Into the teeth of the ogre

Anderl Heckmair, who died this week, was among the first to conquer the mighty Eiger. Stephen Goodwin explores the allure of the Alps' greatest - and most dangerous - summit
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The Independent Online

The facts seemed to be beyond dispute when in 1937 the redoubtable Colonel Edward Strutt declared the north face of the Eiger to be "an obsession for the mentally deranged". Of the eight men who had, until then, ventured on the Eigerwand, six had perished, and two more would fall to their deaths just a few months later.

Strutt was pronouncing with all the assumed authority of the president of the Alpine Club. Although most other climbers soon found his strictures antediluvian, the notion that one must be a bit mad to attempt the Eigerwand is still the generally held public view.

And who can blame Joe Public, given the evidence of the names bestowed on critical features of the 6,000ft face - the Ice Hose, Death Bivouac, Brittle Ledges, Traverse of the Gods and the infamous Spider, where climbers can become trapped as stones and ice bombard over the arachnid's frozen limbs?

Anderl Heckmair, who led the first ascent of the north face in July 1938, and who died this week aged 98, seemed anything but mad. A modest man, who in later life took great enjoyment in leading nothing more dramatic than botanical tours in Bavaria, he had, nonetheless, been consumed by the prospect of snatching the coveted route. A team of four had died on the mountain in 1936, one of them, Toni Kurz, exhausted and frost bitten, suspended from a jammed rope within speaking distance of his rescuers. Yet as Heckmair recalled in his autobiography published five years ago: "By now I was so obsessed with climbing the face nothing would induce me to abandon the project."

That same single-mindedness was evident in Chris (now Sir Chris) Bonington's approach to the Eiger, culminating in the first British ascent of the Eigerwand in 1962. Bonington shared the honours with Ian Clough, who died on Annapurna eight years later. Bonington had been on the face a month earlier when he and Don Whillans shepherded another Brit to safety after witnessing his partner hurtle into the void. They were hailed in the press as Eiger heroes.

Newspaper interest in the mountain was nothing new - it began with the first ill-fated attempts in 1935 - for the north face of the Eiger shares with Everest the distinction of being one of the few objectives in mountaineering that ring any bells with the public. The German press was quick to turn the name Nordwand into Mördwand - the killer wall. Some 60 people have died on the north face and although the rate of attrition has fallen markedly - many more climbers, relatively few deaths - it remains a daunting proposition.

The Eiger, or "Ogre", is one of a trio of peaks, along with the Mönch and the Jungfrau, that form the backdrop to the resorts of Grindelwald and Wengen in Switzerland's Bernese Alps. Its summit, at 13,041ft (3,970m), was reached by Charles Barrington and guides Christian Almer and Peter "Glacier Wolf" Bohren in 1858 after twice being almost swept away by avalanches. Barrington, in a letter to the Alpine Journal 25 years later, noted: "Had I not been as fit as my old horse 'Sir Robert Peel' when I won the Irish Grand National with him, I would not have seen half the course."

But Barrington had definitely not climbed the Eiger by its defining feature, the great north wall that looms above the calm pastures of Alpiglen. It was not until the 1930s that climbers, having pushed the envelope of the possible elsewhere in the Alps, turned in a competitive fever to the Eigerwand. The face is a most public sporting arena - tourists can watch the climbers through telescopes on the hotel balconies of Kleine Scheidegg while the Jungfrau railway, built in 1912, tunnels within the mountain with two side-shafts giving an airy view of any action.

The young Europeans competing to conquer the north face soon became pawns in the Nazi propaganda machine. Believing that only German climbers could succeed on the Eigerwand, Hitler had promised Olympic medals to the "conquerors". It was the nationalistic fervour surrounding the Eiger as much as the loss of life and unsporting tactics that so appalled Col Strutt and the traditionalists in British and Swiss mountaineering. Strutt declared: "He who first succeeds may rest assured that he has accomplished the most imbecile variant since mountaineering first began." The Swiss authorities tried to ban climbers approaching the face and Heckmair and his partner, Ludwig Vörg, tried to keep a low profile.

The race for the face was essentially between German, Austrian and Italian climbers, the three nationalities now using metal pegs, or pitons, that could be hammered into the rock to help safeguard an ascent. This made climbable steep, overhanging or smooth pitches of rock. To traditionalists, the use of pitons was cheating. So too was the fitting of crampons, which speeded progress up ice and snow by reducing the need to cut steps with an ice-axe.

