Secretly, I have always believed that lurking within me, waiting for an opportunity to manifest itself, is the ability to socialize with important people without making an ass of myself. My chosen path, largely a straight line between mountains—or bar stools—rarely affords me the opportunity to mingle with celebrities. Nevertheless, I have remained confident that if a situation should ever require it, I could muster at least some degree of grace and charm. Until now, that is, because as I pass the ornate brass mailbox proclaiming the name “Heckmair” in bold relief, I am seized with the realization that I am hopelessly out of my element. No point in kidding myself: my social skills are pretty much defined by rough manners and asinine conversation. And not a bar stool in sight.
I have traveled to this address in the picturesque Bavarian postcard-village of Oberstdorf to meet my guru—the man whose life has most influenced my own. With my girlfriend, Dina, I have come seeking a connection with the celebrated German mountain guide whose life winds like a strong thread through an extended tapestry encompassing the most famous—and infamous— of mountains and men. Anderl Heckmair is best known as the person who, in the summer of 1938, led a team of two Germans and two Austrians on the dramatic first ascent of the Eigerwand, the much-feared north face of Switzerland’s Eiger. This success, so hard-fought against a deadly wall, has inspired respect and sparked obsession among countless mountaineers of every subsequent generation, myself included. But for Heckmair, the Eiger climb was only the prelude to a lifetime of extreme journeys among mountains, deserts, jungles—as well as to the poles of humanity: over the course of nine decades he has crossed paths with personalities ranging from Hitler to the Dalai Lama.
And now, perhaps as a result of my own improbable success on the Eigerwand, Anderl Heckmair has agreed to meet me. But I am afraid I will barely see the man through the thick condensation clouding my glasses. And it is not the humidity causing me to steam up like a greenhouse window. This is a perspiration of nerves, and it progresses from a damp anxiety as Dina and I contemplate the Heckmairs’ mailbox to a persistent fog as I finally summon the courage to ring the bell. By the time the door opens I’m almost completely blind, and I prove this by impulsively groping for Herr Heckmair’s hand, only to be rewarded with a mitt-full of air. Dina is having better luck. Peering over my blinders, I perceive that the members of this household observe strict social protocol, and it is only after Dina has been shown all the proper courtesies that I am ushered inside.
I gape about in an attempt to get a fix on our hosts, and my first impression is that we have entered a time warp. It is inconceivable that the square-shouldered gentleman standing before me is more than 90 years old. His small but well-proportioned frame is neither paunchy nor stooped, and the famous profile, featuring a round face and prominent nose, is crowned with a thatch of dark hair that shows no sign of thinning or graying. By all outward appearances Anderl Heckmair appears to have found a way to stop the clock sometime in his mid-50s. There are signs of an inner youth here as well: he greets me with a handshake and a wink that cannot conceal a mischievous sparkle.
His wife, Trudl, is similarly tiny, trim and good-natured, but in her case the youthful appearance is less of a disguise; she is decades younger than her husband, and so they seem a perfectly matched couple. Frau Heckmair’s most singular feature, however, is her broad smile, which beams out warmly—a defroster on my clouded spectacles.
“Welcome,” she says, taking our jackets. “It is so nice you have come to visit us.” As I stammer some sort of reply about what an honor it is for us to meet such a great man, the humor in Heckmair can no longer be restrained. He beats his chest importantly and utters a solemn declaration before breaking into a fit of laughter. “Yes, yes,” his wife translates, “Anderl says he is very proud!”
Clearly, Anderl Heckmair is a bit of a character.
Communicating Anderl’s thoughts to visitors is second nature for Frau Heckmair. Like me, Anderl speaks only his native tongue and in a thick Bavarian dialect that even Dina, whose mother grew up near Frankfurt, is hard-pressed to understand. Trudl, however, knows five languages, all self-taught, and—if her English is any indication—all quite fluently. Even now she is translating effortlessly and almost simultaneously as her husband invites us “into the sitting room, where we will be more comfortable.”
