Excerpted from Conquistadors of the Useless: From the Alps to Annapurna
The immense north wall of the Eiger, better known as the Eigerwand, is the highest, most famous, and most deadly mountain face in the whole of the Alps. Its black and slippery crags rise 5,000 feet sheer out of the fertile pastures above Grindelwald, in the heart of the Bernese Oberland. Today it has been climbed some twenty or more times, at the cost of as many lives, but in 1946 it had still only been scaled once. Repeated attempts resulted in the deaths of eight men before an AustroGerman party succeeded in climbing it in 1938, after a desperate three-day struggle. Their victory was probably the greatest feat in the history of the Alps.
Even the Eigerwand has now been to some extent surpassed in the continuing development of mountaineering. It has been climbed in one day by Waschak and Forstenlechner, and quite recently an AustroGerman party of four performed the almost incredible feat of doing it in winter. Only on the highest summits in the world can modern tigers find adversaries worthy of their prowess. But nevertheless this wall will always occupy so important a place in the annals of man’s conquest of the mountains that it seems to me impossible to put the second ascent in its context without telling the epic story of the first.
The face is composed of a dark limestone, hardly relieved by its few bands of ice. It begins at around 7,500 feet in the pastures above Alpiglen and rises with scarcely a break in its appalling savagery to the summit of the Eiger, at 13,039 feet. The lower third consists of ledges and short walls of no especial difficulty, and near the top part of this zone are the two windows of the Jungfraujoch railway which spirals up inside the mountain. The more easterly of the windows is called the Eigerwand Station: the other, called the Stollenloch, is simply a chute for rubbish from the tunnel.
The first major obstacle is a very high cliff of smooth limestone, highest at the righthand end where it is called the Rote Flüh. Immediately to the left of its lowest part is an ice slope of medium steepness, separated from a much larger and steeper ice slope above by a vertical wall. Running down the wall between the two is a narrow, icy gully. Above the ice fields stands an enormous vertical cliff called the Gelbewand, and above this again, where the face becomes markedly concave, is another ice slope called the Spider. This is linked to the summit by a system of steep couloirs, the most noticeable of which comes up slightly to the left of the highest point.
It will be seen that the face presents uninterrupted difficulties, and that the Rote Flüh and the Gelbewand in particular are major obstacles. Yet, although these two sections are made severe by the quality of the rock, at once so loose and so compact that it is difficult to put in pitons, the Eigerwand would never have merited its reputation on these factors alone. First among several other hazards are the objective dangers, variable from day to day. Stones of all sizes fall from the mouldering summit slopes down the great central hollow of the face, bounce over the Gelbewand and sweep the ice fields and the lower crags. They are impossible to predict or avoid.
Less spectacular but also very important is the succession of cliffs and ice slopes the whole way up the face. These latter melt during the warm part of the day and gush over the rocks, turning the chimneys and gullies below into veritable waterfalls. This of itself would be no more than a minor inconvenience, but, as the wall is high and north facing, the hours of warmth are short, and the rest of the time the water freezes into a real armour plating of ice all over the rock. In such conditions even easy pitches can become extremely severe or even impossible, and only the finest climbers, accustomed to climbing in crampons, stand a chance of getting up them safely.
Finally, the fact that the difficulties are sustained over more than 3,000 feet of rock and ice means that candidates have to load themselves down with bivouac and other equipment, thus tiring themselves out and slowing down their progress. This was another great obstacle to the original ascent. Allowing for the sake of argument that the climb was technically possible, it would still require several days, and to remain so long on such an inhuman wall involved immense risks. A rope caught by bad weather would have its work cut out to get off alive, because at the first fall of snow the avalanches sweep down across the entire face.
It will be seen that the north face of the Eiger is defended by an extraordinary accumulation of difficulties and dangers. Few will deny that its reputation for inaccessibility, which had grown over the years, was well merited. Yet these very barriers, by defending it successfully against all comers, grew into positive attractions for those who sought high adventure. From all over Europe the mountaineering elite gathered to lay siege.
