Robbie Phillips and Willis Morris first attempted a ground-up, alpine style ascent of Paciencia (8a/5.13b) in early August, the route that Sasha DiGuilian and Carlo Traversi would attempt a few weeks later.
On day two, after a disheartening first day of dripping limestone slabs and botched route-finding, Phillips found himself higher than ever on the 8a crux pitch, reaching for “invisible holds” and crumbling edges. “Nothing but air and miles of rocky face below me,” he writes in his blog, “I dig deeper and reach higher, the forearm cramps up but for some reason it feels stronger…my fingers roll over a solid edge and I pull up – thank god!” Morris ascended the rope and Phillips set off on the next 7a+ (5.12a) pitch. Only a few more rope-lengths stood between them and a bivy ledge, a halfway point that could poise Phillips and Morris to reach the summit by the next day.
But the Eiger had other plans.
Heavy raindrops flecked against their helmets, slowly soaking their jackets and gloves. Phillips’ presumed the water dripped from the seeping upper pitches, melting snow and ice that coursed through the limestone’s fractures and imperfections. As the rain persisted, the illusion of minor seepage dissolved and Phillips rappelled back down to Morris at the post-crux ledge. “By then it wasn’t just rain, the water was cascading down the wall on top of us,” Phillips writes.
The Eiger is notorious for loose rock on the vertical-to-slabby upper pitches near the summit. Increasingly torrential rain began to dislodge scree from the top of the route, pulling down a “car-sized chunk” that exploded into smaller pieces as it slammed against the face. Phillips and Morris retreated to Grindelwald.
Out of money, time, and good weather, Morris returned home to Glasgow. Phillips escaped to Chamonix, where he could distract himself from Paciencia with alpine climbs on French granite. Phillips’ original goal for the summer was to climb what he calls the “Alpine Trilogy:” Silbergeier (8b/5.13d) in the Swiss Alps, Project Fear (8c/5.14b) in the Italian Dolomites, and Paciencia. Phillips had already managed to climb Silbergeier and Project Fear earlier in the summer, but it looked like Paciencia would have to wait.
Three weeks later, Phillips heard back from Morris, who received an anonymous donation from someone in the U.K. allowing him to return to Grindelwald and make a second attempt on the Eiger.
Phillips and Morris arrived on the Eiger scene where DiGuilian and Traversi were battling conditions during their first few days on the route.
“Carlo and Sasha said the conditions were bad, but in actual fact, they were quite good,” Phillips tells Rock and Ice. “All the hard pitches—the 8a, 7c’s, and 7b+—were dry. You’ve got to expect with these walls, some pitches are gonna be damp.”
With dry conditions on the steep lower pitches, Phillips and Morris soared back to their highpoint, reaching the midway bivy-ledge by Friday, August 28. Ahead lay more moderate climbing on technical, vertical limestone, with damp cracks and deteriorating rock quality.
On Paciencia, Phillips says, “Grades have nothing to do with it. The 8a [5.13b] pitch was fairly easy, but one 7b+ [5.12c] pitch was absolutely nails.” As the pitches lighten in difficulty, the fear factor increases; below 7a (5.11d), the climb becomes chossy and runout.
But two months of climbing in the Alps paid off. After a night on the ledge, enshrouded by the Eiger’s eternal gray cloud (“You can hear people laughing in Grindelwald while you’re freezing on the face,” Phillips says), Phillips and Morris cruised the final pitches, reaching the summit of Paciencia by nightfall on Saturday, August 29.
Phillips, 25, and Morris, 20, became the youngest team yet to climb Paciencia, claiming the route’s fourth ascent. Phillips said that to climb the Alps’ hardest, most sustained lines in a single summer “was an ambitious goal, but we actually managed to do all three. I’m not sure how it happened, but it was like a dream come true.”
For first-hand accounts of their experiences on the Eiger, check out Robbie Phillips and Willis Morris on their social media sites.
Photos courtesy of Euan Ryan at Finalcrux Films and Robbie Phillips.