“OH, ARE YOU STILL HERE?” A BAGMAN’S VIEW OF THE EIGERWAND
BY CHARLES SHERWOOD
My alarm went at 3.30am. The weather looked fine. Up I got. A cup of tea on the stove, a cereal bar, pack-up and off.
Off once more with Mark Seaton, a close friend and my guide for a decade and a half. We had made many climbs together, but thought always of one, the North Face of the Eiger.
We departed the hotel at 4.30am and reached the tunnel entrance of the railway at 4.45am. On two previous failed attempts (2005 and 2006) we had climbed from Alpiglen, but repeating this unpleasant scramble on the lower slopes seemed pointless and we really wanted to be on the ‘face proper’ by first light. So instead we spent the first 45 minutes marching up the railway line in the tunnel. With a handrail as aid and our headlamps for light, this was perfectly pleasant ….until….there was a noise, almost indiscernible at first, but getting louder. Then a faint glow ahead, which became a light. It was 5am, what was a train doing coming down the mountain at 5am?
All of a sudden explanations seemed much less important than reality. There is no passing room on this single line track and we were about to be run over by a train, a somewhat ignominious end to our not yet hour-long attempt on the Eigerwand.
Mark and I turned tail and hoofed it back down the track. With seconds to spare, we found a tiny alcove and forced ourselves in. The train was upon us and Mark just had a moment to yell ‘headlamp’. I switched mine off and we prayed the driver hadn’t seen us. The train continued a little way then stopped. Did they see us? I don’t know, but anyway they continued down and left us in peace. A close call and an unexpected one!
The rest of the stroll up the tunnel was rather more nerve-wracking as a result, but at 5.30am we at last reached the Stollenloch Tunnel Entrance. There we ate an orange – our last fresh anything for a while – adjusted kit, and ventured out onto the Face. It was not a hospitable place. There was a great deal of snow and a dark, wintry feel. Mark admitted to feeling depressed. The whole thing did not look promising.
But, as so often happens, our spirits rose with the dawn. We needed a ‘break’, though, and hoped we might have found one in the form of a thick fixed rope going up from the tunnel entrance. Where did the rope go? Would it take us to the Hinterstoisser (a triumph!) or to some dead end under the Rotefluh (a disaster!)?
It turned out neither. The rope did take us, with some considerable exertion, to a very comfortable bivouac under the ‘sports wall’ of the Rotefluh, but a relatively easy traverse allowed us to get across from there to a position beneath the Difficult Crack, back on our route. Although we had probably gained nothing, we had lost little.
This was the third time Mark and I had taken on the Difficult Crack and we did it in ‘time-honoured’ fashion. He removed his pack and then climbed on one rope. With limited ‘tat’ and lots of ice, it wasn’t easy. Indeed at one stage the only purchase Mark could get was through backwards leveraging on an under-cut hold with the point of his axe! But he made it and I followed, heaving up my own sack and pushing Mark’s ahead of me.
As the previous year, the pitches over to the Hinterstoisser Traverse were unexpectedly demanding, although this time on rock rather than ice and névé. Here in 1936 Anderl Hinterstoisser, leading a four-man team, the second ever to attempt the Face, succeeded in crossing the bare limestone, polished smooth by rock fall. Fatally he took back in the rope after him, cutting off retreat and leading to an awful tragedy. Hinterstoisser himself fell and each of his comrades died in turn, leaving only the desperate young guide, Toni Kurz, fighting for survival. His final words, “I’m finished”, uttered almost within reach of rescue, have resounded ever since through the annals of mountaineering history.
However, without the storm of last year swirling around us, the famous Hinterstoisser Traverse was much easier. It was badly iced, but there were strong fixed ropes in place and I easily got myself across using a combination of Tyrolean Traverse and a lot of pulling. This time, mercifully, Mark did not fall and we reached the Swallow’s Nest Bivouac without incident.
