Another Eiger Post

Just a few months back I posted a blog and video about the Eiger North Face so if you haven’t check it out have a look.  It seemed that climbing the face would satisfy my obsession about this mountain, but I think it only sparked more interest.  After a busy winter, I was fortunate to climb the face not again, but two more times including guiding an ascent. 

This past winter was a long and busy one with a lot of diversity.  The winter began as usual with a mix of ski and ice climbing work, but then I traveled to Thailand and Jordan on a trip with Caroline.  Spending a month climbing in the middle of winter is something I have never done and it provided to be quite a contrast for the season.  Soon enough though I was back on the snow and spent a lot of time in huts (even on a boat) guiding ski trips in Norway, Italy, Switzerland and France.  I didn’t really have any time to get out and Alpine climb, but skiing daily is good for your conditioning.  I ended up with a few days off between ski trips mid-April and the weather and conditions were ripe for an Alpine climb.

Caroline and I teamed up for a climb and the conditions on the Eiger were perfect this spring.  We both had climbed the face before, but doing it in a day was something we were both interested in.  You can read about the climb in a post Caroline wrote so I won’t go into too much detail.  The climb went well for us and it was great to move quickly on such a majestic face.

After our ascent I guided a ski descent of Mont Blanc with a friend, colleague and mentor – Martin Volken-and it seemed like this was a fitting way to cap off the season and put the snow behind me for a while.  That was of course until the phone rang and a friend of Caroline’s inquired about getting a guide for the Eiger North Face. 

The trouble with climbing any alpine route is that three things need to line up: good weather, good conditions and you need to be ready.  So many people have traveled to Switzerland with hopes of climbing the Eiger only to be thwarted by one of the above prerequisites.  When you bring guiding into the equation it only complicates matters further.  My client for this ascent is a doctor in Switzerland which made logistics quite simple.  She was aware of the conditions and her days off looked to coincide perfectly with the weather window.  Furthermore, she has been climbing a lot this winter with many big routes under her belt so conditioning was not an issue.  With everything lining up we were ready to go for an adventure of a lifetime.

Our trip began with the first train from Grindewald.  While this gives you a relatively “late” start by alpine standards, you do have the advantage of day light while starting the climb.  In the spring the conditions on the lower face are usually straight forward and climbing to the Difficult crack can be fast.  We made great progress up until this point and then we encountered two teams who had left more than 5 hrs before us.  After a little waiting we able to pass the group before the Hinterstoisser traverse thus not interrupting out rhythm.  We were making good time and caught yet another team in the ice hose.  Here again we were able to move past them without any delay and wouldn’t have any more resistance for the remainder of the day.  The conditions on the face were good although there was some fresh snow and some sections were getting quite dry.  The new snow and cool temps help mitigate rock fall, which is the biggest concern on a climb like this. 

We made quick and steady progress on the first day and were planning on spending the night high on the Brittle ledges.  The ramp had a couple of tricky pitches to negotiate, which proved to be the route’s crux and all of my client’s training paid off as they barley slowed us down. The beauty of climbing late in the spring is that the days are long.  When we arrived at our intended bivouac there was still plenty of daylight to spare so we carried on another couple of pitches until just before the traverse of the gods.  Normally, this can be one of the most aesthetic places on the route to spend a night, but here we came across a team of three who were trying the climb in a day.

 This party, had either overestimated their abilities or underestimated the face, and it was clear they would not make the summit in a day.  The team had brought virtually no bivy gear with them so they called a helicopter for rescue… only in Europe. However, at this time of the day the face was enveloped in clouds and it was obvious that no pilot would attempt a rescue.  Furthermore, as you may imagine, a rescue here is no simple task and considering there was no immediate danger,  I was a bit disturbed by the fact this team was willing to put a rescue team at risk so they could avoid an unpleasant bivouac.

In the end, no rescue came and ironically I think we suffered the unpleasant bivouac.  The team of three, who had arrived before us, took the good part of the ledge to spend the night huddled together.  We however, had to chop a ledge into the snow which offered sitting room only.  So, despite having the necessary equipment it wasn’t one of the more pleasant night’s I’ve spent outside.  Oddly enough, when morning arrived with clear skies, this team decided to carry on rather than pursue a rescue. 

We made sure to start off ahead of this team and quickly made some distance on them.  This part of the climb is truly majestic.  The route sneaks through some improbable features crossing over some of the most well known landmarks: the Traverse of the Gods and the White Spider.  We had good conditions, but things were a bit drier and a little more tenuous then on the ascent I had made two weeks before. The Exit Cracks were in good condition to start, but as we got higher conditions changed a bit.  The longer days in the spring bring sun to the upper part of the mountain in the afternoon.  With sun on the snow the final pitches can get quite wet on a warm day.  By arriving at these pitches early in the morning they are frozen and can be covered in verglass, such was the case when we arrived.  These final pitches presented one final challenge in our ascent.  The pitches are not extremely difficult, but in these conditions they a bit insecure and offer little protection.   Atlas, it is the Eiger after all and ascent that is too easy just wouldn’t seem fair.  After negotiating the final snow field and ridge we were on our way down to catch an early afternoon train.  After less than 34 hours we were back down in Grindelwald where spring was awaiting.

After doing this climb for the third time, and this time guiding it, I was struck by a couple of things.  First, you can never be too prepared for a climb.  My client was very fit and had put in a lot of mileage over the winter.  This allowed us to move quickly and allowed her to enjoy climb rather than simply get up it.  Second, this is a face that still demands respect.   Today the face has been climbed in less than three hours (still mind blowing to me) and it seems that somehow this has trivialized the undertaking.  But, make no mistake; it is a long climb that offers some challenging pitches.  So, no matter what style to choose make sure you come ready to play ball.  For me it is probably the best climb I have done and it was a privilege to help someone accomplish a goal like this.

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