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The Heckmairs’ parlor, a dimly lit, cozy room overlooking the garden, is furnished with a sofa and three chairs arranged in close proximity around a little table. Cake has been set out, cordial bottles are nearby, and, as we settle into place, Frau Heckmair goes in search of a vase for the fresh flowers Dina has brought. I also have a gift, something I suspect will greatly surprise Heckmair. In a letter I wrote to arrange this visit I asked about the book written by Fritz Kasparek, one of Heckmair’s companions on the Eigerwand’s first ascent. Kasparek’s autobiography, printed shortly after the war and only a few years before his fatal plunge through a Peruvian cornice, is among the rarest of published Eiger-related materials. In my letter I asked the Heckmairs if they could offer any suggestions as to where I might acquire a copy of this volume. Anderl wrote back, “It is indeed very difficult to find; I, too, have no copy.” I was excited, then, when only a few weeks before our trip, I received a catalog listing this title for sale. I knew I had found the perfect gift.
Now, however, I’m worried I may have mistakenly wrapped up a copy of Mein Kampf. Anderl is thumbing through the book, frowning and shaking his head in a decidedly negative manner. His disapproval finally extends to the point of mumbling something under his breath that even I don’t need a translator to understand. Dina is giving me one of those what-have-you-done looks, but I am shielded by my glasses, which are, once again, utterly opaque.
Thankfully, Frau Heckmair returns, and, after a short conversation with her husband, she explains: “Anderl has always climbed for his own reasons and has never been interested in doing climbs for the purpose of generating publicity. Fritz was the opposite. He was always saying to Anderl, ‘We must make some important new route, or they will forget about us!’ Anderl and Fritz were not close friends.”
This is something of a revelation. With a personal understanding of the bond that often forms between climbing partners, I have always assumed that the four members of the successful Eiger party, united by such an epic experience, must have enjoyed a special camaraderie. It had never occurred to me that the fact that Kasparek’s autobiography never made it onto Heckmair’s shelf might have been intentional. And now, thanks to me, Fritz and his philosophies are back from the grave. All I can think of to say is: “I didn’t know,” which I suspect Dina translates to Anderl as, “He is very stupid.”
It is not long, however, before the whiskey and schnapps are flowing, and Anderl is in a good humor again, happily puffing a cigar and explaining to us that the relationships between the members of the Eiger team were complicated, right from the start. The two Austrians, Kasparek and Heinrich Harrer, were initially a separate party, and had never met the Germans before encountering one another on the mountain. And the two Germans had only recently met; Heckmair had originally hoped to attempt the Eiger with Hais Rebitsch, a friendly rival with whom he proposed joining forces. Rebitsch, however, was invited to join the 1938 German expedition to Nanga Parbat, and reluctantly informed Anderl, “I leave the Eiger to you.” He also left Heckmair his partner, Ludwig Vörg, known to his friends as “Wiggerl.” The previous year, Rebitsch and Vörg had retreated from the Eigerwand after climbing nearly halfway to the summit, and in doing so became the only men to return alive from a serious attempt on the face. Vörg’s first-hand knowledge of the face, along with a strong recommendation from Rebitsch, made him the natural choice to accompany Heckmair.
“In many ways,” explains Frau Heckmair, pouring us another whiskey, “Wiggerl was probably a better partner for Anderl than Rebitsch. In those days, it was common for one man to lead and the other to follow an entire climb. Both Anderl and Rebitsch were born leaders and would have competed with one another, but Vörg was ideally suited to the role of the second man; he was perfectly content to belay Anderl and remove the pitons.”
The Austrians, I recalled, had a similar arrangement, with the lead falling naturally to Kasparek. I can only imagine how these dynamics must have complicated things once the two parties joined—it’s no wonder Fritz and Anderl didn’t get along. The memory of this encounter gives Anderl a chuckle. His wife explains, “Anderl did not want to combine the teams. When he and Wiggerl met the others on the Second Icefield, he immediately told them, ‘You must go down now, because if you continue, you will surely be killed.’”
Every afternoon at precisely 5 o’clock Heckmair plays cards with his neighbor for exactly one hour. While outsiders may view this as a curious ritual—particularly since no words are spoken during the game—it is, in fact, a cathartic method of relaxation for the neighbor, one that Anderl is happy to oblige. I suspect whiskey is also involved.