The bivouac looked distinctly different from when we had slept there the previous October. There was much less snow now, which made it seem larger, but less flat. It was for me quite a significant moment, because this was as far as I’d ever climbed on the Eigerwand. It was also a decision point: from here we could still retreat easily; beyond here any retreat would in all likelihood have to be a rescue. To use Mark’s words, we would “no longer be cragging on the Eiger”.
It still wasn’t 3pm and we had a full 5 hours of light left. We had a choice: sit it out in the known bivouac or try to get to Death Bivouac, but knowing that we might not reach that far by nightfall. I thought it an easy choice and said so. We could not give up 5 hours of light. We must push on. And we did.
We started with a slightly awkward descent from the Swallow’s Nest, but soon established ourselves on good ice on the First Ice Field. This eventually ran thin as rock and ice became horribly mixed in the area generally referred to as the Ice Hose. This was the toughest climbing we had faced so far. Mark was forced by lack of ice onto the rocks on the left and was soon staring back at a long, long run out.
This was followed by a big traverse right – my undoing! It was simply more delicate crampon work and a finer balancing act than I was capable of. Furthermore, Mark had used a tension traverse off a runner that was not available to me. I careered off and fell via a big arc, caught by a well-placed bit of protection. Using my ‘ropeman’ (cambered prussocking device), I climbed almost within reach of this, then the friction went and I descended back down violently with the ropeman still in my hand.
Up I went again and this time reached and removed the protection. But once more I could not hold myself and fell a third time in another huge arc, crashing with great force onto my left knee and butt. I was in pain, but remarkably no real damage had been done. The feeling of free falling down the North Face of the Eiger was not great, but I held my nerve, confirmed that my bodily faculties were still in tact and resumed climbing. The fun was not yet over and there were some further “unimaginably committing” (Mark’s words) pitches before we reached the comparative security of the Second Ice Field.
By this stage a beautiful sunset was unfolding beneath us. In the west we could see the sun for the first time that day as it lowered gently into a sea of cotton-wool clouds. At 8.05pm it sank beyond sight. The light failed rapidly.
It wasn’t entirely silent though. There was the clear noise of a helicopter making repeated sorties. We suspected that there was afterall another party on the mountain, who had needed rescuing, but we didn’t really know.
Mark was above me putting in ice screws to protect our ascent. Meanwhile I climbed the Second Ice Field on the North Face of the Eiger at night with the aid of a head torch. Could things get more exciting?
Oh yes. The Eiger is infamous for falling apart. Climbing at this same point in 1962 with Chris Bonnington, during the First British Ascent of the Face, Ian Clough described how “I tried to make myself as small a target as possible, receding into my crash helmet as a frightened tortoise does into his shell”. Clough escaped the stonefall; I wasn’t quite so lucky. There was a flurry above and a large quantity of ice (and rock?) broke off and descended in the dark onto my head. I could do nothing but cling to my tenuous position on axe and crampon points as the hurtling debris poured over me. One piece gashed open my nose, which began to bleed everywhere. Rather more concerningly, another seemed to shatter my headlamp.
I was able to retrieve the pieces of headlamp and tuck them in a pocket, but didn’t dare try to reassemble them on that steep ice slope. Instead I radioed Mark to update him and climbed up ‘by feel’ to join him at his ice-screw belay. There we together restored the headlamp to action.
All this had used an inordinate amount of time. It was now well after dark and the priority was finding an improvised bivouac. Mark discovered just this at the top of the Second Ice Field. It wasn’t spacious, but with a bit of digging, there was room for him to lie down and me to slouch seated. It was 10pm and we had been climbing constantly for 15½ hours. We were too tired to cook, so it was melted snow water and cereal bars for dinner.
At one point half our belay failed and the sacks set off down the mountain, threatening to take us with them. Fortunately the remaining protection held firm. But, from then on, a couple of tiny rock wires was all that kept the two of us and all our equipment ‘in situ’. I had never had to cope with a real bivouac like this – I did cope, but not well. Indeed I had quite a ‘faff’ before settling down in my sleeping back with my thermarest folded under my butt. Wearing all my clothes, including boots and helmet, I was still cold, but not unbearably so. I did eventually get some fleeting sleep at around 1am, possibly a couple of hours.
