Read 'Climbing with Sir Ranulph Fiennes - Part One' by Kenton Cool here.
The North Face of the Eiger with Sir Ran Fiennes
“I don't care how, just get here,” were my words to Ian Parnell early Saturday afternoon from my perch in Grindlewald. Along with Ranulph Fiennes and a film crew we were huddled round a laptop looking at the forecast. It was perfect for the next seven days: all we needed now was for the third team member - and cameraman on the route - to arrive and we were ready to go.
Sunday evening saw us 'camped' under the most infamous North Face in the World – the Eiger. The ITN film crew had set up base camp on the terrace of the Regina Hotel and were beaming live back to viewers in the UK. Ian and myself ran around picking up last minute bits and bobs while the ITN boys tried to give us more and more camera equipment to carry.
Sitting on the train up to the Eigergletscher I pondered what lay ahead of us. No Brit had successfully guided the North Face, and yet here I was taking a man dubbed the 'world's greatest explorer' up the Eiger in the full glare of the media spotlight. A number of the older guard of Guides had been more than a little sceptical about my plan and now looking up at the brooding sheet of rock and ice I began to wonder myself. All the organising and the sheer complexity of the project had both mentally and physically drained me: but I was looking forward to just doing what I do best.... climbing.
There was a good track across to the start of the route and, despite the depth of the snow, we made good time in the morning darkness. We had decided that Ian would solo next to Ran and myself on the easy lower sections to try to get film footage. This worked well and, as the lights of Grindlewald below us disappeared with the arrival of the morning sun, Ian started to shoot the first of some amazing film bites.
As you climb the Eiger, it slowly steepens until you find yourself stopped by the first rock band. As I traversed at this point into the bottom of the Difficult Crack I heard the distinct woomph, woomph of a chopper. Looking over my shoulder I was horrified to see what looked like a rocket launcher jutting out of the chopper and aimed directly at Ran and Ian. The thumbs up from the pilot steadied my nerves as I clipped into the belay, safe in the knowledge that a scene from a 'nam movie wasn't about to unfold.
The Difficult Crack, the first hard pitch of the route, is half a lie. It is relatively difficult but it's not really a crack, more of a groove. I was concerned that Ran, who was pretty good on ice, would struggle on rock due to his fingers (or rather the lack of fingers) on his left hand. He surprised me for the first time on the climb (there were many more to come) as, with little more than a tight rope, his grinning face loomed into sight. As Ian got to the belay I sped off towards the Hinterstoisser Traverse.
With Ran's vertigo the exposed traverses were going to be a psychological crux. Ian hauled his way across the Hinterstoisser first so he could film the veteran explorer as he struggled with his demons. The look on Ran's face when he arrived at the belay said it all. The poor guy was petrified yet he had successfully negotiated his way across the traverse (only to nearly blow it at the end when he hurled his axe at the belay, almost cutting one of the ropes that attached Ian to the face!)
We snuggled down to our first night at the Swallow's Nest, which after a little digging provided a comfy lie down site.
The morning of the second day broke cold and clear and we all made quick work of the first icefield and the Ice Hose, the latter is the key linking pitch to the huge second icefield that dominates the face. Here we moved together over easy ground with just enough gear to make things safe.
Ran, who had had a triple heart bypass a few years back, was unable to move quickly, so, while most teams would be speeding up on the easier ground, we attuned ourselves to Ran's 'Polar plod'. We had known this would be the case and although Ueli Steck had smashed the speed record for the face only a few weeks earlier (a staggering 3hrs 54mins) we were looking at a more leisurely pace of five days. The ascent was planned so that we would stop only at the best bivvy sites.
At the end of the ice field a tricky snowy pitch led onto the Flatiron and so up to Death Bivvy. Although we got to the bivvy early in the afternoon we decided to stop there anyway knowing there wasn't another site for quite a way above us. As we basked in the afternoon sun we watched a team sprint across the Second Icefield and up to greet us. It was Korra, an Italian friend of mine. After a quick 'hi' he shot off with his partner, keen to gain height as he was due back to work in two days time. Despite its name Death Bivy is one of the best sites on the route and we enjoyed a great dinner and cool sunset. After it got dark we set the camera gear up to do a live broadcast for ITN. Ian struggled in the cold to make it work but before we knew it Ran was talking live on News at 10. It was a top effort on Ian's behalf who was pumped silly after holding the 1.5Kg 'digi link' in the air for over 30mins!
Day 3 and The Ramp. This was the hardest climbing on the route; the nasty Waterfall Pitch is a steep rocky section which is a bit on the bold side. Ian led while I filmed, and Ran had a right struggle. But yet again he pulled out the stops and amazed both Ian and myself by fighting his way to the belay. We were making good upward progress and after months of worry about the climb it seemed to be panning out exactly how we wanted it to, even when four teams came sprinting past us on The Ramp our spirits weren't dampened.
We had a slight set back above The Ramp when Ran dropped his mitt and his 'bad' hand got very cold. Thankfully the old fox had a spare tucked away. We squirmed up the Brittle Crack to the Bivvy at the Traverse of the Gods. This one we had to dig out and it was here that we found out that Ran was a former Army hole digging champion, 'is there no end to this man's talents?' we asked ourselves. Ran had to dig his 'bed' in such a manner that he was left with a wall of snow on the outside so he couldn't see the drop next to him, such is his vertigo.
