
Perhaps these young men have nothing more to lose … what is to become of a generation to which Society offers no social existence and which has only one thing left to look to, a single day’s glory, the swiftly tarnishing highlight of a single hour? To be a bit of a hero, a bit of a soldier, sportsman or record-breaker, a gladiator, victorious one day, defeated the next…. The four recent victims of the Eiger’s North Face were poor creatures. When some kindly folk in Grindelwald invited them to dinner, they tucked in to the proffered meal like true warriors; afterwards, they said they hadn’t had such a good meal for three years. When asked what was the purpose of their risky venture, they replied that its main object was to improve their positions. They believed that such an exceptional feat would bring them honour and glory, and make people take notice of them….
Another article bearing the same date and headlined “Climbing under Orders” gives the matter a bizarre twist in the opposite direction.
Kleine Scheidegg, July 24th. A report is current here that the four climbers had been ordered to make the ascent. It has been said that they were very excited on Friday evening; that they would never have taken such a grave risk as free agents. Perhaps their records will reveal this or that secret which did not pass their lips, now numbed and frozen into silence.
This was, of course, the direct reverse of the truth. Kurz and Hinterstoisser were at this time on the strength of the Mountain-Ranger (Jäger)-Regiment No. 100 and on leave from Bad Reichenhall. When their commanding officer Col. R. Konrad, who had experience of climbing in the Bernese Oberland, learned of their plans he telephoned Grindelwald and, in the strictest terms, vetoed any attempt on the Eiger. That was on the Friday evening. The message reached the tents on the Kleine Scheidegg too late. Kurz and Hinterstoisser had started up the Face a few hours earlier….
In the context of previous tragedies on the Eiger’s North Face a great many things were invented and written-up at various desks, which served to poison the atmosphere and made mutual understanding more difficult. Genuine mountaineers in Germany, Austria or Switzerland wrote on common lines, irrespective of whether they were for or against “Operation Eigerwand”. They used the language of understanding, humanity and respect for the dead. While various papers were trying to drive a permanent wedge between German climbers and Swiss Guides, Gunther Lange was writing in Bergsteiger, the official organ of the German and Austrian Alpine Club: “I know the Swiss guides, who have shown typical mountaineering qualities in such an outstanding manner. I spent several weeks last year with Arnold Glatthard on difficult rock; a man carved from the best and hardest wood, with enough pluck for three. The Eigerwand guides deserve the recognition and gratitude of all climbers for what they did!” And as a postscript, Gunther Langes published a letter from Glatthard, which summarised the judgment of all the guides on the four men who died on the Face in 1936: “I watched them climbing and can only praise the lads. The North Face dealt harshly with our comrades….”
It is safe to say that guides, of whatever nationality, are fine men. It is nothing against them that they often exhibit a rugged exterior and don’t speak in the smooth phraseology of diplomats.
On the fly-leaf of his guide’s record-book Toni Kurz, when only nineteen, had written a little poem, the fruit of his fine, serious nature. It told of his love for the mountains, of the sober approach to every climb, and of the sacred obligation—
“never to give one’s life away to death.”
To round off my report on the tragedy of 1936 I propose to quote the words of Sir Arnold Lunn, an enemy of unhealthy pathos and all forms of false heroics. This is what he wrote about Toni Kurz’s death in his book A Century of Mountaineering.
His valiant heart had resisted the terrors of storm and solitude and misery such as mountaineers have seldom been called on to endure. He had hung in his rope-sling buffeted by the storm, but determined not to surrender. And he did not surrender He died. In the annals of mountaineering there is no record of a more heroic endurance.
“Murder-Face” for “North Face”—Translator’s note.
Arnold Lunn, A Century of Mountaineering, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London, 1957.
THE Eiger’s Face is still covered in sheets of snow. It is snowing as if here were winter’s last defence-bastion, against which spring and summer are launching their attacks in vain. But the new Eiger-teams have already moved into the huts and inns of Alpiglen and the Kleine Scheidegg. Tents are springing up on the Alp. The German dialects of Bavarians and Austrians, to a lesser degree Italian and Schwyzerdütch, are to be heard everywhere.
Samuel Brawand, himself once a guide, later a lecturer and now a member of parliament, has raised his warning voice, a voice well respected among mountaineers. Brawand has special knowledge of the Eiger, for in 1921 he and his brother-guides Fritz Amatter and Fritz Steuri led the young Japanese climber Yuko Maki up the Mittellegi Ridge, to achieve the first ascent of that exacting route.
In an interview given to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Brawand said:
It is a fact that several ropes are again interested in attempts on the North Face of the Eiger. Here in Grindelwald, we have so far heard of four parties.
Your paper has asked me to state the position of the Rescue-Service in the event of a new attempt on the Face. To date, neither the local corps of guides nor the Section of the Swiss Alpine Club have made a serious pronouncement on the subject. In my view it is unnecessary to take any decisions. Even if the corps of guides were to decide not to fetch down the body of anyone who started to climb the Face—which the administration in Berne might empower them to do—what would be achieved by such a ruling? Would it act as a deterrent? I do not believe it would. To the men who climb the Face of the Eiger it is all one whether their bodies are left up there or brought down. It would be ludicrous indeed to threaten not to fetch down even those in distress on the Face. If people up there shout for help and the guides are in a position to bring them that help, then of course they will always do so. The only time when they won’t do it is when the dangers are so great as to make it obvious that no rescue attempt could stand a possible chance of success.
Last autumn, the administration in Berne issued a ban on all climbing on the North Face. It has since been withdrawn, and rightly so. To start with, it could never be effective because the fine imposed by the law is so small; and, in the second place, you cannot really put a veto on any given method of committing suicide.
In this fight against “North-Face-Fever” the Press has a very important duty. It should set its face against pandering to the public’s insatiable greed for sensation. Unfortunately, pictures have already been published which border on the irreverent. Finally, it should be remembered that there are more important tasks in this world than the ascent of the Eiger’s North Face. I have myself taken part in first ascents and know how uncommonly satisfying such successes are; but one knows, too, that they are only steps in human development….
These are good, sensible words, well spoken by Herr Brawand. They bridge the gap between different kinds of men; they warn without condemning. But even this experienced Alpine climber regards an attempt to climb the North Face as a complicated and expensive form of suicide. He speaks of the great sense of well-being brought by a successful first ascent; but he keeps silence about the impalpable and imponderable mainspring which moves men to accomplish the extraordinary. Perhaps his diagnosis of “North-Face-Fever” is not so far out. Brawand’s object, like that of any scientific, traditional doctor, is to keep the fever down. But surely the fever is itself a sign that a body is fighting for its own health. Let us stick to the unpleasant comparison. The Eiger-bacillus has arrived and has attacked the human race. It is—as we have premised from the very start—the bacillus of the everlasting adventure, that lure which always assails the younger generation, and endows the young with a terrifying impetus and strength.
