The North Face of the Eiger
Latest News Monday, August 24, 1998 5 pm (PST)
While the climbers were able to get in some good climbing in the Alps, it looks as though the Eiger is not going to happen this time.
[Click for the Latest Update]
If conditions permit in the next few days, Americans Brent Bishop of Bozeman,
Montana, and Jim Howe of Salt Lake City, Utah will make an attempt on
most fearsome of all Alpine routes. If not, they'll retreat and climb
"I've been fascinated by the lore of the Eiger since I was old enough to
read," Bishop said in a recent Mountain Zone interview, "but I'm not
ready to commit suicide. We had hoped to go earlier in July or later in
September, but couldn't make that work. Our window will be from
mid-August until the end of August. Many ascents have been made during
time frame, so if the face comes into shape while we're there, we'll
go for it."
"What got me really excited was when my father (Barry Bishop who, in
among the first Americans to climb Everest) took me to see the
Eiger Sanction. I knew dad was an old mountaineer, but the Eiger to me
was real climbing. It was death-defying. Then reading about it, seeing
the photos of Toni Kurz hanging from the face, or [Lionel] Terray and [Louis] Lachenal
making the second ascent, it's always fascinated me," Bishop said. "I
wall remains a test piece for accomplished climbers. Even climbers like
Don Whillans, Reinhold Messner, Mark Twight, they've all said it's one
of the scariest climbs they've ever done. And this from a route with
maybe 5.8 moves."
"It's got everything, rock
climbing, ice climbing, mixed climbing, ice-coated rocks, bad rock and
it's very committing... For me the climb is irresistible..."
Bishop ticked off what makes the Eiger so intimidating, even today.
"It's huge, with 6,000 feet of climbing, it's a north face so it's
exposed to bad weather, and being concave, it creates a micro-climate
that can make for really awful weather. And it's got everything, rock
climbing, ice climbing, mixed climbing, ice-coated rocks, bad rock and
it's very committing. It's got the whole alpine package wrapped up in
one climb. For me the climb is irresistible, it has a storied past, it's
aesthetic looking, it's scary looking, and you're following in the
footsteps of great alpine climbers," he said.
Bishop will attempt the face with Howe, 46, a veteran climber who has
spent the past two years climbing in
the Alps and is a veritable amateur Eiger historian.
"For both of us, this in an historical thing," Howe told The Mountain
Zone from his home in Salt Lake City, Utah. 'I grew up wanting to do the
because of all those books I read as a kid and
rest. As I got older, even though I'm past that point technically, the
Eiger North Face still holds real meaning. It's the epitome of alpinism.
It's interesting that a lot of climbers are still afraid of it, it
retains its deadly ambience."
Howe climbs mostly in the Rockies (he and Bishop met while guiding in
the Tetons) but has climbed extensively in Alaska. He put a new route up on
the West Face of Peak 11,300 in the Ruth Glacier. He's an alpine
specialist who just spent two years living and climbing in Europe. This
will be his first Eiger climb, although he did do the North Face of the
Lauteraarhorn, a bigger peak in the Bernese Oberland not far from the
"Conditions are going to be critical," Howe said. "The Eiger is very
changeable, one week it will go, the next it will be impossible. Our
timing isn't great, but ascents are still made in mid-August in some
years, and we're hoping this is one of those years."
Howe said he and Bishop will fly to Zurich, then make the two-hour drive
to Grindelwald. They will try to observe the face for a day or two
before making a decision on whether to climb it. The Mountain Zone will
post their dispatches, whether they are able to make the climb or not.
|Left to right: the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau|
[click to zoom] photo: Sara Machlin
As for the climb itself, Bishop said he and Howe plan to do the route in
two days, with one bivouac. The one thing they must have is sufficiently cold conditions to
limit rockfall. They plan to go lightweight: no stoves (meltwater should
provide drinking water) and bivy sacks, but probably not sleeping bags.
plan to take just one pair of rock slippers (they wear the same size
shoes); enabling them to trade off, so the leader won't have to lead in
boots but they still save weight. The climbers plan to take a
substantial rack although Bishop anticipates significant fixed pro on
the face. The pair will use two ice tools each for the ice fields, and
climb on double Black Diamond 8.1 mm ropes.
"I've been fascinated by the lore of the Eiger since I was old
enough to read but I'm not ready to commit suicide..."
What it means to attempt the Eiger
Tomorrow, Bishop and Howe will stand at the bottom of one of the most feared faces in the world. There to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first climb, the two will face a crucial decision whether to attempt to climb the crumbling bastion, which has long occupied a storied place in mountaineering history.
The Eiger Nordwand (north face) holds a unique place in mountaineering legend. Last of the great north faces of the Alps to be climbed after the North Face of the Matterhorn and the Grand Jorasses it was for a century considered unclimbable. Eiger translates to ogre, and this huge, gnarly north face
of the Bernese Oberland has lived up to its name by killing the first
climbers who attempted it. The landmarks of the face: the Difficult
Crack, the Swallows Nest, the Death Bivouac, the Hinterstoisser
Traverse, the Ramp, the Traverse of the Gods, the Spider, the Exit
Cracks are by now indelibly burned into the fabric of climbing history.