While he is gone, Trudl takes Dina and me for a walk to see the place in Oberstdorf where three major rivers merge into one—a unique geographical landmark. Dina borrows a pair of Anderl’s boots for the hike; I am proud to have a girlfriend who can fill Anderl Heckmair’s shoes.
I ask Trudl if they are often pestered by climbers like us. “Oh, yes,” she says with a grin, “every now and then someone will climb the Eiger and then phone up to ask if it is possible to stop by and meet Anderl. And sometimes we are invited to visit them. Recently we went to see one young man here in Germany who went to the Eiger 15 times before finally succeeding. His town threw him a big party with Anderl as guest of honor.”
I envy this persistent and celebrated German alpinist. The Eiger took me three trips—and the only thing my town has ever given me is a parking ticket.
When we get back to the house, Anderl has returned, and it is time for dinner. Dina and I insist upon taking the Heckmairs out, so we all pile into their car, and Trudl drives us to a quiet little restaurant that doesn’t cater to tourists (no lederhosened accordion players or dirndl- dressed barmaids). The beer, however, is classic Bavarian lager, and we lift our glasses to our new friends.
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Speaking of friends, I feel I must ask the Heckmairs about Heinrich Harrer. Harrer’s well-publicized adventures— particularly his wartime escape from a British POW camp and subsequent journey over the Himalayas into Tibet— have made him an international celebrity. I ask Anderl and Trudl what they think about the upcoming Hollywood adaptation of Harrer’s Tibetan experiences.
“Heini has just rushed off to America to help with some changes to his movie,” Trudl informs us. In fact, this is a polite way of saying that he has been summoned by the film’s producers to help with damage control. “He is a man who likes attention,” she continues, “but now I think it has brought him serious problems.” She is referring, of course, to the recent sensational disclosure that in the years surrounding the Eiger climb, Harrer was an active, card- carrying member of Hitler’s SS. Although Harrer initially denied these charges, journalists, catalyzed by the publicity surrounding the film, unearthed incontrovertible proof: papers and records, some in Harrer’s own handwriting, positively identifying him as an SS man.
Controversy has always surrounded the relationship between the four Eiger climbers and the Nazis. There is no doubt that after the climb the men were used to fan the flames of the nationalistic fervor that gripped Germany prior to the outbreak of World War II. Almost immediately upon their descent they were whisked away by the SS, publicly congratulated by Hitler, and held up to the nation and the world as symbols of Aryan accomplishment and pride. For this, it would be difficult to fault them, since history-making mountaineers of every time and nationality have been similarly feted by their proud governments. But it has been suggested that the motivation to climb the Eiger might have been linked to some promised compensation—or for the specific purpose of advancing a political agenda. Some have gone so far as to accuse the team of climbing under orders from the Reich. Both Heckmair and Harrer have written at length on this subject and have dismissed these theories and accusations as so much bunk. In The White Spider, Harrer’s famous history of the Eiger, he writes, “To ascribe material motives and similar external rewards of success to our climb would be a lie and a slander. Not one of us improved his social position one whit thanks to a mountaineering feat which excited such general admiration.”
Unfortunately for Harrer, history now records that it is he who lied with regard to his “social position.” Membership in Nazi organizations was illegal in his native Austria until March 1938, and he had joined the SA, Hitler’s paramilitary stormtroopers, many years earlier. He apparently joined the SS even before the Eiger climb. Such affiliations cannot avoid casting dark shadows across Harrer’s reputation—and his character.
Despite these revelations, the Heckmairs have great respect for Heinrich Harrer—he has, after all, spent most of his life attempting to focus public attention upon the plights of oppressed peoples, particularly the Tibetans. The Heckmairs feel that his greatest blunder is in not having come clean about his youthful mistakes. As with Kasparek, however, they have clearly been uneasy with Harrer’s penchant for self-promotion over the years, and they cannot hide their bemusement at his current predicament. “Now, I think he finally has more attention than he wants,” Trudl says. For the Heckmairs, there is a lesson here: a person who persists in dancing close to the flame is asking to get burned.