A party from Munich made the first assault in 1929. In 1934 three Germans got as far as Eigerwand Station before the leader fell, and they were saved by ropes dropped to them from the window. The first serious attempt, and one of the most remarkable, was made by two daring Bavarian climbers, Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmayer. They had done a number of the hardest climbs in the northern limestone Alps, but this was their first visit to the really big ranges. They launched their attack in perfect weather on Wednesday 11 August, mounting quickly as far as the foot of the Rote Flüh, where they proceeded to force directly the enormous featureless wall below the first ice field. This prodigious exploit, which still earns the admiration of connoisseurs, took up a whole day of extremely difficult climbing. Although the difficulties were less after their first bivouac the two climbers must have been tired, moving so slowly that they did not reach the second ice field until Thursday afternoon. There the stonefalls were so frequent that they had to stop and bivouac again. That night a violent storm broke over the mountain, followed by snow and heavy frost. By dawn the face was plastered with snow and black ice, rendering it completely out of condition, and it remained masked in cloud all day so that it was impossible to know what was happening. On Saturday the mists cleared for a moment around noon, when the two were spotted on the small spur which limits the left end of the large ice field, but soon their agonies were hidden again from the eyes of the world. Their corpses were carried down by the winter avalanches and later found by parties searching for yet other victims. Two pitons now marked the new borders of the unknown. But the tragic ending of the story did not discourage others from trying their chances, and the early summer of 1936 found three more German ropes at Scheidegg. Weather and conditions were not at first conducive to an all-out attempt, so the six men set up camp and spent their time reconnoitering the face and getting fit on other mountains. In a sense the Eigerwand thus indirectly claimed a third victim when Teufel was killed on a training climb. Despite the almost incessant bad weather the four who remained made several reconnaissances, in the course of which they carried loads up to the foot of the Rote Flüh and in particular found an easier way up it. During one of these explorations a climber fell 120 feet, but landed on snow and did not hurt himself. It may be as well to introduce these four young men, who were shortly to die in one of the most terrible of all mountain dramas. The first rope consisted of two young Bavarians. Toni Kurz was a professional guide who had done a number of first ascents in the eastern Alps, and Andreas Hinterstoisser had been his constant companion. Their biggest climb had been the north face of the Cima Grande. They formed a strong party in themselves, capable of confronting the most difficult rock climbs. Unfortunately the same could not be said about their two Austrian companions, Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer from Innsbruck. There is no doubt that they were competent climbers, but not yet having done any big ascents they were hardly qualified to tackle the Eigerwand.
The weather appeared to change at last, and both parties set out at 2 a.m. on 18 July under a sky full of stars. Moving quickly, they soon reached the foot of the Rote Flüh, where Hinterstoisser led them up the new and cunning route they had discovered. This involved a very difficult overhanging crack, followed by a daring tension traverse to the left. Having reached the first snowfield in good time they took five hours to climb the short wall separating it from the second, and installed their bivouac at seven o’clock in the evening. They had climbed a good half of the face that day. If the difficulties became no greater they had every chance of reaching the summit.
During the night the weather started to change, and heavy clouds began to trail across the face. No doubt because of this dubious outlook the party did not set out from the bivouac until 6.45 a.m., cutting steps slowly across the ice field towards the left. The fog grew thicker and thicker until the watchers on the Kleine Scheidegg lost sight of the climbers. Not until the following morning could the second bivouac site be seen: it was almost exactly the same as that used by Sedlmayer and Mehringer. Nobody could understand why progress had been so slow on the second day, and it was generally supposed that the party must be exhausted and would therefore retreat. At eight o’clock in the morning, however, the men were observed advancing once more. After a few hours they turned back, and it could be seen that one of them had a wound on the head.1 The first bivouac site had almost been reached when further clouds obscured it from view.
A clearing at about 5 p.m. revealed the party descending the wall between the two ice fields. All due precautions were being taken, and two men were looking after the injured one, so that it was not until nine o’clock at night that they reached the lower ice field.
By the following morning the weather was definitely bad, and it rained and snowed abundantly. Voices could be heard on the face from dawn onwards, and at 11 a.m. the four men were seen at the foot of the first ice field. At noon the stationmaster climbed out of the Stollenloch and heard the party in action some 600 feet above him. Thinking that they would be descending to the observation gallery, he went off and made tea. As they still did not arrive, he went out again and managed to make contact with them by shouting. They said they were all safe and sound. Two hours later he tried again, but this time there was nothing to be heard but cries of distress. He therefore telephoned the Eigergletscher Station for a rescue party, where the guides Hans Schlunegger and Christian and Adolf Rubi happened to be on the spot and were quickly sent up on a special train. That day the three guides reached a point about 300 feet below Toni Kurz, who was half hanging from a rope, half holding himself on to the vertical face by small holds. He called down that he was the sole survivor and that as he had no more pitons he could descend no further. In this terrible position he passed his fourth night on the wall. Next morning the rescue party set out again at 4 a.m., augmented by the guide Arnold Glatthard, and reached the foot of the Rote Flüh. Kurz was tied on some 120 feet above them, and they had no trouble in speaking to him. He called out:
‘I’m the only one left. Rainer died of cold higher up, Hinterstoisser fell off last night, and Angerer’s hanging on the rope strangled.’