The fever will, in the end, master the bacillus; but by that time the North Face of the Eiger will have lost its claim to inaccessibility. The gigantic precipice will have lost none of its beauty, its might or its perilous nature, for it is so fashioned that every new party which comes to grips with it has to put forward the very best of which men on a mountain are capable. In this sense every climb of the North Face will always be a first ascent. But the fever will have subsided and nobody will talk of a bacillus any more. The conception of the Eiger’s North Face will by then have become part of man’s spiritual heritage. Note carefully: his spiritual heritage. One cannot defeat or conquer mountains, one can only climb them. “Defeat” and “conquest” have already become hackneyed expressions, senselessly repeated hundreds of times, false and arrogant descriptions of mountaineering successes. In any case, one cannot “defeat” one of nature’s superb defences such as the Eiger’s Face; it sounds as if one had built a cable ropeway from Alpiglen to the summit of the Eiger. But even that would not be a “defeat”; it would simply be the annihilation of the North Face, its eradication from the climber’s vocabulary.
These reflections are not meant in any way as criticisms designed to belittle that excellent man Samuel Brawand. On the contrary. He held out a hand in reconciliation; his views already foreshadowed the coming turn of events, when good sense and understanding would triumph over mere passion. For alongside the “North-Face-Fever” there has burned an “Anti-Eiger-Fever” which disrupted peace and quiet just as much as did those plucky, unaffected boys who failed to return from the Face. The argument was no longer one of principle; it had become one of men and of human life….
Seen from this angle of a spiritual change, 1937 was a remarkably interesting year, even if it did not bring final success.
To start with, there was the Decree about the North Face which the Government in Berne issued at the beginning of July:
The following is supplementary to Paragraph 25 of the Regulations for Guides and Porters in the Canton of Berne issued on July 30 1914.
1. It is in the discretion of the Chiefs of the Rescue-Section to undertake rescue attempts following accidents on the North Face of the Eiger.
2. Parties intending to climb the North Face must be duly warned by the Rescue-stations and by the Guides before they start on the ascent. In particular their attention must be drawn to the fact that, in the event of an accident, no rescue operations will be laid on. (Author’s comment: not only Herr Brawand’s words already quoted, but the actual assistance offered and given, were to prove that, in spite of all pronouncements, guides would continue to serve the cause of humanity by doing any- and everything in their power to save climbers in peril of their lives.)
3. The Governor of Interlaken is to promulgate this decision to the Chief Guides of the District, for communication to the Rescue-stations and the Guides.
In the name of the Judiciary, President: Jos. County Clerk:
I. V. Hubert
During these early days of July 1937 there were already several parties ready to brave the ascent or at least an attempt on it. Two very good climbers from the Grisons had already gone away because of the bad conditions. An Italian party was still there, consisting of Giuseppe Piravano, heralded as one of Italy’s best ice-men and Bruno Detassis, the best-known climber in the savage Brenta Dolomites, who came from Trento. Both men were professional guides. Another party training in the neighbourhood was that of Wollenweber, Zimmermann and Lohner, of whom the first two had been among those active on the Face the year before. According to a report in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, “two Munich men have also pitched their tent near Alpiglen, a little to one side and without much fuss. So far they have refused to give their names”. Actually the two “men from Munich” came from Bayrisch-Zell. One of them was no less a personality than Andreas Heckmair, also a guide by profession.
It was a considerable gathering, linked only by a common target. Each party worked on its own, keeping its own counsel, following its own plans and methods of training.
There was naturally an unspoken rivalry between the separate parties, an element of personal and national competition—though this played quite an important part in the efforts to climb the North Face. The Italians, even Italian guides, have always been accused of an unusual degree of chauvinism, but it should never be forgotten that Italy is a young nation with a burning love of glory and blazing sense of patriotism, which occasionally burst their bounds. Her mountaineering activities began mainly in the years and decades during which her people were achieving political unity in a single State, during the second half of the last century. The dramatic race on the Matterhorn was not only regarded as a contest between Whymper and Carrel, but as an event of national importance. The question was really—“Il Cervino” or “das Matterhorn”? And Carrel, ex-trooper of the Bersaglieri, was determined to climb the Cervino from Breuil in his native valley, with and for his own countrymen. Less thought was given to the mountain than to the flag on its summit. Let us recall Whymper’s moment of triumph when he beat the Italians to the summit and unfurled his flag—the sweat-soaked shirt of Michel Croz, his Chamonix guide; remembering how the victorious Englishman begged Croz “for heaven’s sake” to help him roll stones down the Tyndall Arête, so that Carrel and his Italians climbing up it might learn for certain that they were too late, that they had been defeated in the race….
What about such rivalries and races to achieve first ascents? They are as old as mountaineering itself. Even the tremendous opening fanfare to Alpine climbing—the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786—was accompanied by the strident trumpet-tones of human discord. Jacques Balmat had no wish to share his fame with Dr. Paccard, who accompanied him on the climb. There has always been keen competition between the guides of different nationalities, indeed even of different valleys, a competition that remains as keen as ever today.
We have only to turn back the pages of the Eiger’s own history. In 1859 Leslie Stephen and the Mathews brothers, English climbers all, made the first-traverse of the Eigerjoch with their guides. Leslie Stephen, one of the most distinguished characters in the “Golden Age” of mountaineering, who invariably gave pride of place to the feats of his guides, keeping his own in the background, describes this “Rivalry of the Guides” in his charmingly humorous book The Playground of Europe.
The Mathews [he writes] were accompanied by two Chamouni men, Jean-Baptiste Croz and Charlet, whilst I had secured the gigantic Ulrich Lauener, the most picturesque of guides. Tall, spare, blue-eyed, long-limbed and square-shouldered, with a jovial laugh and a not ungraceful swagger, he is the very model of a true mountaineer; and, except that his rule is apt to be rather autocratic, I would not wish for a pleasanter companion. He has, however, certain views as to the superiority of the Teutonic over the Celtic races….
