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The Eiger: Celebrating 75 Years of North Face Ascents

Posted on: July 24th, 2013 by The AAC

Today marks 75 years since the North Face of the Eiger was first climbed. This iconic mountain face was once called the “Mordwand” and considered a nearly impenetrable, murderous wall. Today, the 6,000′ face has been climbed in under 2.5 hours. AAC board member John Heilprin lives in Geneva, Switzerland and shared this story with us to remember and commemorate the last 75 years.

Eiger North Face, seen from Grindelwald

Eiger North Face, seen from Grindelwald

KLEINE SCHEIDEGG, Switzerland—The North Face of the Eiger, one of the most notorious Alpine climbing walls in the world, is a study in European myth-making. Since the 6,000-foot wall that towers above Swiss resort of Grindelwald was first climbed 75 years ago Wednesday, grabbing international headlines, its fierce reputation and even its shape have transformed in ways that reflect the continent’s history.

The monstrously concave 6,000-foot wall, one of Europe’s largest, was once thought to be impossible to climb. Before and after World War II, it became a showcase for lightning advances in alpine climbing and technology, and a testing ground for the human spirit. Better training and gear, improvements in weather forecasting, helicopter rescues and even climate change has played a part in altering the myth. Summer ascents are now rare, because of the higher risk of loose rock; most climbers go in late winter or spring, or in fall.

A German-Austrian team first climbed the maze of crumbling limestone, ice and snowfields over four days in July 1938, and became swept up in Nazi propaganda. The 13,025-foot Eiger has now claimed more than 60 lives, Grindelwald’s top mountain guides and rescue officials say, though exact records are hard to come by. Its North Face remains a serious test-piece for first-rate alpinists, but it has now been climbed hundreds of times—even in under three hours by professional Swiss speed climbers—and paying clients have been guided up it.

A closer look at the iconic North Face.

A closer look at the iconic North Face on the Eiger.

“It’s changed from a death wall to a wall where you can do a lot of sports, but we still honor what all those climbers did 70 to 80 years ago,” said Marco Bomio, a mountain guide who heads the town’s climbing museum, as he showed off the exhibits where some of the most macabre events are re-created.

What many of those climbers did in the 1930s was to perish, in such spectacularly dramatic fashion, that the North Face, or Nordwand, became known as the Mordwand—a Swiss murder wall. The scenes fill books, magazines and film screens that many of us know by heart. In August 1935, Munich climbers Max Sedlmayr and Karl Mehringer were trapped for days in a snow storm. They froze to death at what’s now called the Death Bivouac. At the museum, there’s a new exhibit with a replica of the famous knot that stymied Toni Kurz in July 1936, the most famous tragedy of all, and the basis for the 2008 German film, “North Face.” Kurz’s partner, Andreas Hinterstoisser, had pioneered the daring traverse that unlocked the lower part of the wall and now bears his name. But they pulled the rope, blocking their retreat.

After the pair joined with Edi Ranier and Willy Angerer, who was apparently struck in the head by a falling rock, the weather turned, and each of them died. Kurz was the last to go. He had braved days of exposure, but finally succumbed to the cold and exhaustion when one last knot blocked his way that he couldn’t untangle with his freezing limbs and fingers. He died hanging from a rope, just yards away from the guides’ rescue party that had ventured out to find him. The used one of the famous gallery windows onto the wall from an underground station where the train tunnels through the mountain. “I can’t go on,” he told his horrified rescuers, then slumped forward, dead.

After that, local authorities temporarily tried to ban people from climbing it. But on July 24, 1938, after four days of supreme effort, the two-man rope teams of Germans Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vörg and Austrians Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek got up the Eiger North Face and solved the Alps’ “last great problem.” They reached the summit in whiteout conditions, helped by Heckmair’s training and his then-revolutionary crampons with front points for the ice. From there on, the Eiger’s North Face entered the realm of myth, and Hollywood. In his 1975 thriller “The Eiger Sanction,” Clint Eastwood plays a climber assassin who famously remarks that if his target is on the North Face, his work is probably done for him.

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Swiss professional climbers, left to right, Ueli Steck, Stephan Siegrist, Roger Schaeli and Dani Arnold, who have climbed the Eiger many times.

Constant rock fall has always been a major hazard, but is an even greater one now with climate change. Summer ascents, once the norm, now are rare, because of the risk from falling rock. In 2006, a massive chunk of the Eiger’s East Face fell—more than 20 million cubic feet of stone, equal to about half the volume of New York’s Empire State Building—loosened by melting glacial ice. The thundering collapse, which scientists said was caused by the retreat of Grindelwald’s glacier, lasted more than 15 minutes and sent up a cloud of dust that spread out over the valley. Adding to the fame is the North Face’s accessibility: Onlookers can peer up at it from telescopes at a grand 19th century hotel at Kleine Scheidegg, just before the train begins to tunnel through the Eiger, or ride the Jungfrau railway further, almost entirely within a tunnel built into the Eiger and Monch mountains, to the Jungfraujoch, the railway station that at 11,332 feet is the highest in Europe.

“The North Face is unique, there is no other. The fascination is in the complexity of snow and rock and ice,” said Ueli Steck, one of the world’s most accomplished climbers, who holds the second-fast time of two hours, 47 minutes. He sat on a meadow below the North Face with fellow Swiss professional climbers Stephan Siegrist, Roger Schaeli and Dani Arnold, who beat Steck’s record with a time of two hours, 28 minutes. They spoke in Swiss German to a group of international journalists who asked them what the North Face means to them, and how they think it—and the myth—has changed over the years.

“You ask yourself sometimes, what am I doing there? But it’s very beautiful, and I just like being there,” Arnold said. “There’s always a risk, but you just have to accept it.”

John Harlin III, the former editor-in-chief of the American Alpine Journal who was nine years old when his famous climbing father died in 1966 while putting up a new route on the North Face, called the Eiger’s North Face “the Everest of real climbers.” Harlin wrote a book, “The Eiger Obsession,” about how he finally came to terms with the death of his father, who fell 4,000 feet to his death when his rope broke, and the mythic wall itself. The 2007 IMAX film, “The Alps,” tells the story of the son overcoming his fears to climb the North Face, as his then nine-year-old daughter watches.

“It’s the iconic climb that tests your psyche and your skills on a difficult face with a powerful history,” Harlin said. “Many have noted that when you climb this face, you’re climbing with the ghosts of those who came before. It challenges you, calls out your name, and says, ‘Do you dare?’ Climbers from now until eternity will have to wrestle with that question.”

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