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Entranced by the Eiger

By Nigel Roberts

When Daniel Joll spoke to the Wellington section of the Alpine Club on Wednesday evening, 4 May, about some of the climbs he’d done in France, Italy, and Switzerland, he gave us a modest – almost self-effacing – account of scaling the North Face of the Eiger. About six months ago, he and his climbing partner, Chaz, climbed the original 1938 route in what Daniel described as “two moderate days of climbing.”

Daniel added, though, that “a fast and light team would have no problems climbing the route in less than a day in winter if the conditions are good.”

The cover of Nigel Roberts' copy of The White Spider.

The cover of Nigel Roberts’ copy of The White Spider.

As a mountain, the Eiger is well-named: it translates as the Ogre. Although I have been entranced by the Eiger for more than half a century, I couldn’t remember how long the first four climbers had taken to make their 1938 ascent of the North Face, so after his talk I asked Daniel if he knew how long the first ascent had taken. He said he didn’t know, so I promised I’d go home and re-read The White Spider – which is precisely what I did.

For those who don’t know it, The White Spider is a climbing classic. It was published in German in 1958 and in English the following year. The author was Heinrich Harrer, whom I initially knew as the author of Seven Years in Tibet – another classic (so much so that it was one of the set texts I had to study for my 1961 matriculation exams). When I first read Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, however, I was utterly unaware of the fact that he’d been a member of the four-man team that had successfully completed the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in July 1938.

The book’s title stems from a spider-shaped icefield high on the North Face. Die weise spinne funnels ice- and rock-avalanches from all directions at climbers as they try to complete the final third of the climb.

I well recall going into town one day during the December 1960 Christmas holidays and buying The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer. It cost me £1.10.0 (or, as it says on the inside flap of the front cover, 30 shillings). In modern terms that’s three dollars – but 30 shillings was a small fortune in the fourth quarter of 1960: it was the equivalent of $128.30 in 2016!

When I got home, I went into my bedroom and read the whole book from cover-to-cover in one fell swoop. At dinner my mother asked me what I’d been doing, and when I told her I had finished reading the book I’d bought that morning, she was horrified (and not a little angry). “What a waste of money!”, she exclaimed. My mother died in 2003, but I like to think she’d have changed her mind if she knew that I still have and still treasure The White Spider.

In the years prior to the start of World War II, the North Face of the Eiger – the Nordwand – was widely regarded as the last great unclimbed route in the Alps. Climbers and the public alike regarded the Nordwand with a fascination akin to the mystique surrounding the Matterhorn prior to its first successful ascent by Edward Whymper and his party in 1865. The first serious attempts to climb the North Face of the Eiger were unparalleled disasters: a two-man August 1935 party froze to death in the middle of the Face at what’s now known as Death Bivouac; and all four members of a July 1936 team were killed while attempting to retreat down the Face. The Nordwand acquired a morbid nickname: Mordwand (i.e., Murder Wall).

In July 1938, however, two teams met on the Face: the day after two Austrians, Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek, began climbing the North Face, two young Germans – Andreas Heckmair and Ludwig Vörg – caught up with them between the Second and Third Icefields, and (as Harrer describes it) “the result of the encounter was neither discord nor rivalry, but a teaming up.”

A postcard illustrating some of the routes up the North Face of the Eiger. The solid red line shows the route for the first successful ascent in 1938, which was also Daniel Joll's route.

A postcard illustrating some of the routes up the North Face of the Eiger. The solid red line shows the route for the first successful ascent in 1938, which was also Daniel Joll’s route.

Despite experiencing a fall, an avalanche, and a storm (“a violent, noisy downpour” that rendered “the whole breadth of the North Face … one fearsome waterfall”), they reached the summit of the mountain at 3:30 pm on 24 July 1938, after Harrer and Kasparek had been on the North Face for 85 hours and Heckmair and Vörg had been on it for 61 hours. The Austrians had had to bivouac three times, the Germans twice.

Taped inside the back pages of my copy of The White Spider are a series of clippings from newspapers around the world. They contain stories about the Eiger that were published after I bought Harrer’s book. A March 1961 article in the Johannesburg Star is about the first successful winter ascent of the Nordwand; a clipping from the London Evening News dated 3 August 1963 is headlined “Eiger Beaten Solo For First Time”; and an 8 January 1964 Hobart Mercury article tells the story of “three young Swiss alpinists [who] recently completed the first climb down the north wall of the Eiger”.

In 1963 I was lucky enough to be lent my grandmother’s three-wheel Heinkel bubble-car. I drove to Dover, where I caught a cross-channel ferry to Ostend, and then spent two months travelling round “the continent” (as the English referred to Europe in those pre-EU days). Four days later – on Thursday, 22 August 1963 – I arrived in Grindelwald, at the foot of the North Face of the Eiger, to pay homage to the mountain and the mountaineers who’d climbed the Nordwand. A picture of my miniscule car and the massive mountain are an amusing memento of the occasion.

Forty-one years later, three of us – Caroline Ogden, Eric Hodge, and I – fresh from success on Mt Blanc, arrived in Switzerland hoping to climb the Eiger: not via the North Face, I hasten to add, but via the Mittellegi Ridge. However, the weather in the Bernese Oberland was dreadful, so we retreated to a lovely little village called Saas-Grund, in a valley immediately to the east of the Matterhorn and, as a consolation prize, I climbed Allalinhorn (4,027 metres) instead. Given that we rode via cable-car and train up to 3,500 metres, it was probably the easiest 4,000-metre peak I’ve ever climbed.

Nigel Roberts on the summit of Allalinhorn, a 4,000m peak in Switzerland.

Nigel Roberts on the summit of Allalinhorn, a 4,000m peak in Switzerland.

Ironically, though, the Eiger is not a 4,000-metre peak: its summit is “only” 3,970 metres above sealevel.  However, that just goes to show that size isn’t everything. The Eiger is a mighty mountain, and its North Face is justly both famous and infamous. I salute Daniel Joll; I’m in awe of his and Chaz’s achievement.

Posted: 31/05/16

Posted By: Narina Sutherland