While they were reconnoitring the best way through the ice-falls there was sharp competition between Lauener and the Chamonix men. Stephen writes:
We had already had one or two little races and disputations in consequence, and Lauener was disposed to take a disparaging view of the merits of these foreign competitors on his own peculiar ground. As, however, he could not speak a word of French, nor they of German, he was obliged to convey this sentiment in pantomime, which perhaps did not soften its vigour.
That was written in 1859.
So it will be seen that various kinds of rivalries are no degenerate phenomena of the new generation. It is impossible to speak of a profanation of the mountains. The great prototypes, whom it is usual to present to the eyes of youth as examples of ice-grey-bearded distinction, the Pioneers above all, the men of action, did not make the milk of a pious mentality their favourite drink. They were neither supermen nor knights in shining armour, but simply men, like those of today.
During the ‘thirties the Italians achieved a leading place in international mountaineering, especially on rock. And be it only mentioned in passing that, around the turn of the century, the Himalayan and other expeditions of Luigi Amedeo di Savoia, Duke of the Abruzzi, outclassed all similar enterprises sponsored by other nations for their daring and brilliant organisation.
To return to our Italian party on the Eiger, that first Wednesday of July 1937. They started up the so-called Lauper Route on the North-East Face of the Eiger, a glorious and exposed climb in the old classical style. It is a route for masters, not virtuosos. Dr. Hans Lauper and Alfred Zürcher discovered it and in 1932 they climbed it with those fine Valais guides Alexander Graven and Josef Knubel. The Lauper Route certainly offers a training-climb on the way to the North Face, but only for the best-trained and the most accomplished of climbers. Others would not be good enough to tackle it. Let no one dream of starting on the Lauper Route as a “practice climb” unless he can wield his ice-axe with the same skill and assurance as the peasant of the valley swings his scythe on the precipitous slope, so that he strikes the ice in the right rhythm and at the right angle accurately to a fraction of an inch. Even in this era of the ice-piton and the ice-hammer the true criterion of the climber on ice is his axe. It is as wrong as it is useless to try to reverse the current of development, but it is the duty of every mountaineer to learn to cut steps as efficiently as did the guides of yesterday, even with their clumsy ice-axes, whose master-craft in providing ladders of steps was such that they were for a long time able to dispense with the use of the modern crampon. When people begin to use on moderately difficult ground equipment and methods suitable for the unusually severe, it is not just a sign of extraordinary prudence, but an indication that another step in the development of technique has been surmounted. It is, of course, possible to escape from a difficult situation with inadequate and unsuitable equipment; but it is not to be recommended.
Our two Italian guides Piravano and Detassis embarked on the Lauper Route, which looms up above the small ice-field of the “Hoyisch”, or “Hohen Eis”, a sharp-crested, steep route, armoured with glassy rock-slabs and towering ice-cliffs. Their object was to get to know the mountain from every side. At first they had no intention of climbing the whole Lauper Route, but only meant to reconnoitre part of it. This was an entirely new conception in the history of the North Face. It was a notion ahead of its times, a true guide’s notion. Giuseppe and Bruno intended not only to climb the North Face, but eventually to guide tourists up it. If that proved to be too difficult, dangerous and impracticable, they meant to withdraw from the whole enterprise. Even if their attempts and experiences finally proved negative, it was a notion worth bearing in mind; for it was not merely new, it was revolutionary. It must be recalled that the company of Swiss guides was still clinging to its old tradition, admittedly a grand and fine tradition. Their attitude towards the North Face was hardly a whit different from that of the old Berchtesgaden guide—the first man to climb the East Face of the Watzmann—Johann Grill-Kederbacher, who had come to the Eiger as long ago as 1883(!) with the intention of climbing its North Face. Kederbacher’s verdict had then been: “Impossible!” Now, in 1937, the Swiss guides were still saying “Impossible!” At a time when the two Italians, Bruno and Giuseppe, had arrived to climb the North Face—with a view to guiding tourists up it….
It was on a Wednesday that they started up the Lauper Route. On the Thursday they could not be seen, the weather was too bad. Snow-slides and heavier avalanches could be seen sweeping the route. That was enough to authorise a reporter to send off a telegram in a great hurry to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung: “the two Italians have probably fallen”. The report went the rounds in many papers. Many know-it-alls and ignoramuses added the opinion that Piravano and Detassis had entered upon their venture without sufficient thought and inadequately equipped. Yes, they were ready to denigrate even Italy’s best ice-expert.
But what had actually been happening?
The slabs and ledges on the lower half of the route were treacherous and slippery with fresh snow. The two Italians moved slowly upwards, using every known precaution. Above the first cliff they bivouacked, at a point reached by Lauper’s extraordinarily strong and thrustful party, in unusually favourable conditions, before mid-day. On the Thursday the pair climbed on up the mighty roof of the mountain.
That was when the accident happened. A snow-slide swept Piravano, who was leading, from his footholds. Bruno, belaying his companion on an ice-piton, managed to hold him; but he could not prevent Giuseppe from seriously injuring a leg. So that superb ice-climber, unfit now to lead or even to move without support, was completely out of action. Pride and the guides’ code forbade them to call for help. A descent was impossible, for avalanche-threats and snow-covered slabs forbade a retreat. A traverse across to the Mittellegi Hut was equally out of the question. Piravano had to be continually belayed from above, so that traverses were unthinkable. Yet the rocky upper pitches of the Lauper Route would be equally impossible, because a man with such leg injuries would be unable to stand the pain. So Bruno Detassis decided to climb straight up the fearsome ice-slope, steeper than the roof of a Gothic cathedral, and bring his injured friend up on to the top part of the Mittellegi Ridge, belaying him vertically from above.
And he succeeded. It was a memorable and altruistic effort on the part of the guide from Trento. It was evening by the time they reached the Mittellegi Hut, perched like an eagle’s eyrie on the storm-swept ridge. And on Friday, July 8th the two men who had fought their way so gamely to shelter and safety, without calling for aid, were brought back safely to the valley by their Swiss colleagues, Inäbnit and Peter Kaufmann. Both expressed the greatest admiration for Bruno and Giuseppe.
Needless to say, the reaction of part of the Italian Press to the prematurely sensational reports from the Job’s comforters, already quoted, and the actual safe return of their compatriots was not exactly amiable. The national trumpet was blown fortissimo—without the assistance, or indeed the wish, of the two first-class guides from Trento and Bergamo—and a great triumph celebrated, when it was really only the sort of victory of courage and endurance one would expect of guides of that quality.
