The North Face of the Eiger

When I was at prep school, I read Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider. Harrer is famous as the author of Seven Years in Tibet, made into a film starring Brad Pitt. It is his account of his escape from a British internment camp in India and his journey to Tibet where he met and befriended the young Dalai  Lama - eventually joining him when he was forced to flee Tibet by the Chinese invasion in 1950. As a young man, Harrer was part of the first party in 1938 to climb the North Face of the Eiger - still a legendary climb due to its unremitting steepness, deadly rock falls and sudden changes in weather. The White Spider, called after a large exposed snowfield on the face that has claimed many lives, is an account of the original attempts on the Eiger in what can rightly be called the heroic age of mountaineering. It is a mountaineering classic and it has stayed fresh in my mind nearly fifty years later.

It came to life today as I rode the train to the top of the Jungfrau in order to paraglide off the glacier,l one of the highest launches in Europe. The train leaves the station at Kleine Shiedegg under the towering North Face and goes into a tunnel through the Eiger to end up at the Jungfraustock - a James Bond style tourist magnet with magnificent views over the Bernese Oberland. The train stops at a station within the mountain and you can disembark to look out of windows in the rock face. It was out of one of these windows that the most famous of many tragedies was played out in 1936. 

Because so many had perished on the mountain, the authorities had banned attempts on the North Face. But that didn’t stop young mountaineers in search of glory - particularly the photogenic Toni Kurtz and his partner Andreas Hinterstoisser - now immortalised on the mountain with a technically difficult and dangerous traverse called the Hinterstoisser Traverse. 

Toni Kurtz

Andreas Hinterstoisser 

Together they had made numerous first ascents of peaks in the Berchesgarden Alpa including some of the most difficult climbs of that time. In July 1936, Kurz and Hinterstoisser left Berchtesgaden, where they were serving in the military, and travelled by bicycle to Kleine Sheidegg to attempt to climb  North Face. While on the mountain, they met up with two Austrian climbers—Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer—and the four decided to continue their attempt together.

During the ascent, Angerer was injured by falling rocks as they crossed the first ice field; they wore felt hats rather than helmets. As a result of Angerer's worsening condition and their slow progress across the second ice field, they abandoned the attempt and decided to descend. A further challenge arose when Kurz and his comrades failed to retrace their route and had to climb downwards. As the result of another avalanche, Hinterstoisser  became disconnected and fell to his death. Later, Willy Angerer  climbing below Kurz, was smashed against the wall, dying instantly. Edi Rainer, the climber who had been securing the other two, was pulled against the wall and died minutes later of asphyxiation. Kurz, alone now, remained uninjured

Later that day, with the weather worsening, a rescue team attempted to reach Kurz from below, ascending by means of the railway tunnel. They could not reach Kurz due to the severity of the storm and were forced to leave him dangling unprotected and exposed to the elements for the night. The next day, the team again attempted to effect a rescue; Kurz himself made the effort, despite a frozen hand due to losing a glove, to abseil down the face of the mountain and reach the team. To accomplish this, he first had to cut loose the dead body hanging below him, then climb up and cut loose the other body. To increase the length of his rope, he unravelled it and tied it together again. This entire process took five gruelling hours. He then lowered the rope to the waiting rescuers, who attached their own rope.

The mountain guides only had one long rope – 60 metres – with them. One of the rescue party put it between his back and his rucksack (not into his rucksack) to save time. This was not an unusual practice. Unfortunately when he made a sudden movement, the rope disappeared. As a result the team had to tie together two shorter ropes - but still too short. Kurz pulled up their rope, fixed it, and began his abseiling descent. He was stopped a mere couple of metres above his rescuers by the knot. To abseil any further he would have had to raise himself enough to release the tension on the knot and let it pass through his gear. Desperately, Kurz tried to move himself past the knot, but in his weakened state, it was beyond him. He said only "Ich kann nicht mehr"  - "I can't go on anymore" -  and died. In those pre helicopter days his body was left hanging outside one of the windows I was looking through today and only recovered the following season.

Toni Kurtz’s body

One small addition to this story is that I met, briefly, Heinrich Harrer in India in 1982 when he was a spry seventy year old having led a life of almost incredible adventure. He had been a Nazi as a young man and that followed him round - though he always claimed - and it was backed up by Simon Wiesenthal - that it this was a youthful mistake. Anyway, during the war, he was in Indi and Tibet - which is a pretty good alibi.

The North Face remains a dangerous mountaineering challenge - though the record is now six hours rather than the three days needed in the 1930s. The heroism of those young men, dressed in tweeds and felt hats still has the power to move - and I thought of them today.

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