The previous year I had thought the Swallow’s Nest a tight bivouac, but it was luxurious compared to this. However, by pushing on, we had put ourselves in a much, much better position for the ‘morrow. And the weather seemed to be holding.
We awoke properly at 5.30am. Mark turned towards me and uttered the memorable words: “Oh, are you still here?” It was a fair comment on the quality of our belay and the prone nature of my position.
Packing up was a difficult affair and took us 1½ hours. We brewed tea and folded up mats and bags, while strapping on crampons and other gear. This is a remarkably stressful process, because one false move could send a critical piece of kit down the mountain. Lose the stove or a single crampon and basically the attempt is over; a single axe and it’s all but over.
A notable characteristic of these lower bivouacs on the North Face is sound from below. Noise carries so easily up the Eiger that on much of its face we could hear the animal bells and raised voices from the valley below. It is quite eerie.
Anyway at 7am we were back on our way. With some help over the phone from Hansruedi Gertsch (a local Grindelwald guide in the valley), we found the easiest route across the top of the Second Ice Field and left onto the Flatiron. Here we zig-zagged up some difficult rock and ice pitches. There was one where we were forced to depend on an old fixed rope, which eventually revealed that only two tiny core strands still held it in place. A fortunate escape.
There was a steep ice pitch, then it mellowed and much easier ground brought us to a snowy col with overhanging rocks on the right. This was Death Bivouac. The first attempt on the North Face of the Eiger, by two Munich climbers in 1935, had ended here, where they froze to death. But, despite the grimness of its resultant name, this is actually a comfortable shelf, narrow but long, well overhung and therefore protected. It is, with little question, the best resting place on the upper part of the Face.
We spent an hour at Death Bivouac, brewing up and replenishing water bottles. To these we added Nunn tablets, electrolytes that helped balance our fluid intake and retention. We also ate some cereal bars. We could happily have rested there longer. But, as always, time was pressing.
We dropped off the ‘col’ onto the Third Ice Field. This is steep and exposed ground, but we found good quality ice for the longish traverse left onto the Ramp. This latter feature was a good deal more vertical than I had anticipated or than its name might suggest. And it offered some hard rock climbing up chimneys with dinner-plate ice that shattered miserably when hit with an axe!
At the top of the Ramp is the famous Waterfall Pitch, a cascade of frozen ice clinging to the vertical mountainside, magnificent and daunting. Here it was in 1952 that the great German climber, Hermann Buhl, had struggled for so long to overcome the ‘ice bulge’ and here the equally great French climber, Gaston Rebuffat, had accepted the rope lowered to him rather than risk a second lead. Thus was formed the first truly European team to climb the Face.
It was late in the afternoon when we reached this icy barrier and Mark’s initial reaction was to say that we would wait and tackle it in the morning. We found a possible bivouac site, although I was uncomfortable that it was exposed to potential stone fall. Mark tried higher up and, in the course of doing so, committed himself to some difficult ground. He didn’t fancy reversing it, which was fair enough, and none of these bivouac sites really looked right. Before we knew it, we were pushing on.
The ascent of the Waterfall Pitch was, I believe, the technically most difficult part of the climb. Mark led without his pack. Every placement he made with axe or crampon on this vertical chandelier just led to a shower of ‘glass’, ice crashing and tinkling down on me below. It seemed like nothing would hold and only a matter of time before Mark would come down with the debris. In 15 years of climbing together, I had never been so sure that he would fall.
There was protection in, but it was of dubious quality. If Mark did fall, as seemed inevitable, he would take a bang. Would he be ok? And even if he was, what on earth would we do then? There appeared to be little water ice left to climb. An alternative rock route was almost certainly beyond out abilities.
But Mark defied gravity. I have never seen him climb like that. As he later described it, there was “no opportunity to doubt”. At one point his crampons came completely away and he was hanging free on two ice picks. Only a one-arm pull-up saved him. It was an inhuman effort. And then all of a sudden there was a reverberating cheer and he had done it. Or at least he thought he had. There was still a pretty tough pitch on unconsolidated snow, but either way he was soon at a belay and bringing me up.
