A Short Walk With Whillans
The Legendary British Climber on the Eiger.
A Short Walk With Whillans was originally published in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal in 1963, and now appears in the book “One Man’s Mountains,” by Tom Patey.
“Did you spot that great long streak of blood on the road over from Chamonix? Twenty yards long, I’d say.
The speaker was Don Whillans. We were seated in the little inn at Alpiglen and Don’s aggressive profile was framed against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Eiger Nordwand. I reflected that the conversation had become attuned to the environment.
Probably some unfortunate animal, I ventured without much conviction.
Whillans’ eyes narrowed. Human blood, he said. Remember class? (appealing to his wife, Audrey). I told you to stop the car for a better look. Really turned her stomach, it did. Just when she was getting over the funeral.
I felt an urge to inquire whose funeral they had attended. There had been several. Every time we went up on the Montenvers train we passed a corpse going down. I let the question go. It seemed irrelevant, possibly even irreverent.
Ay, it’s a good life, he mused, providing you don’t weaken.
What happens if you do?
They bury you, he growled, and finished his pint.
Don has that rarest of gifts, the ability to condense a whole paragraph into a single, terse, uncompromising sentence. But there are also occasions when he can become almost lyrical in a macabre sort of way. It depends on the environment.
We occupied a window table in the inn. There were several other tables, and hunched round each of these were groups of shadowy men draped in black cagoules clean-jawed, grim, uncommunicative characters who spoke in guttural monosyllables and gazed steadfastly towards the window. You only had to glimpse their earnest faces to realize that these men were Eiger Candidates, martyrs for the Mordwand.
Look at that big black bastard up there, Whillans chuckled dryly, gesturing with his thumb. Just waiting to get its claws into you. And think of all the young lads who’ve sat just where you’re sitting now, and come back all tied up in sacks. It makes you think.
It certainly did. I was beginning to wish I had stayed at Chamonix, funerals or no funerals.
Take that young blonde over there. He pointed towards the sturdy Aryan barmaid, who had just replenished his glass. I wonder how many dead men she’s danced with? All the same, he concluded after a minute’s reflection, wouldn’t be a bad way to spend your last night.
I licked my lips nervously. Don’s philosophic discourses are not for the faint-hearted.
One of the Eiger candidates detached himself from a neighbouring group and approached us with obvious intent. He was red-haired, small, and compact, and he looked like a Neanderthal man. This likeness derived from his hunched shoulders, and the way he craned his head forwards like a man who had been struck repeatedly on the crown by a heavy hammer, and through time developed a protective over-growth of skull. His name proved to be Eckhart, and he was a German. Most of them still are.
The odd thing about him was his laugh. It was an uncanny hollow quality. He laughed quite a lot without generating a great deal of warmth, and he wore a twisted grin, which seemed to be permanently frozen onto his face. Even Whillans was moved.
You going up? he inquired.
Nein, said Eckhart. Nix gutt! You wait here little time, I think Now there is much vatter. He turned up his coat collar ruefully and laughed. Many, many stein fall All day, all night Stein, stein. He tapped his head significantly and laughed uproariously. Two nights we wait at Tod Bivouac. He repeated the name as if relishing its sinister undertones. (It means Dead Man, I said to Whillans in a hushed whisper.) Always it is nix gutt Vatter, stein Stein, vatter so we go down. It is very funny.
We nodded sympathetically. It was all a huge joke.
Our two Kameraden, they go on. They are saying at the telescopes, one man he has fallen 50 meters. Me? I do not believe this. (Loud and prolonged laughter from the company.)
You have looked through the telescope? I inquired anxiously.
Nein, he grinned. Not necessary tonight they gain summit tomorrow they descend. And now we will have another beer.
Eckhart was 19. He had already accounted for the North Face of the Matterhorn as a training climb and he intended to camp at the foot of the Eigerwand until the right conditions prevailed. If necessary, he could wait until October. Like most of his countrymen he was nothing if not thorough, and finding his bivouac-tent did not measure up to his expectations he had hitch-hiked all the way back to nich to secure another one. As a result of this, he had missed the settled spell of weather that had allowed several rivals to complete the route, including the second successful British team, Baillie and Haston, and also the lone Swiss climber, Darbellay, who had thus made the first solo ascent.
Made of the right stuff, that youngster, observed Don.
If you ask me I think he was trying to scare us off, I suggested. Psychological warfare, that’s all it is.
Wait till we get on the face tomorrow, said Whillans. We’ll hear your piece then.
