The renowned North Face of the Eiger makes the mountain one of the most talked about mountains in the world, inpsiring adventurers and spawning movies like the Eiger Sanction, starring Clint Eastwood and classic mountaineering books like White Spider, by Heinrich Harrer.
Height: 3970 m (13020 feet)
First Climbed: 1858 (Charles Barrington, Christian Almer, Peter Bohren)
Climb Time: 1 - 2 days
Best Season to Climb: July & August
Introduction to the Eiger
Many climbers have made the climb to the top of this impressive mountain which stands at 3,970 meters (13,020 feet) in the region of the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland. It has captivated mountaineers since the first, and very notable, ascent. As a striking mountain from all sides, the climb is definitely worth it regardless of which of the many routes that you decide to take. None of the routes is a walk in the park and they all require a certain degree of skills to navigate but the easiest route of them all is by the West Side and West Ridge which is very similar in terms of technicality to the Hörnli route on the Matterhorn. The first successful ascent of the Eiger was way back in 1858 on the western side.
History of The Eiger
The north face of the Eiger is feared and revered by climbers and it towers over the Swiss town of Grindelwald below. With a status synonymous with danger and extreme alpine climbing the conditions on this face are frequentlly less than ideal. The Eiger certainly has gained a reputation as being a cruel mistress in the mountaineering world, where many precarious situations have unfolded over the years on this perilous mountain face resulting in an untimely death for even the most skilled of climbers.
In fact the area is very popular with tourism in part because of this and the surrounding area caters for tourists and outdoor enthusiasts of all levels and all pockets!
The Eiger is a German name which translates to Ogre and the terrain of the North Side is particularly steep, prone to adverse weather and is almost continuously in the shade, even during the summer months. These conditions create alternating sections of difficult ice and rock climbing which are notorious for not being the sturdiest terrains on a mountain that climbers have to deal with. The brave mountaineer who attempts to scale the 6,000 foot Nordwand wall has to navigate the area with precision to avoid the regular occurrences of rock falls. Climbers wishing to avoid such perilous conditions sometimes opt to climb in colder conditions because the rocks are frozen in situ and are less likely to break away and cause problems for climbers.
The first direct route up the north face was first climbed in 1938 but there have been over 50 fatalities since the first attempt to ascend this Ogre! The first attempt to reach the highest point on the north face was made by Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmayer in 1935 but their attempt was thwarted due to adverse weather conditions and in fact they didn’t make it back, with their bodies being located several weeks later. In the years that followed, many similar stories unfolded but perhaps none as tragic as the story in 1936. A group of young climbers which included Edi Ranier, Andreas Hinterstoisser, Toni Kurz and Willy Angerer embarked on a journey to climb the north face. A potential route to the Eiger summit was created by Hinterstoisser but the path could not be completed in reverse unless there was a rope securely in place. After the group encountered a brutal storm on the mountain, they could not retrace their steps and follow the same route back down the mountain. All four of the group perished, including Toni Kurz who was just a few feet away from a team of rescuers when he also died while abseiling down the mountain.
The rescue team tried with all their might to reach the stranded climber through the window which was situated on the face from a railway tunnel that runs directly through the mountain itself. Tragically a knot in the rope stopped him from reaching the rescue team and his fingers were frozen so he was not able to use his hands to free himself. Despite his pleas not to be left alone, the rescue team had to retreat for the night before returning the next morning. When they did return, Toni Kurz was so weak and the rescue team heard him mutter the words ‘I cannot go on’ before he died just moments away from safety.
First ascent of the North Face
In 1938 a group that included two Germans Ludwig Vorg and Anderl Heckmair and two Austrians, Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek embarked on what was to become the first successful climb to the summit via the North Face. After the trip, Harrer wrote a book ‘The White Spider’ named after a prominent ice field close to the summit and the book became an instant hit and classic in the mountaineering world.
In 1957, another notable climb was recorded by an Italian, Claudo Corti who was the only person to survive from the team of four climbers after he was rescued and taken to safety from the summit. British climbers Don Whillans and Chris Bonington in 1962 arrived to help Brian Nalley whose partner had perished in a rock fall. Chris Bonington featured a number of times in the history of the Eiger, and was involved in a notable event in 1966 when an additional route was tested during the winter. Making use of their expedition knowledge, they installed fixed ropes as the navigated up the mountain in the hope that the descent would be much easier.
Chris Bonington participated in a media event to cover the climb of the Eiger it transpired that he too joined the team on their expedition. However, this climb was also marred by tragedy as the group were about to reach their goal. An American Climber John Harlin who played a pivotal role in the creation of the direct route fell almost 5,000 feet because one of the ropes he was using snapped. The climb was subsequently named after Harlin as a dedication to his memory and the climb was not attempted again until four years after his death.
Perhaps one of the most successful mountaineers in history, Reinhold Messner has climbed all fourteen of the world’s 8,000 meter mountains, and he has ascended the classic route at a staggering speed, making the first ascent of the Eiger on the north side.
The North Wall of the Eiger has witnessed so many eventful climbs that it has been named ‘Death Wall’ and to this day it continues to draw crowds of voyeurs as well as a few brave climbers.
The First Ascent of the Eiger
The Eiger is infact not a difficult mountain to climb by the normal route. Its eventful history of the Eiger goes right back to the 1800s and 1858 in particular with the first successful ascent. Although, very little is known about the first climb to the summit which was completed on the 11th August 1858 using the West side and West Ridge. The journey was made by an Irishman, Charles Barrington who was accompanied by two Grindelwald guides, Peter Bohren and Christian Almer. It should be noted however that Charles Barrington was not an avid adventurer or mountaineer; in fact after spending this one summer climbing the Eiger he never returned to the region again.
