The North Face of the Eiger - 1938 Route & Free Topoby Jack Geldard - UKC Chief Editor Apr/2011
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Hulking perilously above the village of Grindelwald in Switzerland is the infamous north face of the Eiger. The face - physically the biggest in the alps - also has the biggest reputation.
A dizzying 1800m in vertical height, the north face is world famous among climbers and is well known to the general public. It's a magnet for alpinists and tourists alike, some who climb it and many who just gaze up at its magnificent but deadly architecture from the safety of the valley.
Renowned for bad weather, bad rock and bad gear, the face is nick-named 'Mordwand', a play on the German name of Nordwand (North face) that means simply 'death wall'.
Although the north face now has several routes, by far the most famous and popular is the original route - known as the 1938 route. The route, and consequently the first ascent of the north face, was completed on the 24th of July 1938 by four climbers; Heinrich Harrer, Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vörg and Fritz Kasparek.
...an obsession for the mentally deranged...
Prior to and after the successful first ascent the face claimed many lives. According to Wikipedia at least sixty-four climbers have been killed on the Mordwand since 1935. Around the time of the first ascent the wall became the focus of the mainstream media, whose journalists could watch the attempts of the climbers from the valley and report back to their newspapers.
This morbid fascination with the killer face led many to believe that climbing it was a suicide mission and the preserve only of lunatics. Given the gear they had in 1938, this may not have been far from the truth.
Such was the infamy of the face that when the wall was successfully climbed, Harrer, who had arrived in Grindelwald on a beat-up old motorcycle, was crowned a hero and when leaving the village he abandoned his motorbike in a field in favour of the high class rail travel he could now afford.
Early attempts and ascents were made in summer, but due to global warming the entire face has become increasingly unstable, not that it was the most solid of alpine walls to begin with, and the icefields have receded dramatically meaning the route has now become a target only in late autumn, winter and early spring.
Made up of rotten limestone, climbers rely on the winter's ice and snow to bond the rock together, meaning summer ascents these days are very rare and would most likely be a mixture of loose rock, pouring icy water and a war-zone of stone fall.
Technical difficulty of the route
When found in reasonable condition, the route's main difficulties are length and commitment. Although the face is 1800m high, the route is probably over 2500m in length, such is the devious nature of the route finding and the constant horizontal traversing required to negotiate the steep rock sections split by ledges.
Rob Greenwood discovers why the 'Brittle' Ledges are thus named...
The name of the game on the Eiger is speed. Maintaining a good pace whilst keeping a sane level of safety is paramount and most parties choose to move together for most of the route. The icefields are of a suitably low difficulty to mean that, for a fit team, they can be dispensed with very quickly. There is also lots of climbing between the named crux pitches (listed below) and these long sections generally involve climbing of up to Scottish IV. Moving together on these is also the most common tactic.
The Difficult Crack. The name sums it up well. This is the wall's first line of defence, as up to this point the terrain is relatively easy and low-angled and can be climbed in less than a couple of hours. Some parties only rope up for the first time when they reach this area of the wall. The Difficult Crack is a loose, steep, shattered crack that rears up for 20m then eases off in to a smeary, technical scoop with limited protection opportunities. It has several pegs and slings dangling from its reaches. The Difficult Crack is known for turning back teams who have perhaps bitten off more than they can chew. Approx grade: VI,6.
The Hinterstoisser Traverse. Ice smears thinly cover very blank slabs of rock and the ground rushes out from beneath your feet, but luckily for modern climbers, the traverse has a couple of fixed ropes and fixed protection of pegs and old bolts in to which these ropes are clipped. Whilst not offering any technical difficulties (unless climbed free) the exposure of the pitch means that most will belay and 'pitch' this section.
The Ice Hose. The two-pitch link between the first and second icefield, the Ice Hose is very condition dependent. In perfect icy nick it is of a similar difficulty to Green Gully on Ben Nevis (IV,4) and teams don't slow down from their ice-field romping, but if it is dry, or even has water running down it, expect a battle of around VI,6.
The Ice Chimney. After a night at the Death Bivvy, most climbers are not looking forward to this pitch for breakfast. This overhanging slot rears up at the top of The Ramp. The steep corner can be a variety of grades depending on the ice build-up, but in dry-ish conditions, expect a short but butch VI,6 with (of course) old peg protection.