Day 4 saw us face the Traverse of the Gods. Ran had read The White Spider and knew all about this pitch and he had built it up in his mind. For a climber this traverse is amazing, with one step the climber goes from a happy stance to the jaw dropping situation of being able to stare 3500 feet between his feet to the ground. The climbing is pretty easy but the exposure is awesome. Somehow Ran plucked up the courage to face this. Its one of the most amazing feats I've ever seen: again, he faced his demons head on and made quite possibly the hardest single step of his entire life. It wasn't all plane sailing though, while this was all happening I had run out of rope on some thin ice, unable to move because Ian was filming from the previous belay, but also unable to put in a belay to make myself safe. Ran was shouting for slack rope while I was frantically tugging the rope trying to put some form of anchor in. It all got a little heated until Ian finally arrived and calmed us all down!
As we 'Polar paced' up The Spider the chopper came in to pick up the previous day's film footage. Unable to swing the bag in, Ian untied and sprinted into the middle of the Spider to help with the pick up. Up above I watched this, unable to believe how close the rotor blades were to the wall, and hoping that Ian wasn't going to be blown away. Finally, with the pick up done, the chopper waggled and dropped like a stone towards Grindlewald and the awaiting news bulletin.
Grunting and swearing Ran clawed his way to the belay; he had just climbed the Quartz Crack. For me this was it, for the first time I really felt that we would pull of the ascent. Above we had the Exit Cracks but I knew they were in 'easy' condition, and they go straight up, meaning that if Ran got into difficulties we could pull him up. The traverses were trickier and the Quartz Crack was the last one, this was the last real challenge for Ran and he had done it.
Ian dispatched the Exit Cracks and romped up the first part of the summit slopes. Despite Ran dropping his jacket just before, it seemed we were there. Suddenly a yelp broke our basking glory. Ian was speeding on his back towards us like an upturned turtle. The possible reason for the fall was a tangle in the rope, meaning Ran couldn't pay rope out as Ian was mid step. How the ice screw held in the snow I'll never know but as Ian dusted himself down he calmly asked “guys have we a problem with the rope?” How cool was that!!!
We spent our last night in the cold perched on the summit ridge so the ITN boys could film the 'summit push' the following day. Ian, as ever, was trying to film a live broadcast again and things all got a little stressful. Sitting in the cold waiting for the nod from London Ian got super cold and the nod never came. Finally coming back to the bivvy he dropped the video camera losing the last days filming. He howled like a lost dog as it disappeared into the darkness.
Day 5 and the summit. Climbing the last few hundred meters the chopper buzzed us left and right getting some of the best mountain footage I've ever seen. At the summit we hugged and screamed at the cameras through joy (and a little relief on my part). Ran can be seen pointing to his Marie Curie badge on his jacket, conscious as ever of getting exposure for the charity. After a few quick interviews on the top (yep that's right the film crew got choppered on to the summit of the Eiger!), we decided that it would be silly to hang around any more. There were two choices of descent. We could trudge for about five hours down the west flank, or we could hitch a 35 second ride in the helicopter. No contest. But as Ran, Ian and I were whisked off the Eiger on a long line (50m of cable under the chopper) I thought that this was definitely the scariest part of the whole climb.
Touching down in Lauterbrunnen, I was overcome with a wave of tiredness. Five days on the face and weeks of stress had been lifted; I stood next to the chopper, knackered, looking around the scene like it was a dream. In the middle of it all, Ran stood proud, looking completely composed apart for a few days stubble. For myself and Ian, I felt that we had pulled off something special. For Ran it was just another chapter in a rather full book.
In the middle of our celebrations I got a call from the main sponsor to congratulate us. He also let slip that a mere six hours after being lifted from the summit of the Eiger, the charity had raised £1.6 million. Less than a year later that figure has risen to almost £2.5 million. Now some may call our ascent a publicity stunt or even seek to belittle Ran himself, but for me, those figures speak for themselves.
Dream Guides is run by Guy Willett and Kenton Cool, both keen enthusiasts and IFMGA Guides.
Kenton has been climbing for 14 years and in this time has established himself as one of the UK's leading alpine climbers with an impressive list of difficult ascents. In recent years, Kenton has been taking the skills honed by many seasons in the Alps and Scotland to the Greater Ranges with significant 1st ascents in Alaska, India, Pakistan and Nepal.
These ascents reached a peak in 2003 with a major new route on Annapurna III (7,555m) for which Kenton, along with his two partners, were nominated for the prestigious Piolet D'Or Award in France. (An international award given to the best alpine-style ascent of the year). Kenton has been a popular and successful Expedition guide, having led a number of teams to summits in Nepal, including Ama Dablam.
In May 2006 he became the first and only Briton to climb Everest three times, successfully guiding clients to the summit on each occasion. With Dream Guides successful Cho Oyu expedition in October 2006, Kenton made the first British ski descent of an 8000m peak. And if that's not enough, in 2007, Kenton summited Everest twice - successfully guiding all Dream Guides' clients to the top and in the process bringing his summit tally to five. Kenton is the only European to summit 5 times and to summit twice in a season.
On top of all this, Kenton is a thoroughly nice bloke, with bundles of enthusiasm for climbing at all levels and altitudes. He is a regular face around the bars and clubs of Chamonix and is always up for party.