Eiger North Face: six thousand feet of rotten limestone, bad protection and climbing history

The Eiger, with its enormous north face and fierce reputation, is perhaps the most storied mountain in the world. The colourful history of early attempts to climb it, which often ended in tragedy, have featured in everything from books and magazines to Hollywood films. To simply call it iconic or a classic would be a massive understatement. When it comes to climbing big faces in the Alps, the north face of the Eiger is ‘the‘ classic.

I’ve personally been fascinated by the mountain for quite a long time. When I moved to Europe as a child in 1999, I visited Grindelwald and walked beneath the north face for the first time. I remember at the time I couldn’t help but wonder if one day I would be able to climb such an impressive wall.

Ever since then i’ve climbed and always continued to wonder. As my climbing evolved and I steadily built up more alpine experience, my curiosity about the Eiger continued to grow. In addition to whether or not I could actually climb the face, I wondered if the route itself would live up its fearsome reputation and all the associated hype. Could the unique history and situation of the wall really make the Eiger so different to other big mountains? There was only one way to find out and I was becoming increasingly determined to try.

Determination is essential, but alone it’s not enough, you need a strong team. The difficulty is that when a mountain has a reputation like the Eiger, it can be a real challenge just finding someone to climb it with. Even for most experienced climbers, the horror stories of its epic history make it simply a non-starter. So I spent several years wondering if I had what it would take, steadily gaining experience and actively seeking out a good partner. 

In 2019, I was traveling home from Patagonia with my friend Carlos when he first mentioned the Eiger. After coming close on Fitzroy’s awesome Supercanaletta, we spent a month of bad weather in El Chalten waiting for a second chance that just didn’t materialise. So in the end we were both a bit frustrated, but still very motivated for a big mountain. He said if the conditions were good in the Alps this winter, let’s climb the Eiger. Without any hesitation I agreed.

Finally having a motivated partner on board, with the necessary skill and experience to actually climb the face, was a huge breakthrough for me. This also seemed to coincide well with the evolution of my own ability and the self-belief that I might actually be capable of climbing the the route. I learned a lot on that trip to Patagonia and for the first time I was really feeling like I actually could climb Eiger. So with all the pieces starting to fall into place, I began making plans for an attempt.

But the best made plans however, are no match for mother nature. That winter the conditions on the face were too dry, so it would have to wait until next year. By March 2020, conditions were looking much better, but unfortunately the situation in the rest of the world was quite the opposite. As the global pandemic raged on, the travel restrictions imposed would once again delay any attempt on the Eiger.

As restrictions finally eased and big mountains were back on the to do list, I went to Patagonia. Eager to get involved after nearly two years off alpine climbing, I decided to chase a weather window and travel to El Chalten for another attempt on Fitzroy with Carlos. Sadly my baggage was lost on the way and I missed the climb. Carlos made the summit, after a total of four attempts over twenty years and I was very psyched for him. I was happy he finally did it, but still deeply disappointed that I had narrowly missed out yet again.

After his success on Fitzroy, the conversation with Carlos once again turned to the Eiger. As it had back in 2018, all the frustration and disappointment instantly turned to motivation for the next project. So we arranged two weekends in March and agreed once again that, if conditions were good in the Alps, we would climb the Eiger.

As the first weekend approached the weather forecast was not looking good. Sirocco winds had brought warm air and deposited a layer of orange saharan dust across the mountains. This surprisingly persistent southerly air flow was also creating a severe Fhoen effect on the north side of the Alps. It was certainly not the right conditions for climbing a big alpine north face, so again we would have to be patient.

The following week I decided to go to the Alps anyway to ski, relax and visit my friend Josh. For me the waiting game before a serious climb is often a pretty intense time and managing that can be a significant part of the challenge. I knew that giving myself the space to relax, away from the pressures of work and in good company, would be a key part in preparing mentally for the intimidating task that lay ahead. So I waxed my skis, packed my climbing gear and traveled to France, keeping an eye on the forecast and an open mind. Even if a weather window never materialised I could certainly think of worse things to be doing than skiing, so it seemed like a good strategy.

Sure enough as the last weekend of March approached the weather forecast finally looked amazing. The cold, clear late winter high pressure system we had been waiting for was on its way, so we decided to go for it. We made last minute travel plans, I repacked my bags and met Carlos on the train to Grindelwald. 