Unhappily, there were still many papers which had not sensed the great change of 1937 and were still pandering to their readers with sensational reports in the style of the previous year. And there were even professed mountaineers, shunned and despised by the fraternity, who either through a desire to show off or as mere parasites wished to cook their own little brew on the flame of public interest.
Andreas Heckmair, waiting at the foot of the Face with his friend Theo Lösch, withholding his name from all the inquisitive reporters, quietly studying the wall and its tricks—he even discovered a new line of ascent under the Rote Fluh and up by the right to the North-West Ridge, but did not publicise the variant because he thought it unimportant—this same Heckmair reported as follows on those strange lads who would have done so great a disservice to the cause of mountaineering had they not been shown up as the charlatans they were.
They told everyone, who wanted or didn’t want to know, about their Eiger intentions, climbed about on the approaches to the North Face in such an obvious way as to be an invitation to those interested to watch them, let themselves be entertained in Grindelwald, and generally gathered advance commendation wherever it was to be found. Not only we ourselves, but the Grindelwald guides were rightly infuriated by them. These Alpine crooks were attracted by the Eiger as a moth is drawn to a light. It is a relief to report that at the end of their ill-doing they received the punishment they had invited and finished up by getting the push out of Switzerland.
It can be imagined how delighted the real climbers, the quiet, serious men genuinely at work on the problem of the North Face, were when these parasitic impostors were ejected. Besides the Italians, besides the three Munich men, Wollenweber, Zimmermann and Lohner, besides Heckmair and Lösch, a number of others were either occupying the tents and hayricks or were just moving in. There was Rudi Fraissl, who had earned a great name in Viennese climbing circles by his first ascent of the North Face of the Peternschartenkopf in the Gesäuse. His rope-mate and close compatriot was Leo Brankowsky, a pleasant, helpful lad, whom all his friends called Brankerl. Leo was certainly no “Brankerl”, in the Viennese sense, no “softy”, but a tower of strength when an overhang had to be climbed or a companion held on the rope. Fraissl was a fanatical lover of freedom and an individualist who found it difficult to subordinate himself. The mountains could devise no way of encompassing his end. His craggy skull and his courageous tongue, never a respecter of authority, signalled him out for a harder death than any the mountains could have handed out to him. He died in Russia in February 1942, in the company of a number of the best climbers of the Army Mountaineering School, during an attack on which it was senseless to employ such hand-picked specialists. Rudi Fraissl protested beforehand—as if he were engaged in a trade-union meeting. He protested with all the inflexible strength of his Viennese tongue, with that very un-Viennese firmness he adopted on anything he had rightly made up his mind about. As an N.C.O. in the German army he dared to protest against his senior officer on behalf of his comrades and himself; he died, not as an N.C.O., but as a private soldier, reduced to the ranks as punishment for his crime. And he died as the leader of a roped party should.
At that time in July 1937, Fraissl and “Brankerl” were in their tent near Alpiglen; so were Liebl and Rieger; and Primas and Gollackner too, two men from Salzburg.
Just when Andreas Heckmair had pronounced it as unlikely that the weather-conditions would improve sufficiently to warrant an attempt on the Face and turned his back on it on July 15th, Ludwig Vörg and Hias Rebitsch arrived, followed a little later by Otto Eidenschink, the first to climb the West Wall of the Totenkirchl direct, and his fellow-member of the Munich Section, Möller. It was an élite of the climbing fraternity who were together at the bottom of the wall or succeeding one another down there during the summer of 1937. Heckmair left and Vörg arrived without actually meeting one another, or ever suspecting that they might be going to form a single rope resulting in a common success the following year.
And besides the “Storm Troops”, one kept on meeting members of the Voluntary Rescue Service, particularly of the Munich Section, ready to try the Face and, above all, to climb to the rescue if there was an accident. The guides of Grindelwald, too, were holding themselves in readiness, without orders or obligation—just as they had in 1936.
The large body of newspaper readers demanded to be kept continually informed of what was happening on the Eiger. “Every stroke of an axe, every tug on a rope is recorded,” remarked the Zürich paper Sport sarcastically.
Yes, the much sought-after sensation was on the way again. Not really a sensation but a tragedy; and yet not a sheer tragedy like those of recent years, but a very sad chapter in the long history of the Eiger. It started on Thursday July 15th, that same Thursday on which Ludwig Vörg, waiting for Hias Rebitsch down in Grindelwald, stood staring doubtfully up at the rain, which set in towards evening; the same Thursday, when Andreas Heckmair and Lösch went down to Grindelwald without knowing that a certain Ludwig Vörg was standing moodily at a nearby window. The Thursday on which Franz Primas and Bertl Gollackner started up the Lauper Route.
Primas was a well-known, extremely competent climber from Salzburg. He belonged to the climbing club, “Die Bergler”, formed by a number of the best Salzburg climbers. On a ski-tour in the Tennengebirge, close to their home, Primas had come to know Gollackner, hardly nineteen years old, but a good rock-climber and a plucky ski-runner full of the spirit of adventure. Secretly, without a word to anyone, these two decided to go and “have a look” at the North Face of the Eiger. It would be quite wrong to smile in a superior fashion at the mountain enthusiasm of men like these who, with empty pockets, mount their bicycles on the long pilgrimage, just to have a look at the peak of their dreams.
Primas was cautious and he also felt responsible for his youthful companion—he was perhaps lacking in that deep knowledge of the Western Alps which would have warned him to explore a mountain from every angle before tackling its most difficult side. But he was certainly not charging blindly up the North Face which, by a hideous pun, the masses had re-christened the Murder Face. He wanted to take a sideways look into the North Face from its eastern rim, approaching it by the Lauper Route. True, only a few days ago, the two Italians, Piravano and Detassis had only just escaped with their lives from a similar reconnaissance. But Primas and Gollackner only wanted to try the Lauper Route, that great climb thought out by the brains of the best Swiss climbers and opened up by the ice-axes of the best Swiss guides. Just the Lauper Route….
No, they had no intention of climbing the Eiger’s North-East Face; only a part of it, so that they could get their sideways look at the North Face. Just as they were starting to climb, Gollackner remembered that he had left his bag of provisions in the tent. Very annoying, but they would be back by evening, and Franz had enough along with him for both on a single day’s climb: a crust of bread and a hunk of sausage.
They started up and climbed on. Once again the mountain chose to be unkind. The conditions were even worse than those met by the Italians—avalanches, showers of stones, rushing torrents. Every foot of the climb was treacherous, slippery. Primas realised that there was no going back; a bivouac was unavoidable. A bivouac without a tent-sack—hadn’t they meant to be back by nightfall?—and without food. No, there was still some food: a smaller crust and a shorter sausage, to last till tomorrow. No, not till tomorrow, but till they got back to civilisation….