Shortly after noon the next day we left Audrey behind at Alpiglen, and the two of us set off up the green meadows which girdle the foot of the Eigerwand. Before leaving, Don had disposed of his Last Will and Testament. You’ve got the car key, lass, and you know where to find the house key. That’s all you need to know. Ta, for now.
Audrey smiled wanly. She had my profound sympathy.
The heat was oppressive, the atmosphere heavy with menace. How many nich Bergsteigers had trod this very turf on their upward path never to return to their native Klettergarten? I was humming Wagner’s Valkyrie theme music as we reached the lowest rocks on the Face.
Then a most unexpected thing happened. From an alcove in the wall emerged a very ordinary Swiss tourist, followed by his very ordinary wife, five small children and a poodle dog. I stopped humming immediately. I had read of tearful farewells with wives and sweethearts calling plaintively, but this was ridiculous. What an undignified send-off. The five children accompanied us up the first snow slope scrambling happily in our wake, and prodding our rucksacks with inquisitive fingers. Go away, said Whillans irritably, but ineffectively. We were quite relieved when, ultimately, they were recalled to base and we stopped playing Pied Pipers. The dog held on a bit longer until some well-directed stones sent it on its way. Charming, I must say, remarked Don. I wondered whether Hermann Buhl would have given up on the spot, a most irregular start to an Eiger epic and probably a bad omen.
We started climbing up the left side of the Shattered Pillar, a variant of the normal route which had been perfected by Don in the course of several earlier attempts. He was well on his way to becoming the Grand Old Man of Grindelwald, though not through any fault of his own. This was his fourth attempt at the climb and on every previous occasion he had been turned back by bad weather or by having to rescue his rivals. As a result of this he must have spent more hours on the Face than any other British climber.
Don’s preparations for the Eiger, meticulous in every other respect, had not included unnecessary physical exertion. While I dragged my weary muscles from Breuil to Zermatt via the Matterhorn he whiled away the days at Chamonix sunbathing at the Plage until opening time. At the Bar Nationale he nightly sank five or six pints of heavy, smoked forty cigarettes, persuaded other layabouts to feed the juke box with their last few francs and amassed a considerable reputation as an exponent of Baby Foot, the table football game which is the national sport in France. One day the heat had been sufficiently intense to cause a rush of blood to the head because he had walked four miles up to the Montenvers following the railroad track, and had acquired such enormous blisters that he had to make the return journey by train. He was nevertheless just as fit as he wanted to be, or indeed needed to be.
First impressions of the Eigerwand belied its evil reputation. This was good climbing rock with excellent friction and lots of small incuts. We climbed unroped, making height rapidly. In fact I was just starting to enjoy myself, when I found the boot.
Somebody’s left a boot here, I shouted to Don.
He pricked up his ears. Look and see if there’s a foot in it, he said.
I had picked it up: I put it down again hurriedly.
Ha! Here’s something else a torn rucksack, he hissed. And here’s his water bottle squashed flat.
I had lost my new found enthusiasm and decided to ignore future foreign bodies. (I even ignored the pun.)
You might as well start getting used to them now, advised Whillans. This is where they usually glance off, before they hit the bottom.
He’s a cheery character, I thought to myself. To Don, a spade is just a spade, a simple trenching tool used by gravediggers.
At the top of the Pillar we donned our safety helmets. One thing to remember on the Eiger, said Don, never look up, or you may need a plastic surgeon.
His advice seemed superfluous that evening, as we did not hear a single ricochet. We climbed on up past the Second Pillar and roped up for the traverse across to the Difficult Crack. At this late hour the Crack was streaming with water so we decided to bivouac while we were still dry. There was an excellent bivouac cave near the foot of the crack.
I’ll have one of your cigarettes, said Don. I’ve only brought Gauloises. This was a statement of fact, not a question. There is something about Don’s proverbial bluntness that arouses one’s admiration. Of such stuff are generals made. We had a short discussion about bivouacking, but eventually I had to agree with his arguments and occupy the outer berth. It would be less likely to induce claustrophobia, or so I gathered.
I was even more aware of the sudden fall in temperature. My ultra-warm Terray duvet failed by a single critical inch to meet the convertible bivy-rucksack which I had borrowed from Joe Brown. It had been designed, so the manufacturers announced, to Joe’s personal specifications, and as far as I could judge, to his personal dimensions as well.
Insidiously and from nowhere it seemed, a mighty thunderstorm built up in the valley less than a mile away. Flashes of lightning lit up the whole Face and grey tentacles of mist crept out of the dusk, threatening to envelop our lofty eyrie.
The girl in the Tourist Office said that a ridge of high pressure occupying the whole of central Europe would last for at least another three days.
Charming, growled Whillans. I could give you a better forecast without raising my head.