The Ice Bulge. Apparently this pitch can be a steep grade V and comes almost straight after the Ice Chimney. The conditions must vary dramatically, as we didn't notice it..!
The Brittle Crack. If you haven't filled your trousers on the easy but rather exposed Brittle Ledges, then this little monster might give you the final push. This crack is the only access from the Brittle Ledges on to the Traverse of the Gods and is a steep and quite loose pitch. Tottering rock with a disintegrating hand-sized crack gives climbing of around VI,6.
The Quartz Crack. The final crux barrier between you and safety, perhaps the hardest thing about the Quartz Crack is that it comes when you are totally knackered. Another short pitch, this time not too steep, but polished smooth. Smearing in crampons in a contorted corner, but with reasonable protection, gives way to an easier ledge system. VI,6.
Fast and Light:
For those uber-alpinists and aspiring Ueli Steck's, the most basic approach is to climb and descend in a single push. This means no bivvy gear is required and the climbers can move fast and travel light. Unless you are a very experienced and fit alpinist or unless you happen to find the face in absolutely amazing conditions, this tactic could well result in a very cold unplanned bivouac, a hasty retreat, rescue or even death. Having said that, it isn't uncommon.
The Brittle Ledge Bivvy:
A good and popular option, this tactic makes use of a reasonable two person bivvy site next to the Brittle Crack. Take the train system to the Eigergletscher station the day before your planned ascent. Bivvy in an appropriate place (bivvying at the station itself is not allowed). Make a very early start and climb to the Brittle Ledges bivvy site. Sleep. Climb the remainder of the route and descend in the same day.
The Death Bivvy:
A one or two bivvy option. Take the first morning train to the Eigergletscher at around 7.30am. Start the route at a reasonable time and climb to the Death Bivvy (By far the best bivvy site on the route. Safe and spacious). This isn't such a big day. Day two: A longer day - climb to the summit ridge and bivvy (there are various good options for bivvy sites close to the ridge) or descend if you have time and energy. Day three: Descend the West Flank.
This is a list of the equipment carried on our ascent, not a recommended gear list. We climbed the route in early March, with fairly low temperatures (down to -15) but with stable weather. Different temps and weather may require different gear. Whatever you take - make sure you remember a camera!
|Rob Greenwood||Jack Geldard||RACK:|
|Rab Latok Alpine Jacket
Patagonia Guide Jacket
Rab Powerstretch Top
Helly Hansen Lifa LS
Patagonia Das Parka
|Marmot Stretchman Jacket
Marmot Vars Half Zip Top
Marmot Crew Baselayer
Marmot Synthetic Insulated Jacket
|Icebreaker Boxer Shorts
Helly Hansen Lifa Longjohns (for added sex appeal)
Mountain Equipment G2 Ultimate Pants
Helly Hansen Lifa Liner Socks
Thorlo Mountaineering Socks
|Cotton Boxer Shorts
Marmot midweight bottom leggings
Marmot Pro Tour Pants
Helly Hansen Lifa Liner Socks
Smart Wool Socks
Mountain Equipment Guide Glove
Meraklon Liner Gloves
Marmot Windproof Balaclava
|Marmot Alpinist Glove
Marmot Expedition Mitts
Marmot Windproof Balaclava
|Marmot Sawtooth Sleeping Bag
Unbranded GTX Bivi Bag
|Marmot Lithium Sleeping Bag
Marmot Alpinist Bivi Bag
Thermarest foam mat (non inflatable)
|Scarpa Phantom Guide Boots||La Sportiva Spantik Boots|
|DMM Supercouloir Harness
DMM Gladiator Crampons
DMM Rebel Axes
Black Diamond Lanyards
Grivel Airtech Helmet
|DMM Renegade Harness
DMM Terminator Crampons
DMM Rebel Axes
Petzl Elios Helmet
|Crux AK47-X Rucksack||Marmot Centaur 38 Rucksack|
|DMM Shadow SG
DMM Sentinal HMS + Petzl Reverso 3
|2 x DMM Shadow SG
DMM Sentinal HMS + Petzl Reverso 2
There is a rather large difference in price between the two bags of course (hence the higher performance of the Lithium) - and the Sawtooth did very well at way below its rated temperature, but that extra £150ish for the Lithium doesn't seem so bad when you are at -15c on the summit of the Eiger. Rob was fine on the bivvy, but was pretty keen to get going in the morning... whereas I was actually warm and could sleep comfortably and quite fancied a lie in!
