The North Face of the Eiger: Days 1-3

Day 1: 10 February 1980.

There are things I’ve forgotten and things I’ll never forget. I’ve forgotten which station we got off the train (was it Alpiglen or Kleine Scheidegg?) yet I remember the loaded expression on Roger’s face when he asked, ‘Ready?’. I’ve forgotten the strain of the straps cutting into our shoulders with ten days’ food and fuel, yet I remember the weight of what lay above us and the knot of fear in my throat, and the disbelief that this was finally happening.

At the foot of the 1600m high face we tied on to the ends of the two nine millimeter ropes – one blue, the other orange. For the next week we’d never be more than forty-five metres apart. Above us, a runnel of snow/ice traced the right side of a feature called the First Pillar. I studied it for a moment then realised that Roger had already tied himself to two ice screws. He said, ‘You can have the honour of the first pitch,’ or something like that, and with an ice hammer in my right hand and a longer-shafted ice-axe in the other, I struck the first blows and kicked the first steps of our drawn-out Eiger campaign.

The snow soon steepened and hardened to ice. It was perfect neve – white and firm and my tools pierced it with a squeak and pulled out of it with a squeal. Only the two front points of my crampons could penetrate it, yet I felt secure. I don’t remember placing any protection – no need to waste time. The knot of fear unraveled with each move. By the time I pulled in the ropes to belay Roger, he was already half way up the pitch.

We climbed two more similar pitches, taking turns to lead, then easier angled snow led to a overhung ledge near the top of the First Pillar. With only an hour or so of daylight we couldn’t ignore such a palace in which to sleep, as it was large enough to remove our harnesses, but we still tied the rope around our waists in case we should slip. Roger set the stove between some rocks and melted a pot of snow to make tea. Then we had soup, and forced down something freeze-dried and disgusting. After more drinks we had our daily treat – a sliver of left-over Christmas cake and a gulp of brandy.

Roger took a photo of me with a mug in my hand and I asked him why because it wasn’t exciting and we only had a few rolls of film. Now I’m grateful for that photo. I can’t remember what I was thinking when Roger took it. He was utterly at home – a man in his element – but the expression he captured on me is not one of joy. Perhaps it was the contrast of his confidence against my anxiety; after all, the climb had barely begun.

Day 2: 11 February 1980.

The pre-dawn chirp of a Casio watch rouses us from half-sleep. One of us (I can’t remember who) thrashes around to light the stove while the other gratefully dozes. The pot is half full of solid ice that takes half-an-hour to boil. Then tea and breakfast – we have muesli because this is Switzerland.

Hours later, after climbing tedious snow slopes that weave between a jumble of ridges and bluffs, we reach the first of the Eiger’s named pitches. The Difficult Crack marks the start of the real climbing. It’s vertical and choked with ice and it’s my lead. Roger says, ‘You’ll have to pull your pack’, but I’m impatient and don’t want to waste time hoisting my pack up afterwards, so I start climbing Scottish Grade VI with 20kgs on my back.

I scrape and scratch my way up the rock, hooking whatever will jam in the crack: the picks of my tools, a hammer head, the adze of my axe, a mittened fist, a cramponed boot, a sore and swelling knee. The straps of my pack make me feel as heavy as lead. I reach a tiny ledge and stop to regain my breath enough to vent some frustration. Roger shouts, ‘Leave your pack there’, and this time I don’t argue. I wriggle a nut into the crack and Roger holds me on it while I take off my pack and clip it to the nut with a sling, and the rest of the pitch is almost enjoyable.

Anchored to an airy perch, I belay Roger while he climbs the crack and I notice how little we’ve climbed and how far we have to go. A vast wall of rock leans over us and the only way up is a sliver of ice leading rightwards into thin air.

Roger reaches my abandoned pack. He unties from one of the ropes and attaches it to my pack and tells me to pull, but I can’t belay him and pull at the same time – my hands are fingerless and I don’t have enough of them. When Roger reaches my stance the pack is still hanging 20 metres below. Together we start to pull, but it jams beneath an overhang and won’t budge. ‘You’ll have to go and get it’, says Roger.
‘Why me?’ I whine.
‘Because you need to learn’, he says. ‘I told you to pull your pack.’

I unravel myself from the belay and Roger lowers me back down the iced-up rock to where I can pull the pack around the overhang. Then he belays me while I re-climb the crack. Somehow Roger keeps the rope tight on me and pulls up the pack at the same time, as though two pairs of hands are working.

I hadn’t wanted to waste time, but my impatience has blown any chance of reaching the Swallow’s Nest that night. But just above the Difficult Crack, at the base of the overhanging Red Wall, the snow forms a decent ledge where we can both lie horizontally in a bivy tent. It’s an unexpected luxury. Darkness comes, now the wind, and now the snow – lots of it. I don’t sleep well. I fear we might have to go down. And there’s a different kind of fear – a fear that the snow might stop, and that we’ll have to go up.

Day 3: 12 February 1980.

We wait for the snowing to ease before setting off. Overhung by an acre of featureless rock, there’s nowhere to go but leftwards, and a couple of rope-lengths deliver us to the Eiger’s most infamous pitch – The Hinterstoisser Traverse – beyond which it’s problematic to retreat unless you leave a fixed rope in place. Gladly, someone already has, for across the blank snow-speckled slab drapes an old rope. I holster my axes, clip a sling to the rope and ape along it with my crampons grating on ripples and tiny footholds. The presence of the rope makes it quick and easy, and Roger soon follows.

Half-way across the traverse Roger climbs up to unclip a sling that I placed to protect us in case the old rope broke. He’s in a spectacular position, perched precariously on a wall of wintry rock with the Red Wall leaning over him as though it’s watching. I pull off a glove and pull out my camera and take a photo because I know it will make us look brave, for the fixed rope is hard to see against the clutter of snow and limestone. It looks impressive, but who would know that it was easy?

Another pitch and we reach the Swallow’s Nest which we’d intended to reach the previous day because it’s usually a good place to bivy, but it’s full of snow so perhaps we were never meant to reach it. Above us, the First Icefield looks easy. I set off up it and find that it isn’t. The angle is low – about fifty degrees – but the snow is wafer thin. The picks of my hammer and axe smash through it and bounce off hard black ice, and the front-points of my crampons feel like toothless gums. It’s desperately precarious. I’m aware of Roger taking a photo and I wonder why, for it looks easy and not especially impressive. Who would know that was hard?

The short winter day is already dusking when we reach the top of the First Icefield. Tucked up against the rock, the snow is thick enough to hack out a ledge wide enough to accommodate a buttock. Inside our bivy tent we face each other, knees touching, the outer shells of our plastic boots floating in the bottom of the tent. I grip the stove between my thighs and hold a pot of snow over it and wait for it to melt, then warm, and when the bubbles eventually rise I tip in a sachet of tomato soup. We force down our third evening meal and reward ourselves with a morsel of cake and brandy.

The night is long and measured in increments of pain. We alternate between sitting on a buttock and hanging in the leg-loops of our harnesses, switching from one to the other when each becomes unbearable. Cocooned inside our five-season sleeping-bags we twitch like a couple of maggots, our noses protruding from the tightly drawn hoods in search of air. Yet I’m happy to be here. We’re above the Hinterstoisser on the North Face of the Eiger in winter and the weather has cleared and no rocks are falling down. Dare I imagine that we might succeed?

Days 4 – 6 follow in the next post.

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