The only written account of the ascent in 1858 was recorded in a letter written by Charles Barrington to his brother, 24 years after he climbed the mountain and it was published in the English Alpine Journal and the letter has been printed in full in the publication ‘Eiger, The Vertical Arena’.
Some people believed that Charles Barrington only had two choices; he could either climb the Eiger or the Matterhorn, but he opted for the Eiger because he could not afford to ascend the Matterhorn, while others say that he chose the Eiger because he was there at the time, but no one really knows of his motivations behind the choice to ascend to the summit of the Eiger.
Charles Barrington had, by chance met another two mountaineers and it was noted that he had remarked on what he had done so far in the alps wasn’t particularly challenging. The climbers taunted Barrington and challenged him to the Eiger or the Matterhorn so he took their challenge and decided to try the Eiger because he was in Grindelwald at the time. After he had completed the climb of the Eiger, he did not have any more money to climb the Matterhorn too so he returned home.
The climb itself wasn’t easy; the group started their expedition at 15:00 hours from Wengen, reaching the summit at around noon, stayed at the summit for around ten minutes before making the descent back to Grindelwald in around four hours as the weather worsened.
The route that they followed is very similar to the one that is followed today, remaining close to the edge of the North Face the majority of the way. Once the group had made the successful descent, thirty or so people met the group at the bottom of the mountain where the ascent to the summit was confirmed through observing the flag that the team had left on the summit.
TREKKING AND WALKING AROUND GRINDELWALD
The area around the beautiful an bustling community of Grindelwald is rich in walking trails, with 300 kilometres of alpine paths. It is the perfect base to explore not only the scenery in the shadow of the Eiger but also many other walks around the and Jungfrau and Mönch.
Among the most intriguing walks are the Eiger Trail which sticks closely to this intimidating rock face as well as a picturesque walk up to the Kleine Scheidegg, taking in views of the Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch. There are also some wonderful trails to and from Bachalpsee, a mountain lake with truly spectacular views of the surrounding mountainscape.
Climbing the Jungfrau is also a fantastic reward for the mountain lover in this region. The Jungfrau has long stood out as another iconic alpine peak, one of the earliest to high alpine peaks to be climbed, back in 1811.
There is also plenty to keep you amused in Grindelwald which has rich tourist history.
Climbing Routes on the Eiger
The West Flank and West Ridge
The journey to the summit using this route will take approximately six hours to ascend and then a further three to four hours to descend. Considered to be one of the easier routes, the West Flank and West Ridge still presents its own challenges. Climbers should note that route finding on the lower sections of the route can be quite challenging particularly during the descent if the climbing group have not used this route to ascend. Although it is not technically difficult, the route can be especially tricky during adverse weather conditions. Climbers on this route will follow in the footsteps of the first people to ascend to the summit of the Eiger in 1858, a team including Charles Barrington, Christian Almer and Peter Bohren.
This route has evolved considerably since the route was first used in 1938, with many of the newer routes ending up on the West Ridge or North East Face. Many climbers however still follow the traditional 1938 route. Over the years, the terrain has changed somewhat after snow and ice has melted away to reveal an almost clear face on the mountain. If you find the north face in reasonable condition, the main difficulties that you will encounter include its length and prolonged commitment. The route is approximately 2,500 meters in total with a mixture of traversing and negotiation of steep rocky sections. Ice axes and crampons are a necessity due to the extreme temperatures and verglas. Maintaining a good pace is important on this route so too is ensuring that you keep safety at the forefront of your decisions and planning.
As the most well known and used route on the Eiger, it features a spectacular knife edge ridge which provides ideal conditions for climbing without the dangers associated with some of the other routes. The climb through to the summit will take between four and eight hours from the Mittelegi Hut. This ridge was first climbed by Yuko Maki, Fritz Amatter, Samuel Brawand and Fritz Steuri on the 10th September 1921. The climb to the summit taking the Mittellegi Ridge route takes approximately two days from the starting point of Grindelwald. Day one of the expedition is rather short, where climbers will take the cog railway to the Eismeer station on the mountain, before passing over a short area of glacier before some rock climbing before reaching the Bivouac hut at the foot of the ridge. The three areas of rock climbing just before the glacier will include some of the most difficult sections of the route in terms of technicality. The climb will begin an hour before the sun rises which will provide enough time for the long descent, but it is important not to start the climb too early because it can prove more difficult navigating in darkness. The rest of the route will follow the ridge crest while navigating many of the towers on route. Once you have reached the summit, descending is completed via the South Ridge or West Flank.
Ascending the Eiger via the South Ridge will take climbers approximately seven to nine hours and then six to seven hours to descend. When it is not possible to use the Mittellegi Route, the South Ridge is an ideal alternative particularly through the middle of July and early September. Although it is still a serious climb, it offers a number of technicalities such as rock pitches and steep snow. The duration of this route is between seven and nine hours with six to seven hours allowed for the descent. Technically easier than the Mittellegi route and can offer a safer option too. The route will begin at the Jungfraujoch railway followed by a brief hike across upper Jungfraufirn which will take climbers to the Monchsjoch Hutte where they should spend the night. The next day will begin early passing by the South Eigerjoch before the climb becomes more challenging up to the summit.