My climb was no doddle either, because although I had a top rope, I also had two packs to manage. Crucially I found a jam for my axe, but I also struggled with the unconsolidated snow above. Mark and I ended up together at a very wet belay, water pouring from above and night falling equally rapidly. It was, to add to everything, one of the few moments of route finding difficulty that we had on the North Face.
A short descent back down and right led to a ‘cave’ where I belayed Mark as he climbed steeply up and slightly left. This was without question the worst belay I have ever had to manage. All my weight was suspended on a single ice screw. The 60m ropes were so twisted that I could feed out only a few inches at a time, with the fear that any moment they would jam entirely and then what would I do? The radio contact with Mark was working only very intermittently. And it was now pitch dark with just the dull light of my headlamp to work by. It could not have been worse.
But it did get worse. Suddenly in the midst of all this, there was a searing pain in my left hip. It was unbearable. I could not move, but I simply had to. I screamed out, but there was only myself to hear me. It was acute, acute pain. The constant pressure of my harness, from endless weighted belays, had finally taken its toll on my hips. Somehow I shifted my weight, somehow I kept the rope feeding out, somehow Mark continued climbing above. The one thing I knew was that I must get out of that cave.
Eventually the call came and I myself began to climb. The route went up steep ice, made trickier because my headlamp was continuously knocked out of position by the rocks overhead. Then things eased onto steady névé.
We emerged onto the steep snow slope that leads upto the Brittle Ledges. We knew there was a bivouac site above, but in the darkness Mark was unable to find it. It was already midnight. We had no choice but to bivouac where we were, digging out two bucket-seats in the 40-50º slope.
There was the usual ‘nightmare’ about securing kit with ice screws and getting into puff-ball jackets and sleeping bags without dropping anything. The ropes were spread all over the mountain and there was really little we could do about that. Suddenly the bivouac of the previous night didn’t seem so bad after all. We did eat though: our first hot meal in two days, couscous and olive oil.
It was an amazing position. I looked down the snow slope to a field of stars. It had been, to use Mark’s words, “a quality mountain day” and our 16 hours of climbing (7am to midnight with an hour at Death Bivouac) had put us in pole position for the coming day.
Despite all, we were in high spirits and somehow found ourselves at 2.30am discussing of all things Sartre and Existentialism! As one does…..
It was a very short night, again with no more than two hours sleep, quite possibly less. We were up at 5.30am and away at 7am. Below us lay a sea of puffy valley clouds with mountain tops peaking out like ships in full sail. It was a remarkably pretty place, although somehow difficult to linger and enjoy its beauty. There is without doubt a magnificence about the Eigerwand, but it remains a terrible magnificence whatever its aesthetics. Sepp Jochler, Buhl’s climbing partner, said that “If one compares the stature of man with that of the Face, man simply disappears”. Indeed.
As we left camp, an incident occurred which illustrates how narrow is the gap between success and failure. The rope between Mark and myself caught on one of my near-buried axes, lifted it up, and dropped it down the mountainside. It caught mercifully on the hard morning snow, but teetered there, threatening to continue its journey into the valley. I screamed at Mark to hold still, climbed carefully down and retrieved it. Oh, so close!
In the light of dawn we saw, of course, where we should have bivouacked, but daytime is daytime and night is night.
The first challenge of the new day was the rock pitch called the Brittle Ledges. This was not a great deal easier than the Difficult Crack. But our teamwork was solid and we soon got Mark up there, without his pack; and me, following with the luggage. These ‘ledges’ are the key to the upper part of the mountain and I guess for the first time I was really thinking we would make it.
Mark’s emotions were running even higher. The top of the Brittle Ledges denotes the start of a great traverse and this was as far as Mark had ever climbed in any of his previous ten or so attempts. It was here, twenty years ago, that he had sat on a ledge for five days, waiting for a storm to pass, before being helicoptered to safety.