I wonder, however, if the mutual respect between Harrer and Heckmair would have developed if these two men hadn’t survived to such ripe old ages. In fact, in the turbulent months following the Eiger climb, politics and personal vanities conspired to drive a wedge between them. It is clear from nearly all accounts of the Eiger’s first ascent that it was Anderl who cracked this nut, always out in front finding the route, coming to terms with extreme technical difficulties, and drawing upon all his resources during the summit push to keep the team moving upward despite an intense blizzard. But soon after the Eiger ascent the four men were separated, with Harrer and Kasparek sent on tour through Austria, while Heckmair and Vörg were paraded around Germany. Considering the egos involved, it is hardly surprising that in Austria a somewhat different version of the Eiger conquest emerged, a version more generous to Kasparek and Harrer.
Tonight Anderl laughs at the memory; after all, history records a fair version of the events. Kasparek is long gone, and even Harrer, not known for minimizing his own role in anything, recently introduced Anderl to the Dalai Lama as “my life-saver.”
Anderl is also determined to give credit where it is due by making the point that the Eiger ascent was a team effort, and, despite his initial misgivings, he feels the Austrians played a crucial role. “Heini and Kasparek knew the way down,” he says. “They had already climbed the Mittellegi Ridge and gone down the west flank as part of their preparations for the north face.” And so, when Heckmair and his exhausted companions finally crawled onto the Eiger’s summit—at night and in a raging blizzard—it was the Austrians who led them all to safety.
“It was a lucky thing when Wiggerl suggested they should all climb together,” Trudl remarks, and Anderl chuckles his agreement.
And what of Vörg? I had read that he was a casualty of the war, killed on the Eastern Front on the very first day of fighting. But the Heckmairs reveal a chilling detail that elevates this tragedy to a new level. “He was killed by Germans,” Trudl tells us, and her voice is a sad whisper. “He was posted as a sentry to watch a building until a demolition team arrived. But when the flame-throwers finally came, they didn’t know he was there.”
Our dinners arrive, a fabulous spread featuring curried chicken, buttered pasta, fish and shrimp salad. The entrees that the two Eiger veterans have chosen are easily deduced from our physical appearances: Anderl is enjoying a lean portion of fish, while I wolf down the buttered pasta and the curried chicken. It was almost a decade ago that I climbed the Eiger, and the years have not been kind. It has been nearly six decades since Anderl climbed it, and he looks like he could do it again tomorrow. This reminds me of a story.
I ask Anderl if he knows of the American climber Paul Petzoldt. As the venerable Wyoming mountain guide who pioneered the north face route on the Grand Teton—perhaps the closest American equivalent of the Eigerwand—he could be described as sort of a wild-west version of Anderl.
“Yes, Anderl has heard this name,” Trudl says. Petzoldt also came close to making the first ascent of K2 the same year Anderl climbed the Eiger, and the Heckmairs remember this expedition.
I tell them of a dinner I had with Petzoldt several years before. At some point during the meal the topic of the Eiger came up. Petzoldt had never climbed it but always wished that he had. Puffing out my chest and sucking in my gut, I seized the opportunity to mention that I had climbed the Eiger just a few years earlier. No, no, he said, he was talking about the north face. Yes, I insisted, I had climbed the north face. Petzoldt looked me up and down, slumped back into his seat, shook his head sadly, and asked, “So, does everybody climb the Eiger these days?”
Anderl and Trudl get a big kick out of this. Dina, hard- pressed to see the humor in any story that hinges upon my indolent lifestyle, rolls her eyes. I have a point, however: clearly, the Eiger is no longer a climb for just the “cream of the crop.” I suggest to the Heckmairs that modern equipment is a principal reason why these days, a few curds like me are able to float to the top.
“When Anderl climbed the Eiger,” Trudl tells us, “there was not even such a thing as a safety helmet. He kept a folded handkerchief under his cap to protect against falling stones.”
This reminds Anderl of a story.
