EigerNordwand graphic
The North Face of the Eiger

Latest News — Monday, August 24, 1998 5 pm (PST)
While the climbers were able to get in some good climbing in the Alps, it looks as though the Eiger is not going to happen this time. [Click for the Latest Update]

If conditions permit in the next few days, Americans Brent Bishop of Bozeman, Montana, and Jim Howe of Salt Lake City, Utah will make an attempt on this the most fearsome of all Alpine routes. If not, they'll retreat and climb another day.

Brent Bishop
"I've been fascinated by the lore of the Eiger since I was old enough to read," Bishop said in a recent Mountain Zone interview, "but I'm not ready to commit suicide. We had hoped to go earlier in July or later in September, but couldn't make that work. Our window will be from mid-August until the end of August. Many ascents have been made during that time frame, so if the face comes into shape while we're there, we'll go for it."

"It's got everything, rock climbing, ice climbing, mixed climbing, ice-coated rocks, bad rock and it's very committing... For me the climb is irresistible..."
"What got me really excited was when my father (Barry Bishop who, in 1963, was among the first Americans to climb Everest) took me to see the Eiger Sanction. I knew dad was an old mountaineer, but the Eiger to me was real climbing. It was death-defying. Then reading about it, seeing the photos of Toni Kurz hanging from the face, or [Lionel] Terray and [Louis] Lachenal making the second ascent, it's always fascinated me," Bishop said. "I think the wall remains a test piece for accomplished climbers. Even climbers like Don Whillans, Reinhold Messner, Mark Twight, they've all said it's one of the scariest climbs they've ever done. And this from a route with maybe 5.8 moves."

Bishop ticked off what makes the Eiger so intimidating, even today. "It's huge, with 6,000 feet of climbing, it's a north face so it's exposed to bad weather, and being concave, it creates a micro-climate that can make for really awful weather. And it's got everything, rock climbing, ice climbing, mixed climbing, ice-coated rocks, bad rock and it's very committing. It's got the whole alpine package wrapped up in one climb. For me the climb is irresistible, it has a storied past, it's aesthetic looking, it's scary looking, and you're following in the footsteps of great alpine climbers," he said.

Bishop will attempt the face with Howe, 46, a veteran climber who has spent the past two years climbing in the Alps and is a veritable amateur Eiger historian.

Jim Howe
"For both of us, this in an historical thing," Howe told The Mountain Zone from his home in Salt Lake City, Utah. 'I grew up wanting to do the Eiger because of all those books I read as a kid — The White Spider and the rest. As I got older, even though I'm past that point technically, the Eiger North Face still holds real meaning. It's the epitome of alpinism. It's interesting that a lot of climbers are still afraid of it, it retains its deadly ambience."

Howe climbs mostly in the Rockies (he and Bishop met while guiding in the Tetons) but has climbed extensively in Alaska. He put a new route up on the West Face of Peak 11,300 in the Ruth Glacier. He's an alpine specialist who just spent two years living and climbing in Europe. This will be his first Eiger climb, although he did do the North Face of the Lauteraarhorn, a bigger peak in the Bernese Oberland not far from the Eiger.

Left to right: the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau
[click to zoom]  photo: Sara Machlin
"Conditions are going to be critical," Howe said. "The Eiger is very changeable, one week it will go, the next it will be impossible. Our timing isn't great, but ascents are still made in mid-August in some years, and we're hoping this is one of those years." Howe said he and Bishop will fly to Zurich, then make the two-hour drive to Grindelwald. They will try to observe the face for a day or two before making a decision on whether to climb it. The Mountain Zone will post their dispatches, whether they are able to make the climb or not.

"I've been fascinated by the lore of the Eiger since I was old enough to read but I'm not ready to commit suicide..."
As for the climb itself, Bishop said he and Howe plan to do the route in two days, with one bivouac. The one thing they must have is sufficiently cold conditions to limit rockfall. They plan to go lightweight: no stoves (meltwater should provide drinking water) and bivy sacks, but probably not sleeping bags. They plan to take just one pair of rock slippers (they wear the same size shoes); enabling them to trade off, so the leader won't have to lead in boots but they still save weight. The climbers plan to take a substantial rack although Bishop anticipates significant fixed pro on the face. The pair will use two ice tools each for the ice fields, and climb on double Black Diamond 8.1 mm ropes.

What it means to attempt the Eiger
Tomorrow, Bishop and Howe will stand at the bottom of one of the most feared faces in the world. There to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first climb, the two will face a crucial decision — whether to attempt to climb the crumbling bastion, which has long occupied a storied place in mountaineering history.

Grindelwald Café Scene
The Eiger Nordwand (north face) holds a unique place in mountaineering legend. Last of the great north faces of the Alps to be climbed — after the North Face of the Matterhorn and the Grand Jorasses — it was for a century considered unclimbable. Eiger translates to ogre, and this huge, gnarly north face of the Bernese Oberland has lived up to its name by killing the first nine climbers who attempted it. The landmarks of the face: the Difficult Crack, the Swallows Nest, the Death Bivouac, the Hinterstoisser Traverse, the Ramp, the Traverse of the Gods, the Spider, the Exit Cracks are by now indelibly burned into the fabric of climbing history.