They endured a cold, wet, perilous bivouac on the precipice, and it robbed nineteen-year-old Bertl of much of his strength. But throughout the next day, another day of bad weather, Primas showed his great skill as a climber. He led up through the steep and dangerous wall; by evening both had safely reached the cornice of the Mittellegi Ridge. There they dug themselves a rough and ready cave in the snow for their second bivouac. In the night the storm rose to a blizzard. Their food ran out. The bitter cold numbed their muscles and their will-power; but next morning, Primas tried to force himself and his exhausted partner to move on again. And then something absolutely incredible happened: Primas led on upwards towards the summit of the Eiger. Surely he knew that down below, on the crest of the Ridge, there stood a hut, the Mittellegi Hut? Had he formed the opinion that a traverse of the summit was possible, a descent of the ridge impracticable?
Just below the steep step, where the fixed rope was hanging, now thickly encased in ice, Gollackner’s strength gave out. Yet another bivouac in the snow, in the storm. Primas shouted for help; Gollackner was past all shouting. But Primas did not seek his own personal safety, alone; he remained loyally by his friend’s side. His feet lost all sensation and were soon frost-bitten. His sacrifice was, however, in vain. On Sunday July 18th, their fourth day on the mountain, Bertl Gollackner, nineteen years old, died on the Mittellegi Ridge. The blizzard muffled his friend’s calls for help….
All the same, people were thinking hard about the two Salzburg climbers, even if their S.O.S. remained unheard. Though nothing could be seen of them, there were many who thought they had seen something when the cloud curtain lifted for a moment either on Saturday, or was it Friday? Somebody spread the rumour that Primas and Gollackner were climbing down. Then again, the latest news at the tents near Alpiglen was that a rescue party had left Grindelwald to search the Mittellegi Ridge and the upper part of the precipice.
But suppose they were lower down?
Matthias Rebitsch and Ludwig Vörg—whom we shall be getting to know more intimately later on—had erected their tent near Alpiglen on Sunday the 18th; but their worries about the two Salzburg climbers gave them no respite. If the guides were searching higher up, they would start a search lower down. They left their tent at about 4 a.m. on Monday the 19th accompanied at first by two friends anxious to help, Liebl and Rieger. A search of the avalanche-cones at the foot of the Lauper Wall revealed no trace of the missing men. Rebitsch and Vörg climbed on; but there was nothing to be seen on the rock-ledges further up. They then made rapid progress till brought to a halt by an overhanging step. The only way through it was up a chimney. At the moment there was a waterfall pouring down it, and there was no other way; so Rebitsch and Vörg went up it. Soaked to the skin, they searched the network of ledges in the central section of the cliff thoroughly. Here too they found no signs of Primas and Gollackner. So long as they had not fallen off, there was always hope for their survival.
Rebitsch and Vörg were the third party that July to find the Wall had sprung to dangerous life, cutting off their retreat. The warmth of the day had loosened parts of the cornice which came shooting down, endangering all below. There were avalanches, waterfalls, stones into the bargain. No, for Rebitsch and Vörg there would once again be no hope of a return to their tent at Alpiglen. For them, too, the only way of escape lay upwards.
They wanted to make a diagonal ascent across to the Mittellegi Ridge, in the neighbourhood of the Hut; but they were halted by an overhanging belt of rock such as even a Rebitsch and a Vörg could not climb in such conditions. It forced them to make a traverse, the like of which had not been seen on this face.
It was a roped traverse to the left, underneath the rock-step. A rope-traverse on rock dowsed with running water, on ice-glazed rock, on ice itself. A rope-traverse, did I say? A dozen rope-traverses. The ice crackled and creaked under the pressure of their crampons, when they leaned outwards and hauled on the rope, pushing off with their feet from the rock, trusting to the pitons they had banged in. It was nearly the end of the day. The pair had reached a steep ice-slope about 1,000 feet below the Mittellegi Hut. They could even see its roof, high up above, but where they were, there was no sheltering roof.
The two men took to their axes and hacked seats out of the ice and steps for footrests. They hadn’t a dry stitch on them, when they perched themselves on their tiny places for the bivouac. A single piton and the rope attached to it were their only protection against falling off the mountain, if one or the other fell asleep.
To a layman, or even to the average climber, such a bivouac may sound appalling and it may seem incredible that anyone could survive such an ordeal. But Matthias Rebitsch, one of the best, most experienced and toughest climbers of his day, and Ludwig Vörg, the first to climb the 7,000-foot West Face of Ushba in the Caucasus, nicknamed “the Bivouac King” by his friends, spent that night resting with a stoical calm. Next morning they climbed the steep slope to the Mittellegi Hut.
Right glad they were to reach its shelter. They found wood there and soon a fire was crackling in the tiny hearth. They were able to dry their drenched things. They took a brief rest….
But early in the afternoon some guides came in from above, bringing the utterly exhausted Franz Primas with them. They also brought the bitter news that Gollackner lay dead up there, 500 feet below the summit.
Without hesitating an instant, Rebitsch and Vörg volunteered to bring the boy’s body down next day.
Early next day they raced towards the top. There they found Gollackner. The pathetic young face looked relaxed, at peace with the world, as so often happens when death comes by freezing, for the last dreams of those who die that way are magical ones of succour, warmth and life.
Vörg said afterwards: “It was just as if he were sleeping and one had only to awaken him.” With every care not to disturb the last sleep of their young climbing-companion, they carried him down. They said nothing of the tremendous labour involved in bringing a body down the endless razor-blade of the Mittellegi Ridge.
Down below, it was not yet known that Gollackner was dead. Nor had the news filtered through of the magnificent feat of Vörg and Rebitsch, or of the Grindelwald guides, in the service of rescue and recovery; nevertheless, the Eiger was, at the moment, a red-hot source of public interest and controversy.
The following is from the Zürich paper Sport on July 19th:
What measure of psychical greatness would not the Eiger register if it were personified and given a soul. Year after year, a few ludicrous earthworms camp at the foot of its North Face, planning to force a passage with ropes and pitons. It is only necessary for a tiny icicle on the giant’s hat-rim to sneeze in order to annihilate the intruders. When one is lying in complete peace among the pasturing cattle, the sky seems stretched very high overhead and beautifully blue above the world. The Eiger’s Face glitters under its shields of ice, the echo of the falling stones rattles from wall to wall and one can enjoy the rush and rustle of the snow-slides.