After twenty two years of wondering and almost four years of actively planning an attempt, we finally stepped off the train and looked up at the north face of the Eiger. We took a few minutes to take it in and enjoy the view before checking into the hotel. We discussed tactics, slimmed down the rack and packed our bags before dinner and an early night.

Over dinner we briefly discussed the question I had been thinking about now for so many years. With all its incredible history and fearsome reputation, was the Eiger really that special? Or was it just another big mountain like all the others? For me I had always wondered but for Carlos, on the day before we would set out on the north face, there was absolutely no doubt. The answer was the latter, just another wall to climb.

The next morning we had a quick breakfast at the hotel and made our way to the new V-Bhan for the first lift up to Eigergletscher. Despite being such a formidable route, the north face of the Eiger has what is probably the easiest approach of virtually any serious alpine climb in the world. From the station it’s a short 40 minute walk across to the start of the route. We arrived shortly after a team of four Italians we met on the lift. Without saying much prepared our gear and started up the north face.

It’s a very special moment when you finally set off on a climb of this scale. Despite the intimidating nature of what lies ahead, theres a huge feeling of relief. After all the years of preparation, the significant time and mental energy invested to just get yourself to the bottom of such a classic route, it seems like the hard part is done. Now all you have to do to make the dream a reality is climb it. So we did.

The first six hundred metres of the classic Heckmair Route is, relatively speaking, quite easy snow and mixed climbing. We soloed it quickly, only getting out rope once the harder climbing begins just before the Difficult Crack. As we arrived at the first of the hard pitches, the Difficult Crack, we caught up with the Italians. Carlos quickly realised that they had mistakenly traversed too far to the right. Never one to miss an opportunity to overtake another party, he told me ‘were going to do a move’ before proceeding to charge up the pitch. The gloves came off and a few moments later he was at the belay and with me following as quickly as I could.

We were soon on our way to the famous Hinterstoisser Traverse. With a fixed rope permanently in place across these polished slabs, the traverse is not the challenge today that it was for the early climbers. In modern terms it’s not really even a crux pitch at all because very few people even try to free climb it. But despite this, we still couldn’t help but feel moved by the incredible situation and exposure of this truly historic pitch. Perhaps there really was something more to this climb and it wasn’t just another big mountain like all the others.

As we gained the first ice field, I took over the lead. Some beautiful alpine ice brought me quickly to the foot of the ice hose. It looked a little thin and incomplete, impossible to protect but climbable. Carlos suggested I follow the fixed rope to the left up steeper rock but I insisted on staying on the ice. It’s my preferred terrain and I wasn’t overly convinced by the state of the derelict looking fixed rope. So I climbed the classic line and it was sensational. Delicate moves on thin ice, with no protection and superb exposure. It was exactly what I came for and I enjoyed every metre of it.

The long traverse of Second Icefield seemed to pass in a flash. Soon enough we were negotiating the chimney and snow slope that leads you to Death Bivy, where we had planned to spend the night. We were the first to arrive and were happy to secure a good place to sleep before the Italians turned up an hour later.

We made food and water, took a few pictures and settled in for a cold night. We were sharing the small snow ledge with four Italians and only had lightweight sleeping bags, so we knew it was never going to be that comfortable. But we’ve had worse and after all we were halfway up the north face of the Eiger. Several hard pitches lay ahead, but we were well on our way to finally climbing this iconic route. Some things are well worth a cold sleepless night.

In the morning though we were a bit slow to get up. Leaving your sleeping bag on a cold winter morning is difficult at the best of times and being half way up the Eiger did not make it easier. As we emerged, made breakfast and packed up our gear, the Italians made a quick escape and left Death Bivy slightly before us.

As they did, a seemingly endless stream of parties climbing the face in a day started to arrive at the bivy ledge. Although you might not expect it, the Eiger gets busy. The right combination of weather and ice conditions to climb the route are reasonably rare, so when it’s in word spreads quickly. Faced with the prospect of a traffic jam in the Ramp we decided to hang back at Death Bivy and let the others climb past. We weren’t racing and wanted to take our time on the route and really enjoy the classic hard pitches high on the face.

As we traversed the third ice field and entered the Ramp the climbing became more technical. With more ice these pitches would fly by easily, but in dry conditions things started to get more involved. Climbing sloping, loose limestone, protected only by sparse and questionable old pitons is certainly an acquired taste, but you do get used to it.

