The North Face of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland is synonymous with extremity, hardship and danger. Nicknamed Mordwand (‘Murder Face’ in German) it witnessed the death of over 50 climbers who attempted its towering 1,800 metre face since 1935. The Eiger’s North Face is considered one of the ultimate challenges in alpine mountaineering.
The first succesful ascent was achieved by a quartet of climbers from Austria and Germany. Among them was Heinrich Harrer, the unparallelled Austrian skier, climber and explorer who is known by most from his book Seven Years in Tibet. Despite of being surprised by an avalanche near the summit, the four managed to brace themselves and came out unhurt. The ascent took them four days and three nights, during which they bivouacked on the fearsome face by hanging suspended from ropes or crouching on small rock ledges. In his magnificent book The White Spider Harrer describes this miraculous first ascent, as well as giving gripping reports of all the Eiger attempts from 1935 until 1963.
Despite of that first victory and many subsequent ones, the shadow of death was never far from the mighty face. The first pair to seriously attempt the ascent froze to death at 3000 metres altitude. A year later in 1936 a party of four perished while trying to descend down the face after bad weather conditions marred their journey upward. Three of them fell to their deaths, while the fourth tragically and dramatically died mere inches away from his rescuers. A knot in the rescuing rope did not fit through his snap-link and his last frantic efforts proved fatal: he died of sheer exhaustion. Countless tragedies followed, yet the Eiger’s fearsome reputation kept calling on the bravest of souls to pit their skills against it.
Not only its frightening steepness and its tremendously difficult pitches, but also and especially the constant bombardment by stone and rock breaking off from the face and its unpredictable avalanches higher up near the summit have made the Eiger into the supreme test for the world’s most qualified climbers. The weather poses another formidable and ever-unpredictable foe. Many have had to beat a retreat when one of the Eiger’s notorious storms set in. That climbing the Eiger’s North Face is no summer picnick shows clearest in the shared vow by all those who reached its summit that they would never climb it a second time. It is considered a once in a lifetime experience.
One should read Harrer’s book to get a true and first-hand glimpse of the arduous and frightening, yet life-changing and illumining experience of mountain climbing. Overcoming the obstacles and challenges encountered on the face brings courage, responsibility and wisdom and make the mountaineer into a more complete and competent human being. As Harrer himself writes,
“My memory of the Eiger’s face has often given me the strength, the patience and the confidence to cope with apparently hopeless and dangerous situations, and helped me to believe in life at times when all the circumstances seemed most hostile to life itself. ” Heinrich Harrer
Abhinabha Tangerman is a marathon runner from The Hague, The Netherlands. He enjoys writing both prose and poetry and loves newness and adventure. He is a member of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team http://www.srichinmoyraces.org/