“Anderl once thought of adapting an Italian army helmet for climbing,” his wife translates, “but first he wanted to make sure that it was strong enough. So he had his brother hit him over the head with an iron bar.” To emphasize the point, Anderl grins and spreads his arms wide. Clearly, we aren’t talking about some dinky little tire-iron here. “His head was O.K.,” Trudl says, “but his neck was sore for weeks!” Now it is Dina and I who are cracking up, and it is Trudl’s turn to roll her eyes a little.
After the meal the Heckmairs invite us back to their home again for a nightcap. Once I have been liquored up a bit, I feel I have an excuse to ask about something I’m not sure is an acceptable topic of conversation among Germans who lived through the war: Adolf Hitler. I am fascinated by the fact that Anderl actually met the man.
“Oh, yes,” Trudl says—and I am relieved that I haven’t offended anyone. “It is quite amazing, really. Many important Party members never met Hitler, and then there is Anderl, a simple mountaineer with no interest in politics, so poor he didn’t even maintain an address, and he met Hitler on more than one occasion.”
In fact, the huge public rally that Hitler used to exploit the Eiger climb as a tremendous accomplishment for the Fatherland was not the first time Anderl came face to face with der Führer, nor, incredibly, was it the most surreal.
Among Anderl’s clients during his early years as a guide was the well-known moviemaker and actress Leni Riefenstahl. As the star of a string of popular mountain- themed motion pictures, Leni possessed both a compelling beauty and a natural athleticism that captivated German audiences. But even these extraordinary outward qualities were eclipsed by an inner measure of ambition: she courted the rich and the powerful with the intensity of a shark prowling a kiddie pool. Eventually, Leni charmed herself into the graces of Hitler himself and was selected by him to make the infamous Nazi propaganda films of the 1934 Nuremberg Rally and the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.
After hiring Anderl for an outing in the Wolkenstein Alps and bonding with him during the epic climb and forced bivouac that followed, Leni managed to convince her resolutely apolitical guide to accompany her to a Party meeting in Nuremberg by promising him free access to the Olympic training facilities in Berlin. With the Eiger fixed firmly in his sights, Anderl, despite his reservations about Nazi politics, could not refuse. While in Nuremberg, Leni was summoned to a late-afternoon tea with Party officials at a local hotel. With Anderl in tow, she was given the seat of honor at Hitler’s table, and Anderl passed the time as anyone suddenly seated near his country’s head of state might: trying to keep a low profile while studying the man. “I could see absolutely nothing so extraordinary about him,” Anderl has said. Eventually, the conversation turned to Leni’s recent mountain adventure. At this point Hitler became agitated and scolded her for risking her life so freely, especially in light of the great “mission” with which he had entrusted her. Leni answered that by hiring an experienced mountain guide—this man Heckmair sitting right here—she had never been in any danger. Anderl froze in mid-bite as every eye in the room suddenly drew a bead on him. Hitler then insisted upon posing to Anderl the most vexing question in mountaineering: “So, why do you do it?”
The reasons that compel a person to climb mountains are such a personal mixture of sensation, emotion and experience that attempting to communicate them satisfactorily to others is a challenge akin to proving the existence of God. And while a flip and meaningless answer like “Because it is there” or “It keeps me out of real trouble” might be enough to pacify a casual friend or relative, it’s not something I would want to try on a room full of Nazis. If I’ve never been able to explain the value of climbing to my own mother, I can’t imagine having to convince Hitler.
Choosing his words carefully, Anderl did his best to explain to the Führer what is gained from a hard climb that cannot be found in a casual walk in the hills. Hitler was intrigued— not about climbing, but by the motivations behind it—and persisted in questioning Anderl throughout the course of the meal. Even when, at last, an aide informed the Leader that his presence was required elsewhere, Anderl was forced to tag along and continue the conversation. The two men moved out onto an outdoor balcony, where, to Anderl’s astonishment, they beheld a massive throng of humanity that cheered and saluted their appearance. Hitler returned the gesture, as did the other Party leaders on the platform. And so it was that for the first time in his life, Anderl Heckmair was obliged to raise his arm reluctantly in the infamous Heil Hitler salute.