We should be singing Bavarian drinking songs to keep our spirits up, I suggested. How about some Austrian yodeling.
They’re too fond of dipping in glacier streams that’s what does it, he muttered sleepily.
Makes them yodel. All the same, these bloody Austrians.
The day dawned clear. For once it seemed that a miracle had happened and a major thunderstorm had cleared the Eiger, without lodging on the Face. Don remained inscrutable and cautious as ever. Although we were sheltered from any prevailing wind we would have no advance warning of the weather, as our horizons were limited by the Face itself.
There was still a trickle of water coming down the Difficult Crack as Don launched himself stiffly at the first obstacle. Because of our uncertainty about the weather and an argument about who should make breakfast, we had started late. It was 6:30 a.m. and we would have to hurry. He made a bad start by clipping both strands of the double rope to each of the three pitons he found in position. The rope jammed continuously and this was even more disconcerting for me, when I followed carrying both rucksacks. Hanging down in the middle of the pitch was an old frayed rope, said to have been abandoned by Mlle. Loulou Boulaz, and this kept getting entangled with the ice axes. By the time I had joined Don at this stance I was breathing heavily and more than usually irritated. We used the excuse to unrope and get back into normal rhythm before tackling the Hinterstoisser. It was easy to find the route hereabouts: you merely followed the pitons. They were planted everywhere with rotting rope loops (apparently used for abseils) attached to most of them. It is a significant insight into human psychology that nobody ever stops to remove superfluous pegs on the Eiger. If nothing else they help to alleviate the sense of utter isolation that fills this vast Face, but they also act as constant reminders of man’s ultimate destiny and the pageant of history written into the rock. Other reminders were there in plenty, gloves, socks, ropes, crampons and boots. None of them appeared to have been abandoned with the owners’ consent.
The Hinterstoisser Traverse, despite the illustrations of pre-war heroes traversing a la lfer, is nothing to get excited about. With two fixed ropes of unknown vintage as an emergency handrail, you can walk across it in three minutes. Stripped of scaffolding, it would probably qualify as Severe by contemporary British standards. The fixed ropes continued without a break as far as the Swallow’s Nest, another bivouac site hallowed by tradition. Thus far I could well have been climbing the Italian Ridge of the Matterhorn.
We skirted the First Ice Field on the right, scrambling up easy rubble where we had expected to find black ice. It was certainly abnormally warm, but if the weather held we had definite grounds for assuming that we could complete the climb in one day, our original intention. The Ice Hose which breaches the rocky barrier between the First and Second Ice Fields no longer merited the name because the ice had all gone. It seemed to offer an easy alley but Don preferred to stick to known alternatives and advanced upon an improbable-looking wall some distance across to the left. By the time I had confirmed our position on Hiebler’s route description, he had completed the pitch and was shouting for me to come on. He was well into his stride, but still did not seem to share my optimism.
His doubts were well-founded. Ten minutes later, we were crossing the waterworn slabs leading on to the Second Ice Field when we saw the first falling stones. To be exact we did not see the stones, but merely the puff of smoke each one left behind at the point of impact. They did not come bouncing down the cliff with a noisy clatter as stones usually do. In fact they were only audible after they had gone past WROUFF! a nasty sort of sound halfway between a suck and a blow.
It’s the small ones that make that sort of noise, explained Whillans, wait till you hear the really big ones!
The blueprint for a successful Eiger ascent seems to involve being at the right place at the right time. According to our calculations the Face should have been immune to stonefall at this hour of the morning.
Unfortunately the Eiger makes its own rules. An enormous black cloud had taken shape out of what ought to have been a clear blue sky, and had come to rest on the Summit Ice Field. It reminded me of a gigantic black vulture spreading its wings before dropping like lightning on unsuspecting prey.
Down there at the foot of the Second Ice Field, it was suddenly very cold and lonely. Away across to the left was the Ramp; a possible hideaway to sit out the storm. It seemed little more than a stone’s throw, but I knew as well as Don did, that we had almost 1,500 feet of steep snow-ice to cross before we could get any sort of shelter from the stones.
There was no question of finding adequate cover in the immediate vicinity. On either side of us steep ice slopes, peppered with fallen debris, dropped away into the void. Simultaneously with Whillans’ arrival at the stance the first flash of lighting struck the White Spider.
That settles it, said he, clipping the spare rope through my belay carabiner.
What’s going on? I demanded, finding it hard to credit that such a crucial decision could be reached on the spur of the moment.
I’m going down, he said. That’s what’s going on.