The Traverse of the Gods is a stunning place, without doubt my favourite on the Eiger. A long traverse right leads over an initially wide, but steeply sloping snow ledge that becomes ever narrower and more precarious. As Mark commented, “It got more god-like, the further you went. You could see Grindelwald between the ice on your front points”. And indeed you could. There is a vertical kilometre drop from the Traverse of the Gods to the pastures of Alpiglen below, and it feels like it. Hermann Buhl, a half century ago, thought that “its only association with the Gods seemed to be the idea of making a rather abrupt acquaintance with them”.
The climbing was good though. There were firm rock holds and belays and good ice with an occasional fixed rope thrown in too. I thought it lovely, airy climbing.
And then all too soon we were at the iconic upper ice field, known from Heinrich Harrer’s famous book as ‘the White Spider’. This book charts a history of the notorious face, known multi-variously as the Eigerwand, Nordwand, or to coin the usual pun, Mordwand (“Face of Death”). Its centrepiece though is an account of the First Ascent in 1938 by a joint party of Germans and Austrians, a party in which Harrer played a key role. It was that same 1938 route that we had been following and here we were at last at its focal point.
The Spider, “that perpetual, fearfully steep field of frozen snow”, made a deep impression on Harrer : “The ‘White Spider’ on the Eiger is the extreme test not only of a climber’s technical ability, but of his character as well. Later on in life, when fate seemed to spin some spider’s web or other across my path, my thoughts often went back to the ‘White Spider’.”
I must admit that the White Spider was smaller than I had expected and much less fearsome. No debris was coming down it and we even stopped in its middle for a bite to eat and a drink. This was almost the only place on the Eiger where Mark and I consistently moved together. The névé was excellent and we felt perfectly secure – well as perfectly secure as one does anywhere on the North Face of the Eiger. But conditions vary greatly and Harrer was clearly there on a different day.
We exited the Spider at the top right and continued moving together up snow and ice gullies diagonally left, which brought us ultimately to the Quartz Crack. This was initially ice: “It’s Scottish Grade V, I’m in my element” Mark exclaimed. But then it turned to rock and a rib-buster of a chimney. And indeed I did bust my rib or at least bruised it sufficiently that I wasn’t able to raise my voice for the rest of the trip.
From the Quartz Crack we traversed left in almost uncomfortable heat. Once again it was getting late. The Eigerwand spends most of the day in its own shadow, but for the last hour or so before dark the sun skirts round enough to the west to catch its angled slopes with its brilliant evening light – surprisingly warm.
Fortunately the traverse offered some running water and we took a grateful drink. By this stage our food was rarely more than power gels. These are an important innovation. They are essentially liquid calories. You can grab one from a pocket with one hand, rip off the top with your teeth and put them down your throat without ever releasing your grip with the other hand. They won’t put Jamie Oliver out of business, but they are fit for task.
A short descent, via the famous tension traverse, brought us to the Corti Bivouac, named after Claudio Corti, the young Italian climber, who bivouacked there for many days in 1957, the last survivor of a rope of four. Corti was the first man ever rescued from the Face. His rescuer, Alfred Hellepart, descended by winch and cable and thus achieved a unique view of “this grim, menacing blackness, broken only by a few snow-ledges, falling sheer and endlessly away into illimitable depths…space between heaven and hell…that terrible wall”.
One major difficulty now lay ahead of us: the sting in the tail called the Exit Cracks. These are actually a vertical succession of gullies or open chimneys. The first started as a wide waterfall, but got increasingly demanding higher up. Thankfully there was some ice, which we could get our axe points in. Without that it would have seemed insuperable - and Mark was on a seriously long run out before he found that ice. As a final twist the belay rope jammed just as he was making his last gasp reach for the top. He screamed for rope and miraculously it freed.
The gullies went on, but none was as tough as that first one. Eventually we emerged in the fading light onto a tiny ridge with the Summit Snow Field to our right.
