Obituary: Anderl Heckmair

Leader of the first ascent of the north face of the Eiger

ANDERL HECKMAIR led the first ascent of the north face of the Eiger. This dramatic event, played out over four days in July 1938 on the Swiss mountain, marked the climax of the race to climb the great north faces of the Alps. Reinhold Messner has proposed the Heckmair route as not just the one of the greatest climbs of all, but "even a work of art" in its expression of the "seriousness and playful self-realisation" at the heart of mountaineering.

History, however, is more ambivalent about the Eiger climb. Heckmair and his fellow German Ludwig Vorg joined forces on the face with the Austrians Fritz Kasparek and Heinrich Harrer. The symbolism of Germany and Austria united in heroic struggle only four months after the Anschluss was a gift to the Nazi propaganda machine and the climbers were feted by Adolf Hitler. A photograph of the four standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Fuhrer has become one of the most disconcerting images in mountaineering - an activity too easily given to exploitation for nationalist ends.

Heckmair professed no interest in politics. Although he and his partners felt honoured to be plucked out of anonymous lives and decorated by "the most famous man in Germany", the same thing could have happened to a dancing bear, he said. "I had no way of foreseeing where the Nazi road would lead."

His own road had been a rocky one, both metaphorically and literally. He was born in Munich in 1906; his gardener father died in the First World War, leaving the family in poverty. Anderl and his older brother Hans were sent to the Munich orphanage as "semi-orphans". Leaving school in 1920, he worked as a gardener, but, as his addiction to the limestone walls of the Wilder Kaiser took hold, he became a less than ideal employee. On Mondays and Tuesdays he would be tired after the Sunday's hard climbing, on Wednesday he would have to go the funeral of a climber whose body he had helped carry down - the death toll amongst the young tigers of Munich was alarming - and then on Friday and Saturday he would be saving his energies for Sunday's climb.

Like many of his contemporaries, he quit regular work and became a mountain vagabond, cycling on trips to the Dolomites, the Chamonix peaks and even to Spain en route for the High Atlas. Frank about most things in his 1972 autobiography Mein Leben als Bergsteiger (published in English as My Life as a Mountaineer, 1975), Heckmair admits losing his innocence off an alleyway in Marrakesh but insists that "money did not come into it".

Occasional work as a ski instructor or mountain guide kept the wolf from the door until, in 1937, got an unusual break - a request to guide the actress-turned-film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, a favourite of Hitler's, on climbs in the Brenta Dolomites. Riefenstahl took a shine to Heckmair, with his chiselled features and daring reputation, and whisked her guide off to Nuremberg, where the pair stayed in the residence of the gauleiter (the infamous Julius Streicher), took tea with Hitler at the Deutscher Hof Hotel and then stood by his side on the balcony for a torch-light parade. For the first time in his life, Heckmair raised his hand in the Hitler salute.

The next 12 months of Heckmair's life have been trawled over by researchers trying to establish to what extent the North Face climb may have been state-sponsored, but the picture remains fuzzy. Riefenstahl took him to stay with her in Berlin, where he says he eschewed politics and city life for training for the Eiger. He returned to Bavaria that winter and worked as a ski instructor.

In the spring, he took up a post as a guide with the Ordensburg at Sonthofen in the Allgau, little more than a grammar school in Heckmair's belated explanation, though Hitler envisaged these "Castles of the Order" turning out a generation that would "arise to cause the world to recoil in terror". Mountaineering was a means of toughening this future elite. Heckmair and Vorg, already working as a sports trainer at the Ordensburg, apparently declined direct funding for the Eiger but went off with the school's blessing and a stack of subsidised climbing gear.

Heckmair was the ideal man for the Nordwand. He had made the first direct ascent of the north face of the Charmoz, duelled with the Grandes Jorasses, above Chamonix, and spent six weeks in 1937 skulking around the foot of the Eiger working out the route. The Swiss had actually banned climbing on the face after six deaths, while the blimpish editor of the Alpine Journal, Col Edward Strutt, denounced it as "an obsession for the mentally deranged".

The 6,000ft face can be imagined through the graphic names of its features - Difficult Crack, Ice Hose, Death Bivouac, Brittle Ledge, Traverse of the Gods, the Spider and Exit Cracks - plus three precipitous icefields. It is also a very public arena, climbers providing a Big Top spectacle for "Eigerwatchers" with their telescopes on the balcony of the hotel at Kleine Scheidegg.

Heckmair and Vorg caught up with Kasparek and Harrer on the Second Icefield. The Austrians, having set off on 21 July 1938, had already spent one night on the route and were amazed to see the Germans "running" up behind them. Here lay the key to success. Heckmair and Vorg had realised the Nordwand was predominantly an ice climb, and had come equipped accordingly, rather than for the rock route others had supposed it to be.

The two Germans also used 12-point crampons for the first time; items of kit that revolutionised ice and steep snow climbing. Instead of laboriously cutting each step with an ice axe, they could simply kick their way up, the two spikes at the toe-end of the crampon biting into the slope to give instant purchase. The 12-pointers were part of the new equipment Heckmair and Vorg had collected from Sporthaus Schuster in Munich, with the Ordensburg picking up the bill. Kasparek and Harrer were envious. And, unlike the two Germans, they were actually Nazi Party members.

The meeting transformed the Austrians' chances on a face notorious for storms and stone fall, where speed is a life-saver. Kasparek wore less efficient 10-point crampons and Harrer had only nailed boots. Heckmair took the lead and Harrer, as last man on the rope, collected the metal pitons, his pack getting ever heavier. As with the Anschluss, the Germans were the dominant partner. Yet ironically, it was Harrer's name that became most associated in British minds with the Eiger through his classic account of the climb, Die Weisse Spinne (The White Spider, 1959).

Despite Heckmair's initial misgivings, the four formed an effective unit, and remained for the most part in high spirits (yodelling included), even when a storm overtook them high on the route. Heckmair took several falls, on the worst of which one of his crampon points drove right through Vorg's thumb, and the quartet survived repeated avalanches. On the summit on 24 July, they shook hands, scratched the ice from their eyebrows, and struggled down through deep snow to an extraordinary reception at Kleine Scheidegg. It was climbing's first media scrum. Heckmair recalled that at dinner an official from the German embassy in Berne made a speech "full of unpleasant nationalistic phrases".

It seems reasonable to accept Heckmair's insistence that he was apolitical and only interested in success as a climber. In the manner common among today's top climbers, he seized the offer of free gear and any other assistance that suited his ambitions. Regrettably for him the "sponsor" had more sinister aims than product promotion.

Heckmair remained with the Ordensburg until the outbreak of the Second World War, when due, he said, to "political unreliability" he was sent to the army. Vorg was killed on the first day of fighting on the Eastern Front and a similar fate could have befallen Heckmair had he not been posted back from Russia to a mountain training unit near Innsbruck.

An officer, and rival on the Grandes Jorasses, had pulled strings and Heckmair spent the rest of the war amongst climbing pals. Thereafter, he worked as a guide and ski instructor and went on long expeditions, notably with his wealthy patron the industrialist Otto-Ernst Flick. Their travels included easy climbs in the Ruwenzori, Rockies and the Andes.

Andreas (Anderl) Heckmair, mountaineer and guide: born Munich 12 October 1906; twice married; died Oberstdorf, Germany 1 February 2005.

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