“But Anderl still managed to express his disapproval,” Trudl tells us, “and it was a lucky thing for him that no one else noticed. He raised the wrong arm—his left one, which is something of an insult. And then he put his right hand behind his back.” Anderl chuckles while Trudl explains the significance: “In Germany, when you do this, it means you are not being truthful.” In other words, standing at Hitler’s elbow and before a crowd of thousands, Anderl Heckmair did the German equivalent of sticking out his tongue and crossing his fingers.
For the two hours Anderl was forced to stand on the balcony, watching the torchlit mob parade past beneath him, he yearned for the loneliness of the mountains. And the next day, at the political rally, he was gripped with a deep foreboding. Anderl has written, “I felt a kind of shudder in my soul. I understood that something was in motion that was going to sweep everything away with it, but where to I could not tell.”
As Trudl finishes relating this bizarre and extraordinary tale, we all sit silently for a moment. Dina and I are so lost in thought that we barely notice when Trudl gets up to go in search of some photographs. It is Anderl who finally breaks the silence. Nudging his empty glass toward the whiskey bottle, he winks and says, “Schnell! Jetzt ist sie weg!” (“Quick, while she’s gone!”)
Anderl survived World War II by serving as a mountaineering instructor for the army troops. His skills and experience were so valuable that his commanders defied the regulations by refusing to rotate him into the fighting. After the war he made his way back to Oberstdorf and returned to the things he loved most: the mountains and guiding. With the good fortune to have had one of Germany’s richest industrialists as a regular client, Anderl has explored every corner of the globe, leading climbs and treks from the Andes to the Himalaya well into his 80s. And he shows little sign of slowing down.
“At Anderl’s age it is important to keep moving,” Trudl remarks with a grin. “Who knows? If he stops, he may never start up again!” I tell him that I think there is little danger of this any time soon. Anderl laughs and tells another story.
“When he was young, a fortune teller told him he would die an unnatural death,” Trudl explains. “To Anderl, this means he will probably die in bed.” He also wants us to know that the town of Oberstdorf honored him on his 90th birthday by making him an Honorary Citizen. “Because of this,
he gets two things,” Trudl says. “First, he doesn’t have to pay any city taxes. This is very nice, except his age already exempts him from these taxes.”
“And the second?” I ask. Trudl smiles. “They gave him a cemetery plot.” As his laughter fills the room, I can’t decide which of these honors is more useless to Anderl Heckmair. With time growing short and the whiskey running low, I feel that the moment has come when I must say to Anderl Heckmair the thing I have come all this way to tell him. Taking a deep breath, I blurt out, “I want Anderl to understand what an important man he has been in my life.”
As when we first arrived, Anderl’s modesty forces him to instinctively try to get past this comment by waving me off and joking self-importantly, “Yes, I am very proud, very proud!”
But I persist. “The life Anderl has led, his climbs and his philosophies when a young man reads about these things and decides that these are the examples that he will follow, it can have a very profound and positive influence. It can lead a person on a very good path through life—and I really want to thank him for this.”
Anderl fidgets and listens uncomfortably as Trudl translates. But when he finally responds, two things are clear: he appreciates my desire to express these feelings, and he really is proud.
“Anderl says that you are making him choked-up.”
Before we say goodbye, Trudl smiles and hands me the dreaded copy of Kasparek’s autobiography. “In Germany, when you give someone a book, you must write something in it and sign it.”
I couldn’t disagree more. The unique history these men shared, from the landmark climb that brought them together, to the differing ideologies that kept them apart, seems to dictate that the pages of this particular book remain free of sentiment—especially from the likes of me.
But the Heckmairs are insistent. And so I find myself— as obscure a mountaineer as ever put pen to paper—in the awkward and unsettling position of having to compose a line of presentation to the man who first led the Eiger, in a book written by the one member of the team who probably never came to terms with this fact. Before my glasses can fog again, I manage to scribble an inscription that not only expresses my admiration at such a lifetime of unsurrendered potential, but that Fritz himself, had he lived to gain the wisdom and perspective of old age, might also have written:
“To Anderl, who showed us the way.”