It was getting dark, but there could be no stopping now. I was exhausted and had terrible problems managing the rope. Mark felt it most sensible for us to move together with him placing ice screws for protection. But this became more risky as the ground got harder on steeper, thinner ice.
Our head torches went on and it was an exhausting, dark, rather lonely and foreboding climb up that final slope. But we kept going, knowing the best chance of a decent bivouac lay at the top. We were tired and, in the darkness, Mark felt the presence of another person, as though he were climbing there with us! Apparently this is a common phenomenon for those alone in very remote places. After all, we had not seen another human being since we had climbed onto the Face, not a single footprint.
At 10pm I joined Mark on the Mittellegi Ridge. We hugged each other and I gave him a kiss on the helmet (as chaps do). Although not on the summit proper, we had completed the ascent of the North Face. We had climbed that day for 15 hours.
Mark had already phoned Jane and I was keen to reach Rosemary. I gave him my home number to key into his phone. No recognition. We tried a variant. Same problem. It was only on the third attempt that I got my own home phone number right. I was more tired than I thought. Unfortunately by this stage the signal had died. I would have to try later. In the meantime Jane would pass on the message.
It was another ’snow bucket’ bivouac, this time on the south side of the Eiger. The snow was softer, which made it easier for me to dig large ‘beds’ for Mark and myself to sleep in. We couldn’t lie down properly, but we could curl up in the foetal position. However, the downside of the softer snow was that there was no chance to secure ice screws. The axes would hold our packs, but not us. We had to rely on not rolling out of our ‘bunks’. The steepness of this 40-50º slope was drilled home when I knocked Mark’s plastic mug accidentally. That was the last we saw of it.
We drank fluid and ate hot food. It was around midnight when we ‘turned in’. I lay in my bag and phoned Rosemary. Despite all my clothes, my thermal mat and bag, I could not stop my teeth chattering, which upset Rosemary. The truth was though that I was in high spirits.
I replaced a lot of fluid and this left me needing to urinate no less than four times in the night. This apparently simple task was problematic. I kneeled in my bag, terrified to get out without the aid of crampons. I made my best effort to urinate beyond my bag and mat. I rocked around, fearful that the slightest slip would be my last. There was something vaguely humiliating about the whole process, but needs must.
I don’t know how many hours I slept, but it was not a lot. I couldn’t get the anxiety out of my mind: if I turned over, I’d be dead! That simply isn’t conducive to deep slumber.
It was a leisurely start. There was no doubt we were thinking ‘lie in/easy day’. So it was a rude awakening when we set off up the Mittellegi Ridge at 8am. I had climbed this ridge once before, during an east-west traverse of the mountain, but it was different now. Apparently there had been only four climbing days on this route all summer and we could see why. The ridge was an awful ‘lottery’ of a knife-edge. We tiptoed along it, conscious of fearful drops to either side. The only hope of saving a fall would be for the other climber to leap off the other side of the ridge. An unattractive option, but better than the alternative! I was tired still and feeling my heavy pack. It was not good and I couldn’t wait to get off that ridge.
Eventually we emerged onto the 3970m summit of the Eiger. It was 9am. There was another hug. We had made it, but we still had to make it down.
We elected to descend the South Ridge rather than the easier West Face, because the navigation is more certain. It also added to the aesthetics, allowing us to complete the traverse. We had expected it though to be well travelled and in good condition. It was neither and what should have been a short descent took 9 hours!
Part of the problem was that I was so tired. Indeed, under my heavy pack – made heavier by wet clothes and sleeping bag – and with rope and hardware, I was really struggling. I was, to use Mark’s expression, virtually a zombie, as I tried desperately to hold it together on that descent.
We dropped down the ridge, a mixture of climbing and abseiling. At the col, we rested for an hour. There we melted snow for water and I tended my feet. I also managed my first and only ‘dump’ of the whole climb, which shows how little solid food we ate.