Is it either good or necessary that this realm of nature’s tremendous forces should be invaded by beings which were not created as carefree mountain eagles or climbing-plants, but as human beings? The urge to achieve things cannot be used as an excuse for self-annihilation. It is easy enough to push the sporting aspect into the foreground, but Sport does not necessarily mean the ultimate in achievement. To clear one’s mind it is only necessary to recall the mens sana in corpore sano of the Ancients. The ascent of the Eiger North Face is forbidden. It is not the Administration in Berne which has pronounced the veto. It is the Eiger itself speaking with a dumb-show language no one can fail to understand. If anyone fails to comprehend its message, he must be deaf and deserves to be hauled away from the danger area exactly as one would lead a blind man off the tram-lines on to the pavement….
This article might have been controversial, though still off the target, in earlier years. In 1937 it had a reactionary air and to find it then, especially in so respected and serious a newspaper as Sport, was in some ways quite astonishing. A passive observation of nature and the passionless bliss which can be won from it is known to mountaineers as well as others; but it does not constitute their whole nature. An idyllic poem might be born of inactive observation of nature’s forces and it might bring pleasure to the reader. Among mountaineers, too, there have been and still are many sensitive, artistic men, who are as familiar with the howling of the tempest, the hammer-tattoo of the stones, as they are with cold, with steep ice-slopes and with overhanging rocks. They absorbed their awe-inspiring experiences irrespective of whether they were going to clothe them later in literary form or not. But while they were on the mountains, in difficulty and in danger, they behaved simply like ordinary men. The men who discovered the Poles or ventured into unexplored deserts and jungles or mastered the air-space high above the clouds were certainly not of the type which observes nature passively. Yet, one might just as well have said to those pioneers: “Don’t go into the Arctic or Antarctic, for you are neither polar bears nor penguins. Don’t go into the jungle or the desert, for you are neither monkeys nor lions. Don’t venture up into the air, for you will be upsetting the rhythmic balance of the silvery clouds in their silent march!”
Admittedly, man is small and insignificant in nature’s scheme; but he is part of it. And are we to think less of the man who exposes himself to nature’s forces than of him who just delights in looking at her, safe from dangers and tempests? Even those ridiculous earthworms know that an icicle can “sneeze”; but they have learned by observation when and where it happens, and will do their best to avoid the danger with that clear-eyed alertness which they owe to their own daring. They are not deaf; they too hear the mighty voice of the mountains, but they understand and interpret it in a different way from those who enjoy it so passively and with such self-satisfaction.
Now let us go back and follow the steps of the two men who, on a brilliant day, had made that sad journey with the boy’s body. For the weather turned fine on the day of the recovery and remained so for days.
It was the 25th before they felt sufficiently recovered to go up again from Grindelwald to their tent at Alpiglen. They studied the Face quietly, drawing their own conclusions. They recalled how Hinterstoisser’s party had shown its greatest impetus on the first day, after which its strength faded badly. There was obviously something wrong about that. It was essential to preserve enough strength to push on just as quickly in the unexplored, but obviously very difficult, upper part of the Face, below the summit. That meant siting the first camp as high as possible and stocking it lavishly.
Liebl and Rieger proved to be real friends of the kind indispensable on attempts to climb high peaks. Although themselves fit and anxious to tackle the climb of the North Face, they offered to help Rebitsch and Vörg carry their loads up to the first camp and so to forego their own attempt. At about 6 a.m. on July 27th they started up the lower part of the Face with the two protagonists. Once again the weather was glorious.
About 1,000 feet above the Bergschrund, Liebl saw a body lying about 150 feet diagonally below him at the edge of a patch of snow. He attracted the attention of the others.
“That can only be Hinterstoisser,” he said. “Anderl is still missing….”
Liebl had taken part in the previous year’s recovery attempts. He knew that Hinterstoisser and Mehringer had not yet been found. “Still missing.” Tragic words, embodying all the sadness which can be felt for a lost comrade, even when matter-of-factly uttered, without a touch of sentimentality. The weather was fine and would almost certainly remain so for the next few days. But Rebitsch, who always kept a silent tongue when most moved, knew that there would be no attempt on the Face for him and Vörg in the morning. The body of Andreas Hinterstoisser had been lying down there ever since last year….
So they spent that day, the 27th, in carrying up bivouac equipment and provisions to a knob of rock at the top of the so-called “Second Pillar”, and then came down again. On the 28th it was as fine as ever, just as on the day when they brought Gollackner down. Once again the four men spent it in bringing down a body. And once again the brilliance of the sun seemed a ghastly mockery of their tragic work.
No doubt many will say: “What cold, unfeeling young men Rebitsch and Vörg must have been! How could they bring themselves to recover two dead bodies, in the space of a week, on the eve of their own attempt on that dread Face? Couldn’t even that fearful omen shake them? And isn’t it a sign of sheer brutal insensitivity?”
Nobody knows what Rebitsch and his companions thought during those recovery operations. They didn’t advertise their feelings. The fact remains that they put off their supreme effort, which might quite probably have ended in success, because they found Hinterstoisser’s body on the way up. They brought it down in spite of the stones whistling about their ears. They carried out what to them was an essential, final act of piety. In so doing they proved themselves true pupils of the mountain school, in which they had learned to do what was right and necessary. Did that mean that they ought to abandon their plans? They had already made up their minds to attempt the climb. They followed their own law.
They started up the Face again on July 30th. Dawn was a many-coloured splendour—a sure sign of bad weather. They met the first storm at the Bergschrund below the cliffs.
So it was decided only to carry more supplies and equipment up to the top of the Pillar. They reached it at about noon. The weather had moderated by then. Curiosity lured them on; they would reconnoitre a part of the route. The rock became difficult, very difficult indeed. This was no place for nailed boots or crampons. Rope-soled slippers were the thing … but they were down below there. This wasn’t meant to be the start of the attempt on the Face; they were only exploring the way and carrying gear up. So both men took to “Nature’s climbing-boots”—bare feet.
In order to save time and speed things up Rebitsch, that master of rock-climbing, climbed the super-severe “Difficult Crack” without threading a rope through the pitons he found in position there. Vörg followed him equally quickly. And so they reached the vital traverse and, marvelling at the razor-keen solution of the problem how best to reach the First Ice-field, christened it the Hinterstoisser Traverse.
