An account of climbing the Heckmair Route on the Eiger North Face, focussing on a more hospitable perception of the face and the mental hurdles that far outweigh the physical: "I wanted to offer a few nicer words about this face, which many label as deadly or like a 'sick man's chest'. I feel that when it's treated with respect, this face opens its arms to embrace you. I see no hollow sunken chest, no bared ribcage hung with webs to catch the flies. What I see is a mother's arms, embracing her children and showing them the way."
The Friday Before.
Early morning, asleep in my bed, I hear the phone buzz and ignore it. Then comes a second buzz. Maybe I should look – it could be work. I read the text through bleary eyes. They're from Mario. The first message reads: “The Nordwand is in condition!” The second: “What are you doing next week?”
In an instant I go from restful slumber to quite nearly shitting myself. I'm aware it's in condition for I've been staring at it all week. I know immediately that this is it. I have no excuses. A big snowfall, followed by a few days of foehn winds and a week of high pressure means the face should be stable. My bad back is on holiday. I don't even have a cold. I can easily be off work, and an equally psyched partner is off too. I know this route better than any other. It is etched on my memory, imprinted there from years of reading. Books like The White Spider, Starlight and Storm and The Mountains of my Life come to mind. The Eiger, the mountain of my dreams, stands right before me, clear as the stars. If I don't try it now, then when will I? I call Mario back, “Lets do it!”
We plan to take the train on Monday, to climb on Tuesday. Three days' time. I'm so nervous I can barely eat. My stomach starts churning away and my thoughts run riot. I go calmly through the motions of preparing equipment, clothing, food etc. Every small item weighed, every eventuality considered. I buy energy bars and energy snot, fruit shoots, caffeine shots, chocolate. I prepare my ice axes, lovingly removing old shreds of electrical tape and wrapping a new layer round them. Sharpening the picks. I charge batteries for my head lamp. Select gloves, base layer, mid-layer, jackets etc. Yes, around me preparations run smoothly. On the inside though I'm a ghostly wreck, a castle in ruins; a sanctuary of gibbering madness.
Saturday daytime I eat one banana. In the evening I force down a meal, though a normal sized mouthful makes me gag. I eat opposite my partner at the kitchen table, but my wild, wide unflinching eyes stare down and left into eternity. Once, I catch her look of concern and pull out of the trance with a deep sigh, a shake of the head. The next moment I'm away again. Lost. Sunday passes much the same. I worry myself, almost into a state of shock. I start to think it won't happen. But in the evening Mario knocks on the door and reality deals a swift back hand, drawing me out to the land of the living. It is happening. We will succeed.
In the morning we take it slow, finalise packing, then nip up to the village to shorten the 'shoe string', a 6mm back up rope, from 60m to 50m, and to buy new gloves for Mario, his having less than the standard number of intact fingertips. We board the train at Grund at 11.55am among skiers and tourists to the Jungfraujoch, and sit quietly in the baggage area watching the Alps go by. No tents for us this night – we've opted for the comfy option. Arriving at the Eigergletscher Hotel we deposit our bags and, taking just an axe and our crampons, head off to reconnoitre the approach. In 45mins we have traversed the initial snow slope to the base of our route; the route of fable. The first part, like an enormous pedestal supporting the main structure, lies relatively exposed with little snow. It's not ideal, but we are rock climbers, and bare rock is not a worry to us, so long as the snow that is there is stable. We return to the station calm and satisfied, action having been the only remedy to my anxieties, and I do my utmost to force down a huge plate of lasagne, one little bite at a time, between pathetic sips of camomile tea. This takes the best part of an hour. Then we retire to our room, and set the alarm.
The mind torments. I lie impatiently beneath the magnolia bedsheets full of anticipation, thinking and re-thinking countless details about the climb. About all the places I might slip and die, about not making it and having to bivouac, about dropping the rucksack, a glove, the stove. About getting lost or running out of energy two thirds of the way up. About not being ready, not having enough experience. The stage is set though, there's no turning back. The hours drift by, and the mind jabbers on.
6pm. Try to sleep ... not happening ...
7:30... Try meditating … deep breaths ...
8:30... Grrrrr. Stop thinking! 8:45... Aaargh! Come-on, Sleep!
9:00... Try counting sheep. 9:30 ... 31 … 32
9:50... Too hot, I remove the duvet from its outer sheet.
9.55... Too cold, I throw off the outer sheet and grab the duvet.
10:00... I lie in a puddle of sweat.
10:22... Stomach eating itself … I eat a pear. Get sleepy as stomach settles, get excited and wake up!
10:30... Roll over, 10:32... Roll over, 10.34... Roll over.
Meanwhile, far away (in the next bed), Mario's deep breathing accompanies the hum of the gas radiator. Time slips by like a panther in the night.
11pm... Seriously SHUT UP brain – You're such an idiot, you KNOW the most important thing right now is to SLEEP, otherwise how the f**k will you have the energy to tackle the 4000m of zigzagging up that colossal PRECIPICE. Why are you SO STUPID!!
11:10... Ok, be Calm, Relaaax, Breeeaathe.
11:15... COME ON! This isn't fair. Sleep you twat!
11:20... What? No. Another PISS?
11:26... Sweating 11:29 ... Cold.
11.45... Well, that's that then! There is no way in hell I am going up there now!
00.00... Bebadibeep Bebadibeep ... Bebadibeep Bebadibeep ...