Wait a minute! Let’s discuss the whole situation calmly. I stretched out one hand to flick the ash off my cigarette. Then a most unusual thing happened. There was a higher pitched WROUFF than usual and the end of my cigarette disappeared! It was the sort of subtle touch that Hollywood film directors dream about.
I see what you mean, I said. I’m going down too.
I cannot recall coming off a climb so quickly. As a result of a long acquaintance Don knew the location of every abseil point and this enabled us to bypass the complete section of the climb which includes the Hinterstoisser Traverse and the Chimney leading up to the Swallow’s Nest. To do this, you merely rappel directly downwards from the last abseil point above the Swallow’s Nest and so reach a key piton at the top of the wall overlooking the start of the Hinterstoisser Traverse. From here a straightforward rappel of 140 feet goes vertically down the wall to the large ledge at the start of the Traverse. If Hinterstoisser had realized that he would probably not now have a Traverse named after him, and the Eigerwand would not enjoy one half of its present notoriety. The idea of a Point of No Return always captures the imagination, and until very recent times, it was still the fashion to abandon a fixed rope at the Hinterstoisser in order to safeguard a possible retreat.
The unrelenting bombardment, which had kept us hopping from one abseil to the next like demented fleas, began to slacken off as we came into the lee of the Rote Fluh. The weather had obviously broken down completely and it was raining heavily. We followed separate ways down the easy lower section of the Face, sending down volleys of loose scree in front of us. Every now and again we heard strange noises, like a series of muffled yelps, but since we appeared to have the mountain to ourselves, this did not provoke comment. Whillans had just disappeared round a nearby corner when I heard a loud ejaculation.
God Almighty, he said (or words to that effect). Japs! Come and see for yourself!
Sure enough, there they were. Two identical little men in identical climbing uniforms, sitting side by side underneath an overhang. They had been crouching there for an hour, waiting for the bombardment to slacken. I estimated that we must have scored several near misses.
You Japs? grunted Don. It seemed an unnecessary question.
Yes, yes, they grinned happily, displaying a full set of teeth. We are Japanese.
Going up? queried Whillans. He pointed meaningfully at the grey holocaust sweeping up from the White Spider.
Yes, yes, they chorused in unison. Up. Always upwards. First Japanese ascent.
You-may-be-going-up-Mate, said Whillans, giving every syllable unnecessary emphasis, but-a-lot-igher-than-you-think!
They did not know what to make of this, so they wrung his hand several times, and thanked him profusely for the advice.
‘Appy little pair! said Don. I don’t imagine we’ll ever see them again.
He was mistaken. They came back seven days later after several feet of new snow had fallen. They had survived a full-scale Eiger blizzard and had reached our highest point on the Second Ice Field, and if they did not receive a medal for valour they had certainly earned one. They were the forerunners of the climbing elite of Japan, whose members now climb Mount Everest for the purpose of skiing back down again.
We got back to the Alpiglen in time for late lunch. The telescope stood forlorn and deserted in the rain. The Eiger had retired into its misty oblivion, as Don Whillans retired to his favourite corner seat by the window.
Postscript: One Man’s Mountains must be the all-time favoriteclimbing book, the book that includes the story you just read, says John Cleare, distinguished British mountain photographer, writer and filmmaker, about Tom Patey’s collection of essays and songs, originally published in 1971. It echoes the ethos of our great game, highlights how ridiculous it really is and eloquently captures those happy-go-lucky years before climbers took themselves so seriously and thought they were heroes.
Cleare also offers a tale of the sad and largely unknown background to the publication of Patey’s book.
We’d been pestering Tom to put serious pen to serious paper for ages, but he was reluctant to commit himself to a book contract because writing short articles occupied his surgery time waiting for customers’ (his was the second-smallest medical practice in terms of patients in the U.K. but with the largest area), while a proper book would have curtailed climbing-drinking-singing time.
Eventually he agreed to consider a book and on [May 25] 1970, Livia Gollancz, an eminent Ladies Alpine Club member and chairman of Gollancz Publishers, flew up to Inverness and hired a rental car to drive on up to Ullapool with a contract in her briefcase. Tom was out climbing, of course. Livia was sitting in the front room having tea with [Tom’s wife] Betty when there was a ring on the doorbell. The village police sergeant had come to break the news of Tom’s death a couple of hours before onthe Maiden, a sea stack off Whitten Head near Cape Wrath. It was a first ascent. An abseil accident with one krab twisting to open the gate of another.
The book went ahead but merely as an anthology of what Betty considered his best work.
So the world missed out on what must surely have been the book of the era whilewe all lost the man who motivated so much of our climbing in those days. He is still missed. One Man’s Mountains is available at mountaineersbooks.org, chesslerbooks.com and amazon.com.