The North Face of the Eiger is unmistakable, a great brooding, sheer face which stands over 1800 metres high. Stood in Kleine Scheidegg, staring at the cloud enshrouded mountain, it once again took my breath away. This is a mountain with a fearsome reputation, enshrined in the history of European mountaineering. Even now it seems menacing, taunting the foolhardy to test their mettle on it’s unforgiving near vertical face.
The mountain has always fascinated me, tales of daring, and often tragic ascents fuelled my imagination as a formative climber. First reading “The White Spider” a classic of mountaineering literature by Heinrich Harrer when I was 11. It’s a detailed journal of the first fatal attempts, the first successful ascent, and other important events in the history of climbing on the Eiger. Harrer is the perfect historian to record this; he was among the successful first ascenders, that took 3 days to summit in 1938.
I like many other young climbers was particularly enthralled by his account of the courageous, but ultimately tragic rescue attempt of Tony Kurz. An epic tragedy that unfolded within sight of the famous Des Alpes hotel. The mammoth attempts of the rescue party to reach him, the almost superhuman effort of the young man, before his instinct for survival finally gave way to the extreme cold, and dwindling strength.
Just a week before I stood momentarily transfixed by the Nordwand, I’d been watching a television programme about the mountain. It again brought home the true nature of the North Face; when Ueli Steck climbed it in the incredible time of 2 hours, 47 minutes the climbing world was aghast. Unbelievably this time has since been bettered, although Steck’s ascent was completely unaided, and officially in the winter season.
Eiger means Ogre in German, and less than a century ago, was considered foolhardy, and reckless to even attempt climbing the face, it was ‘impossible’. In 1938, Edward Lisle Strutt, the editor of the Alpine Journal described the face as “an obsession for the mentally deranged” and “the most imbecile variant since mountaineering first began.”
In contrast to the feats of modern alpinists, and the images of Steck soloing the face in record time, almost sprinting along the summit ridge, many have lost their lives here, it is not known as the Mordwand “Death Wall” for nothing. It is where almost all the greats of the “Golden Age of Mountaineering” such as Bonnington, Haston, Bonatti, and Messner willingly accepted the risks involved to test their skill, and others such as American Jon Harlin made the ultimate sacrifice.
Here I was in the Jungfrau Region for the fourth time, stood again in the foreboding shadow of this natural monument to alpine history. Other visits had been Joint Service or Army Mountaineering Association meets in the region. Thankfully, climbing was not on the schedule, this time gliding around the cultivated pistes on a pair of skis was the limit of my ambition.
Although the Eiger North Face seems to dominate the area, at 3,970 metres the peak is not even the highest; that honour goes to the Jungfrau, at 4,158 metres. Along with the Mönch, they make up a huge wall which provides a spectacular backdrop for skiing. There is a string of impressive peaks, including the Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn, and perfect conical summit of the Silberhorn. It’s difficult not to stop regularly to admire the view, and anybody that fails to appreciate this stunning landscape is probably beyond help.
There are three ski areas, the Kleine Scheidegg area is the biggest, but wrap up warm if visiting early season, the rays of the sun rarely hit the slopes. This also means they generally hold their condition throughout the day however, while the sunnier slopes of First can get cut up, with conditions becoming more difficult for novices. Something this unfit skier found to his cost, quickly becoming tired, and any semblance of technique falling apart dramatically. More ego bruising than actually painful, but be aware that late afternoon the lower slopes to the villages can become a challenge for the inexperienced.
Fortunately the following day on the Kleine Scheidegg proved much more successful; my skiing legs coming back sufficiently to allow a pleasant day gliding around and enjoying the surroundings. The weather was kinder too, and eating lunch outside, soaking up the view of the Eiger, in late January was especially welcome.
The third area, which I did not ski is the Schilthorn and being on the same side as First, probably offers similar conditions.
There’s not really any necessity to recommend skiing, or even a visit to the Jungfrau region, the images surely do that sufficiently well. For those tempted however, take a moment to contemplate the great face, admire the skill and courage of those that have dared to attempt it, and remember this is skiing in the formidable shadow of history.