They immediately furnished it with two rope handrails, to ensure a safe retreat in all circumstances. After the traverse, they climbed another difficult crack and there found a small stance, protected from falling stones by an overhang, on which one could even sit in an emergency—in terms of this particular Face, an ideal bivouac. There they dumped everything they could spare and started down again. The second thunderstorm of the day caught them on the far side of the traverse. Dripping wet, and climbing down through vertical waterfalls, they disposed of the 2,700 feet of the lower part of the Face and got back to their tent at Alpiglen before dark.
The rain led to a fresh period of bad weather. Days lengthened into weeks. On August 6th, during a temporary improvement, Vörg and Rebitsch teaming-up with their friends Eidenschink and Möller climbed the North Face of the Great Fiescherhorn. This magnificent wall of snow and ice, first climbed by Willo Welzenbach in 1930, had also been chosen for a final climb, before they turned their backs on the Bernese Oberland for this year, by Fraissl and Brankowsky. Many others too had grown tired of waiting.
Rebitsch and Vörg, however, stayed on. It was now the start of the fourth week since they had withdrawn from the Eiger’s Face. Still they never lost patience, made no careless, irresponsible move. The Press had also quitened down a good deal about the Eiger. There was one article in the Frankfurter Zeitung which caused great amusement in well-informed circles. In it a Mr. M. gave all and sundry what was intended for well-meaning advice. For instance, he suggested that the traversing ropes ought to be fixed at the Hinterstoisser Traverse during a period of Fòhn, that is to say during warm weather, when the ice had melted, the following period of bad weather should be spent waiting in the valley and a fresh start made on the Face as soon as the barometer began to rise again. The Zurich paper Sport expressed its opposition to such “cookery book recipes” in witty, ironical terms.
The traversing ropes were already there. They had been fixed, not during a spell of Föhn, but during a spell of thundery bad weather. But it looked as if they were going to remain unused till the following summer.
On August 9th Berne at last forecast fine weather. On the 10th the hot sun cleared masses of fresh snow from the Face. And early on the 11th Rebitsch and Vörg started out on their second attempt.
It was only 10.30 when they reached their depot on top of the Pillar. They moved on across the roped-traverse to their bivouac-place very heavily laden. They were in such splendid form that they were back at the top of the Pillar by one in the afternoon to fetch up the rest of their gear. And by 5 p.m., everything was safely lodged at the bivouac-place. They had even managed to drag fleece-lined sleeping bags and air mattresses up to it. They improved their sleeping quarters by building a low wall of stones, then they stretched their tent-sack from a projection overhead, to keep the heavier drips off them, and enjoyed a precious night’s sleep in the “Swallow’s Nest” they had built for themselves high up on the precipice.
Next day they climbed on, over ice-covered rock and ice, and achieved the difficult ascent of the overhanging cliff between the First and Second Ice-fields. Then came five hours of upward traversing—twenty rope’s-lengths diagonally upwards—across the Second Ice-field. Then the ice-plastered rocky step leading from the Second to the Third Ice-field. Then the Ice-field itself….
The watchers at the telescopes down in Grindelwald, up at the Kleine Scheidegg, were amazed. They had already seen much wonderful climbing on the Eiger’s Face. All the men who had come and had died on it had climbed wonderfully. But nobody had yet seen anything like the assurance and care of this pair, Rebitsch from the Tirol and Vörg the Munich man. Would these two succeed, at last; or would bad weather come, once again, to rob them?
It wasn’t a question of coming; it was already there. Above the arête of the “Flatiron”, the men were swallowed up by the mists. Up above that, there still loomed more than 2,000 feet of the summit wall, a precipice about which nobody knew anything, for no living being had yet reported on it.
The pair climbed on up the steep ice, penetrated by rock ledges, to where Sedlmayer and Mehringer had spent their last bivouac. There they were half expecting to find Mehringer’s body, which Udet had seen from his plane the previous September, frozen rigid in its steps. They seemed fated always to be meeting dead men.
But there was no body … nothing but a couple of pitons in the rock.
It was 7 p.m. They had reached a height of 11,000 feet, and it was starting to hail. They had come to climb the Face if they could, or at least to reconnoitre its upper precipices. A little lower down there on the left was the start of the great “Ramp”; Vörg and Rebitsch started to traverse across towards it on steep ice. Then, suddenly, hail and rain began to pour down in such absolute torrents that their curiosity about the rest of the route was completely quenched. Their only desire was to crawl under their tent-sack and find some shelter from the deluge.
Nowhere could they find a good spot for a bivouac; nor, for that matter, a bad one either. Finally, they were forced to hack a tiny place out of the ice, on which to pass the night. The cold became so intense that a film of ice formed inside the tent-sack owing to the condensation. For the first time the two men suffered intensely from the cold. All night long icy sleet drummed on the tent. Every now and then they heard the crashing of stones unpleasantly close at hand.
Towards dawn the sleet ceased. As daylight came, the mists parted, but not to reveal a fine morning. A great black bank of cloud was approaching, full of menace, from the west. There was only one possible decision: to retreat.
It was a painful thought, to have to retrace that long dangerous way; but it was the thought of self-preservation.
Bitter-cold as the night had been, it had failed to numb or weaken either of the climbers. Down they climbed, rope’s length on rope’s length. They reached the place where the cliff down to the Second Icefield has to be descended on the two 100-foot ropes joined together. They roped down; then they tried to pull the ropes down after them; they refused to come down. It was still the day of hemp ropes which, when wet, became as stiff as cables. They both tugged on one end of the rope; still it refused to budge. So Rebitsch just climbed, free and unbelayed, up to the top again and cleared the knot by which the ropes had jammed. Assuredly, the North Face had not robbed these two either of their strength or of their ability to make decisions. Both were as strong and courageous as on the first day.
The descent of the Second Ice-field seemed endless. All the time, little snow-slides were coming down it, forcing their bodies away from the steep slope, but they both stood firm. They climbed steadily downwards, safeguarding one another with ice-pitons. The surface of the ice had gone soft and slushy from so much water pouring down. It had become necessary to hack away quite a foot before a piton could be banged into the firm ice below. This all took a long time, but Rebitsch and Vörg continued to descend astonishingly quickly.
The next task was to climb and rope down the overhanging rock-cliff to the First Ice-field. At times they had to knock in four pitons before they could fix the sling for the abseil securely. In spite of the bad weather and the pressure of time, they did not risk a single hasty hand-hold. This was an orderly retreat, rigidly controlled; no flight from the mountain.
