INTERVIEW: Peter Habeler - The Eiger Nordwand at 74

by Natalie Berry - UKC 18/May/2017
This news story has been read 7,688 times

Austrian mountaineer Peter Habeler recently climbed the North face of the Eiger via the Heckmair Route once again, at the ripe old age of 74. He was partnered by 26 year old Austrian climber David Lama, who was climbing the route for the first time.

Peter on the summit of the Eiger, 136 kbPeter on the summit of the Eiger
© Peter Habeler

Peter first climbed the Heckmair Route in 1974, alongside Italian mountaineering legend Reinhold Messner. Their ten-hour ascent of the Eiger classic was considered a blistering pace at the time, and remained a roped-team record for 30 years. The following year, a groundbreaking 'by fair means' ascent of Gasherbrum I by the same pair of climbers again drew attention from the world of mountaineering, in a style which excluded fixed ropes, pre-established camps and oxygen. In 1978, Peter made the first ascent of Everest without use of supplementary oxygen and with Messner once more; together paving the way for the modern fast and light style of mountaineering ascents. 

I sent Peter some questions about reclimbing the Eiger and his current exploits as a septuagenarian climber. Despite his busy schedule, he kindly took the time to respond. A word of warning: he isn't your average pensioner...

*Responses translated from the original German.


How did the Eiger climb come about? Why the Eiger North face, and why David Lama - had you climbed with him before?

David Lama came along to my children's climbing course as a 5 year old, I immediately saw his "awesome" climbing talent and he went on to become one of the world's best climbers. We had kept in touch since, but were never together in the mountains - except for the Eiger North face!

Traverse of the Gods, Heckmair Route, Eiger North face, 225 kbTraverse of the Gods, Heckmair Route, Eiger North face
© Peter Habeler

How did the ascent compare to your 10 hour ascent of the face in 1974? Were you tempted to go as fast as possible, or were you just enjoying the experience?

In 1974 I climbed the same route with Reinhold Messner and the ascent was made in barely 10 hours (which became a 30-year record for a two-man team!) In light of my upcoming 75th birthday, a documentary about me is in production, so David and I returned to the Eiger together as part of the film. 

The wall was heavily iced and much more difficult than in 1974; it was in full winter condition. With David, we had one bivi, and the climb was filmed with two helicopters. We had to co-ordinate with the cameramen at the tricky bits, such as the Hinterstoisser Traverse, the Ramp and the Traverse of the Gods, where the cameraman was flown directly onto the wall. On multiple occasions, David and I had to wait until the camera was ready...

Peter Habeler on the White Spider, Eiger North Face, 224 kbPeter Habeler on the White Spider, Eiger North Face
© Peter Habeler

What was David like to climb with?

It was great to do this route with David, he is an outstanding climber and an amiable climbing companion. He had super rope management, super safety knowledge - it was a great pleasure to climb with him on the Nordwand.

What are your strongest memories of your 1974 ascent of the Eiger North face?

In 1974 when I was with Reinhold on the Eiger, in glorious weather and with dry rock, the best thing about it was that we knew Clint Eastwood was watching all day from the Hotel Eigergletscher, which was an additional motivation for us. After returning from the summit we invited Clint to dinner.

Tell us about your training - what you did at your peak in your youth and what you do now?

My training has always been on rock, doing ski tours, nothing too specific - but I was always a strict coach, of course!

Peter Habeler on the Hinterstoisser Traverse, 168 kbPeter Habeler on the Hinterstoisser Traverse
© Peter Habeler

Have you struggled with injuries as you've got older?

No, I've never had any major injuries. I am very lucky.

Was the Eiger a one-off or are you doing comparable Alpinism regularly? How are you doing on rock climbs - improvement, decline, holding his own?

The Eiger was of course a big objective, but I am still climbing a lot in general and manage the classic routes well. I can still climb up to the UIAA VIII grade/French 7a. No, my level can no longer improve, but I try to keep it as good as possible.

Peter Habeler on The Ramp, Heckmair Route, 149 kbPeter Habeler on The Ramp, Heckmair Route
© Peter Habeler

Do you still see/climb with Reinhold? 

I still meet with Reinhold, but he does not climb anymore.

Do you have any other ideas for repeating past climbs or mountains... like repeating Salathe Wall, for instance, which you did with Doug Scott in 1970?

No, the Salathe would probably be too difficult now - maybe I would have to try it with a young, strong climber like David!

photo
Making friends...
© Peter Habeler

What do you think of the direction that top-end modern alpinism is heading in? Light and fast, without fixed ropes and camps - this a style that you helped to develop. 

Reinhold and I initiated the fast and light style: on the Eiger we had only one rope, five pitons and five ice screws and no proper food, just raisins and nuts. There is enough water on the wall.

As for the direction in which younger climbers are leading alpinism today, we were already climbing fast and light on Hidden Peak (8068m) in 1975; moving quickly as a two-man team!

Tell us about your work - are you still guiding and instructing?

My son now leads my ski school - Skischule Habeler - in Mayrhofen, Austria, and is doing a great job of it. I take part in many tours and treks in the Himalaya, and above all I prefer now just to quietly get on with my climbing.

My two sons are not alpinists, but they are very sporty (they ski), but do not climb.

photo
Peter in front of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Italy
© Peter Habeler

With alpinism becoming more popular, do you think people of all levels still respect mountains and mountaineering ethics, or is it just about 'the summit'?

Yes, it's true, alpinism is strongly promoted - in Europe at least - and there are many families who go with their children into the mountains. Young people are also happy to go along on ski tours, for example and bouldering is becoming more and more popular; the climbing walls in the cities are booming. 

There are still very many enthusiastic mountain walkers and mountaineers, who not only go to the mountains because of the desire to summit, but simply to enjoy nature's beauty and be in the mountains. Those who are only focused on the summit, we also respect - although they miss out on a lot and experience only 50% of the mountain...

What do you think of climbing's inclusion in the 2020 Olympics? Is this something you could have imagined/is it something you agree with?

I think this is a good thing, exercise is simply the BEST; what you choose to do and how you do it is not so important.

Peter training in Arco, Italy, 165 kbPeter training in Arco, Italy
© Peter Habeler

What advice would you give to older climbers who want to keep climbing?

Well, 'young climbers', I would say! Go out and DO it - this was how the great US mountaineer, Yvon Chouinard, responded to the same question. I still do this today and I hope to do so for many more years!

 

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