We start. The crescent moon has already set, so we are alone with the night, with the darkness. I turn on my head lamp and the snow crystals twinkle under its pulsating light. Half asleep, I am dazzled by them. As we move nearer the base of the wall I try my best to think of an excuse. A lack of sleep is not enough I find, for energy begins to flow freely to me. I haven't forgotten anything either. Damn it! Soon we are strapping on crampons.
We move onto the steepening snow and my mind becomes desperate: You're too weak! Crunch-crunch, Crunch-crunch. You're not experienced enough!! Crunch-crunch Crunch. You're not ready! Crunch. Do you want to kill yourself! Is that what you want? Crunch crunch, thwack. We are at the base of the route. You can still turn back! The rope comes out. What are you doing? Stop! The rope is tied. Please Stop! I start to climb… and the voice begins to fade.
The lights of Grindelwald slowly drop away. “That's the Stollenloch” says Mario. “Already?!” I reply. Soon we are by the Difficult Crack, but we can't find it. That's it then, we should go down! A final inner struggle, a final attempt to be heard. “Oh wait, its here!” says Mario helpfully.
Then he's off. We're up under the Rote Fluh...soon the Hinterstoisser Traverse. Still dark. There's the Swallow's Nest. We are flying. The Ice Hose, it's thin, so we climb the rock beside it. Up above, the hum of flying stones! I take two on the shoulder, one on the helmet, luckily they are small. I hear another whirr overhead. Quickly to the top of The Second Ice Field! Out of breath! Safe. Then across to the Flat Iron. Up, to Death Bivouac. Met by daylight, we pause to suck on some energy snot and drink water laced with isotonic. It's an incredible spot. I give a moment's thought to wonder why this place has not be named in memory of life rather than death; the Karl-Max Bivouac perhaps? Hinterstoisser met a tragic end as well, but he has a pitch named after him. We don't stop long to contemplate.
Down to the start of The Ramp. Up to the Waterfall Chimney. The first people to climb this pitch actually climbed through ice and gushing water, getting soaked to the skin, and then bivouacked! How did they avoid hypothermia? Were they insane, or immortal? Now it's dry and free of snow; a bit of 5a thrutching. The day moves on, barely noticeable, as we begin to tire and slow down.
It's still tough, this route, but I find now that nothing on this face seems to live up to the stigma. I find no malice, no ill intent, no alluring spider in its web. This is certainly a relief! Of course it's well travelled now. Crampon scratches, pitons, bolts and tat lead the way. The climate has changed. The approach to climbing has changed. We are perhaps more cautious than our early predecessors, having learnt from their mistakes, and having developed new tools to be better adapted. We will make it in one push – by the Brittle Ledges I am sure. Our small array of bivvy gear will remain sad and unwanted in the bottom of our packs... pity that!
With the decreasing gap between us and the top, with every single step, the wonder invoked by this yet seemingly friendly giant begins to grow. Its majestic soaring scale bends space and time around us, envelopes us, cradles us. I see no hollow sunken chest, no bared ribcage hung with webs to catch the flies. What I see is a mother's arms, embracing her children and showing them the way. There is a void here, true, but it is not the fearful void of oblivion. This void is a kind of vacuum, that will let none other than instinct and compassion flow through it. Everything else must stay behind. All of life's foul deeds, all grasping by the ego, all fear and doubt, all uncertainty: all are gradually washed away, cleansed, and what's left is peace.
The White Spider is crossed in a single bound. The Exit Cracks are easily found. One more quick thrutch dispenses with the Quartz Crack, and the rest is history.
* * *
It took me a full week to climb the Eiger North Face by the original Heckmair Route:
- Three days to fight against the brutal history, the imaginings of what could go wrong, based on everything that has gone wrong. Three days beneath a flood, a tide, a tsunami of doubt, questioning the reasons why? Why did they do this, why will I? Three days fasting in contemplation, planning, gathering up the pieces of a strange puzzle.
- One day to put the pieces all together. To be in contact, to touch, to move. To get acquainted with, to discover, to find. To ride the wave, and find my way back home.
- And three days to digest, to recover. To learn once more to walk upon flat ground (no really, my legs were done). To eat and eat and EAT! To believe. And to realise what I have done.
And what have I done? I haven't conquered a mountain or a famous wall. Forget it. I haven't climbed the Eiger, for the summit remains aloof, alone: the same shining white pyramid it has been for millennia, pointing indifferently up at the blue sky, idly stirring the clouds. I haven't conquered a part of me either, nor reached a summit inside myself. There was no battle, no striving on the wall, only movement. I wasn't fleeing from death, nor seeking glory, nor gaining a victory. What then did I do up there? The simple truth is that I grew a day older, gained new trust in a friend, and captured a memory that's mine alone. That is it. That is all.
* * *
As we staggered down the last icy steps beside the Rotstock, knees aching, calves burning, backs beginning to feel the strain, the flat paving and orange lights of the Eigergletscher Hotel finally came up to greet us. For seven hours we had wondered, lost in the night on the West Flank, cautiously feeling our way down. I'd believed in my friend and he had led us safely through the maze. We'd been on the go for twenty-five hours. During that whole time we'd stopped just a handful of times to gnaw on some inedible half-frozen chewy bar, suck energy gel or drink from the thermos. Forty-five hours since last I'd slept! Knowing nothing would befall us now, I let the swathes of fatigue wash over me, and like a drunken cowboy, swaggered into town.
Removing crampons was a gross challenge; unbuckling harnesses while sprawled on the ground – a valiant achievement! It was all we could do to boil water, lay out the single camping mat for our backs in the luxury of the heated restaurant toilets and pass happily into the dreamless sleep of the utterly content. The hardest part of that climb…was starting.