Grindelwald Café Scene
The face was first climbed in 1938 by a
group of four Germans and Austrians that included Heinrich Harrer. In
the sixty years since it has been the scene of a dozen now famous epics,
has claimed more than 50 lives. And although the reality of helicopter
rescue has since the mid-'70s removed the do-or-die commitment the face
once demanded, it remains a serious undertaking.
Conditions are everything on the Eiger, where rockfall can prove even
more deadly than the lethal difficulties of the rock and ice that make
the crumbling 6,000-foot face. Freezing nighttime temperatures are
necessary for a safe ascent, assuring the loose rocks remain frozen in
place for long enough each morning to allow climbers to reach the
relative safety of a handful of protected bivouac sites.
Peter Potterfield, Mountain Zone Editor
Just the Facts
WHAT'S IN THE NAME
Eiger means ogre in German.
THE NORTH FACE
6000 feet of concave, "rotten limestone hung with snow and icefields, hidden in mist and clouds, wracked by furious storms, frequently swept by avalanches of snow and rotten rock." An English Mountaineer
[Switzerland] [The Climbing Route]
THE FIRST ASCENT
In July, 1938, Heinrich Harrer, Fritz Kasparek, Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vorg climbed into
history in what became an arduous week-long epic.
The men were stalked by death until the very end of the climb when
consecutive avalanches nearly ripped them from the face. Heckmair led every
exhausting himself physically and psychologically, and Harrer, who had no crampons, climbed last. All four men
become national heroes in Austria and Germany and although Heckmair said Hitler gave them medals, Harrer denied it.
THE FRENCH TAKE THEIR TURN
The renowned French climbing partnership of Lionel Terray and Louis
Lachenal made the second
ascent of the Eiger Nordwand in 1947, almost 10 years later. Terray's famous variant bypasses the dreaded, freezing waterfall
pitch on thin rock holds. After the climb, Terray says, "I would never
THE FASTEST ASCENT
1981: Uehli Buhler soloed the 1938 route in 8.5 hours.
THE TRAGIC FAILURES
There have been dozens of tragedies on the Eiger
Nordwand since the early attempts in the 1930's. A total recounting of
climbs requires a book, and several have been written. A few of the
The Death Bivouac: Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmayer are killed in 1935 attempting the first ascent; this tragedy gives the Death Bivouac its name and the face its reputation as a killer.
The Hinterstoisser Traverse:
In 1936, the Austrian-German four man rope of Edi Rainer, Willy
Andreas Hinterstoisser (the man whose brilliant traverse opened the way to the First Icefield) and Toni Kurz died trying to become the first party up the face. Kurz perished just beyond the outstretched arms of his would-be rescuers, who tried to reach him via one of the train tunnel windows that open onto the face from inside the mountain.
His body hung from ropes for months in plain view of tourists manning the
telescopes on the hotel patio at Kleine Scheidegg at the base of the
An Epic Rescue: In 1957, two separate two-man ropes met on the wall and climbed on
together. Rock fall and exhaustion left Italians Stefano Longhi and
Claudio Corti trapped high on the face near the Exit Cracks. Longhi
eventually died on the face, his body hanging grotesquely from the
anchoring ropes that held him. Corti was saved in an epic rescue that
involved a cable-and-winch system and more than 30 climbers from all
over Europe. The Germans, Franz Mayer and Gunter Northduff, climb on and
actually reached the top only to die tragically near the summit from
avalanche or exhaustion. Mayer and Northduff's bodies though were not
years later, making for a prolonged mystery and even outrageous
accusations that the Italians had killed them.
A British Calamity: In 1962, Brian Nally and Barry Brewster had reached the Second Icefield
when Brewster was struck by falling rocks. He eventually died, and
Nally, who was also injured, tied his partner's body with fixed ropes to
the Icefield. (Brewster's body later fell, and some horrified telescope
voyeurs at Kliene Schiedegg said the stricken climber had come to,
struggled with the ropes holding him to the mountain, and then fell
though this version was never confirmed.)
Just then, the famous British climbing
pair, Chris Bonnington and Don Whillans, arrived in their own attempt to
become the first U.K. climbers to do the Eiger Nordwand. Their climb
turned into a rescue of Nally, who had become disoriented by his ordeal.
Pelted by rock fall, Whillans and Bonnington struggled with how to get
Nally down alive, knowing that, given his condition, they could not
reverse the Hinterstoisser
Whillans, the well-loved and now
legendary British blue collar climber, saved the day with an inspired
piece of deductive reasoning and route finding: he guessed that they
could rappel directly from the Second Icefield to the start of the
Hinterstoisser, thereby obviating the need to reverse the traverse.
Bonnington was skeptical, but there was no other choice, and down
Whillans went. He arrived exactly where he predicted, saving not only
Nally but dozens of future climbers who used Whillans brilliant
reverse-routefinding idea to save their own hides.
The John Harlin Direct: American climbing great John Harlin was killed in 1966 near the end of a
months-long siege to climb the first direct route on the facestraight
from the bottom to the top, in winter, when objective danger is reduced.
Harlin died when the 7 mm rope on which he was jumaring parted. Teammate
and Scottish climber Dougal Haston finished the route with a group of
German climbers a few days later, and named it the John Harlin Direct.