Also the Marmot Alpinist Bivvy Bag was much lighter than the unbranded (Military Surplus) GTX bivvy bag and also performed much better, which in turn added to the comfort difference.
Our rack and rope were also super lightweight, the DMM Dragon cams and DMM Phantom quickdraws made for extremely lightweight metal-ware. If we did the route again (fat chance) then we would opt for more quickdraws and an extra cam and maybe drop a couple of the wires. The Beal Cobra rope was actually a double/half rope, but we gambled and used it as a single.
No pegs were taken and we didn't feel we needed any. Four ice screws was also overkill for the conditions we had. Two would have been enough.
We found the description in the Bernese Oberland Alpine Club Guidebook to be very accurate, but the B&W photo topo was not very useful. Consequently we have made an up to date full colour topo which is available free here: Rockfax Topo. We have tried to make this a single sheet that covers everything you need to know for the route. It would of course always be worth backing this info up from other sources. Any feedback on the topo welcome.
We took the morning train to the Eigergletsher at around 7:30am after a night of beer and pizza in Grindelwald.
To our horror there stood two men, bearded and grizzly, wearing full down suits and Olympus Mons boots. 'Shit,' we thought, 'we're going to freeze to death!'. When the two mitchelin men started chain smoking Marlborough's we thought something was amiss. Then a film crew arrived and we twigged - they were actors pretending to be Himalayan climbers - phew - perhaps we weren't so under-dressed after all.
Hot-footing it to the base of the wall, we started the route at around 9:30 I would guess, just in front of a German team and a Swiss soloist.
The bottom of the face is easy, so we simul-soloed quickly, weaving around to find the best way and opted to get the rope out just before the Difficult Crack. Rob fired this off without too much fuss and after a few more pitches we simul-climbed quickly up the icefields straight to Death Bivvy. Though we had daylight to spare, we opted to bed down at Death Bivvy due to the space and safety of the site. I finished my pizza and we enjoyed the last rays of sun. The German team arrived some time later, looking tired. The Swiss soloist had opted to bail through the Stollenloch, in to the train tunnel.
Not wanting to be stuck behind the Germans, we were up first next morning and climbed quickly up The Ramp. The ice leading to the Brittle Ledges was black and it took a little route finding to actually gain the ledges, safely navigating our way through unprotected Weetabix. The ledges and the Traverse of the Gods went pretty quickly, although I did have a bit of a tussle leading the Brittle Crack, which just confirmed in my mind that Ueli Steck is a complete mad man. This isn't neve romping he is speed-soloing here, this is steep, loose mixed terrain.
The White Spider was just as we imagined, peppered with stones and generally quite a scary place to be, so we climbed it without stopping and headed up toward the Quartz Crack. By this time the Germans were well behind and we could no longer see or hear them.
Possibly the technical crux of the route, but short, solid and well protected; Rob balanced his way up the Quartz Crack as if it was just another gritstone boulder problem. I was glad I had a good partner and I followed as quickly as I could.
We blasted up the exit chimneys and final slopes moving together, as quickly as calf burn would allow and topped out in to a fierce and bitterly cold wind, but again with daylight to spare.
Not knowing the descent, and having food and fuel spare, we opted for a relatively comfortable night in a snow tunnel on the summit ridge and a leisurely descent the following morning.
We heard the Germans top out around 1am, much to our relief, and the following morning we climbed over them as they laid on top of each other in a heap on the crest of the ridge in the full brunt of the wind. Their gear was strewn around them and the weaker of the pair wasn't saying much.
Whilst Rob and I felt we had climbed safely and with energy to spare, we couldn't help but think 'skin of the teeth' as we gingerly navigated around their abandoned rucksacks, crampons and rack, trying not to knock them down the face below.
Back in Chamonix that night, we drank beer and ate burgers until at least 9pm.... zzzzzzz
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'Crazy' Rob Greenwood is the UKC Advertising Manager and is based out of Sheffield. He is a keen summer and winter climber, a huge sea cliff fan and a generally nice bloke. He also runs those super long ultra-endurance races and is consequently very fit. Which is great for him, but not so nice for Jack 'desk jockey' Geldard when he is trying to keep up on long snow slopes...