There was more front pointing, which I found desperately tiring, and some quite challenging rock climbing, which I actually found much easier. Eventually we broke off the ridge and onto the glacier. And there came the final twist of the Eiger knife. We found ourselves on the glacier without any kind of track, plodding through knee-deep soft snow. It was agonising. Mark pleaded to the heavens for a firm foothold, but to no avail.
And nor were the objective dangers over. The fresh snow was hiding the mantraps of the glacier and we found one, Mark sinking into a crevasse. Fortunately he extracted himself easily.
We were trying to make the last train from the Jungfraujoch, but the soft snow did for us. We found ourselves at the bottom of the final slope to the final col, but it was all too much. Mark had led every foot of the way up and down that mountain and even guides eventually get tired. He literally sank to his knees in the snow and rolled onto his back in exhaustion. I joined him there. We looked at each other and burst out in hysterical laughter. Here were the self-styled ‘heroes of the North Face of the Eiger’ unable to climb a gentle snow slope to a simple col.
We gave up on the train and settled instead for a night at the Münch Hütte, reaching it around 6pm, after a ten-hour day. It was our shortest day, but it by no means felt that way.
There was a wonderful welcome at the Münch Hütte. Two British guides (Robbie and Murray) well understood what we had been through and were fantastic helping us sort our gear and settle down. They were the first people we had seen in 4 days. And then there was an evening of phone calls home and friendly chatter around the hut’s dining tables.
I was in my bunk early and it seemed a paradise compared with the last three nights. We were safe, although I was not entirely happy about my feet. We had worn crampons throughout the whole climb and my boots had stayed on even in my sleeping bag. Inevitably my feet looked pretty grim.
But I was warm under my rugs. It snowed in the night. Mercifully we were not still out there.
The ‘agony and ecstasy’: an ecstasy of the mind; an agony of the body. I woke much refreshed and with that morning-after feeling of "My god, we did it, we really did it". In my mind I could have done it all over again.
My body felt otherwise. Predictably that body, which had held together through everything the Eiger had thrown at it over 4 days, now collapsed. Its job was done and somehow it knew it. Suddenly the rejuvenated mind of an exuberant ‘20 year old’ found itself incarcerated in the broken body of a 47 year old. That body, which had scaled the Difficult Crack, the Hinterstoisser Traverse, three Ice Fields, the Ramp, the Waterfall Pitch, the Traverse of the Gods, the Spider, the Exit Cracks and those final Summit Snow Fields, not to mention getting back down again, was now forced to climb the hut staircase one step at a time, clutching the rail for support.
The litany of injuries was long: badly lacerated fingers from rock climbing, a gashed nose from the ice fall on the Second Ice Field, painfully bruised ribs from the Quartz Crack, an impacted butt and bashed up knee from the falls above the Ice Hose, an injured left hip from harness pressure, a badly strained shoulder from who-knows-what and frost-bitten toes from cold nights and all that front–pointing. But more than that there was just physical exhaustion, linked to lack of sleep, weight loss and an excess of exercise.
An interesting question is could I have kept going if there had been a fifth day? Of course the answer was yes. But there wasn’t a fifth day and my body knew it. It had done its bit and it wasn’t doing any more.
I hobbled around, sorting kit, and joined Mark and the others for breakfast. By this stage the whole hut had learned of our climb. Given that none of the routes up the Eiger were ‘open’, the fact that we had just traversed it in such conditions, including an ascent of the Face, created quite a stir. We were the heroes of a doubtless passing moment.
I felt far from heroic though as I winced again, forcing my now badly swollen feet back into those boots. It was such a tight fit that I couldn’t tie the laces properly and had to miss out some ‘eyes’.
The short snow plod down to the Jungfraujoch was beautiful in the rapidly clearing early morning, but I had difficulty appreciating it. I was in pain, above all in my feet.
We returned down the mountain as paying customers of the railway rather than potential convicts, cowering in the darkness of the tunnel. I must admit I prefer the conventional mode.
Before long we were in the vivid rich green of the Grindelwald Valley. Coming from days in the mountains, where the eyes grow accustomed to black and white, that first blast of green always strikes me. It is a wonderful world we live in. Louis was right.