When Heckmair and Vörg arrived at the foot of the face in July, it had already claimed the lives of eight out 10 previous "Eiger candidates". Max Sedlmayer and Karl Mehringer from Munich, had frozen to death in 1935, high on the face, at the point subsequently known as Death Bivouac. And just a month before Heckmair and Vörg's arrival, two young Italians had fallen during a thunderstorm.

But most heart-rending had been the deaths of Bavarians Anderl Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz, and Austrians Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer in July 1936. Hinterstoisser's clever piece of rope work enabling them to traverse 130ft to the First Ice Field. When all had completed the traverse, Hinterstoisser retrieved the rope, but this cut off their line of retreat. Days later, in worsening weather, they found themselves back at the Hinterstoisser Traverse, but unable to cross. Bombarded by avalanche, the four started a desperate descent. Hinterstoisser came off and fell hundreds of feet, Rainer froze on the face and Angerer was strangled by the rope as he too fell. Kurz was still alive. Hanging on the rope in a sling, he struggled for hours to descend towards guides. They were only feet apart as the frost-bitten Bavarian's reserves gave out. "Ich kann nicht mehr [I cannot go on]," he said, and tipped forward in his sling, lifeless.

The story of the first ascent was told in spellbinding detail by Heinrich Harrer, one of the two Austrians with whom the German pair joined forces about half way up the face. Harrer's The White Spider (1959) became an inspiration to generations of climbers; Chris Bonington described it as his "bible". Heckmairand Vörg had new 12-point crampons, realising that the Eigerwand was a mixed climb, much of it on ice and snow, rather than a rock climb. This was crucial in their success. The other Austrian, Fritz Kasparek, had older crampons, but Harrer had only nailed boots and so brought up the rear of the party, his rucksack getting heavier as he retrieved pitons.

The ascent took four days. Battered by the foul weather on the upper part, Harrer felt certain that avalanches cascading over him on the Spider would hurl them all off the face. "I seemed to have been standing in this crushing, sliding Hell for endless ages," he wrote. Heckmair had clung to the ice by one axe with his other hand gripping Vörg by the coat collar. Heckmair thought their survival a miracle.

But the aftermath was less wholesome. The image of Germans and Austrians united in struggle was a gift for the Goebbel's propaganda, comingjust months after the anschluss - the unification of Austria with Germany in 1938. Mountaineering was represented, perversely, as embodying Aryan virtues.

The four were whisked to Breslau, now Wroclaw in Poland, and presented to Hitler at a rally. Harrer reportedly told Hitler: "We have climbed the Eiger Nordwand, over the summit beyond, to you our Fuhrer." Harrer, who was a member of the Sturmabteilung (Nazi thugs) from 1933, has repeatedly denied he tried to plant a swastika flag on the summit. The south Tyrolean master Reinhold Messner, who set his own mark on the face with the North Pillar route in 1968, has described the Heckmair's line as "a work of art".

The second successful ascent, in 1947 by the French guides Lionel Terray and Louis Lachenal, silenced those critics who still thought of the Eiger climb as a stunt and established it as a test piece of extreme alpinism. Forty-two years after his ascent, Sir Chris still recalls the daunting atmosphere. "I was pretty damn impressed by its danger." Although he and Ian Clough had caught the Eiger in good condition, rocks high on the face were covered in a glaze of ice. Four years later, Sir Chris was involved in another Eiger escapade when a race seemed on between a German team and a US-British party to climb a more direct line. But a rope broke and John Harlin, the American leader, fell 3,000ft to his death. The remaining climbers joined forces and four Germans and the Scot, Dougal Haston, completed the Harlin, or Eiger Direct route. To date, 28 routes have been essayed on the face, one of the latest called Young Spider involving gymnastic moves on a hanging dagger of ice itself below the Spider.

Britain's most recent climbing celebrities, Joe Simpson, author of Touching the Void, and Simon Yates, his partner on the Andean climb that ended with Simpson's against-all-odds survival, have had very different experiences on the Eiger. In The Beckoning Silence (2002) Simpson recounted an unsuccessful attempt in 2000, at the same time as two other climbers perished. Yates knocked off the route in the same year as the Void epic, 1985, making it sound like relatively light work in his autobiographical The Flame of Adventure (2001).

Unlikely to be demeaned in mountaineers' eyes in quite the same way as Everest's South Col route, viewed largely as a test of the depth of one's lungs and wallet, the status of the north face as a great mixed climb in its traditional summer season is threatened by global warming. By August, the ice fields often appear shrunken shadows of their former selves, the Spider blackened with rubble as rock-fall spirals beyond the bounds of tenable risk - even for Eiger candidates.

Stephen Goodwin is editor of the 'Alpine Journal'