Having made it as far as the Ramp you are high on the face and well past the point where you should really be questioning these things. It’s an extremely committing place to be because a retreat would be so long and complicated it’s hardly worth considering, yet you still have a lot of hard climbing above you. You are very much in it and the only way is up.

So we continued and soon found our selves at the base of the Waterfall Chimney. The pitch was dry, steep and clearly one for the rock climbing expert on the team. So much like on the Difficult Crack, without hesitation the gloves came off and Carlos charged the technical crux of the route in a couple of minutes. I followed and took the lead as we entered the Ramp Ice field and gained the Brittle Ledges.

We were moving faster now and made quick work of the steep and exposed Brittle Crack. The climbing didn’t feel too hard but the situation was truly wild. This short and steep pitch leads you to the infamous Traverse of the Gods ledge above. When we reached the belay we both commented on just how crazy Ulei Steck was to have free-soloed the pitch during his many speed ascents.

The Traverse of the Gods is an iconic ledge system that leads you back across towards the centre of the north face, to the famous fourth icefield known as the White Spider. As you traverse along the ledge, what starts out as an easy snow slope soon becomes a delicate mixed traverse with enormous exposure below and no real protection. While it’s technically not super difficult, doing these moves with thousands of feet of air beneath your feet while clipped to one rusty old piton is, as the name would suggest, enough to put the fear of god in you.

So it’s not surprising that this pitch is often considered the psychological crux of the whole route. Like the other ‘named’ pitches on the wall the Traverse of the Gods is the stuff of legends, so it carries all the extra weight of that history. It might seem obvious but it is also a legitimately dangerous pitch. While the whole route could be pretty fairly described as a vertical mile of crumbly limestone, sparsely protected by ancient pitons, the Traverse of the Gods particularly exemplifies this. Finally, the fact it is a traverse means both climbers must face the full exposure and this is unavoidable. So all together you have a situation of huge exposure, with no solid protection, where if either climber makes a mistake it will over for both of them.

In the preparation for this climb this pitch definitely hung over me. On the back of my mind it had always intimidated me. But when we arrived on the ledge I was calm and totally focused. As usual, Carlos was completely relaxed and this helped put me in the perfect mindset. He told me the Italians just climbed the pitch and it looked straightforward. So I didn’t over think it and just got on with the task at hand. I took off my gloves and seemed to flow delicately across the traverse. My mind was completely clear and before I knew it I was in the White Spider.

Carlos followed and we made quick work of the thin but good ice in White Spider. At this point I was excited to be in this incredible place and really enjoying the climbing. So much so, that we took a wrong turn as we entered the exit cracks. Despite having read the topo hundreds of times, I ignored the instructions to stay right and got drawn into to the fine looking ice pitch off to the left. While it was admittedly the wrong way to go and ultimately lead to me down climbing my way out of a dead end, I have no regrets. It was a sensational pitch of steep thin ice and I was stoked. I had really found my flow and was loving every meter of it.

We climbed the exit cracks and I could feel the dream starting to become a reality. After the quartz crack and the exit chimneys, the difficulty started to ease and we soon emerged into the sun. At this point we knew we really had done it. There were a couple hundred metres of easy ice left to reach the Mittellegi ridge, but for me it felt like the summit. We had climbed the north face and stopped for a few minutes to eat something and enjoy the sun before continuing on.

The final push to the summit felt long with tired legs after two days of climbing. But compared to the 25 years it had taken to get there, it went by in an instant. I had finally climbed the north face of the Eiger. It was a surreal feeling, a unique mix of overwhelming happiness and complete exhaustion. It hadn’t fully settled in yet, but we did it and we were pretty psyched!

So after all those years did the Eiger live up to its mythical reputation? When I think back now after a few months, for me personally I would say so. The night before we climbed the face Carlos maintained it was just another mountain, another wall to climb. But having experienced it now for myself I honestly believe it is unique. Seeing how his eyes lit up as he joyfully cruised the Hinterstoisser Traverse, The Brittle Crack and the Traverse of the Gods, i’m sure he would agree. Climbing the north face of the Eiger is not just another mountain. It is an epic journey through six thousand feet of rotten limestone, bad protection and climbing history. Its iconic status is well deserved and it is undoubtedly, extremely special.

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