Kurz then carried out a series of tasks at the behest of his rescuers that gave proof of his exceptional toughness and courage. His only chance was to free the rope to which he was tied, so that he could then pull up pitons and a rope to rappel on. To this end he descended as far as Angerer, who was hanging some forty feet lower down, cut him clear, then climbed back up the rope to the tiny stance he had just left. Despite his frostbitten hands he spent several hours untangling the forty feet of rope he had thus recovered, joining it to the rest until it was long enough to lower for the equipment he needed. After six hours of perseverance he was finally able to start sliding down the rope, and it seemed that the incredible was about to come true. He had almost descended to the point where it would have been possible to reach him with an ice axe when all movement ceased, his arms opened, and his head fell back. Toni Kurz was dead, after having fought for his life with almost superhuman energy.
Nobody will ever know what happened between the stationmaster’s second and third tours of inspection. Probably the party tried and failed to get back across the Hinterstoisser traverse, and was attempting a direct descent when it was hit by falling stones. The climbers may have all been knocked off, but held by the pitons through which their ropes were passed.
After the dramatic endings of the early attempts it might have been believed that the Eigerwand was indeed unclimbable, yet the best climbers of the time were more or less unanimous in considering it possible. One thing, however, was certain: a successful party would need all-around technique, indomitable energy and plenty of luck.
The siege began again the following summer. Germans, Italians and Swiss contenders appeared, and it is no exaggeration to suggest that some ten ropes were seriously interested. In spite of the Federal Council’s fatuous decision to make the climb illegal, numerous climbers were prowling around the foot of the face, and a veritable competition began as in the case of the north face of the Grandes Jorasses not long before.
It has been said that the German, Italian and Austrian climbers were not motivated solely by sporting considerations. This will always remain a vexed subject, and there is no doubt that certain parties were subsidized. It is even probable that the eventual victors were rewarded. But everyone who actually knows the great German and Italian climbers is nowadays of the opinion that political and material considerations played no vital part in the affair, any more than they did in the ascents of the other last great problems. More than twenty years after the first ascent, when there is no longer any possibility of profit, glory or political prestige, young climbers continue to come from every country in search of pure adventure, whatever the risk. The true explanation of the swarms of candidates must be sought rather in the high level of technique already attained at that time in the eastern Alps, and in the warlike and adventurous instincts of the German race. This species of daring was very rare in those days among French mountaineers.
Excerpted with permission from Conquistadors of the Useless: From the Alps to Annapurna, by Lionel Terray (Vertebrate Publishing, 2020).
Lionel Terray was one of the greatest mountaineers of his time. A major figure in the French post-war climbing scene, he was at the centre of global mountaineering at a time when Europe was emerging from the shadow of the Second World War and seemed to be at the centre of every major new initiative of his era. Terray was born in Grenoble in 1921. Drawn to the mountains, he was climbing by the age of twelve (against the wishes of his mother, who said ‘I shall be happy for you to go into any sport except motor-cycling and climbing’) and
competing in national skiing competitions by twenty. He would go on to climb with mountaineering legends Gaston Rébuffat, Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal and become involved with major first ascents across the globe. These included the first ascents of Annapurna —the first 8,000-meter peak to be climbed—and Makalu in the Himalaya, and FitzRoy and Huantsam in South America. He also spent time working in Canada and became a major pioneer in North American climbing, making the first ascent of Alaska’s Mount Huntington. Closer to home, he made the second ascent of the North Face of the Eiger and was noted for the speed of his climbs, making quick ascents of some of the most notorious routes in the Alps, including the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses, and the north-east face of Piz Badile. Terray died in 1965, in a climbing accident in the Vercors with his Mount Huntington partner Marc Martinetti. He is buried in Chamonix.