The face was first climbed in 1938 by a group of four Germans and Austrians that included Heinrich Harrer. In the sixty years since it has been the scene of a dozen now famous epics, and has claimed more than 50 lives. And although the reality of helicopter rescue has since the mid-'70s removed the do-or-die commitment the face once demanded, it remains a serious undertaking.

Conditions are everything on the Eiger, where rockfall can prove even more deadly than the lethal difficulties of the rock and ice that make up the crumbling 6,000-foot face. Freezing nighttime temperatures are necessary for a safe ascent, assuring the loose rocks remain frozen in place for long enough each morning to allow climbers to reach the relative safety of a handful of protected bivouac sites.

Peter Potterfield, Mountain Zone Editor

The North Face
[click to zoom]

Just the Facts



Eiger means ogre in German.

6000 feet of concave, "rotten limestone hung with snow and icefields, hidden in mist and clouds, wracked by furious storms, frequently swept by avalanches of snow and rotten rock." — An English Mountaineer

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In July, 1938, Heinrich Harrer, Fritz Kasparek, Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vorg climbed into history in what became an arduous week-long epic. The men were stalked by death until the very end of the climb when consecutive avalanches nearly ripped them from the face. Heckmair led every pitch, exhausting himself physically and psychologically, and Harrer, who had no crampons, climbed last. All four men become national heroes in Austria and Germany and although Heckmair said Hitler gave them medals, Harrer denied it.

The renowned French climbing partnership of Lionel Terray and Louis Lachenal made the second ascent of the Eiger Nordwand in 1947, almost 10 years later. Terray's famous variant bypasses the dreaded, freezing waterfall pitch on thin rock holds. After the climb, Terray says, "I would never repeat it."

1981: Uehli Buhler soloed the 1938 route in 8.5 hours.

There have been dozens of tragedies on the Eiger Nordwand since the early attempts in the 1930's. A total recounting of Eiger climbs requires a book, and several have been written. A few of the highlights include:

The Death Bivouac: Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmayer are killed in 1935 attempting the first ascent; this tragedy gives the Death Bivouac its name and the face its reputation as a killer.

The Hinterstoisser Traverse: In 1936, the Austrian-German four man rope of Edi Rainer, Willy Angerer, Andreas Hinterstoisser (the man whose brilliant traverse opened the way to the First Icefield) and Toni Kurz died trying to become the first party up the face. Kurz perished just beyond the outstretched arms of his would-be rescuers, who tried to reach him via one of the train tunnel windows that open onto the face from inside the mountain. His body hung from ropes for months in plain view of tourists manning the telescopes on the hotel patio at Kleine Scheidegg at the base of the Eiger.

An Epic Rescue: In 1957, two separate two-man ropes met on the wall and climbed on together. Rock fall and exhaustion left Italians Stefano Longhi and Claudio Corti trapped high on the face near the Exit Cracks. Longhi eventually died on the face, his body hanging grotesquely from the anchoring ropes that held him. Corti was saved in an epic rescue that involved a cable-and-winch system and more than 30 climbers from all over Europe. The Germans, Franz Mayer and Gunter Northduff, climb on and actually reached the top only to die tragically near the summit from avalanche or exhaustion. Mayer and Northduff's bodies though were not discovered until years later, making for a prolonged mystery and even outrageous accusations that the Italians had killed them.

A British Calamity: In 1962, Brian Nally and Barry Brewster had reached the Second Icefield when Brewster was struck by falling rocks. He eventually died, and Nally, who was also injured, tied his partner's body with fixed ropes to the Icefield. (Brewster's body later fell, and some horrified telescope voyeurs at Kliene Schiedegg said the stricken climber had come to, struggled with the ropes holding him to the mountain, and then fell though this version was never confirmed.)

Just then, the famous British climbing pair, Chris Bonnington and Don Whillans, arrived in their own attempt to become the first U.K. climbers to do the Eiger Nordwand. Their climb turned into a rescue of Nally, who had become disoriented by his ordeal. Pelted by rock fall, Whillans and Bonnington struggled with how to get Nally down alive, knowing that, given his condition, they could not reverse the Hinterstoisser Traverse.

Whillans, the well-loved and now legendary British blue collar climber, saved the day with an inspired piece of deductive reasoning and route finding: he guessed that they could rappel directly from the Second Icefield to the start of the Hinterstoisser, thereby obviating the need to reverse the traverse. Bonnington was skeptical, but there was no other choice, and down Whillans went. He arrived exactly where he predicted, saving not only Nally but dozens of future climbers who used Whillans brilliant reverse-routefinding idea to save their own hides.

The John Harlin Direct: American climbing great John Harlin was killed in 1966 near the end of a months-long siege to climb the first direct route on the face—straight from the bottom to the top, in winter, when objective danger is reduced. Harlin died when the 7 mm rope on which he was jumaring parted. Teammate and Scottish climber Dougal Haston finished the route with a group of German climbers a few days later, and named it the John Harlin Direct.

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