They descended the First Ice-field; then Rebitsch was already traversing to their first bivouac—that luxury bivouac, the “Swallow’s Nest”. Soon he reached it and Vörg, following him, was still on ice. At that moment a horrible clatter and whining set in; stones went whizzing past his head. Lumps landed close around him, cutting holes in his rucksack; but when the fall of stones was over, Ludwig’s skull was undamaged. At five o’clock he joined Rebitsch at the bivouac.
Both were soaked to the skin. Nothing could be more inviting than to use the three or four remaining hours of daylight to continue the descent. The traverse was no problem; it was ready roped. Nothing would have been more natural than for these two to have been mastered by their longing for the safety of the valley. But neither of them was exhausted, nor were their senses in any way dulled, so as to allow longings to get the better of them. So they stayed at the bivouac.
There they got out of every stitch of wet clothing, wrung it all out, got dry underwear out of their rucksacks, put it on, then their damp things over it, and crawled into the fleecy sleeping-bags they had cached there. And there they perched themselves, huddled together and went to sleep.
Their fourth morning on the Face dawned, and the weather was if anything still more miserable. A final descent was inevitable; but now it had to be done carrying all their gear, whose weight had been doubled by the wetting it had sustained. Both were in the habit of humping rucksacks of such vast proportions that even on ordinary expeditions to Huts their wearers groaned and sweated under them. A descent with such ballast seemed quite impossible.
All the same, Rebitsch and Vörg climbed down safely with all their luggage. First along the traverse, then down the overhanging pitches—a bitter struggle made far harder by the stiffness of the ropes—to the top of the Pillar, then down and down for hour upon hour.
It was late afternoon before they reached the foot of the Face.
There they met a solitary figure coming up the debris-slopes. Was he a member of the rescue-service? Were people searching for them already then, already talking of new Eiger-victims?
No, it was only their devoted friend Eidenschink coming up. It is a good thing to be welcomed home by a true and understanding friend when you come back to earth.
The Face had not claimed Rebitsch and Vörg. They were tired, but not exhausted; they were able to laugh and to tell their story. All the same their tent near Alpiglen seemed like a palace to them.
By their safe return and by the manner of it Matthias Rebitsch and Ludwig Vörg brought about the change in the attitude of conservative climbers, of the guides, of the publicity media towards the problem of the North Face. The Face had given nothing away to them; yet they had been higher on it than anyone else and had still come back safely, relaxed and calm. This spiritual superiority, the fruit of bodies incomparably well trained, was the decisive factor. The two men had learned from the tragic errors of their predecessors and had themselves made no new mistakes. They had maintained their strength and their courage alike from start to finish of their venture. From now on, nobody talked of ridiculous, presumptous earth-worms. Instead, they spoke of Men.
See footnote p. 44.
In the following year Rebitsch was appointed Deputy Leader of the German Nanga Parbat Expedition, which prevented his taking part in the first successful climb of the Face. None the less his name stands high indeed in its history.
THE summer of 1938 began sadly enough, with the death of two young Italian climbers. Bartolo Sandri and Mario Menti, employees in a wool factory at Valdagno in the Province of Vicenza, were both respected members of the Italian Alpine Club though only twenty-three years old. Sandri, especially, was known to be an unusually fine rock-climber, who had done a number of super-severe climbs ranking as “Grade VI”, among them some first ascents. True they had hardly any experience of ice-climbing in the Western Alps. Like all true mountaineers, they came to Alpiglen and the Scheidegg quietly, without any fuss, indeed almost secretly. They studied the Face, tried themselves out by a reconnaissance of its lower structure and came down again. They decided that the direct route, followed three years before by Sedlmayer and Mehringer, was easier than that discovered by Hinterstoisser. But it wasn’t any easier. The fact is that the Face was not yet fit for climbing at all.
None the less Bartolo and Mario started up it early on June 21st. They reached a greater height than Sedlmayer and Mehringer had on their first day. Their courage and enthusiasm ran high, and they were driven on by a burning urge to succeed. They just couldn’t wait. Nature, however, followed her own laws, heedless of courage, enthusiasm or ambition. Late in the evening one of the Eiger’s notorious thunderstorms set in….
The very next day a search-party of Grindelwald guides, led by Fritz Steuri Senior, found Sandri lying dead on a patch of snow at the foot of the Face. Menti’s body was only recovered with some difficulty a few days later from a deep crevasse.
That was a bad enough start to operations on the Eiger in the summer of 1938, but it could not hold up the developments which were due. The memory of the successful retreat of Rebitsch and Vörg, which had been the turning point in men’s minds, was still vivid. So was the lesson that it was impossible to capture the Face by surprise. Veni, vidi, vici wouldn’t work on the Eiger. Endless patience was required and long waiting … for days, even weeks.
Meanwhile, Fritz Kasparek was waiting impatiently for my arrival. That tremendous climber from Vienna, bursting with life, blessed with an optimism nothing could destroy, had already been in Grindelwald for some time, skiing around the Bernese Oberland, keeping a constant watch on the Eiger’s mighty Face. Though, so far, there hadn’t been much to watch except continual avalanches, sufficient in themselves to nip in the bud even the thought of an attempt. All the same, Fritz would have liked by now to have had with him his partner on the big climb they had planned to do together; for one never knows what may happen to interrupt one’s plans. Sepp Brunnhuber, too, with whom Fritz had done the first winter ascent of the North Face of the Grosse Zinne as long ago as February—to some extent as a training climb for the Eiger project—could still not get away. I had promised Fritz to arrive at Grindelwald by July 10; but at the bottom of his heart he had good grounds for mistrusting students’ promises.
Actually I was no longer a student by the time I got to Grindelwald. My tutors at the University of Graz were greatly astonished at the speed with which I suddenly attacked my Finals. I could hardly explain to them that I wanted my studies out of the way before I climbed the North Face of the Eiger. They would certainly have shaken their heads and—not without some justification—reminded me that it was quite in order to “come off” that climb without having graduated first. I told nobody of our plan, not a fellow-student, not a mountaineering or sporting acquaintance. The only person I let into the secret was that wise, practical and plucky woman, my future mother-in-law, Frau Else Wegener. In 1930 her husband Professor Alfred Wegener had given his life for his companions on Greenland’s inscrutable inland ice, when he perished in a blizzard; so she might well have had strong grounds for being fiercely opposed to ventures involving a risk to life. She, however, uttered no warning word; on the contrary, she encouraged me, though well acquainted with the reputation of the Eiger’s North Face.
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